This is part two of a three-part South American Adventure series.
PART TWO: CHILE
Patagonia is a wild dog, untamed and temperamental in nature and yet beautifully groomed and peaceful from a distance.
Whistling wind and winter weather help categorize Patagonia’s “W” trek through the Andes as the rugged and wild adventure it is. But the name of the route actually derives from the shape of the trek, rather than the many w-word conditions; wet, winding, wicked, and the list could go on…
The Torres del Paine National Park owns this beastly chunk of land, where thousands of campers, ice climbers and hikers come annually to pay respect to the glacier-fed lakes and granite peaks. The “W” trek is just one route of many but a popular choice for those who wish to see a bit of everything that the park offers in a week’s time.
Above: The black trail shows the “W” route of Torres del Paine’s most famous trek. View Larger Map
So what does it take to navigate this ferocious “W” trail, carved out by rivers and pinned between ridges with awe-striking names such as “Towers of Pain?”
Some high-class travelers will claim that the only necessity on a trip to Torres del Paine is rain gear, including waterproof shoes and pants. Everything else can be purchased throughout the journey, including hot meals and rooms in cozy “refugios,” or refuges. However, if one wishes to explore the untamed elements of this place at its full capacity, these luxuries can be traded for camping-style food and a cold weather sleeping bag, loaded into a backpack and strapped snugly around the waist.
Above: Luxurious “refugios” provide a comfy, expensive stay while trekking through Torres del Paine. Many budget travelers choose a tent.
The backpackers’ route starts at the eastern point of the “W,” near the entrance to Torres del Paine National Park. If hauling a personal tent, one may wish to plan the trek carefully, making sure to arrive in the free camp sites before dark. Another option is to leave the heavy tent behind and use the pre-erected tents outside of the refugios for about $12 US per night. These can not be reserved ahead of time.
Along the “W” route, hikers will first climb, most likely among snowflakes, to Refugio El Chileno and continue on to a look-out point if weather permits. From this area, it is possible to see the famous granite towers after which the park was named and the reflective lake below.
Above: Torres del Paine granite rocks, translated as the Towers of Pain. Photo by Ryan Thomas, a fellow traveler.
For the next three or four days, the weather is sure to shift drastically and the scenery can be affected tremendously due to snow or fog. If the day is bright and the sun is glistening on the icy peaks, many choose to go a few extra miles because with only 20 days of tranquility in the year, it is more common for Patagonia to snarl and show its teeth than to be still.
Above: The rocky coastline of Lake Nordenskjold makes for a good photo opportunity when the weather is decent.
Not to be missed along the route is the glacier north of Lake Grey, with its fluorescent blue chunks swirling in its runoff waters. Leave backpacks at Refugio Pehoe’s warming hut and then hike the three hours to the glacial lookout. Because the wind whips with such vigor near the glacier, a backpack is just another item for the fierce Patagonia to huff and puff and blow down, which can be disastrous if a hiker is attached to the other side.
Above: The glacier’s blue ice chunks float in Lake Grey.
After four or five days of trekking, travelers will be ready to retrace their steps on the “W” path and head back to the starting line, or most likely will jump in line for the easier exit strategy, a climate-controlled ferry, complete with complimentary coffee and tea. The boat leaves from Refugio Pehoe and drops tired passengers off at the bus headed out of the park back toward Puerto Natales.
Above: The ferry from Pehoe leaves twice a day to take hikers to their exiting buses.
Although this trek is quite the feat, the scenery is unsurpassed. Surviving the beastly Patagonian blows is worth it, tenfold.