The grand finale of our hiking experience in Patagonia was the famous W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Typically when people think about Patagonia, this is what comes to mind, whether they know it or not. The landscape is wildly famous, and for good reason! The W Trek is a 47 mile hike on the southern stretch of the larger O Circuit, and is so named for its shape - the trail map looks like a W. It usually takes four nights/five days to complete. Like wine tasting in France, exploring the temples of Angkor, and hiking Machu Picchu, doing the W Trek was one of the pillars of our trip, and we were really excited to start! But first, we had to get out of Argentina and over to Puerto Natales, Chile.
Getting there proved to be a little difficult. The bus companies in El Calafate told us that there were no direct routes between El Chalten and Puerto Natales, so we'd have to go from El Chalten to El Calafate and stay overnight, and then catch the 8am bus to Puerto Natales the next morning. Since it was the high season and we didn't want to be stuck, we bought all of the necessary bus tickets and booked an additional night in El Calafate before heading to El Chalten. When we got to the tiny hiking town, though, we learned that we absolutely could have booked transportation from there all the way to Puerto Natales. That would have been way easier! Oh well, at least we had a plan that worked.
The ride from El Calafate to Puerto Natales was supposed to take between four and five hours - it was pretty much a straight shot south. But, just like we had trouble getting into Argentina, we had trouble getting OUT! At least this time we weren't the reason for the hold-up. Apparently the office to get stamped out of Argentina only had one window for foreigners manned by one guy who took his sweet time looking through every passport and stamping it, and since this region of the world is heavily trafficked by backpacking enthusiasts, there were tons of people waiting in line. What should have taken maybe an hour to stamp everyone on our bus took two and a half FREEZING COLD hours waiting outside in the incredibly bright and strong sun. The wind was blowing something fierce, the UV index was high, and we didn't have the proper gear on for the conditions. Me in my leggings and sweater, Jake in his shorts and jacket, we stood in line, huddled together, griping every twenty minutes or so, trying to figure out what on earth could be taking so dang long. And then when we got up to the window we found the problem - molasses moves faster than the passport checker. Seriously Argentina, you have some work to do on your border crossings! Unreal.
We finally arrived in the town of Puerto Natales in the late afternoon and checked into our weird hostel/guesthouse that I found on Airbnb. Hospedaje Maria was run by a nice woman in her 60s or 70s named Maria. Maria, who speaks no English, was waiting for us when we arrived. In Spanish we introduced ourselves and she showed us around - there are four bedrooms, all private, two bathrooms, a living room where we would eat breakfast of toast, yogurt, and coffee, and the kitchen where we could cook other meals. It was comfortable and nice, but Maria was a little funny - for example, if we cooked in the kitchen, she would just sit in her chair in the corner, stroking her cat on her lap (she had about 8 cats that lived outside), silently watching us. It didn't help that there was conflicting information about whether or not we were allowed to cook - the website didn't offer the kitchen as an amenity for guests, but there was a sign above the stove asking guests not to use the kitchen after 8pm. So I was already a bit nervous about making myself at home in the kitchen, and having her staring at me made it worse. We tried to make small talk en Espanol, but gave up after a little while and endured the silence. If she wasn't watching us in the kitchen, we always knew where she was as she had this cough/throat-clearing noise, a soft little rumbly noise that she would make every 15 seconds or so. So much so that recreating this little sound became a great source of entertainment on our hike in the coming days. As weird as the place was, though, it was just what we needed and the price was right, so we can't complain. And we'd even recommend it!
We had given ourselves two nights to prepare for the trek and were grateful for the time - we had just enough time to pick up groceries/snacks for the first day on the trail, rent sleeping bags, and practice packing my backpack with all of our stuff. Since we were staying at the refugios along the trail and eating most of our meals with them, we didn't need to bring a tent, cookware, or tons of food, so we were able to fit everything we needed in one bag. You might remember from some of my previous posts just how stressful it was for us to plan this leg of our trip - we had lots of trouble getting reservations for our refugios along the trail of the W Trek. So until we actually arrived at the refugios and saw that our reservations were all in good order, I was a little stressed out. But in the end, it did all work out perfectly. Phew!
The best thing we did on our full day of prep was attend the free W Trek orientation given by passionate hikers who own a hostel/restaurant/rental gear spot called Erratic Rock. We learned a ton of great backpacking trips that we'll definitely use in the future. Our favorite tips were:
- Don't pile the layers on in the morning - sure, it's chilly, but once you get trekking you're going to warm up pretty quick and then you'll either have to stop and remove the layers or just sweat in them, and then you're wet and you'll be really cold later.
- Lunch shouldn't be anything you can't eat with one hand. Don't waste time getting out a camping stove and cooking something, or taking the time to make a sandwich. Just get some bars or nuts or chocolate or jerky and keep moving. Lunch doesn't need to take a full hour. And at that rate, you should be eating all day long - have a snack 30 minutes after heading out in the morning and a handful of something every 30 - 45 minutes to keep your energy up. You came out on the trail to see stuff, not to eat gourmet food. Get the necessities (chocolate is a necessity), and get moving!
If you happen to be planning on doing the W, I highly recommend you attend the free orientation. Whether you're staying in the refugios the whole time or camping, you'll learn something. We only disagreed with one piece of advice they gave - to go from west to east. We planned our trip so that we would be walking west, which was awesome because the sights got better and better as we went along, and we pretty much always had the sun at our backs rather than right in our eyes. It would have been less comfortable if we were squinting into the sun the whole time. So we suggest going east to west. I'll be writing a detailed "How to Plan/Do the W Trek" later where I'll outline all of our thoughts.
We went to bed early that night to catch the 7am bus to Torres del Paine with all of the other backpackers. Three hours later we had arrived at the entrance gate of the national park, the famous mountains of the French Valley welcoming us in the distance. After swearing on our souls that we wouldn't light a fire in the park and promising to leave no trace, we jumped on a shuttle that took us to our starting point. W Trek, here we come!
DAY 1 - Campsite: Chileno, Distance = 6km
Our first trekking day was an easy one - just a 2.5 hour jaunt uphill to our first stop, Refugio Chileno. It was nice to start off our five day trek with a little warm up rather than jumping right into it. We arrived at Chileno around 2pm, got our tent assignment and our meal time, and just hung out for the rest of the afternoon. The refugio was located right next to the river, and the rushing water supplied a lovely soundtrack for the rustic camp. A bonus of renting space from the refugios is access to bathrooms, indoor rec space to escape the cold, and showers - this was already the most glamorous camping we'd done. Little did we know it would only get better!
Chileno had two main buildings - one had a big dining room and bathrooms for campers to use, the other was the dining room and professional kitchen for those who purchased the meal plan (like we did), and dorm-style rooms for those who reserved beds. Based on the availability of the refugios when I booked our space, I reserved a tent for the first two nights, and beds for the last two, so we'd get a taste of the cushy camping life as we got more tired and more deserving.
We puttered around the campsite for awhile, realized we should have brought our Kindles with us, and sat down at one of the picnic tables to wait for the dinner bell. It was then that we met our new friends, Tessa and Gordon from Colorado. We knew we would get along with them the moment we saw them - they were enjoying a box of wine they had purchased from the refugio. This is definitely a style of camping I can get used to! We ended up eating dinner with them (which was stellar, by the way - really great beef in a gravy with fantastic mashed potatoes), and made plans to meet up with them at the next campsite the following evening. We would have hung out longer, but we had to get to bed as soon as dinner was over - we had a 2:45am wake-up call!
DAY 2 - Campsite: Cuernos, Distance = 25km
Even though I took melatonin to help me get to sleep by 8pm, 2:45am still came around quickly! Why on earth were we up so darn early? To catch sunrise over Los Torres, the site we were told was the most spectacular of everything we would see on our trek. At the Erratic Rock orientation, we learned that the hike from the Refugio Chileno to The Towers would take 2 hours, and hundreds of people would be heading up there at the same time. The guys leading the orientation suggested that, while sunrise wouldn't be until around 6, that we take off no later than 3am to beat the crowds up the mountain. So off we went, at 3am on the dot, with snacks for breakfast, water, our headlamps, and what few layers we had.
The hike up was pretty tough, 4km up a mountain, and by the time we arrived at The Towers, we were sweating. After finding the perfect spot for photography, we sat on the cold rocks, huddled together, and waited for the sun to come up. The sunrise was certainlybeautiful, but not quite the spectacle that we had been hoping for. While the sky turned every shade of purple, pink, and orange, the low lying clouds behind us blocked the golden rays from hitting the Towers. Some people get an incredible light show on the granite structure, we just got, well, a granite structure against a fantastic backdrop. As the colors faded from the sky and grey rain clouds started to move in around 7am, the temperature dropped and it got COLD. SO COLD. I could barely control my chattering teeth. Jake could hear me shivering from several yards away, tucked his camera away, and we headed back down to camp.
After a quick shower (how civilized!), we packed up our stuff and took off for campsite #2, Refugio Cuernos. The trail took us 11 km along a pristine turquoise lake with views of velvety green hills on the other side. The rain clouds that had threatened us earlier that morning had disappeared and it was HOT. Seriously, the weather down here is bonkers! On the way we happened to see our buddies from El Chalten, Heather and Sam! They were working their way east and had started at Refugio Grey the day before we started at Chileno. We caught up with each other for a few minutes, taking a welcomed break from walking, before hitting the dusty trail again.
We arrived at Cuernos just before 2 and waited in the common room for two hours before someone was able to tell us which tent was ours. Needless to say, I was a little frustrated - all I wanted to do was take a nap on my sleeping bag! Finally the Cuernos employees got their act together enough to direct us to the proper setup, and I swiftly passed out while Jake headed off to take a shower. The facilities at Cuernos were much nicer than those of Chileno - the showers and bathrooms were fairly modern with slate floors, the common room was more of a building than a shack, and the dining room looked even more like a restaurant. We could get used to this! We had another delightful dinner with Tessa and Gordon, and met more friends, Jonathan and Fleur from Belgium, and Andrew from Australia. Right after dinner I excused myself to go back to the comfort of my sleeping bag - I just couldn't be awake any longer! And, after asking some guy to turn his stereo off (really? Who plays a stereo in this setting? I want to listen to the wind and the water, not that racket. And sharing a campsite is like sharing a bedroom, and he didn't ask me if I wanted to listen to his music!), I passed out. Jake was right behind me.
DAY 3 - Campsite: Paine Grande, Distance = 25km
Our third day was another long one, and the hardest day for me, trekking from Cuernos to a free campsite called Italiano where we dropped our gear and continued all the way up the French Valley and back down before picking up our gear and continuing on to Refugio Paine Grande. Many people have said that the French Valley is their favorite part of the W experience, but again, we have to disagree - the best part is yet to come!
Jake and I took off from Cuernos around 9am, a bit later than we had intended, but we needed the sleep! The trail curved along the lake, taking us all the way down to the water's edge before cutting back to start the walk up the middle prong of the W, and ultimately Valle Frances. It was another hot one - we certainly didn’t expect to need as much sunscreen as we were using! Just as we were pulling in to Italiano, we saw our dinner friends starting their climb up the valley to the Britannico viewpoint. "See you at the top!" we said. After a snack and a break, we followed their footsteps.
This is where the day got hard for me. Don't get me wrong, the views are stunning - the glacier that sits in the valley surrounded by big green trees and a ferociously strong river, it's all really pretty. But my mind was just not in it. In the orientation at Erratic Rock, the guys said, "Go up the valley as far as you want, but the view is pretty much the same. So go up for an hour and then turn around." As we trekked all the way up the valley, I kept thinking "How much farther?" and "Ohmygosh I'm so tired." and "Why do we need to go the whole way? This is a waste of time!" But when we finally reached the top of the valley three hours later and sat on the highest point we were permitted to climb, I realized it was totally worth it. It was gorgeous. The valley is usually clouded in, and most people who head all the way to the granite cul-de-sac at the end just get a view of clouds and trees (maybe that's what Erratic Rock was talking about). On this very hot, very sunny, very clear day, we got to see every inch of the rock wall that surrounded us on three sides, the two tone granite that shot up and towered over us. The crystal clear blue sky made for less dramatic pictures, but we're glad we got to really take in the rare sight! We could hear the glacier cracking and breaking in the distance above the rushing water of the ice cold river. While Jake was a little disappointed that rest of the trail was closed and we couldn't go any farther up the hill, we were pretty impressed with the views we got, and would recommend that other hikers go all the way, too!
After chowing on some lunch back at Italiano, we headed out for the final 11km stretch of the day with Andrew, Fleur, Jonathan, Tessa, and Gordon, happy to have the company of energetic, funny, and interesting people! As we marched single file down the trail, we saw some familiar faces, Jay and Louise, friends we'd made first in Salento, Colombia, who we saw again in Quito, Ecuador, and again at the Erratic Rock orientation! The two Aussies are on a year-long adventure around South America and always have great stories. While it's probably pretty easy to bump into people on the trail considering there's really only one path to walk on, I still think it's an awfully small world to have randomly come across two couples we’d met in other places there on the W Trek!
The seven of us steadily made our way out of the forest and into fields of long grass and wild flowers. As the sun was starting to turn golden in the late afternoon sun, we could finally make out the outline of our next site, Refugio Paine Grande. We almost broke out into a run when we saw it, eager to get inside, wash off all the sweat from the day, and relax with a beer! Like I said before, the refugios kept getting better and better (another reason to go east to west!), and Paine Grande looked like a ski lodge! A two story building with pretty décor (I would describe it as New Mexico style) housed big bathrooms with great showers, a giant cafeteria style dining hall, a bar, and the dorm-style bedrooms where six people could sleep soundly on comfy mattresses. And this night, we got to be those people! We checked in to our room and laid down on our beds - now this is what I call camping! Ha!
After a much needed shower, Jake and I met up with the gang for some Patagonia Ales on the patio before heading in and stuffing our faces with dinner.
DAY 4 - Refugio Grey, Distance = 11km (Plus another 10km)
My favorite day! Oh what didn't I love about the gorgeous trail between Paine Grande and Grey? It was awesome.
We started the day with a great breakfast with the gang. This would be our last meal with Andrew, Tessa, and Gordon as they were catching the boat back from Paine Grande that evening rather than staying overnight at Refugio Grey. Our little group set off around 8am, getting an early start so those three would have enough time to get all the way back in time for their boat. As we crested the first hill, Jake and I realized this trail was going to take us awhile - there were so many photo ops and we just couldn't run right by them all! Bright wildflowers, dried out trees, glassy lakes, and ice bergs kept our shutter buttons busy. We bid adieu to Andrew, Tessa, and Gordon, and made plans to have dinner with Fleur and Jonathan later. We wanted to take our time on this gorgeous stretch.
We arrived at the adorable, modern mountain-cottage style Refugio Grey with energy to spare, so we dropped our stuff in our room and headed out to see Glacier Grey. Jake and read that there were several good viewpoints to see the glacier, as well as the whole ice field up the trail another 5km. And I must say, our view for lunch was pretty great - we rested for awhile in the sunshine, feeling the cold breeze blow off the glacier, as we sat on the rocky cliffs over the lake, taking in the view of Grey Glacier. We pushed on after lunch, heading up to one of the other viewpoints that give a sort of cockeyed view of the glacier. Satisfied with the day, I declared that I was going to head back to the refugio and relax - it couldn't get better than that, could it? Jake said he was going to keep going, "I've never seen an ice field before, I'm going to go until I see it." Well shoot, I've never seen an ice field either! "Hmmm. You're right. Ok I'm coming too! Watch, now I'll hurt myself." Well, I did slip once and hurt my wrist a little, but I survived! We plowed on to the highest point. And boy am I glad I came along - to get there we had to cross two very high, rather terrifying suspension bridges! They were much sturdier than those in Indiana Jones, but they conjured of the image of wood breaking beneath my feet to fall hundreds of feet below. They were awesome! But the best part of the whole day was seeing the ice field - it was massive! The ice seemed to go on forever, and it looked like meringue but was probably as hard and sharp as steel. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field is responsible for much of the weather in Patagonia and, as of the 1996 measurement, covered 100 square miles. I'm so glad we climbed up to that viewpoint to check it out!
That evening we made more friends at the refugio, including Elizabeth and Alex, a couple in their 40s who did a trip like we're doing when they had just gotten married. They, too, said it was one of the best thing they'd ever done and would do it all over again if given the chance. Now they make it a point to go on an international vacation every year. And funny enough, they know exactly who Eaton (Jake's old employer) is - Alex used to work for them too, and Elizabeth's dad owned a distributorship that stocked mostly Eaton products! We loved sharing stories with them, listening to their tales about their adventures in India, and talking about the future. I hope to stay in touch with them as we settle back into "real life".
DAY 5 - Back to Puerto Natales, Distance = 11km
On Day 5 we didn't have much time to dilly dally - we needed to hightail it back 11km to Paine Grande to catch the boat that would take us to the bus that would take us back to Puerto Natales! We enjoyed a quick final breakfast with Fleur and Jonathan and then made our way back down that gorgeous trail, staying just barely ahead of the rain clouds that were moving in over the glacier. We ate our sack lunch provided by Refugio Grey when we arrived at Paine Grande before boarding the boat. The 45 minute boat ride gave us a parting look at our trail, we rode the turquoise blue water that we had seen from Day 2 all the way back to the park entrance. The French Valley was slowly getting clouded in from the incoming storm. We finished our trek just in time!
We made it back to Puerto Natales, checked back into our funky hostel (complete with Maria's throat clearing noises), dropped off our laundry, turned in our rented sleeping bags, cleaned up, and then celebrated the end of our trek with a killer meal and dark beer at Baguales, the local brew pub. The nachos, quesadilla, burger, and pitcher of beer have never tasted so good! And, as we usually do at a great bar, we made friends with Jack sitting next to us. Jack is getting his MBA from Kellogg and is studying abroad in Buenos Aires. He decided to pop down to the W Trek over a long holiday weekend and finished it in four days rather than the usual five. He hoofed it! Great food, great beer, and another new friend - what a great way to end our W Trek experience!
It's a very rare occasion when I get to use this word when describing something, mostly because Jake and I feel it's grossly overused and unwarranted, but I can firmly declare: Our time in Patagonia was MAGICAL. Like I said at the beginning, this is truly the most beautiful place in the world. I am so glad that we made it a pillar of our trip to come down here, to explore this gorgeous region. I'm so happy that we were in the physical condition to take on these trekking challenges and really be able to see what makes this place so special. There's still so much more to see and we are very, very excited to come back to Patagonia in the future. If you're planning a trip down there, please don't hesitate to reach out! We'd be happy to help you plan it!