Some of you might know that our last 2 years of full-time traveling & teaching started with the simple idea to backpack around South America for one month. While that idea never panned out, one location that I had begun researching really stuck in my head: Patagonia. The beautiful, wild landscapes that dominate the southernmost region of South America just kept calling my name. So when Tommy and I decided to settle in Chile for a couple months, I knew we needed to take a trip to Torres del Paine National Park – one of the most famous and awe-inspiring destinations in Patagonia! The remote location and “natural” paths of the park made it one of our more challenging mini-vacations, but it was 100% worth it.
Torres del Paine is known for 2 main trekking routes: the 4-6 day “W” trek and the 6-10 day “O” circuit. The best-priced flights and our *ahem* limited *ahem* (non-existent) rigorous multi-day hiking experience left us searching for other options. However, most sites recommending alternative plans (such as renting a car or participating in tours) were aimed at those with a higher budget. So instead, we cobbled together an itinerary involved day hikes, packed lunches, and public transportation. Despite the limited prior information we had on this type of trip, it ended up working out really well!
Day 1: Flight, Buses, & Orientation
From the moment our plane flew over Patagonia, we knew we would be amazed. That excitement only continued as our next two buses led us through idyllic plains and closer to the sweeping mountains of Torres del Paine. We arrived at the park shortly before sunset and received the pleasant surprise that our tent rental company was apparently out of equipment and had upgraded us to the refugio (similar to a hostel) for the next two nights. Woohoo! We walked around a bit to make sure we knew where to begin in the morning and were pleased to stumble upon a fox drinking from a stream.
Day 2: Base de las Torres (Towers’ Base)
The next day, we started our 8-hour hike bright and early. I was hyped because Base de las Torres is undoubtedly the most famous hike of the park, and is usually the grand finale for those completing the “W” circuit. For the first 4 hours, I marveled with glee over the rivers, mountains, and fall-tinged trees. Then… a group of hikers on their way back warned us that the final section leading to the grand viewpoint was currently roped off, possibly due to the somewhat foggy weather. Tommy and I continued onwards nervously, but were pleased to find that it had been reopened. My happiness resumed, despite the fact that the trail was suddenly just a few arrows pointing up a rocky incline that had basically turned into a miniature waterfall.
After some strenuous uphills, it was finally time for the iconic viewpoint – or so I thought. Disappointingly, the weather had cleared enough to allow us up the trail but not enough to see the famed “towers.” Instead, we got a cloudy view of a lake and icy rain to accompany our lunch. In retrospect, I can at least take comfort in the fact that we had not spent the previous 4 days hiking the “W” with this as our final goal, but at the moment I was pretty disheartened. I had been counting on the beautiful view to fill me with the satisfaction and excitement needed to turn around and hike back to the refugio, but instead I had cold wet pants and commiseration with Tommy to fuel the next 4 hours. 😅 I still consider the hike worth it thanks to all the wonderful scenery on the way up and down, but if I was doing it over again I may have allotted two days for this section so that I could skip it the one day if weather was bad and hope that the next day would be clearer.
Day 2: Salto Grando (Big Waterfall), Lago Grey (Grey Lake), & glacier kayaking
Our second day was supposed to be a bit easier, as a shuttle bus and boat ride covered many of the miles. However, it still ended with us absolutely exhausted (once again – well worth it!). The shuttle took us from our refugio to the Pudeto ferryboat stop. Along the way we spotted a puma, although I didn’t manage to get my camera out in time!
We had a little time to kill at the boat stop, so we took a quick walk over to Salto Grando and admired one of the more “minor” of Torres del Paines’ sites.
A short and beautiful ferry ride later, we began the “3.5 hour,” 11 kilometer hike to Lago Grey. What I have learned about Torres del Paine hiker-provided information is that I should automatically add an extra hour on to any time they quote, and that I should NOT take the phrase “one of the easier hikes” as a sign that it will actually be easy. 😂 Still, I was so completely in awe the entire time that even climbing up and down literal streams couldn’t get my spirits down. Towards the end Tommy and I did begin to get a bit worried that we wouldn’t make it to the kayaking launch point in time, but we arrived with about 5 minutes to spare!
Kayaking next to glaciers was one of the absolute highlights of Torres del Paine for both Tommy and I. I had read that it might not be worth visiting as there are larger glaciers in Patagonia that are more impressive, but as a first-time glacier viewer I was all 😍😍😍. Before turning around, our group took a break for some delicious tea and chocolate. Tommy was excited that he not only got to touch a floating ice chunk that had broken off of the glacier, but also got to dip his cup in the lake for some fresh glacier water! We returned to the campsite, ate another cold meal, and slept soundly (in a rented tent, as this site had not run out!).
Day 3: Lago Grey, Boat, and Bus
Our final day at Torres del Paine took us back on the same trail past Lago Grey to the ferry. In order to make it in time for the boat, we started hiking before sunrise and were rewarded with gorgeous lighting transformations that made the trail feel almost new!
Our ferry ride back was just as beautiful as the first time, and made me feel a bit sad to be leaving the park already despite my sore legs. Tommy, on the other hand, was ready to take it easy for a little bit. 😉
On our bus ride back, we saw many more guanacos (cousins of llamas) and rheas (similar to ostriches and emus) but were moving too fast to get a great shot, so here are some internet-sourced photos. That night we enjoyed a delicious hot pizza and celebrated a successful trip to Torres del Paine with some local beers! Our flight returned to Santiago the following day. Although I would love to come back to Patagonia someday and see even more of the region (and perhaps the nearby Antarctic!), we left satisfied that we had made the most of our time there.
It’s at this point that I’m realizing I never mentioned that this trip happened back in April, so if you’ve been confused about why I’m talking about southern Chile while it’s currently the dead of winter there, you may want to check out our trip summary here. This post was a day late because we have been busy sightseeing in Mexico, but the next post will still come out as scheduled on the 30th (when we will be back in the USA!). Keep an eye out! 👀