Most articles we read about Torres del Paine National Park in Chile focus on Patagonian meadows, turquoise lakes, and rose-tinted granite towers in sunrise.
We’ll allow our photos to do that bit for us.
Instead, we’ll take a different tack and share some of the lessons –- about yourself, your marriage (if you have one), Patagonia, expectations, life, and travel – you might learn from trekking in Torres del Paine.
Lesson 1: Indulge in Small Victories. They Are Good for Your Marriage.
On the first day of our trek, we teamed up with a group of other trekkers and began the 17.5 km (10.5 mi.) walk from the trail-head fully laden: enough food for 6 days, a tent, sleeping bags, copious layers and various camping and trekking bits and bobs.
“The extra weight for camping gear isn’t too bad,” I remarked to Dan halfway down the trail.
He glared back; turns out he was carrying the tent and the bulk of the food. As easy as this opening terrain was, this was the first of our trekking days. Our energy was high, but we were out-of-shape and stiff and we needed to be broken in.
By the time we arrived at our first camp, Paine Grande, we melted across the wooden benches in measured avoidance of our first test: put up the tent.
Praise to the gods of all religions large and small that the shop that rented us our tent insisted that we assemble it before we left the store. Fortunately, there was no candid camera to capture that those moments of suspended fruitlessness. I think we were there for 30 minutes, maybe 45. And we had to go inside to consult the prepared tent twice to figure out where all the sticks and stabilizers belonged.
But such preparation paid off. When time came to assemble the tent for real at our first camp, it took maybe five or ten minutes.
But something nagged. The rain and wind cover didn’t really look right and flapped in the wind.
Ah, so what. The tent is up.
In a merge of simple pleasures and life’s small victories, we stood back in the glow of our assembled tent and watched the sun set on a nearly perfect day.
Lesson 2: Wind Blows
No winds howl, rush and change direction like those that blow through Patagonia.
What was supposed to be a quick 3.5-hour trek up to Gray Glacier on the following day turned into an exhausting five-hour haul in the face of howling Mother Nature. At the exposed mountain pass viewpoints, winds were powerful enough — easily in excess of 70 miles per hour — to knock us to the ground, packs on.
When you are forced to grab random strangers and defensively fall into picker bushes, you know you are in trouble. In these conditions, a 100-yard walk took about 45 minutes; it was exhausting.
Lesson 3: Take estimated hiking times on trail maps with a grain of salt.
After clearing the hellish and windy pass, Gray Glacier — our day's destination — lay ahead, visible.
“It can’t be much longer,” we muttered to each other in hopes that repetition of this phrase might make it reality.
Ah, the mantra of the Torres del Paine trekker facing a map with grossly underestimated hiking times and a fully laden backpack.
We are convinced: the people who documented the Torres del Paine trekking maps never actually trekked Torres del Paine. The national park staff calculated hiking times assuming perfect weather, wind at the back, no packs and an average speed of Israeli trekkers straight from military service in full sprint.
Lesson 4: Much like life, trekking is a continuous exercise in expectation management. Your satisfaction may be aided if you expect the worst, for you reduce the risk of being disappointed.
We dreaded the return from Gray Glacier through the previous day’s wind tunnel. We braced ourselves for the worst and battened down our backpack hatches, but the weather had changed for the better and our return from Gray Glacier was pleasantly uneventful, save a rainbow or two.
That evening at Italiano campsite, we joined the other trekkers and sought refuge from the cold in a cooking shelter leanto. The night's menu, an array of packaged foods: soup, pasta, rice, mashed potatoes. It didn’t appear hopeful on the culinary front.
But expectations be damned — camping cuisine reached new heights that evening. Collin, our fellow trekker, fashioned a new culinary masterpiece in ultimate comfort food: instant mashed potatoes blended with beef soup mix.
Lesson 5: There’s freedom in the truth, even if it happens to be delivered by a guy in white sweatpants who says in the next breath, “Is it OK if I wear jeans hiking so long as they are not too tight?”
As the wind and cold drizzle drove us to huddle in the cooking shelter on that third night, Assaf, one of the least experienced but perhaps most astute Israeli trekkers, observed, “Why do people do this to themselves? Look at them — they are all suffering.”
We laughed so hard. While at first I thought he was joking, a cursory look around revealed the cold, dark, damp and challenging truth in his words.
Lesson 6: A day that begins with a swollen face and mouse turds can end well.
When I awoke on day four, my left eye was swollen shut from a bug bite and mouse turds were scattered around the tent. As I tried to imagine what transpired overnight, I wondered whether I'd have to quit the trek and find a hospital.
Fortunately, as breakfast unfolded (unfolded? we had oatmeal with dulce de leche every morning – a delicious combination, by the way), the swelling in my eyelid and face subsided.
During breakfast, everyone’s gaze was diverted from me and each shared his story of mouse frustration from the night before.
“They ate a hole in my tent.”
“They ate through my backpack.”
“They ate half our food.”
“They pooped in my shoe.”
These mice were relentless. Cooking gas containers had teeth marks on them. Even the nature-loving Canadian park rangers couldn't abide these bold rodents and were driven to crushing a mouse in their tent in the middle of the night.
After a hike up the French Valley that delivered a smorgasbord of both weather and views, our motivating force to continue: wine in a box, rumored to be available at Cuernos, our next campsite.
That evening, Collin’s mashed potato masterpiece was outdone by Vlad’s onion, salami and cream sauce pasta that he shared with everyone. And never had boxed wine tasted so good.
Besides what nature has to offer, this what a social trekking experience is all about: eating, drinking, laughing, sharing. Each has his own pace during the day, but everyone meets together in the end to share in life’s many simple pleasures.
For many, seeing the sunrise over the torres, the towers for which the park is named, is the highlight of their trek. Our alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 4:30AM. We were huddled together trying to stay warm against the freezing temperatures of the night in a rented tent that wasn't quite meant for people of Dan's height. The temptation to turn off the alarm and roll over instead of heading out into the frigid pitch of pre-dawn was difficult to resist. Under these circumstances, there's always a danger that each waits for the other to make the first move.
The previous five days, we'd survived wind storms that forced us to cling to mountainside shrubs. I'd suffered a mysterious spider bite that made my eye look like I just emerged from a heavyweight boxing match.
We were worn. No pain, no gain, they say. Fortunately, we'd been rewarded with mind-opening landscapes and trekking camaraderie that more than made up for it all.
And this morning's trek would cap off six days' effort with a sunrise view of the namesake towers, the Torres del Paine.
I don't recall which one of us made the first move, but we motivated one another to pile on layers of clothes, switch on the headlamps and hit the trail. The weather didn't appear promising. There were ominous clouds that suggested coming rain, but we hoped it could all change in the couple of hours it would take to reach the towers.
You can see in the photograph above what found when we reached the towers. Early morning wake up calls can be painful, but usually they're totally worth it.
For us, the highlight was the beauty in the progression of nature and the camaraderie of other trekkers to enjoy it all.
There's no denying, Torres del Paine National Park is beautiful. However, we are going to buck the trend (of travel blogging and more specifically of coverage of Torres del Paine) by offering the trek a measured “Thumbs up.” We had read so many reviews and recommendations of this as one of the top treks in the world, so we were expecting a lot. We believe it might be better considered “a nice trek” rather than a trip of a lifetime. Again, much in life goes refers back to lesson #4: expectations.
Practical Details: How to Trek Torres del Paine Independently
Puerto Natales in southern Chile is the common jumping off point for Torres del Paine treks. There are early morning (7:30 AM) or afternoon buses to the Torres del Paine National Park for around $24 round-trip. Entrance into the National Park costs $30.
Camping vs. Lodges: We belabored the decision because we didn’t have any camping gear, nor did we have much experience camping independently. For us, the cost of the lodges ($50-$80/night/person) was prohibitively expensive, and the flexibility that camping allowed moved us to rent camping gear (something we had never done before). We highly recommend camping the entire “W” trek as this avoids more backtracking and allows you to camp closer to the main sights. The cost of camping per night varies between free for a few of the public campsites to $8-$10/person at the private campsites.
“W” Trek vs. the Circuit: We decided to do the “W-plus” trek, meaning that we began at the Administration building, which means we added an extra day to the trek (i.e., 6 days total). We really enjoyed the first day and the panoramic views it provided, so we recommend it.
Our decision to trek the “W” rather than the circuit was initially based on time considerations. If we had more time, perhaps we would have chosen to trek the full circuit (8-10 days), which adds the back side of the park to the “W”. It also reduces backtracking. Even in retrospect, we were done with camping after about six days so we didn’t have any regrets about ending our trek when we did.
Renting Camping Gear: The ideal situation is to have your own gear. However, everything you need can easily be rented in Puerto Natales the day before your hike. Erratic Rock offers great, free information sessions daily at 3 PM that provide information about the route, the gear you need and what to pack. They also rent gear. This is where we rented all our camping and trekking gear (e.g., tent, mat, sleeping bag, cooking kit, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket). However, it’s not cheap (e.g., $25-$35/day). We recommend to rent sleeping bags from Erratic Rock since they are comfort rated to -10 C (do not skimp on the sleeping bag!) and rent the tent and other gear from other local joints with more favorable prices.
When to go on the Torres del Paine trek: The high season for the Torres del Paine trek is December to February. We did our trek in mid-late March shoulder season. The positive: the trail and campsites were less busy and the leaves were changing to shades of yellow and orange. The downside: the weather was perhaps a bit more erratic and cold. We usually enjoy trekking in the shoulder season (we did the same for the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal) so this worked for us.
Our route on the “W” plus trek: Day 1: Administrative Building to Paine Grande campsite; Day 2: Paine Grande to Gray Glacier; Day 3: Gray Glacier to Italiano campsite; Day 4: French Valley to Los Cuernos campsite; Day 5: Los Cuernos to Las Torres campsite; Day 6: Sunrise view of the torres and return down to catch a bus out of the park and back to Puerto Natales.
Where to eat in Puerto Natales: La Picada de Carlitos restaurant (corner of Blanco Encalada and Esmeralda streets) is a large place usually full of locals and travelers. The food isn’t particularly gourmet, but it is hearty, tasty substantial and relatively inexpensive. The crab-stuffed cannelloni ($8) was our favorite dish. And no, it wasn't crab substitute; nor was it skimpy on the crab. The grilled salmon was also substantial and tasty. An ideal end to a long walk through the woods.