All the way down in the very southern-most part of South America lays Patagonia, a region shared by Chile and Argentina where the Andes Mountains are the dividing line.
On the Chilean side, the premiere national park is Torres del Paine, which is breathtakingly stunning and evokes a feeling of immensity – there are vast sheets of fractured blue ice, turquoise and emerald lakes, primeval-looking forest, vertical granite spires and seemingly limitless cloud-streaked skies. If you love hiking, the classic “W” circuit trek inside the park is a very rewarding experience. It takes about five days to complete on average (there also is an “O” circuit that takes about 10 days to hike). Our group did the “W” in January, which is summertime in South America and allows for plenty of daylight and ideal outdoor activity weather. (Albeit the weather conditions are notoriously difficult to predict there, sometimes all four seasons seem to come and go in the same day, along with the notorious wind gusts that can get up to 50 mph.) Keep reading and I’ll tell you about our most incredible Patagonia Trekking Adventure!
Day 1: From Puerto Natales, the base town for exploring Torres del Paine National Park, we drove for about 90 minutes to get inside the park. We drove alongside lagoons frequented by Chilean flamencos and black-necked swans. After some time in line paying the entrance fees at the ranger station area (the park has seen a significant increase in visitors the past few years), we began our first day of trekking up to the Mirador Las Torres – a viewpoint over the spectacular “three towers” granite peaks. It took about 8-9 hours round-trip hiking this day, we did about 11 miles, and managed a 4,000 ft. elevation gain. It was so serene, peaceful and quiet once we were at the top, almost like another world that existed up there, but only for those who brave the final mile or so accent, which is a pretty much straight up climb over rocks and boulders. (We did this with our backpacks on, but you can opt to leave your backpack at the ranger station or one of the forest lodges (they call them refugios) that you’re staying at. We stayed overnight at Refugio Norte with full board, it was a small annex to the main Refugio Torre Central, and we really enjoyed the quaintness of it.
Day 2: This was about a six-hour, 10-mile hiking day where the trail runs along the beautiful sea foam green Lake Nordenskjold. That lake really is a feast for the eyes. We saw majestic Andean condors gliding over it whimsically. The lake seemed to have a calming effect on us overall as we stopped to have lunch on an overlook perch and take our obligatory “from the back” photo that seems to have become a thing on my Active World Journey adventures. Towards the end of the day, we suddenly got a taste of the Patagonia winds while we were hiking, which in our estimate were about 40-50 MPH. It was exhilarating to forge ahead during this, however, we had to be extra careful to not fall. This evening we slept in comfortable tents and sleeping bags which were provided by Camp Frances, with our full board.
Day 3: We started our day hiking through an undulating path until reaching the French River for our first glimpses of the awe-inspiring hanging glacier and then pressed on further to the French Valley viewpoint. It was here that we heard and saw an avalanche happen in real time from afar. Witnessing the powerful forces of nature can be very humbling. We finished our day by arriving to the Lake Pehoe area for our overnight stay at refugio Paine Grande, with full board. This was about an eight-hour hiking day and we covered around 11 miles and 4,000 ft. elevation gain.
Day 4: The hike on this day led us to Grey Glacier and the South Patagonia Ice Field. Seeing the beautiful powder blue glacier is simply spellbinding. Since this day was a shorter hiking day (four hours, seven miles) for us we had time to go take a kayaking excursion to right in front of the glacier. This was a fun activity, and a good upper body workout. It required teamwork with two people per kayak, and I was a little rocky at first – getting the jist of steering with feet pedals and paddling with the oars at the same time. But eventually I got the hang of it with the help of our well qualified instructors that were always close by in their kayaks monitoring us and keeping us safe.
Day 5: After a short hiking day back to Paine Grande we celebrated the end of our Patagonia Trekking Adventure with some calafate sour drinks. The calafate is a berry indigenous to the Patagonia region. The berry is deep blue, almost purple and dangles from small bushes huddled under trees and other shrubs. We then took an enjoying catamaran boat ride back across Lake Pehoe to catch our ground transportation back to Puerto Natales.
As we sailed away from Torres del Paine National Park on the marine blue waters of Lake Pehoe and watched as the granite, jagged, snow-capped mountains of the park become small and fade from sight against the murmur of the boat’s engine, I remember thinking that we had such a big and bold experience inside there. I was so proud of our group, we hiked the “W” circuit, which is considered a moderately strenuous trail. Overall, we were blessed with relatively good weather and good people along the way on our journey.
Since there was no internet connection inside Torres del Paine National Park and very limited Wi-Fi inside the refugios/campsites that we stayed in, we were essentially off-the-grid for five days. But I gotta say it really hit the spot. We enjoyed everything so much more without having that anxious feeling to post pics and videos on our social media constantly. It was much more relaxing and decompressing being disconnected from technology and more connected with nature and ourselves.
Trekking in Patagonia changes you. It’s perhaps the most beautiful region on our planet, but you must work through the harshness of the weather to experience it to the fullest. One of my favorite things about trekking there is the interaction and fellowship with other travelers at the campsites and refugios. There was such a worldwide cross section of people, all there for the love and appreciation of the great outdoors. It’s an outstanding experience.
If your small group or organization is interested in trekking the “W” route in Torres del Paine National Park, just let me know. I’m ready to do it again!
Jack Witt, MS, CPT
Fitness and Health Coach
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