Everyone goes to Puerto Natales for one purpose: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. One of the most famous treks in the world, hikers from literally every part of the globe come to Puerto Natales to hike into Torres' famous valleys and glaciers and around the backside. Some come to hike the full 9-13 day circuit into Torres del Paine's famou valleys and glaciers, but most hike the 4 day 'W' trail, so called because one literally carves a W-shaped path up mountain sides and into the valleys.
We stayed at the Erratic Rock Hostel, whose name my geologist expert father can explain more aptly than me, but it has something to do with glaciers randomly depositing rocks somewhere. They're known for they're great breakfast, and for having a great informational meeting about how to trek in one of the most unpredictable climates I've ever experienced. Although the breakfast was rather disappointing, the meeting was really useful. It's been a while since I've done any of this kind of backpacking, and good info always helps.
After repacking our packs for four days and three nights of camping and hiking, Ravi and I got a good nights sleep. My pack was heavier than I've ever carried in my life, but my one consolation was that we'd be eating our way to lighter packs as the trip wore on!
Day 1: ("I'll have my hike with extra wind, please.")
The bus picked us up at our hostel door early in the morning and dropped us off at the dock on Lago Pehoe. From there we took a ferry ride across the lake to our first stop on our W: Paine Grande Lodge (At the bottom left point of the W).
We left our packs at the lodge and hiked up the left straight line of the W until we saw the head of Grey Glacier. This was the first of several stunning views, but the wind was turning me into a human kite and knocking me off the trail! We only saw the beginning of the ice sheet, but Grey Glacier is actually large enough to moderate our planet's weather. We got a taste of this as we watched warm air sweep over the glacier, cool down, rush down the hill, and peg us with stinging drops propelled by wind I've never experienced. Indeed, after Torres del Paine, I think I'll need to stand in a hurricane to be impressed with wind gusts, and I live in Chicago!
But weather changes quickly here. Soon enough, the sun came out again. We recovered our bags from the bottom of the hill and hiked a little ways up the middle part of the W to the free campsite Campo Italiano. Of course, the rain came back once we arrived, but we made camp quickly, cooked dinner, and stayed dry in the tent. Our first day of adventure was a success!
Sight of the Day: Grey Glacier
Day 2: (Up the Middle of the W, or How to Stay at the Refugios for Free)
The park is named for the torres (towers) of granite that dominate the scenery, but the most beautiful part of the trail was the Valle Frances. The summer flowers, the snowy mountains, the flowing streams and waterfalls around every turn, and the sheer cliffs all made this day's trek literally the most beautiful hike I've ever made. Again, we left out stuff at the bottom of the hill and set up the mountain. And again, the weather was anything from windy, sunny, rainy, cloudy, foggy, warm, or cold. Honestly, Ravi and I both felt like we were in a montage from "Lord of the Rings" or something! Every kilometer was completely different scenery, weather, and plant life, and it was all gorgeous.
Once we were done with the Valle Frances, we hiked back down the hill, recovered our bags, and hiked our way to the bottom of the last line of the W. Now, you're really supposed to pay 4000 Chilean Pesos a person ($7 US), but we weren't really in the mood to look for someone to pay. We made camp, trusted to luck, and no one came to find us, so we figured that day was our lucky day!
Sight of the Day: Watching wind turn the surface of a lake into a cloud of mist, then watching the wind change directions and hurl water right on top of you.
Day 3: (The Long Haul)
I'm glad we saved this day for later, since this was our longest day of hiking. By now, though, Ravi and I were trekking rock stars. We cooked our breakfast, packed up our stuff, and headed up the last line of the W. Today's goal was to get to Campamento Torres. The trails had undulated up and down a lot, but most of this day was generally uphill. Luckily, though, we had great views and great weather. Ravi and I had lunch next to a mountain lake, and then continued our trek to our next break point, Refugio Chileno.
Now after a long day with a heavy pack, it's hard to convince someone that it's better to continue on to a free campsite even further up the hill, but Ravi and I are always eager to save $7, and honestly, it was good that we took advantage of the good weather we had while it lasted. As soon as we got to camp, the rain started! Ravi and I had been very diligent about letting our trail clothes get wet and leaving our camp clothes in our packs to keep dry and warm at night, so the AMAZING Ravi cooked dinner in the rain while I waited in the tent. Then I (and I hope my mother isn't reading this part) decided to change out of my warm clothes and wash the dishes in the rain outside. Once everything was finished, though, I was glad of my warm, dry camp clothes! Ravi and I listened to a few Christmas songs, and then went to bed.
Sound of the Day: Ravi making hiking more pleasant by leading Tim in a Christmas Carol singalong.
Day 4: (The Early Morning Curse Finds Ravi and Tim Again)
Today is the day that everyone comes to the park to experience. We woke up at 4:00 to hike up the mirador to see the famous Torres del Paine, but Ravi decided that we could afford another hour's sleep to get up the last bit of trail. I concurred.
So, we started up the extremely steep trail to get to the Mirador Las Torres. And there we saw the most amazing fog ever. Truly splendid fog. So splendid, in fact, that the Torres were just about invisible. We were now 0 for 3 in early morning wake-ups in South America! But the rest of the scenery was nice, and honestly, we had to finish the trail if we were going to come all this way, I suppose. Plus, a crowd of trekkers was busy singing songs, and we didn't want to miss that!
[Ravi -- in reality, we were able to see the Torres an the mountain lake at the top fairly well, though the valley was lost in fog. And I remind Tim that the early morning trip to the Volcano Villarrica by Pucon was a success.]
Once we'd had enough of the look-out point, we hiked down to Hosteria Las Torres, the park's five star hotel, crowded like cattle into a caravan of shuttles with hundreds of other stinky trekker friends, and hopped on a bus back to Puerto Natales.
Priorities upon return: Shower, hot meal at a restaurant, warm bed.
I must say, this was probably the most strenous part of our six month trip. We trekked four days through beautiful mountain valleys and up steep hills, camped with nothing more than what we carried with us, and endured the most random and severe weather I've ever encountered. Ravi and I make a great team, and I was extremely proud of us those four days!
That next morning, though, a new adventure began: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, The End of the World!