Patagonia has harsh, unpredictable weather, but it only seems to add to its spectacular rugged landscapes. Before climbing Aconcagua, we went on a hiking trip to Patagonia in both Argentina and Chile. Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile is one of the most popular trekking destinations in this region, and after you see these views, you will understand why.
O Circuit Route
The most popular trekking route in the park is the W Route. The less popular, more rugged way to explore the park is to do the whole loop that encircles the centre massif. Of course we decided to do the loop. The O Circuit goes through a wild and remote backcountry before joining the popular W Route to complete the circuit.
It’s a 2 1/2 hour drive from Puerto Natales so its easy to begin hiking on the same day. As we neared the entrance of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the amazing mountainscapes started to appear. Tall snow-capped peaks stood high across the grassy hills. A flock of Lesser Rheas, a Patagonian emu, ran beside the road. When we got off the bus at Guarderia Laguna Amarga we saw guanacos near the river. This was going to be a great hike.
The trail circumnavigates Macizo Paine (Paine Massif) in a counterclockwise direction. It begins from the park gates and follows the Rio Paine (Blue River). We climbed up and over hills covered in unusual brush, trees and flowers. The clouds hung low so we couldn’t see much in any direction and it rained for the first two days.
The Route is an undulating trail for much of it’s length. We would hike up 200 m, down 200 m, up 300 m down 100 m. After several hours of trekking this tiresome route over two days we finally had a great view. Lago Dickson is a large, quiet lake, only disturbed by the ice calving off its glacier. You can see icebergs floating on the lake in the pictures below.
The next day was the most difficult and least pleasant. We began the day by following the wild Rio de los Perros (River of the Dogs). The legend says that the river received its name after a shepherd’s dogs drown in the fast-moving river. As we crossed the rushing river on a rickety suspension bridge, we hoped not to prove the legend correct.
Shortly after the bridge, the trail went through a large peat bog. There was no where to put your foot without sinking into the spongy, muddy ground. We attempted several ways to avoid it but each attempt landed us in a worse situation.
Finally we were on the other side of the bog, but our feet were soaked. We began to ascend through a sparse lenga forest. The skies were better today and we could see the tall peaks all around and glacier lakes below. It’s a long slow grind up rocky slopes and moraine ridge to reach Paso John Garner (1180 m). The barren pass is notorious for having very strong winds and today was no different. Even after all of our effort getting to it, the winds meant we didn’t stay long. From the pass we had a quick look at the impressive Glacier Grey (Ventisquero Grey) before descending through the trees.
The hike went down between tightly spaced lenga trees which were twisted from the constant strong winds. This was one of the most treacherous parts of the hike. Since it had been raining, the trail was very muddy. To make it worse, the trail went from being steep, to going almost straight downhill. We had to grab onto tree limbs with both hands to prevent us from sliding all the way down.
Glacier Grey is a massive ice field. We thought we were able to see most of it from the pass. As we hiked down, we realized we had only seen a fraction of the ice sheet. A large rocky island was blocking our view of the other side. From above, we could see huge sections of the glacier calving into the lake. It’s very windy in this area and these icebergs were being blown across the lake before landing on the opposite shore. Arriving at the Glacier Grey lookout we had joined the W Route. Things were sure to get easier.
Finally at the bottom of the hill we had incredible views of Cuernos del Paine behind Lago Pehoe. Its majestic granite spires and distinctive black shale horns (cuernos) are breathtaking. This is one of the views we had been expectantly waiting for.
The next highly anticipated stop was Mirador Cuernos del Paine. The trail first travels through low bush, allowing us to have a close up view of Cuernos del Paine. Then it’s a steep hike up moraine and boulder fields for a view of the mountain’s shear granite walls beneath the unmistakable black horns. On the other side of the narrow valley are the tall imposing granite spires of Cerro Paine Grande. Looking back down the Frances River Valley the beautiful blue water of Lago Nordenskjold completed the scene.
The Curenos still towered above us as we continued on the W Route, skirting the side of Lago Nordenskjold. The wind was very intense. It was so fierce that it blew water across the lake and onto us. It was like horizontal rain!
The hike was long today with much climbing up and down as the trail crossed many side gorges. Finally, we could see in the distance the most famous peaks in the park. The tall, imposing spires of Torres del Paine stood proudly above the grassy fields. It was a prelude to our views the next day.
Trek details – The O Circuit Route takes 6 to 10 days and covers approximately 135 km. There is a lot of elevation gain and loss everyday on the constantly undulating trail. The trails are well marked and easy to follow.
Torres del Paine Lookout
The next day we woke to a cloudy sky. It was disheartening since it was our only day to go to the Torres del Paine lookout. We hoped the skies would clear. The trail begins easy, passing green hills covered in Patagonia heather. As we got higher, it began to get more steep as we scaled the moraine until finally arriving the at boulder field in front of Torres del Paine. Shear walls of granite form a tight pack as if protecting a small glacier lake. Even on a cloudy, windy day, the towers are very impressive.
Trek details – Torres del Paine Lookout Trek is a part of the W Route, but can also be done as a day hike. It will take approximately 5 – 6 hours return from Las Torres Campground, or 9 – 10 hour return from the park gates at Guarderia Laguna Amarga, The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
Lago Nordenskjold Cuernos lookout
For our final day in Torres del Paine we went for one last look at our favourite Cuernos del Paine. A bus took us to Guardaria Lago Pehoe. From there it was a short hike over grassy hills with grazing guanacos to the side of Lago Nordenskjold. The spot had best views of the incredible Cuernos del Paine towering over the blue waters of the lake. It was the view we had been looking forward to for the entire trip.
Just off the trekking trail and surprisingly close to the road we found a marvelous waterfall, Salto Grande. What a great way to finish our time in Torres del Paine.
Seno Otway (Otway Sound)
From Puerto Natales we visited the Magellanic penguins at Seno Otway Reservation. It is an amazing place. Over 60,000 penguins waddle around the sand dunes back and forth between their nests and the sea. It was a fun filled afternoon of penguin watching.
Getting to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
By bus – Buses leave frequently from Puerto Natales for the different park entrances (2 ½ hours).
Park fees are 25,000 CLP for adults with an addition fee of 35,000 CLP to stay more than 3 days. Tickets need to be paid in cash at the park gates, or by credit card at the bus station in Puerto Natales.
There are no ATMs in the park so bring enough cash for your entire stay.
Where to stay
Whether you’re doing the O or W Routes there are many campgrounds and refugios on the treks allowing you to chose how many days you want to spend. We brought our own meals, but even if you camp you can purchase meals at the refugios. Even though they are very rustic, refugio prices are quite high. Some campgrounds rent tents so you don’t have to carry one if you don’t want.
Note: As of October, 2016, you have to make reservations for all campsites and refugios that you intend to use. Therefore decide on your route and exact dates before you book. You need to carry a copy of your reservation with you on the trek.
When to trek
The summer trekking season runs from December until early March. It’s possible to trek in the spring and fall but it will be colder. We were there in December and the skies were usually covered in cloud. The O Route is closed between May 1 – Oct 31st.
For extra pictures from Chile click here. For pictures from other blogs go to Gallery at monkeystale.ca
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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