Patagonia Photo Porn
If you’re anything like us, you get inspired to travel just by looking at photos of insanely beautiful places. That’s why I’m kicking off this blog post with some truly inspirational shots. Check out the key areas we visited in Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia.
Torres – The Inspiration for Our Patagonia Trip
Daniel decided on Torres Del Paine National Park as the main destination and starting point for our entire Patagonia trip. It took him A LOT of time and research to come to that decision. That’s because Patagonia is HUGE. It covers over 400,000 square miles spanning the lower sections of both Argentina and Chile. We had limited time for this trip (three weeks from November 23 – December 13) and knew we wanted to go in their spring (remember, south of the Equator the seasons are opposite) And so, with ample research, logistical planning and a gut feeling, Daniel selected Torres Del Paine as our jumping off spot, by way of Punta Arenas.
I trusted his choice and was along for the ride nodding and agreeing to everything while planning at home one Sunday afternoon. Then he mentioned the part about backpacking to a campground for two nights. My eyeballs grew quite large and I gulped. Backpacking? In Patagonia?
I calmly smiled and nodded. But my brain was in overdrive. Patagonia. Wind. Rain. Snow? Blisters! Mountains with trails that I would need a Sherpa for. No toilets. Ahhhhhhh!!!!
But then I saw how giddy my husband was as he planned his Bear Grylls moment. And so, I sucked it up and agreed to go. This was Daniel’s bucket list trip after all, and it was only two nights camping on the trail. How bad could it be?
BEAUTY & THE BEAST
Well, let’s start with the beast part of the most beautiful place I have ever visited. Time schedules. They will make you their bitch. Schedules are my nemesis while traveling and are the reason why I loathe organized tours and cruises. I hate being on someone else’s clock when I’m traveling. Which is why we opted to pay for a rental car so we could explore on our own. ($480/four days, picked up in Punta Arenas, dropped off in Puerto Natales.)
I definitely recommend renting a car if you can splurge for the ride. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay for a private guide/tour or opt for the larger tour buses. But even with our own car, we were always on someone else’s timeline. Hotels only serve meals at certain times, so be sure to verify that with them upon check-in. We were flat out told “no food for you” one night at our hotel in the Rio Serrano Valley area because we arrived after their dinner hours. Thank goodness there was one restaurant nearby that was open late. Turns out their food was better than the hotel’s. Three cheers for Pampa and their delicious and filling parrillada (BBQ) with beef, chicken, sausages, lamb and veggies.
Some hotels turn off their generators at night so be sure you’ve charged your phones and cameras accordingly if you plan on taking photos the next day.
Also, do note that the catamaran ferry between Pudeto and Paine Grande has a limited schedule before the summer rush, so be sure to plan your day around that. It’s first-come-first-serve for tickets and boarding so if you get stuck behind a big tour bus you might want to make a run for it to secure your spot in line. Remember cash is king there so have your Chilean pesos on hand for hotels, ferry’s, buses, restaurants and some tours.
The other ugly thing to note is that all of the roads in the park are gravel so it can get quiet dusty. When we had cars or buses in front of us, their dust blew into our cheap rental car leaving a layer of powder all over us and made it hard to breathe. Plus, it gets in the way of your fabulous views!
Okay, enough of the beast part and on to the AMAZINGNESS of Torres!
BEAUTY & BEYOND
Our first day in the area, we arrived late in the afternoon and had spectacular weather so we immediately drove around hitting the easy viewpoints. Patagonia weather is notorious for changing in a blink of an eye, so we wanted to see as much as we could with sunshine. Case in point, we were in awe at how well we could see the famous Torres mountains, especially after hearing and reading about so many experiences from people who had been there for days and had never even seen them. We knew how lucky we were. I was constantly shaking my head and saying, “I just can’t believe it. It’s amazing.”
The W Circuit
There are two main circuits hikers take in Torres – the W and the O. We hiked parts of the W. Our goal was the Los Cuernos campsite, which is in the lower middle of the W trail skirting the top of Lago Nordenskjöld. We parked our rental car for free at Los Torres parking lot and headed out on the trail around 2:00 PM.
The trail to camp was going to be about 4.5 hours. I enjoyed my last flushing toilet at the Los Torres refugio bathrooms and gave a silent word of thanks to Mother Nature for giving us a downright beautiful and warm day to hike. We were off!
The trails were like a United Nations highway with people from all parts of the world. The majority seemed to be from Germany, Australia, Japan, the U.S. and France. I did notice that many people on the trails didn’t appear very happy. Most had an exhausted look permanently fixed to their faces. I had to guess that their heavy packs were becoming their worst enemy by the looks of their hunched stature as they walked. Few smiled. Most said the obligatory, “Hola.” Everyone looked like they were on a schedule. (Which they were! See my complaint above.)
The pace set by these trailblazers made it feel like a busy New York City sidewalk during rush hour instead of the lazy-stroll-through-the-park vibe I was looking for. Why didn’t anyone want to look around and enjoy their time in natures garden of eden? Then it hit me. I was the only one on the trail NOT wearing a backpack. In fact, I didn’t carry anything except for the Kleenex I was constantly wrestling up to my nose against the wind and back to my pocket.
I didn’t have a pack because Daniel decided we could fit all of our gear for two days into one 40-liter backpack that he would carry. And he did. He was my hero. But I felt like the odd one out on the trail and wished I had at least a little day-pack strapped to my back so that I too could feel like a pack-mule lugging Smart Wool socks and granola. Instead I looked like a blond princess skipping along in my pink Marmot jacket.
It was surreal walking next to the Nordenskjöld Lake with its milky-turquoise water. Because I’m a slow hiker, we took exactly 4.5 hours to Los Cuernos. I was so excited to arrive at the Shire-like campsite. And then when I found out we had indoor bathrooms with flushing toilets and showers I was HAPPY. Oh so happy.
We arrived just a few moments before dinner would be served so we hopped into the refugio’s main dining area. I was impressed. Cathedral ceilings, placemats and even glass wine goblets. Did I mention the bar? This was my kind of camping. Dinner was pretty darn tasty, too. We started with a soup and roll, then salmon with a cream sauce and a side of mashed potatoes. We met an Aussie couple sitting next to us and ended up playing cards with them outside while sipping Malbec from the refugio’s bar, enjoying the gentle and warm evening weather. The sun sets late there in November (their Spring) and twilight lingered until close to 10:30 PM.
Later that night, shortly after I had finally fallen asleep in our tent, I awoke to something punching the left side of my face. In my sleepy daze, I also heard some sort of thumping around. Being from Detroit, my first thought naturally was that someone was trying to break into our test. (Ridiculous, I know.) Finally I came to. It was the wind. Damn that wind! It was lashing our tent and pushing and pulling the large rocks outside that had been helping hold down our rainfly. I looked over at Daniel who was snug as a bug and sleeping soundly. I was up most of the night. By daylight, I was wrecked.
Our intention the next morning was to hike up the middle part of the W trail to Frances Valley. About one hour into it I had to turn around back to camp. The wind was whipping me and I was going cross-eyed I was so deliriously tired. I kissed my husband farewell and wished him a good hike as I dragged my tired ass back to our tent. I tried to nap but the wind was relentless.
When Daniel got back to camp, he was exhausted. But his photos of the Frances Valley were exciting to see.
Oh the wind. The wind! It was such a bully during our five days in Torres Del Paine National Park in Southern Patagonia. I had heard the weather can be notoriously fickle there but I have never experienced wind like that. It circles you. Then it charges at you like a bull. While we were camping, our orange tent was clearly signaling, “Toro! Toro!” and then the bull would charge us, trying to lift the tent while it batted it back and forth with us inside.
How was I supposed to prepare for that kind of wind? I realize we can dress for all sorts of weather – the cold, the rain, the warm sunshine, and yes, even the wind. But there’s no fabric that I’m aware of that can protect you from the wind when it decides to blow in with a left hook and a one-two punch to your gut. Then, just for good measure, it smacks your face to make sure you remember whose boss in this neck of the woods.
I get it. I get it. Mother Nature rules these parts. I had prepared myself for rain and wind everyday so I was pleasantly surprised and oh so grateful that we had great Patagonian Spring weather. Except for that damned wind. But C’est la vie. I guess it was all part of the Torres Del Paine experience. And let me tell you, it was one helluva an adventure.
We had a hard time finding tips for Torres Del Paine during our research and I think that’s because so many of the sites are in Spanish. But I’ve noticed since we’ve gone, more travel blogs are posted on Patagonia, so you’re in luck! Here are my four take-aways to help you make the most of your time in Torres.
Traveling There – As of July 2017, Torres del Paine National Park is now easier than ever to get to. We would have loved this time saver when we went! LATAM has non-stop flights from Santiago, Chile to Puerto Natales, which is the closest airport to the park. This is BIG news, people! Forget that extra stop in Punta Arenas and all the extra driving…But, this easier access could mean more crowds so make sure you plan early. Speaking of which…
Book In Advance – The year we visited (2016), there were 252,447 visitors to Torres del Paine. The surrounding area has very limited accommodations (campsites, hotels, etc.) so you will want to book nine months to a year out. We booked in July for an end of November trip and had to move around a lot because we couldn’t book one hotel with consecutive stays.
Rental Car – As I noted above, rent a car if you can splurge for the ride. Otherwise, you’ll need to pay for a private guide/tour or opt for the larger tour buses and be on tighter time schedules. Plus, a bus driver isn’t going to stop so you can take your 20th photo of a guanaco.
Gear – Yes ladies, you should invest in quality outdoorsy gear for this trip. I loved my lightweight Salomon waterproof hiking shoes for their grip, comfort and keeping my feet dry. Stylish, too! Your must-have socks are SmartWool. My Marmot jacket was wind and rain proof, plus I had options on how many layers I needed between the shell and the zip-in fleece. I also invested in a pair of Sherpa weather resistant pants. Huge perks on those windy days! Don’t forget your Buff headwear. It’s versatile so you can use it as a scarf or my favorite, as headband when your hair is getting pretty gnarly. Oh, and don’t be too worried about bringing drinking water. We loaded our camel pack up only to realize we could drink literally straight from the moving streams. (Glacier water – it doesn’t get fresher than that!)