Puerto Natales, Chile; Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Latitude 51.72668°S Longitude 72.50319°W

Thursday, February 13, 2003

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After a sea journey of over 1000km from Puerto Montt, we have finally reached Puerto Natales in Chilean Patagonia! And at this southern latitude of 52°, we stepped off the ship to be greeted by weather decidedly more frigid than that in which we basked so recently in Ecuador, Peru and northern Chile.

Puerto Natales is one of the principle towns of Patagonia, and is the gateway to the spectacular Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. In the summer it is a region for hiking and climbing, whilst in winter it lies covered by snow and mostly inaccessible. The weather is fierce and completely unpredictable in this corner of the world, and scouring winds exceeding 100km/hr are not uncommon.

Our primary task in Puerto Natales was to arrange a trek in the Torres del Paine National Park. After consulting with some local travel agencies and mulling over the many options, we decided on a 5-day trek along a popular route known as the "W". We had not brought any of our camping gear from home with us and further chose to not hire any, instead deciding to sleep and eat our meals at the various refugios (refuges) located throughout the park. While this was more convenient for us in many ways, it was also a much more expensive way to hike the park compared to camping.

With all our arrangements in place, we had a day to explore Puerto Natales, and I assure you, that's more than we needed!

We eagerly set forth the next day to start the trek and got a bus to the park entrance 150km away. Right from the onset, we were treated to fantastic scenery - even from the entrance - where the distant Torres (towers) could be seen reflected in the mirror surface of Lake Amarga. Over the next 5 days we hiked a total of 60-70km through a park of everchanging scenery: soaring granite peaks, quiet green valleys, stark windswept ridges, lakes shaded pastel aquamarine and blue by glacial milk, glaciers hanging perilously overhead, ice fields stretching to infinity, sculpted royal blue icebergs moored in placid grey lakes. On many a remote and windy ridge where we stopped to take our lunch, we were often joined by majestic condors, soaring overhead so closely we could hear the wind rush over their huge wings. At other times we would gaze on distant snowfields perched high on impossibly steep granite walls - and often see huge sections tear loose and avalanche down in slow motion with a muted thunder. The park embodied natural beauty at every turn.

While all visitors to the park are warned to be aware of the unpredictability and severity of the weather, which can turn extremely ugly in just a few minutes, we were lucky to have mostly clear and sunny weather over our 5 days. Not so for some other unlucky trekkers who we met before and after Torres del Paine, many who had chosen to camp and got nothing but driving winds and rain and zero visibility for their duration in the park!

However, we were not totally free from bad luck either. On our second day into the trek Keiko twisted her ankle so badly she could hardly stand up, let alone hike with a backpack. We had to make a decision whether to abort the trek and leave the park, or try to push ahead. We could not bear to leave since this trek was such a highlight for us, so optimistically (foolishly?) we chose to push ahead. Our progress was painfully slow that day, and unfortunately it was the day with the greatest distance to hike between refugios. To make matters worse we lost the trail in the late afternoon and ended up on a high remote ridge before spotting the real trail hundred of meters below and realizing our error. To get back on the trail we had to bush bash for almost an hour at a snail's pace because of the rapidly deteriorating condition of Keiko's foot. Darkness was falling and things started looking a little dire for reaching the refugio before nightfall. After we reached the trail again to ease Keiko's ordeal I took her backpack (lucky we weren't carrying camping equipment or else this would have been impossible). We pushed forward and thankfully reached the refugio just after dusk. Keiko's ankle had swollen to the size of a grapefruit by this point and over dinner we soberly discussed the options for the next day. We were two full day's hiking into the park by now, and getting out would not be easy. Any kind of air rescue was going to be slow and obscenely expensive, but there was the possibility of arranging a horse. We decided to sleep on it and see what condition her foot was in the next day. The next day the swelling had subsided somewhat, and we decided to push ahead with me carrying her backpack again. We also decided to cut the hiking short that day, sadly leaving out the excursion up the picturesque Valle de Frances that was in our original route. We made better progress that day and reached our destination refugio that day in the early afternoon, and in the remaining days continued to finish off the trek as planned - albeit at a vastly reduced pace. However, Keiko's injury did prevent her from doing the glacier hike on the Grey Glacier, much to her bitter disappointment.

The itinerary for our trek through the park was as follows:

  • Day 1: Bus from Puerto Natales to park entrance at Lake Amarga; hike around Lake Amarga; hike to Refugio Chileno
  • Day 2: Refugio Chileno » Las Torres (for sunrise) » Refugio Chileno » Refugio Los Cuernos
  • Day 3: Refugio Los Cuernos » Campamento Italiano » Refugio Pehoe (omited hike up Valle de Frances)
  • Day 4: Refugio Pehoe » Refugio Grey; glacier hike on Grey Glacier
  • Day 5: Refugio Grey » Refugio Pehoe; ferry across Lake Pehoe to Pudeto; bus back to Puerto Natales

The refugios we lodged in were quite comfortable and often located in beautiful locations. Sleeping was dormitory style, with usually 8 bunk beds per room. The food, though pricey, was mostly excellent - although towards the end we did get a little tired of eating fresh salmon at every meal! However, this was more than compensated by the wonderfully diverse company we dined with every night; everchanging groups of hikers from every corner of the world. There were Germans, Swiss, Austrians, English, Aussies, Greeks, Dutch, Belgians, Argentinos, Chilenos, Americans and many more. Lively conversation was sparked at every meal and by the time the food was consumed with a carton or two of vino tinto we had collectively solved the world's problems (yet again).

One of the special highlights of our visit to Torres del Paine was the glacier hike on the Grey Glacier. This was a very well run excursion by a local adventure company where we donned crampons, ice axes and helmets and roped up to spend several hours exploring all the ice formations one finds in glaciers, and also trying some ice climbing. Due to Keiko's twisted ankle, she was not able to handle walking on steep ice in crampons so she was unable to participate. The trek was fascinating. We spent many hours on the ice and saw formations like huge circular drain holes into which waterfalls endlessly cascaded, great cracks and bottomless crevases and seracs, rivers in the ice, ice caves large enough to enter and explore, and an endless variety of ice sculptures. It was an amazing, living environment where features emerged and disappeared continuously on a weekly basis. The surface of the glacier consisted of ice that had fractured under the sun's heat and resembled crushed ice much like you get at the supermarket. The air that had penetrated the cracks in the ice gave the surface a brilliant white appearance. However, deeper ice beneath the surface was pure and clear, and seemed to emit a radioactive glow of the most intense blue! Every shade was present from pale blue to the deepest royal blue. The less dissolved air and cracks in the glacial ice and the greater the unimaginable pressures it had been formed under, the deeper the blue colour that resulted.

On our last day, it was hard to believe we had spent 5 days in the park. The time seemed to fly. As we left the park and started back towards the township of Puerto Natales, we had to admit that this was one of the best hikes that we'd ever done together.

Photos: (click on images to see full size)

First glimpse of Torres del Paine across Laguna AmargaGuanacos: cousins to the llamas, alpacas and vicuñasView from Refugio ChilenoTorres del Paine (the towers)Los Cuernos (the horns)Los Cuernos (the horns)
Los Cuernos (the horns)Grey GlacierTrekking on Grey GlacierStepping lightly by a deep crevasseEntrance to a sculpted ice cavernWater cascades into a deep glacier drain hole
A recently formed ice caveInside the ice caveOld "twin-axes" shows off his (desperate?) ice-climbing formHmmm... that belay line seems mighty tight!Made it to the top anyway!

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