Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia

Located 150 km from Puerto Natales on Seno de Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Inlet), is Torres del Paine national park. It has 180,000 hectares of spectacular scenery. The park was created in 1959 and declared part of the International Biosphere Reserve Network by the UNESCO in 1978. It is part of the 11 units of the National Wild Area Network protected by the Chilean government in the Magellan and Antarctic region. 

The Paine Massif is a small mountain system completely independent from the Patagonian Andes Range. It was formed some 12 million years ago when granite pluton penetrated through a crack in the Magellan's basin. With the passage of time, this pushed sedimentary rock upwards. The granite can be seen in the Towers (Torres from which the park gets its name), the lower part of the horns (Cuernos). Both, the last Ice Age and the weather eroded the rock away to give its current shape. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field (Campo del Hielo Sur) stretches itself down into the park with Glacier Grey being at its southern tip. 

While the elevations of the mountains are modest compared to the mountains of the High Andes in the rest of the continent, the mountains in the park do involve steep ascents and descents. There are more than 200km. of hiking trails, the most popular one being the W-trek, so called because of the shape formed by the route as viewed from above.

W-Trek

The W is formed by three vertical lines linked at the base by a horizontal line. The vertical line on the right is along Rio Ascencio leading up towards the Torres (three needle like mountains called North Tower, Central Tower and South Tower). The middle vertical line is along the French Valley (Valle Frances) leading upto British camp and beyond till it ends in a spectacular landscape of surrounding mountains. The vertical line on the left is along the banks of Lake Grey that flows down from Grey Glacier. The horizontal line at the bottom is partly along the shores of Lake Nordenskjöld with the Horns (Cuernos) near the middle.

Buses operate from the town of Puerto Natales, picking up passengers from several hotels in the town. A 1.5 hour drive takes you to the park entrance. One possible itinerary involves getting off at Laguna Amarga which is about 7.5 km from the base of the rightmost vertical line at Hosteria Las Torres. This amounts to a total walking distance of 85 km. Depending on your itinerary, you can plan your trip in such a way to minimize the weight on your back. For instance, one can leave one's pack outside the ranger station at Italian Camp (nobody is watching over your bag, but which thief is going to walk away with your heavy bag?) and deal with the steep Valle Frances with a minimal load. Similarly, one can do the Glacier Gray leg as a day trip from the Paine Grande Lodge (which we had to anyway, because of the closure of Refugio Grey) in which case you can leave your pack behind at the Lodge. 

Lodging

The presence of fully serviced Refugios throughout the park provides an alternative to carrying a heavy tent and cooking gear. They are pricey but worth the it in terms of the lightening your load through the 85 km. trek. Reservations are required in advance. There is also the convenient option of renting tents from the refugios if they happen to be full.

Plan

Nov. 23, 2007 Depart Punta Arenas. Arrive Torres Del Paine. Begin Trek. Reach Refugio Chilenos by early afternoon. Check-in, Lunch. Afternoon hike (no pack) to Japanese Camp and side trip upto Mirador Torres. Return to Refugio for Dinner and sleep
Nov. 24, 2007 Breakfast. Packed Lunch. Check-out and Retrace back to base of W. Continue on base along Lago Nordenskjöld to Refugio Cuernos (Lunch enroute). Check-in. Dinner. Sleep.
Nov. 25, 2007 Breakfast. Packed Lunch. Check-out and Continue to middle base of W (Italian Camp). Leave pack outside Ranger Station. Proceed up Valle Frances to Mirador Frances. Lunch. Retrace back to Italian Camp. Pick up pack and continue along base of W to Paine Grande Lodge. Check-in. Dinner. Sleep
Nov. 26, 2007 Breakfast. Packed Lunch. Day hike to Glaciar Grey and back. Dinner. Sleep
Nov. 27, 2007 Catamaran from Lodge to Pudeto. Bus from Pudeto to Puerto Natales

Approximate cost of lodging is USD 33 per person per night. Includes a bunk bed. You are advised to bring your sleeping bag. Lodging includes hot showers. You can purchase food (and drinks) to eat and pack. 

Day 1

Date : Friday, Nov. 23, 2007
Begin : 10 am,  Laguna Amarga, Torres del Paine National Park
End : 1 pm, Refugio Chileno

Begin : 1:15 pm, Refugio Chileno
Destination : 5 pm, Mirador Torres
End : 6:45 pm, Refugio Chileno
Distance : 10.7 miles

Begin Trek to Refugio: 3.3 mile
Refugio to Turnaround point : 3.1 miles
Turnaround point to Camp Torres: 1.2 miles
Camp Torres to Mirador: 0.6 miles

The bus departed from our hotel (Casa Cecilia) in Puerto Natales dropping us off at Laguna Amarga in Torres del Paine National Park at around 10 am. The Torres were visible from a distance as we neared the park. We spotted a Guanaco perched on a rock as soon as we entered the park. Unlike the wild vicunas which only live at high altitudes, the guanacos can be seen at lower elevations. 

 Approaching the park from the bus

(l) The Towers and (r) guanaco

We got lucky and found standing room at one of the park shuttles that saved us a lot of the walk from the gate to the start of the trek. 

Having heard so much about the winds and cold weather, we had more layers than was actually required on the warm day. It was quite level for a while before the trail started climbing steeply. By now, Mte. Almirante Nieto loomed large to our left and the Torres which were visible over Mte. Almirante Nieto during the earlier part of the day were obscured. The steep climb and the weight of the backpack made for hard work on a warm day. We did take the occasional break using the view behind us as excuse. 

Day 1 hike

But it did not last too long and a little after noon, the slope leveled off  and then started gently sloping downwards. The Rio Ascencio was flowing in the valley right below us as we walked on the left side of the river. Soon we spotted Refugio Chilenos on the other side of the river. After crossing the bridge to the other side, we were at the Refugio.

(l) Rio Ascencio and (r) Refugio Chilenos

 Rio Ascencio and Refugio Chilenos

After a brief break for lunch, we continued on towards Camp Torres and beyond. On the way, we encountered a leafy mountain wall with flowing water. A little later a waterfall that came down from the direction of the Torres and eventually joined Rio Ascencio. 

There were brief sections of thick woods (where the Camp Torres was located). We saw several climbers negotiating the irregular path up towards the Mirador Torres. It was only just past 3 pm, so we figured we still had enough daytime to do that on our way back. So we proceeded beyond but we seemed to be the only ones who did that. The woods cleared and made way for a huge boulder field which made for interesting walking. The boulders were etched with dark growth of leafy matter. 

We walked far enough to have reached Japanese camp, but did not see any sign of it. Going as far as Valle del Silencio was out of the question as that would have been another 3 hours of walking (according to the map). We went as far as a waterfall and decided to return at that point. On the way back, we turned right at the path going up to Mirador Torres. There, we saw first hand what the fuss was all about. The path up to the vista point was essentially a boulder strewn mountain side.

  (l) Torres from Mirador and (r) Sliding down

The occasional use of hands and delicate balancing was required and we were glad that we had no pack on our backs. It was near 6 p.m. by the time we reached the top for an up-close view of the Torres. The sun was going down behind the towers but there was enough daylight for us to enjoy the Towers and the pool of water below. We heard others talking about returning before dawn to watch the morning rays reflected on the Towers. Sure would be great, but that will require getting up very early.

 (l) Waterfall and (r) Torres from Mirador

Day 2

Date : Saturday, Nov. 24, 2007
Begin : 8:30 am,  Refugio Chilenos
End : 2 pm, Refugio Cuernos

Distance: 8.4 miles
Total Distance: 19.1 miles

We could actually see the Towers from our bunk bed in the Refugio but the morning brought heavy rain and clouds which totally obscured the view. So much for the sunrise hike to the Torres. It would have been a big mistake to have not hiked up the previous evening with the hope of seeing it in the morning. Take full advantage of all the good weather you get.

Breakfast, packed lunch and we were off at 9:30 am. We made sure we had fewer layers today. Much cooler today as we were descending during the earlier part of the day. It was nice to be facing downhill at the view of the surrounding areas with the distant lakes.

We were down near the point where we had climbed up yesterday by 11 am. We could even see the bridge that we crossed at a distance. We veered right to join the route going towards the Horns (Cuernos). For some inexplicable reason, we got lost in a thickly wooded area. We tried retracing our path before we ran into someone who seemed to know the way. We followed for about 5 minutes, not being entirely sure. Then the woods cleared and we could see that we were going clockwise around  Mte. Almirante Nieto which is exactly what we wanted to do.

Lake Nordenskjöld appeared alongside with its milky blue color. The trail was full of flower gardens that reminded us of the Garden Wall Hike in Glacier National Park in Montana. 

(l) Lake Nordenskjöld and (r) Flowers on the trail

  (l) Lake Nordenskjöld and (r) Stream crossing

We crossed several rivers flowing down from the Massif's melting ice. It was the summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Some of the rivers required careful crossing as the water flowed over large boulders. The trail was full of trekkers and there were several groups walking together. We spotted the occasional glacier on the face of Mte. Almirante Nieto. Having seen its east face, we were now getting a 3-D idea of the mountain as we now skirted its southern face. Cheerful flowers dotted the landscape. It was a pleasantly sunny day with dark clouds passing through. As we neared our destination, the clouds darkened considerably and it was just a matter of when. 

(l) Stream and (r) Glacier

(l) Flowers and (r) Lake Nordenskjöld

Overall, it was much more beautiful trek on Day 2 than on Day 1. The relative ease of the slope made the longer distance dissolve quickly. The large Nordenskjöld lake was easy on the eyes and the small gardens of flowers and river crossings made for a very pleasant hiking day. 

At 2:30 pm, the Horns came into sight with their unmistakable carving and black sedimentary peaks. We still had a half hour to go before reaching Refugio Cuernos. The sight of the Horns was mesmerizing throughout. The Refugio Cuernos was a much more recent construction and it shone when compared to the more basic Chilenos. There were high priced luxury cabins (USD 500) which we passed before reaching the main building with the dorms and the showers and the dining room. 

(l) Cuernos and (r) Lake Nordenskjöld

 Lake Nordenskjöld and Cuernos

Refugio Chilenos (l) Bird and (r) Dinner time 

There was no afternoon hike today and we unwound and explored the area around. A pretty bird kept our cameras busy for a few minutes. Come dinner time, it was a full house with a whole bunch of people chattering away happily.

Day 3

Date : Sunday, Nov. 25, 2007
Begin : 7:30 am,  Refugio Cuernos
End : 6 pm, Paine Grande Lodge

Distance: 13.9 miles
Total Distance: 33 miles

Refugio Cuernos to Italian Camp : 2.9 miles
Italian Camp to French Valley Miradores: 3.1 miles
Italian Camp to Paine Grande Lodge: 4.8 miles

It was a much colder day and we got an early start (7:30 am) and walked by the shore of Lake Nordenskjöld with its pebbly beach. The Cuernos looked quite imposing from below. After an hour or so we reached the woody section near Italian Camp. As expected, there were several backpacks left behind outside the Ranger station. It is well known that no one watches over the bags, but one gets confidence from seeing so many bags, so we left ours duly covered for the rain. Not that one needed much convincing to drop a load off one's back. This is a vital step before commencing the steep 2000 feet climb (over 3.1 miles) through the French Valley. 

Water falling down below the Cuernos

 (l) Cuernos and (r) Glaciers on Co. Paine Grande

The trail is accompanied by the falling waters of Rio del Francés. The water rushes down along the trail and in some sections flows down with a lot of force. 

 Rio del Francés

We passed a fairly large glacial moraine with the typical gravel topping. To the west of the valley is Cerro Paine Grande which is mostly under glacier cover (Glaciar Francés). Even though the mountain's elevation is modest (3000m) compared to the Andean giants, they wore the look of high peaks with abundant ice cover. The views are complemented by the aural accompaniment of falling ice blocks. We would just hear a massive sound and look around and just see the after effects...a lot of falling ice and snow.

 (l) Co.Paine Grande and (r) Glacial Moraine

 The views to the south were spectacular too with the lakes in the foreground and the distant snow covered mountains of Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgins. As we climbed steadily through the valley, the Cuernos started appearing to our right but with their profile view. They looked more massive from this side. By 11 am, we had reached  a short flat open stretch; we paused to take in the views all around...

(l) Cuernos viewed from West and (r) View from Valle Francés

We passed Campo Brittanico (British Camp) which was a small wooded section. It was an hours walk from there to the Mirador. We reached there by 12:30 pm. The terminus was a green earth bowl surrounded by rocky mountains forming a panorama. We could not see the Torres as they were obscured by other mountains. The only ones we identified were the Cuernos. The mountains that were in front of the unseen Torres were Co. Fortaleza and Co. Escudo. Others in the map were Co. Cabeza del Indio to the north and on the west were Co. Trono Blanco and Co. Aleta de Tiburón. 

 


Panorama at Mirador Francés


Panorama of Co.Paine Grande and Glaciers

After a half hour of exploring that area, we retraced our way back to Italian Camp, pausing extensively at the open stretch in the middle to pay closer attention to the falling ice. 

(l) Glaciers and (r) View from Valle Francés

(l) Falling Ice and (r) Mirador Francés

It was almost 3 p.m. by the time we had picked up our bags and resumed our westward journey to the Paine Grande Lodge. This was a substantial 5 mile stretch with dark clouds and fierce winds accompanying. The winds at the park are known to knock people off trails, so we proceeded with caution. We kept looking back at the Cuernos and soon we lost them. We would see them from an even better viewpoint 2 days later, aboard the catamaran from Paine Grande Lodge to Pudeto.

(l) Lake Nordenskjöld and (r) Cuernos

The final leg of the day proved to be quite endless on our tired legs and shoulders. The infamous Patagonian winds blew hard, sometimes threatening to knock us off our feet. We were quite glad to finally catch sight of the Lodge in the distance. 

(l) Lake Pehoé and (r) Catamaran

Unlike the Refugios we had stayed the previous 2 days, Paine Grande Lodge is more like a luxury resort and accessible through the catamaran service. The Refugios catered exclusively to hikers as they had no commercial transport serving them. Predictably, the warm and rustic feeling was conspicuously absent, replaced by upscale coolness. Anyway, we relaxed with the knowledge that we won't be carrying the big packs on our backs as we were staying 2 nights at the Lodge. Our original plan was to spend the last day at Refugio Grey, but its closure forced us to change our plans and stay 2 nights at the Lodge. 

Day 4

Date : Monday, Nov. 26, 2007
Begin : 8 am,  Paine Grande Lodge
End : 4 pm, Paine Grande Lodge

Distance : 14.4 miles
Total Distance : 47.4 miles

Paine Grande Lodge to Mirador, Glaciar Grey : 7.2 miles

 

The last leg of the W-trek featured a less strenuous hike with much less elevation gain compared to the previous days. However, the landscape was totally different with Lago Grey and Glaciar Grey presenting a different experience. To start with, it was much much colder and it got close to freezing as we approached the glacier. There was a constant threat of rain. The low light conditions made for dramatic viewing of the floating icebergs that displayed a stunningly rich blue color which would have looked very different under sunny skies. 

 

  Icebergs on Lake Grey

 

Our first view of the glacier from a distant perch was quite spectacular with the vastness of the ice mass dominating the landscape as it disappeared into the low clouds and the massive ice field beyond. The drama was further enhanced by the rocky mass that divided the glacier at its edge with the lake. The vista point was on a cliff overlooking the lake which made it even more spectacular. It was uncomfortably cold and windy, so we continued on towards Refugio Grey and the intended destination, an overlook that is much closer to the glacier. 

 

 Glacier Grey

Glacier Grey

 

On our way back, we stopped at the closed Refugio Grey for a picnic lunch by the lake. The sky cleared for a brief period of sunshine. 

 

(l) Refugio Grey and (r) Lake Grey

 

It did not last long as we hiked back to the lodge. We did run out of luck and had to walk the last couple of miles in pouring cold rain. After thawing ourselves in a hot shower, it was time to relax in the bar and celebrate the completion of another satisfactory expedition as the sky cleared outside to make way for a rainbow.

 

(l) Rainbow and (r) Lake Pehoé

 

Return

 

Tuesday, Nov. 27

 

A lenticular cloud hung over the area this morning. The approaching catamaran at the dock presented a nice picture. The 30 minute Catamaran ride from the lodge to Pudeto takes you around the isthmus jutting into Lago Pehoé, dropping you off at Pudeto which has a Guarderia (Ranger Station). We were surprised to get coffee on the boat especially for such a short ride.

 

(l) Lake Pehoe and (r) Catamaran

 

The ride gave us some of the best views of the Cuernos. 

 

 

 

From there, we waited about an hour for the bus to Puerto Natales. A short walk (15 minutes) from there is the nice spectacle of Salto Grande, a modest waterfall that falls from Lake Nordenskjöld  to Lake Pehoé. The 15 minutes turned out to be quite an adventure due to the fierce winds that threatened to throw us off our feet. Several people crouched low on the road and ambled along. 

 

  Salto Grande - (l) from boat and (r) up close

 

The Ranger was kind enough to let us sit in his living room area (complete with fireplace) while we waited for our bus. It was an interesting ride back to Puerto Natales. We saw plenty of guanaco inside the park. After we had crossed some distance from the park, we got a glimpse of the Torres and Cuernos in a single view from the bus.

 

(l) Guanacos and (r) Torres del Paine park from departing bus

 

Elevation Profile

 

 

The first 4 miles were spent on the shuttle bus, so they don't count. The trek began at that point. The total length walked was 47.4 miles.

 

Google Earth Views

 

Day 1 and Day 2

Torres and Cuernos

Day 3

French Valley

Day 3 and Day 4

French Valley, Lago Grey, Glaciar Grey

W-Trek Complete

Note the Salto Grande waterfalls near Pudeto where the yellow line leads

 

W-Trek and Surroundings:

Highlights:

1. The large Southern Patagonian Ice Field to the left of W. Glaciar Grey is just one tongue sticking out of the massive Ice Field.

2. The Perito Moreno Glacier (marked by i) in Argentina (across the Yellow border)

3. The Chilean fjords on the left (the blue route is the one taken by the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales)

 

W-Trek and surrounding areas (tilted)

The idea behind this view is to present the landscape around the park...the massive ice field, the blue lakes in Chile and Argentina, the glaciers stretching down from the field.

 

Links

 

Photo Album 
Google Maps (Click on the View Larger Map link to open in browser)
View Larger Map
Google Earth file (Click here to download Google Earth)  Click here for the file (covers entire Chile trip)

Malini Kaushik and Venkatesh