On Monday morning, December 27th (in celebration of one month of marriage), my new bride (Rachael) and I set out on a backpacking trip to the highlights of Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile called “The W”. The first couple miles are all uphill and we hadn’t been hiking much with all the wedding and honeymoon planning. After a couple hours we were left feeling a bit dejected at the first trail sign. However, we had apparently reached the crest of the trail and the next several miles were downhill and went by rather quickly. We hit our first refugio at around 2pm. Refugios are much like Mountain Huts in the US, but are quite fancy (and expensive) but they also have less expensive campgrounds next to them. We paid to camp here so we could leave our gear and head further up to the Mirador Las Torres (Lookout). The last half mile or so to the lookout was really steep but once we made it over the ridge to the lookout, all the exhaustion went away! The view was absolutely amazing. Three huge towers sticking out nearly 2000 meters above an almost teal glacial lake. After a long break and tons of pictures, we made our way back down to our camp. We made dinner and were in bed by 9:45pm…and it was still light as day!
- Rachael and I at the Towers
The next morning we set out on what would turn into our longest day of the trip. A brief uphill was followed by a LONG, sunny day of downhill hiking. We reached a refugio at around 6:30pm and as we’ve been known to do, we said “we can keep going”! We continued on to Camp Italiano. We made it to camp at around 8:30pm. This campground is a free campground with no amenities. It had a bathroom and a small cooking “shed” but not much else…oh, and lots of tents! There were probably 30 or 40 other tents the nights we were there, and this was apparently a slow night.
After a great night of sleep, we hit the trail a bit after noon and made our way up the French Valley. The French Valley is a canyon lined from top to bottom with hanging glaciers. There are two lookouts that are the main highlights of the canyon. The first lookout was at the base of a large glacier and we were lucky enough to see it calve a few times. It was amazing to be able to hear the ice crashing down the cliffs. As we hit the second lookout we had just pulled out the stove to start to make lunch when we realized we didn’t have any of our utensils with us, which makes it quite difficult to stir and eat a freeze dried meal! So, armed with a pocket knife and a pringles can, we made our own spoon. We probably couldn’t patent the idea but we enjoyed our lunch! After lunch we quickly made our way back down the valley to the first lookout. At this point we were the only ones there and the weather had taken a slight turn for the worse. We got a little bit of rain but it didn’t seem threatening and the views were just as amazing. We got back to the tent, cooked our dinner and went to bed.
- Our Make-Shift Spoon
The next day was rather uneventful and we made it in to camp by 3pm. This lodge was also one of the options for getting off the trail once we were done. They have a catamaran that runs across the lake to the main park road. We were trying to figure out what our best option was since there was also a boat from the next refugio but we knew it would be a little more expensive. As we started doing the math…it added up to more than we had (and everyone only took cash unless you spent over $60)! It was the strangest feeling to realize that we were in the middle of all these people, tons of food, great lodging, and we couldn’t buy any of it! We convinced the lodge to let us pay with a credit card but we had to also buy dinner, which was another $40! But it gave us a little extra cash and we also found out we could probably pay for the more expensive boat ($70 per person) with a credit card. We were once again feeling pretty good about our chances of getting out of the park!
- Campsite near Lodge Paine Grande
That night we finally got to experience some of the infamous Patagonian Winds! Neither of us slept too well as we were constantly woken up by 50+ MPH winds shaking our tent! I was quite impressed with how well our Big Agnes Fly Creek 2 stood up to the challenge! For a two pound tent it did pretty well! The next morning the winds were still howling and we had a little bit of rain but by the time we hit the trail, the rain was gone and all that remained was a horrific headwind! We spent the next several hours walking directly into 50 MPH winds! We covered up the best we could to avoid wind burn with our Beanies over our heads, sunglasses over our eyes, and our rain jackets zipped up to our nose. We also threw on some gloves for good measure and began our trek up the trail. Every so often the trail would duck into the forest and would shelter us from the wind which was bitter-sweet as we would instantaneously begin to cook from the sun and lack of breeze. So we found ourselves shedding our gloves and hats only to turn the corner back into the wind where we would re-layer ourselves.
- Rachael Walking Into The Wind
We finally made it to the first outlook which was a huge rock outcropping sheltered by nothing that looked over Lago Grey, the lake created by Glacier Grey. This brought on the 70+MPH winds as we struggled to stay standing there long enough to take in the icebergs and sneak-peak of the Glacier. We made it to the refugio and decided we’d better check with the boat that left from this campground to make sure they would still run the following day, New Years Day. Upon confirmation they ran on the 1st and that they accepted Credit Card we felt much better and decided to enjoy our last* full day in the park by sitting at the Mirador (lookout) of the Glacier while eating lunch before heading to the free Camp Site, Campo Los Guardos. We arrived to the campsite and to our surprise were greeted with another amazing Mirador (lookout) looking directly at the Glacier from only a few hundred yards away. We sat and relaxed until just before sunset when we got back to camp, cooked our last freeze-dried dinner and set our alarm for midnight, as we knew we were destined to fall asleep from being so tired. Finally at 1:45am we heard the alarm, woke up, said our happy new years and Rachael went back to sleep while I decided to try to get a few pictures of the stars outside.
- Rachael at Glacier Grey
The next morning, New Years Day, brought the return of beautiful weather and much less wind. We got up a little later than planned but still plenty early to tear down camp and make our way back down to the refugio. The hike that took 2 hours a day earlier took us almost exactly an hour and we got to the refugio at around 11am. We made the last of our freeze dried food, a blueberry cheesecake, for lunch (amazing!) and waited for the boat. As the boat pulled up to shore people seemed to appear out of nowhere to line up and we quickly realized we were the only ones without reservations. As one of the crew stepped out of the boat to hand out lifejackets, he started taking names. When we told him we didn’t have reservations, he told us the boat was full. I’m pretty sure he could see the devastation in our eyes as we both dropped our bags to the ground. He told us to wait a minute and as soon as everyone else had gotten on the boat he told us that we could get on but not to tell anyone we didn’t have reservations and he warned us there wouldn’t be seats for us. We said that was fine we didn’t mind standing! So aboard the cruise we went, not really knowing what was going to happen, but then again, it didn’t really matter, we were getting back to civilization!
The cruise was amazing! The captain brought the boat right up to the glacier within about 100 yards as the crew used a fishing net to scoop up small icebergs. Later, another crew member passed out pisco sours and whiskeys using the glacier ice!
- Toasting with Glacier Ice
As we enjoyed our drink we started chatting with the crew member who let us on the boat and found out his name was Lucas. We chatted a bit about the park and our trip. Then we asked him what we needed to do when we got to the other side. He told us that if he took us in to the reception area to pay that he would get in trouble for taking too many people on the boat…so our trip would be free (saving $140)! After a short chat he realized we “sure hadn’t planned all that well”…but he also said “sometimes you can plan, plan, plan but it’s when you don’t plan that things work out perfect”. Thus the motto of our trip became “it’s just like Lucas says”. We made it to administration (after hitchhiking) and found out we’d have to wait another hour and a half for the last shuttle of the day. At this point we started to worry that we wouldn’t make it out of the park if we had to go get a bag we had left at the start of the trail and our concerns of no cash and no food quickly returned! We came to terms with the idea of camping one more night by telling ourselves we were saving money on another night of lodging! We ended up lucking into a free shuttle ride to the hotel which brought the day’s savings up to nearly $200 and gave us a few extra dollars in cash to spend on food for the night and the next morning, so we bought some pasta and chips for dinner and set up camp for one more “last time”.
The next morning we organized our packs, wandered around the gift shop, worked on our travel journal and waited for the 2pm shuttle. Everything worked out and we made it to the 2:30pm bus back to Puerto Natales…where we didn’t have a hostel reservation for the night! We got into town and walked to the B&B we had stayed at a week earlier…no luck. We turned the corner and saw a nice sign that read “Casa Lucy Bed & Breakfast” and decided to check it out. As soon as we walked in we were greeted by two very excited women (mother & daughter) and quickly found out they did have a room for us. They both seemed really excited to have us and we soon found out they are new to the business and have only been open a month. The room was gorgeous, and huge! Breakfast was amazing, and huge!
I guess it really is just like Lucas says…