The alarm went off at 6 AM. Way too early but necessary if we were to catch the 7.30 bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park. With our backpacks loaded and the bicycles and remaining gear safely stowed in Hostel Josmar’s storage room we were ready to go. Five of us piled into the hostel’s van and were taken to the bus station. It was a bit of pandemonium there as a couple of hundred additional like-minded people were also waiting for their bus to Torres del Paine.
The bus ride was about two and a half hours to Laguna Marga, the staging area for entry into the park. This is where we paid our entry fee of CH$18,000 ($36) and were given a brief introduction to the park and its rules. After that, we got back on our bus while others took a shuttle bus to their starting point.
There are basically three ways to get into the park: take the shuttle from Laguna Marga to Hotel Torres where you can begin hiking; take the bus to Pudeto where a catamaran can take you to Refugio y Campamento Paine Grande; or take the bus to the administration building from where you can hike into Paine Grande. Jan and I took the latter option, which turned out to be the least popular one – only five other hikers were with us on this trail.
We arrived at the administration building at noon and had lunch on the lawn in front of the building before setting off down the trail. It was a lovely day: sunny and warm with moderate wind. The start of the hike was through pampas and slowly the view of the mountains in the park opened up as we hiked along the Rio Grey.
After three hours of hiking with more and more impressive views of Cerro Paine Grande and the cluster of peaks along the Valle del Francés, in the centre of the park, we arrived along the shore of Lago Pehoé. We walked through clusters of burned forest alternating with meadows. The burned forest was the result of a large fire accidentally set by a hiker in December, 2011 and January, 2012, which burned about 176 square kilometres of forest. Six years earlier, in February, 2005, another tourist set a fire that destroyed about 150 square kilometres.
The stark elements of the burned trees against the grandeur of the peaks in the background and the turquoise Lago Pehoé in between was lovely material for picture taking. Another two hours later we descended the hill above Refugio Paine Grande where the illusion of wilderness was completely shattered by the 150 or more tents in the meadow behind the hotel. From above, it looked like some one had scattered a bag of M&Ms.
We registered, paid and set about finding a place to drop our own red M&M between all the others. As luck would have it, some guys were just packing up from a pretty good flat site, big enough for our largish new Hilleberg Keron 3.
The next challenge was to get into the cooking shelter as cooking by your tent is strictly prohibited, a rule implemented after the recent fires caused by tourists. The only problem is that the shelter can hold about 40 people and there were about 300-350 people camped there, most of them waiting to cook their meals.
There were also line-ups for the eight bathrooms and four showers combined in both the men’s and ladies’ washrooms. Not exactly what we are used to when hiking in our national parks. However, we got in line and managed to find a small spot to cook our meal and even found a spot at a table so we could eat it sitting down. We would repeat this exercise the next morning for breakfast.
After dinner, it was early to bed as we were tired from the long day and the long hike with moderately heavy packs, something our bodies aren’t really used to. The cycling muscles are not the hiking muscles, I’m afraid. All in all, not a bad first day despite the gong show at Paine Grande.
The weather in the morning was mostly grey and the wind had picked up quite a bit. We broke camp after breakfast and headed north to Refugio y Campament Grey, a hike of about three hours. Along the way, the wind steadily increased, it rained intermittently, and in general the conditions deteriorated for a while before improving slightly as we got nearer the camp site.
The views of Glaciar Grey were short and punctuated by cold blasts of wind from the north. By the time we arrived at the camp site, the wind was really blasting but at least the sun was shining for a while. Unfortunately, the sunshine did not last long and the weather completely closed in, causing us to forego a hike further up towards the glacier.
We spent most of the afternoon holed up in the tent hoping for improvement in the weather that never materialized. Eventually, we got in line to use the cooking shelter, an even smaller room than at Paine Grande, designed to hold about 20-25 people. It was jammed but we eventually managed to squeeze in at the end of one of the tables. We wondered if we were slowly being poisoned by carbon-monoxide from the 10-15 stoves that were all burning at the same time in a closed room with only a few small windows open. But at least it was warm.
After dinner we went to the lodge to have a drink in more civilized surroundings. We discussed the idea of continuing north over the pass to hike the complete circuit and decided to see what the weather would do. It was probably snowing in the pass at 1,200 metres, so the prospect was not that attractive.
The weather the next morning was not good enough to motivate us to go north over the pass. This, coupled with a comment from other hikers that the campsite at the base of the pass was closed, convinced us to continue on the shorter circuit along the trails. So, we turned back south to Paine Grande where we had lunch before continuing on to Campamento Italiano at the head of Valle del Francés.
Italiano is a free campsite, unlike the first two where we had to pay CH$9,600 ($19) and CH$8,000 ($16), respectively. The crux was that you were only allowed to stay one night. We met an American couple at Italiano, Chris and Tif. We chatted while making dinner, sharing some of our experiences on the road. You can find their blog at www.vagabondway.net
In the morning, the four of us hiked up Valle del Francés to a view point below the peaks in the centre of the park: Cuernos del Paine, Cerro Máscara, Cerro Hoja and Cerro Espada, while on the other side of the valley Glaciar del Francés slowly drops chunks off Cerro Paine Grande (3,050 metres).
After arriving back at Italiano, we had lunch, packed camp and hiked down to Campamento Los Cuernos, about one and a half hours down the trail. The weather was gorgeous although very windy in places. Again, the crowded conditions persisted in this camp site, just like all the others. The odd thing was, though, that we did not meet all that many hikers along the trail.
We found a spot barely big enough for our tent on top of a little knoll with a lovely view of Lago Nordernskjöld where the wind was whipping the lake into a sea of white caps and blowing water vapour into the air, creating rainbows. The wind was relentless that night and neither one of us slept much, fearing that we might become airborne in our shiny new tent at any moment. But the pegs held and we did manage small naps now and again. Every time a wind gust would hit the tent it was as if we were lying inside a giant drum that was being beaten mercilessly by some larger entity.
In the morning, the cooking shelter, even smaller than the previous ones, was mysteriously empty so we gratefully occupied a table to make our breakfast. It filled up quickly, though, and before long, people were waiting to get inside to make their meals.
Instead of hiking to Campemento Chileno, and the prospect of even more crowded conditions, as told to us by other hikers, we chose to go all the way down to Campamento Las Torres, at the end of the circuit near Hotel Las Torres. From there we made a morning hike into Base de las Torres and the park’s signature peak: Torres del Paine.
Without a heavy pack, it was a fairly easy hike up that took us three hours. We did not linger too long at the base of the towers as the wind was ferocious, picking up water from the lake and sand and rocks from the ground. After about 10 minutes of getting sandblasted and rinsed, we turned on our heels and hoofed it back down to camp. Along the way, we nearly got blown off the trail just past the Chileno camp site. We met a lot of hikers coming up who had no idea what lay ahead for them. Hopefully they all made it without incident.
Back at las Torres, we packed up and waited for the shuttle bus to take us back to Laguna Amarga where we would board the bus back to Puerto Natales.
We had a lovely six days in Torres del Paine but we’re afraid for the park’s future. We enjoyed the breathtaking scenery of the Torres (Towers) and the other mountains with hanging glaciers, and witnessing ice falling into turquoise blue lagoons and lakes. It was wonderful to finally see and experience Patagonia’s signature park after having it on our bucket list for so long.
However, we were disappointed by the crowds. It took away from the majestic beauty of the landscape. There is no crowd control which is desperately needed. Most of the campsites, refugios and lodges in the park are run privately, so therefore are interested in making a profit. There does not seem to be any attempt at limiting numbers as the park staff seem happy to take money from people and just pile on more buses to facilitate more visitors to the park.
It’s obvious that the facilities are completely incapable of handling the numbers of people and the trails are under tremendous pressure from the erosion of the multitude of feet, including ours. We hope that a smart manager at some point decides that a reservation system would be the proper thing to implement, cutting the numbers to half or even one-third of current ones, coupled with a doubling or tripling of the entree fee.
This would go a long way to ensure the survival of the park and also make it more manageable for park staff. We fear that the current situation seems completely unsustainable and lacks the conservation needed to preserve this special piece of Patagonia.