After a rest day in Punta Arenas we were excited to be back on the road and our destination was Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres Del Paine National Park. Being in the mountains again was an exciting prospect after the flat roads of Tierra Del Fuego. Having learnt our lesson on the cycle across Tierra Del Fuego we knew that we needed to research the route ahead and the potential to resupply. So we had a five day cycle ahead of us and from what we had read it was going to be fairly uninteresting, sparsely populated and of course, windy! In the spirit of being more prepared we packed enough food for a week.
The first day we made good progress, covering 50km and the wind was manageable. When we stayed at the bakery in Tolhuin we photographed a list of potential sleeping spots that a previous cycle tourist had left entitled ‘For those going north’ and on this list was a petrol station at the 50km mark with a barn to camp in. However when we got there the petrol station was long closed down and boarded up. After some deliberation over whether to sleep in the tiny bus shelter or not we decided to ask if we could camp on the nearby Estancia.
We’ve got good at asking for somewhere to camp out of the wind in Spanish and like the last time we asked at an Estancia we were shown to our own place to stay. This time it was a dormitory with real beds and a wood burner. We weren’t going to light a fire as it wasn’t that cold but that decision was taken out of our hands when in comes Adolfo, a small Patagonian man with a gravely voice, with armfuls of wood. He lights us a fire, tells us to put more wood on in ten minutes and then he was gone. Once again we really grateful for the kindness of strangers. Cooking our tea on top of the wood burner was a good end to the day and in hoping the wind would be less fierce in the morning, alarms were set for 4.30am.
Waking up to the wind howling against the walls of our tin shed was disheartening but we left by 7am anyway to give ourselves the most chance of reaching the next town before dark. Today was really no fun for me (Steph), after the wind blew me off my bike for the tenth time I had had enough. Ben seemed to be taking it in his stride and unlike me, wasn’t having the worst day ever. Just when it was getting unbearable on a 10km dead straight road that I thought would never end I see Ben helping a man put something in the back of his pickup. What was going on? Getting closer I saw that his bike was in the back and he was chatting to this guy. I nearly fall off my bike again as I try to stop but luckily it was for the last time of the day… we were getting a lift to Puerto Natales! It turns out that Christian (another one) was driving from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales for work and when he saw us he decided to stop and see if we wanted a lift. We must have really looked as though we were struggling! Hitching a ride wasn’t something we were actually going to do, we are stubborn like that but we weren’t going to say no to such a good offer. As a wise man once said, we’re not here for a long time we’re here for good time!
It was two hours drive time (rather than another 4 days cycling!) which we spent practising our Spanish and learning a little bit more about the region. It turns out that you can be having the worst day ever then something unexpected happens to turn it around.
Reaching Puerto Natales earlier than expected we didn’t really have a plan so the next few days were spent planning our trip into Torres Del Paine. We went to a really useful talk at the Erratic Rock hostel which went into how to get to the park, a suggested itinerary and what to take. We now had a plan but the weather looked bad until the following week so we had a very relaxed couple of days, waiting out the rain so we could maximise the possibility of having nice weather and good views in the park. At least the town of Puerto Natales was surrounded by a lake and snow capped mountains, so it was a beautiful place to wait out the bad weather in the national park.
Torres Del Paine – The “W” trek
Torres Del Paine is the most visited national park in Chile with around 250,000 tourists coming here each year and it’s no surprise with the picture-perfect Patagonian landscape. The “W” trek is the most commonly walked route usually taking 4-5 days and with a different mirador (viewpoint) at each point of the W.
Due to tourists causing two major wildfires in recent years they are very strict on where you can camp and cook, so all accommodation must be booked in advance. We were doing it the cheapest way possible taking our own tent but we still needed to book each campsite for every night we spent in the park. October is “technically” high season but the park was yet to get overly busy so we only booked accommodation three days before going. In the summer months this can be weeks or months in advance. As cycle tourists we already had all the appropriate kit for the hike except for the backpack, which is kind of important, so we rented that.
As we’ve been living on the road for a short while we have got quite good at making hearty meals with a camping stove so we ended up taking more varied food than most others we saw. Cooking a chorizo and vegetable curry at the first campsite we were the envy of many other hungry hikers!
This was our trek itinerary:
Day 1: Bus from Puerto Natales to Park entrance, continuing on to Lago Pehoe. Catamaran to Paine Grande. Walk to Glacier Grey. (Distance: 11km. Elevation gain: 442m)
Day 2: Grey to Frances. (Distance: 20km. Elevation gain: 660m)
Day 3: Frances to Britanico and back. (Distance: 14km. Elevation gain: 655m)
Day 4: Frances to Las Torres (pitched camp) then up to mirador Base Las Torres and back (Distance: 34km. Elevation gain: 1405m)
Overall distance: 79km
Overall elevation gain: 3162m
The first day the trek took longer than stated on the map as there were spectacular views around every corner. We stopped countless times to take lots of photos and we were loving being surrounded by proper mountains. The walking itself was more technical than we had anticipated with steep boulder field climbs and sketchy scree slope descents. Every section of trail was analysed to see if it could be ridden on a bike and some downhills would have definitely been easier (and more fun!) to ride down.
By the end of first day we reached Glacier Grey. The view across the lake from the rocky outcrop we climbed was simply stunning. How could the rest of the trek beat this?!
As the highlights of the trek are at the end of each arm of the W you end up walking some sections in both directions. Our second day began by retracing our route from Grey to where we got off the boat then we continued on the trail that skirted the lake to reach our second campsite, Frances.
It was an overcast day and also the longest day that we had to carry our heavy packs so we faffed a lot less and the pace was quicker. Being fairly inexperienced coupled with the weight of the packs, the fact that they were well used and not the most comfortable meant that Ben was beyond relieved to reach camp that day. Camping at this site was a little different due to the sloping nature of the terrain. Each pitch was on a raised wooden platform. Our tent was longer than the platform and not being able to use pegs meant we had to be creative with how we secured it.
The third day was set to be an easier day because we chose to stay at our campsite for two nights, meaning we could explore the middle arm of the W with only our small backpacks stuffed with snacks.
This part of the park is called the French Valley and you climb to mirador Britanico. Climb being the operative word. This valley had far more elevation gain than the one to glacier grey and consistently climbed to the viewpoint. The view from the top was incredible with snow capped peaks on three sides and a beautiful vista of the lake far below. We ate lunch here in the sun but we could have spent far longer here admiring the scenery.
The iconic towers of Torres Del Paine are notorisouly fickle and are quite often hidden in cloud. Not what you want after making the effort to climb to see them. So anticipating good weather we decided that our fourth day was going to be a big one.
At 4:30am with military precison we de-camped and within an hour we were on our way to our final campsite, Las Torres Central. From there we planned to make camp but then continue to the towers themselves. Hiking for the first hour by the light from our head torches while watching the sun rise over the lake was a cool experience. We had the trail to ourselves and for the first few hours it felt like we were the only ones in the park.
With our sole focus of reaching the towers we made really good time to the campsite despite skipping breakfast! Once our tent was pitched we ate both breakfast and lunch to refuel for the afternoon’s hike.
The map claimed that reaching the towers was 4 hours each way so we got going as quickly as possible. The first section of trail climbed very steeply and our tired legs soon started telling us that they had already been going for five hours that morning. Fuelled by our excitement to reach the towers and the sun shining in the bue sky overhead we made it to the start of the final ascent. Scrambling up the steep rocky pitch and navigating the rutted river bed that formed the trail made the last section especially strenuous. It took 45 minutes to do 1km!
The towers hide themselves until you crest the final rise where Lago Torres reveals itself and you soon forget about your aching legs. Reaching the mirador is like walking into the nave of a vast church. The placid lake, surrounded on all sides by glacier-sheared cliffs, and the towers themselves forming the main focal point. It was eerily quiet.
Even though we had clear skies throughout out our ascent, the towers seem to have their own microclimate and there was plenty of cloud hanging in the sky, thankfully not obscuring the view we came to see. While not the iconic blue-sky photo that everyone hopes for it certainly added to the atmosphere. We were just relieved that our exhausting day had been worth it.
After eating lunch and enjoying the surroundings for a little while longer we contemplated the walk back to the campsite. It had taken us three hours to get up there but on tired legs it took us even longer to get back down. This is the fundamental difference between hiking and mountain biking! On a bike the descent (excluding the totally unrideable first 1km) would have been an absolute blast and probably have taken about half an hour. Instead we shuffled downhill on aching legs and burning feet. Neither of us have ever been so glad to take a pair of shoes off when we finally reached the tent. After 34km and 11 hours of walking it felt like we had checked all the boxes for the trek.
Despite the weather forecast for the following day being really good we both made the decision that we wouldn’t go up again in the morning. The prospect of another 6-7 hour round trip didn’t fill our feet with joy and along with the bus back to Puerto Natales being at 2pm and the subconscious knowledge that we needed to be bike fit again within a day of leaving park meant that having a relaxing fifth day was an easy choice.
We both had an amazing few days in Torres del Paine. We got lucky with the weather and it felt like we saw everything that we came to see, along with pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones doing something neither of us have done much before.
So if we were to do it again, what would we do differently?
Rent a tent at each campsite rather than carrying our own. Not only is it less to carry but it’s already pitched when you arrive so all you have to do it unpack your kit and you’re ready to enjoy your evening at camp. Definitely a luxury, but one that would add to the trip.
Take our own familiar, comfortable backpacks. Because of the nature of our trip we didn’t have our own with us but it would have made the longer days a bit easier.
Do the “O” circuit. 8-9 days hiking with views around the back of the park. Check the CONAF website for when this trail is open as it varies each season due to snow levels (For instance when we were there in mid-October, it wasn’t expected to open for another few weeks and usually closes for trekking at the end of March). For us, it’s a good reason to come back to this part of the world!
Back in Puerto Natales and we are excited to start riding the bikes again. It feels like it’s been a long time since we were last turning the pedals and the road is calling.
Steph and Ben