Torres del Paine: Hiking the W-Trek & Kayaking Lago Grey

Torres del Paine: it had been a long kept dream of ours since we were in South America the first time in 2011. And now it finally came true with 5 nights and 6 days in the park.

We carried tent, sleeping bags and mattresses and two sets of clothes each, leaving the rest of our gear at the hostel. We’d bought food in Punta Arenas, having heard that the supermarkets there are better stocked and cheaper. They probably were, but there were also plenty of shopping options in Puerto Natales. We bought the following to get through of two nights cooking plus breakfast and snacking during the day:

For breakfast:

  • small sachets of espresso and tea bags
  • 4 sachets of coppa para uno, i.e. cup-a-soup
  • 2 packs of ramen noodles

Might not sound like your most favorite breakfast (and it definitely won’t be) but it is so very easy: just heat up water, add the soup and ramen and you have your asian-style breakfast.

For dinner:

  • 500g of angels hair pasta as it cooks so much quicker
  • 1 pack of salami
  • 1 pack of chorizo
  • 1 pack of parmesan
  • 2 packs of tomato sauce

This makes two satisfying dinners: just tear the salami / chorizo in pieces and add to the sauce. Then add the pasta with a bit of additional water and cook until al dente, add the parmesan: done.

For snacks we had:

  • 2 packs of Negrita (our favorite snack!)
  • 2 packs of muesli bars
  • Self-mixed fruit & nut mix packed in a zip lock
  • 1 pack of mini Twix bars
  • 1 pack of bonbons

Before we got going, we spent one full day in Puerto Natales and joined the 3 o’clock talk at Erratic Rock. The session was indeed very useful with some great tips (amongst others the ramen) and we headed to the local supermarket afterwards, which was far better stocked than expected. The best tip however was to buy a pack of black bin liners and line your rucksack with it. This basically makes your rucksack water-proof from the inside. Our stuff was packed in zip locks anyway which pretty much guaranteed that nothing would get wet and indeed, nothing did. This gives you such peace of mind during those downpours in the park.

Here is our itinerary:

Day 1: Laguna Amarga – Hotel Las Torres – Refugio Chilenos – Las Torres

On 17th December we left at 7.00am by bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga. Be prepared for some queueing, as 5 or 6 bus companies leave jointly in Puerto Natales, so everyone arrives at pretty much exactly the same time. At Laguna Amarga you fill in some paper work (your name, passport number, your planned itinerary), pay the entrance fee and watch a video that tells you in various different wordings: “Do! Not! Make! Fire!”. Absolutely justified, given that two big fires in 2011 and 2012 destroyed hundreds of acres of forest in the park. As natural wild fires are practically non-existent in Patagonia, the flora takes hundreds of years to recover from it. So: do not make fire other than in designated areas in the free camp sites!

Afterwards we took another bus to Hotel Las Torres where finally we got going towards Refugio Chileno. This day was our least favourite of them all. Why? There were far too many people on the trail for our liking! We’re really not keen on walking in herds up a mountain; you just feel chased all the time. The trek up to the Torres is popular with day-trippers as well as the people wanting to do the “W- or O-circuit”. So we kept seeing people in yoga shoes (seriously!) clambering up the 800 meters of altitude. When we got to Chilenos we first put up our tent on a “plataforma” – i.e. wooden platform. Initially we were a bit shocked and thought: how are going to get the tent up on wood?! … until the nice guy at the camping reception handed us a bucket with nails and hammer. Ha, thank god. Here, a before and after photo:

 

Afterwards we tackled the final 400 meters of altitude towards the Torres. The hike was nice enough including some clambering over moraine and big stones towards the end. The Torres are massive and impressive but also reminded us of views of the Dolomites. Potentially our lack of excitement also had to do with the fact that is was foggy and starting to snow when we go up there.

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On the way down it then started to drizzle which developed into proper rain by the time we reached Chilenos. So we then sat in the Refugio by the fire while it was raining cats & dogs out there. And I kept thinking of the Erratic Rock guy who said “we used to have the most beautiful summers. Now with the climate change all it ever does is RAIN.”. So I started to get a bit worried that this was what we would get: rain, rain, rain, mixed with snow. And wind.  But for the time being there was nothing we could do and so we enjoyed a surprisingly nice dinner and headed back to our tent in light rain. Which thankfully stopped altogether over night and with the wind the tend was completely dry by the time we packed up in the morning.

Day 2: Refugio Chilenos – Los Cuernos

In Chilenos you have to buy the dinner, breakfast & lunch box package (in Los Cuernos as well by the way) so we had some nibbles for breakfast and packed our lunch: a sandwich and apple each plus some snacks. At around 8am we headed off – in sunshine.

The hike to Los Cuernos was so beautiful: first of all there were hardly any hikers around and the landscape changed so much during the 6 hours (which included lots and lots of photo stops…).

From wavy hills down from Chilenos:

To the first views of Lago Nordenskjöld:

To more and more rugged scenery the closer you get to Los Cuernos:

During the day there was so much wind that at one point we really had to wait, hunched down, heads buried in each other shoulders, for the gusts to die down so that we could continue. As soon as we got to the Refugio, however, the wind miraculously vanished and we had the most pleasant afternoon, sitting in the sun, drinking beer. We also have to admit that we fell prey to some luxuries: the Refugio had some space after a big group cancelled, so we got ourselves an upgrade and spent the night in a nice, comfy bed.

Day 3: Los Cuernos – Campamento Italiano – Británico Lookout

The next day we left early-ish to continue to the free Campsite Italiano and still there was no wind. Which almost felt odd.

Once we put up the tent, we shouldered our day packs and went off to Vallé Frances and the Britannico lookout with a bit of drizzle rain.

We passed the Francés Glaciar…img_0765-33-l

…went through mystical looking forest…

… until we got the first glance of this:img_0808-33-l

The Britannico lookout gave us this nice little view here:img_0814-33-l

And this towards the other direction:img_0888-33-l

And back at the campsite it was dinner time (including a photo of our ramen-coppa-soup breakfast). Note that there’s no option to purchase food or drink at the Italiano campsite – we bought the beers you see below at the shop at the Francés campsite on our way past.

The night was less comfy given it rained and rained and rained – and we did wake up to slightly damp sleeping bags, at least at the bottom where the tent sagged during the night and moisture snuck through. But thankfully the rain stopped once we got up in the morning and thanks to the Patagonia wind, the tent was pretty much dry when we packed it up.

And on we went towards Paine Grande. In the rain.

The hike was easy and nice enough and we got to Paine Grande early enough to get one of the wind-shielded tent places next to the hill.

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And learning from the previous night, we added stones around the edges of the tent to keep water from blowing in.

After a little break, we headed off towards Glaciar Grey with our day packs. On that day the weather really was “Patagonian”: it changed rapidly from sun to rain to sun to drizzle back to sun. But it was so so beautiful.

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The wind had picked up again and by the time we got to the Grey lookout, it was blowing at full force.

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In hindsight we should have gone the extra 1.5hr to the suspension bridge, but our feet did hurt a bit already and we got second thoughts as we might have missed dinner. Which would have been okay given Paine Grande feels a bit like a huge motorway restaurant. So in case you are ever wondering: do it, go the extra mile.

Day 4: Catamaran to Pudeto – Los Cuernos Lookout – Campamento Pehoe

This was done with the “W-Trek” but not quite yet with Torres del Paine. The next morning we took the first catamaran over to Pudeto. There we left our bags and did the little hike to the Los Cuernos look-out. We were back again with the day-trippers, but this time we did not care. Maybe because there were much fewer of them than on the first day, maybe we were getting spoilt with the nicest Patagonian sunshine or maybe because we got to see quite a big chunk of what we had hiked the previous day in the most awesome panoramic view. If you, for whatever reason, cannot do a multi-day trek in the park, getting to the look-out at least gives you a glance of this majestic part of the world.

Enough of words, see for yourself:

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Afterwards it would have been around 6km walking on the main road to Campamento Pehoe – if a nice man from Yorkshire hadn’t had a heart and offered us a lift in his pick-up truck. How cool is that? You get to sit outside, watch the view and enjoy the sun:

Campamento Pehoe turned out to be a lovely camp-site with a great restaurant, real showers (with real hot water!) – and the most amazing views of Los Cuernos. Actually, when we had been to the Erratic Rock talk, we mentioned that we would stay one night in this campsite and the guy gave us a look which we interpreted either as admiration (“oh! they found this little gem all by themselves”) or shock (“OH! Stupid tourists found this hidden treasure – alert! alert! alert!”).

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And a nice little bottle of wine as our prize for doing the W-Trek. 🙂

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While planning this trek, the decision to go from East to West was based simply on us wanting to finish at Camp Pehoe, as we’d arranged to get picked up from there to do a 1 day kayak tour. The guy at Erratic Rock actually mentioned that his preference was to do the traditional W-trek from West to East (ie. after registering at the entrance to the park, hopping back on the bus, taking it all the way to Pudeto, then getting on the catamaran to Paine Grande and starting hiking from there). However we were happy to have done it the other way around, as we found it very rewarding being able to look back across from the Los Cuernos look-out to what we’d just accomplished.

As we booked so early, and as a rare exception, the kayak company agreed to pick us up at 8:00am from Camp Pehoe and take us further south to one of the other park entrances, where we met up with the rest of the group who had been picked up in Puerto Natales.

On the banks near Hotel Lago Grey, at the southern end of Lago Grey, we each got kitted out, given safety instructions, and into the water we went. The group was a very nice size of 6, so we were in 3 two-person kayaks, and the 2 guides were in single kayaks so that 1 was always leading and 1 could be at the back.

As ice breaks off of Glacier Grey, at the northern end of the lake, it makes its way south, often ending up on the eastern side of the little island that sits at the southern end of the lake. The first part of our trip took us along the relatively smooth waters south of that island, and into the much choppier waters on the eastern side. There were a couple of medium sized icebergs sitting at the north eastern end of the island, but the wind and waves prevented us from getting very close. So we turned the kayaks around, parked them up on the southern shore of the island, and did the short 5-10 minute hike up to the Mirador Lago Grey on the northern side, giving us view of the icebergs and up the main body of the lake.

Back in the kayaks, we headed south, following Rio Grey. Having experienced the might of the Patagonian wind on the W-trek, we realized how lucky we now were to have a calm day with predominantly blue skies. That meant the waters were mainly smooth, and we didn’t have to add weary arms to our already weary legs.

After a couple of hours of paddling, with awesome views of the mountains of Torres del Paine National Park, we parked up on the riverbank, and were treated to a delicious lunch of pasta salad, homemade cookies, and a nice warming cup of tea or coffee.

This was a really nice way to end 6 days in the park. The scenery was spectacular, the guides were very knowledgeable, and it was a fun group to spend the day with. So another few hours later, we met up with the van again, unloaded, got out of our kayaking gear, back into comfy clothes, and enjoyed a beer while the guides loaded all the gear onto the van. And off we set back to Puerto Natales!

 

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