Once we set foot in South America and started to meet other travellers there was one question asked over and over, “Are you doing Torres del Paine?”. For sure a multi day, self sufficient trek in Torres del Paine voted the 8th Wonder of the World was on our list. But every time we heard it we were still months away from being in Patagonia, so we hadn’t thought much about it. While watching Brazil vs Columbia in Rio’s brand new, and not often used, Olympic stadium a Dutch guy informed us this was a MUST, “but make sure you book it in advance”.
We don’t plan or book many things in advance. We have ideas and things we want to do but for the most part we go with the flow, which allows us to experience and do things we may otherwise not have done. One of the few things we planned on this trip was to be in southern Patagonia by the end of summer. This was in part because we wanted to avoid the Patagonian winter (starting in April), while avoiding the bulk of tourists during the high summer season (January & February). We didn’t plan ahead, we didn’t book in advance and we organised our whole 7-day trek on a Friday night in Punta Arenas before starting the trek the following Monday.
This was a lucky and difficult process. While not as bad as booking The Inca Trail in Peru, almost everyone advises on booking campsites for the trek long in advance (at least a month, more during summer).
Not only is the trek now hugely popular with backpackers and holiday makers fresh from their flights but the booking system is a mess. After a disastrous year in 2016 which included over bookings in all campsites which helped contribute to a salmonella outbreak, a new booking system was introduced in 2017 to avoid a repeat. The new limitations, campsites run by three different organisations in different parts of the park with a mix of free and paid camping and expensive Refugio’s. Booking Torres del Paine can now quickly become an absolute mind-boggling nightmare!
After several hours we finally did it. Sitting in a party hostel with Americans stumbling around after unsuccessful attempts at beer pong, we formed a route incorporating most of the “O” circuit tail with the help of Koen, another Dutch met at the hostel. After many hours and many route revisions we decided to spend multiple nights in Central campsite and use this as our base to visit the Torres, which the park is named after, and the Frances Valley. We would then hike to the campsites; Seron, Dixon, Los Perros and finish with an ambitious 14 hour trek to Paine Grande. Why 14 hours? Because we could not book the campsites Paso or Grey that would break up the last leg of the trip. Everything was booked out…
We have said it before in previous posts but the best made plans rarely work. This is especially true in Patagonia, it is just unpredictable, especially when camping right beside glacier fields which create their own weather systems. This is the tale of our 7-day hike of the back side “O” trek.
Day 1. Puerto Natales – Base Torres : 07/03
Our first day started early. At 6am we left Puerto Natales with our backpacks containing perfectly measured amounts of food, camping equipment we had rented the previous day and clothes for all seasons. We hopped on the shuttle bus from town into the national park, watching half asleep as the mountains crept closer.
After a long queue to fill out the administration and pay the fee of 21,000CLP (€30), we were in. We jumped into a smaller shuttle to Central camp site. We quickly set up camp and continued with our plan to hike up to the Torres : a 3-hour hike each way meaning we could easily be back in time for dinner before sunset
Lets cut to the chase, the hike was good but we didn’t see a thing! There was meant to be a lake and a series of rock towers, which form a “W”. We hiked up and up and up and each step brought us higher into the clouds, which had completely engulfed the whole mountain range. By the time we reached the summit visibility was 10m and we were soaked from mist and sweat. So back down we went. It’s a shame we didn’t see anything but it happens.
Day 2. Central Campsite : 08/03
It started raining during the night. Not just a simple rain, really raining. If there’s one thing we don’t enjoy it’s hiking in a downpour. We had two nights booked in Central and weren’t meant to leave for Seron until Day 3. We decided that hiking just for the sake of hiking was not a good way to spend the day and Jenny had a plan.
While we were in Torres del Paine we would try to organise volunteering in the park. We had been in touch with AMA and hadn’t confirmed anything, so why not spend the rainy day sorting this out? It was a great plan and it worked… we planned 2 weeks of volunteering for once we finished our trek. We found the staff, filled out all the paperwork and confirmed a starting date, while outside it never stopped raining…
Day 3. Central – Serron : 09/03
After a night of constant rain and the need to move our tent in the dark as the water outside was rising, we awoke to clear skies and soggy grass. The rain was gone and it was time to hike to campsite Seron. Before leaving we checked the direction with the Guardaparque (Park Rangers). What they answered was actually bad news. Due to the rain the rangers had decided to close the trails up ahead as some of the rivers had become impassible. But good news, the only trail which was open was the trail to our next campsite.
We had no guarantees that the trails after would open or if the rain would continue to hold off but we were not going to abandon the rest of the trek (like many others had). So we left, and for the most part it was fine. We crossed barefoot through an overflowing river and hiked through almost knee high mud. We made the 9 km it in good time to an almost empty camp. The rain meant many decided not to go any further and we shared the campsite with only a couple of other “daredevils”. After a quick game of football it was time for food, tea and bed.
Day 4. Seron – Dixon : 10/03
An important camp lesson. We learnt the reason to hang our food from the trees. Our German neighbours, Max and Marcus, had visits throughout the night from mice that absolutely loved their mixed nuts. Always hang your food !
After the mice story and a coffee, the rangers informed us the trek ahead was still closed but that, Dixon, our next campsite was now open. We decided once again to go ahead as we could still make it back the next day if needed.
The trail started with a short trek though more mud before hiking up a very steep ravine. After this we were rewarded with a relatively easy hike on the edge of the mountain over looking Lago Paine. We then reached swampland and crossed over by the boardwalks created by the park rangers. We tried to do this part quickly; otherwise we were going to be covered in huge, hungry mosquitoes.
As we arrived at our campsite, Jenny started to feel pain in her knees. We took a break at a little hill overlooking Dixon which is billed as one of the most beautiful campsites in the world. Situated on a peninsula at the base of the Dixon Glacier and surrounded by the high altitude peaks of the Torres range. It’s a beautiful place! Unfortunately the pictures can’t do it justice. We settled in for the night and had tea with Koen and our new German friends while watching the orange sun set on the tips of the mountains.
Day 5. Dixon – Los Perros : 11/03
Good news, the trail ahead was open. We now had the chance to continue to the mountain pass in two days time.
This was a short day, only 4 hours of trail, so we took it a little easier in the morning. Jenny spent time photographing the mountains surrounding the camp and Steven relaxed with his coffee, brought from Buenos Aires. We left camp around 11am and spent most of the 4 hour trek in a not so exciting forest trail. The relative lack of excitement on the trail only led to increase the amazement of the views that followed the forest. Exiting the trail there is a hike up to a ridge which gives an amazing view of the Los Perros glacier.
A short rest here to enjoy the view and it was on to the campsite. Rustic is a nice way to describe it. Much smaller than the other sites, we were glad we only had a few neighbours. Once again we had dinner with the few who dared to venture into the unknown. This simple ritual of filling our bodies with hot food and tea, while having a laugh with new friends was fast becoming one of the highlights of the trek.
Upon arrival at camp, the rangers informed us the trail was now fully open to cross the pass. The rivers which flood and became impassable had decreased enough and we were now able to pursue with the rest of our trek. We got quite lucky on that one! However, the forecast wasn’t looking good for the afternoon and the rangers therefore asked us to start the trail through the mountain pass, no later than 6 am. Which meant starting to hike in total darkness.
We found it funny that when you arrive at the park the rangers advise not hiking at night or early morning as it increases the risk of injury, getting lost or being attacked by a Puma….but here we are being advised to leave while it is still dark.
Day 6. Los Perros – Grey : 12/03
A quick breakfast of porridge and coffee at 5 am was enough to warm us up and we were off to hike the pass. We left in a 3 person convoy, equipped with head torches as our only source of light and hiking poles to keep our balance as we hiked up through the soggy forest. We occasionally saw mice scurry away and noticed flashes of head torches from the people who left earlier than us, but they did nothing to help us judge how far they were or what the route looked like ahead.
Hiking in scree uphill as the sun rose, surrounded by snow capped peaks and glaciers is an experience in itself. As the caffeine kicked in, while listening to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack, Steven challenged Jenny to dual with walking sticks, something that amused our Canadian buddy, Susan.
The early rise was worth it. Once we reached the mountain pass, the opening gave views of a vast frozen ocean. What looks like the entirety of the Patagonian ice cap stretches out in every direction and is one of those genuine wow moments. Again photos do not do it justice. It was one of those experiences that we will never forget and the whole trek was worth it just for this view.
Now the bad part. What goes up must come down. A 6 hour hike down on loose rock was enough to really test our trekking poles and screw our knees, Jenny’s more so.
Today was meant to be our ambitious 14 hour trek. 14 hours, starting with an uphill trek in total darkness, followed by 6 hours downhill on loose rock with the remaining hours being filled with wind battering us to the point that repeatedly almost fell over. Throw in a near death experience for Jenny as the wind picked up while she crossed a 120 m high cable bridge, swaying it from side to side. Enough to make anyone scream. We took our chances and instead of passing through campsite Grey we decided to stay there for the night. There were no issues and we were asleep by 8pm.
Day 7. Grey – Paine Grande 13/03
We left early from Grey to try and catch a ferry from Paine Grande which we were told left at 11.30 am or 5.30 pm. We left slightly later than planned and completed the 4 hour trek in 3 hours to reach Paine Grande by 11.30 am. What, no boat? Yep, it left at 11.00 am. Note to self : don’t trust other people. We rushed for nothing with highly painful knees and we were left in Paine Grande to wait for the next ferry in 6 hours.
One of the downsides of planning your food precisely is that if you are delayed it leaves you with literally nothing. We found this out in Paine Grande and for 6 hours faced the prospect of no food. Luckily for us, Koen our Dutch friend came by later and saved us by offering some crackers. Around 5 we boarded the ferry back to the park entrance which costs a small fortune, but the landscape seen from this boat was worth every cent.
That’s it ! 7-days trekking in Torres del Paine, Steven’s first multi day trek. We loved every minute of it and would recommend that everyone should try it.
We left for a couple of days rest in the town of Puerto Natales before returning to volunteer in the park with AMA. For those 2 days, Jenny couldn’t walk or take stairs. Just for the sake of picturing the irony of the situation, imagine Jenny walking down stairs backwards in the street or a Steven needing to carry her on his back !
Costs and useful information
Bus Punta Arenas – Puerto Natales : 7000 CLP (€10)
Bus to Torres del Paine National Park (from Puerto Natales – Return) : 13000 (€18)
Shuttle Administration center to Central : 2000 CLP (€2.80)
Boat from Paine Grande to Pudeto : 18000 CLP (€25)
Entrance national park : 21000 CLP (€30) – website
Hospedaje Puerto natales : 9000 CLP (€12.6 pp/pn)
Campsite Central (Fantastico Sur) : 8500 CLP (€12 pp/pn)
Campsite Seron (Fantastico Sur) : 8500 CLP (€12 pp/pn))
Campsite Dixon (Vertice) : 10000 CLP (€14 pp/pn)
Campsite Los Perros (Vertice) : 10000 CLP (€14 pp/pn)
Campsite Grey (Vertice) : 5000 CLP (€7 pp/pn)
Rental : Tent + 2 sleeping bags + 2 mat + Stove + cooking set (rental natales)
For 7 days = 133000 for 2 – 66500 CLP (€93 pp) // The guy there is alone, very good quality and very professional even if a bit more expensive than the “Erratic Rock”
Food for the week : (breakfast, lunch, dinner, 2 snacks, etc.)
49000 for 2 – 24500 CLP (€34 pp)
=> Total per person, for 7 days / 6 nights : 195500 CLP (€274 pp – €39 per day)