Torres del Paine
Description: Sunset, Torres del Paine over Rio Serrano
Photographer: Tim Mulholland
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There are a few scenic locales on our travel bucket list, but we crossed one off a few months ago – Patagonia. If you enjoy travel to beautiful mountains, then the mountains of Patagonia have probably caught your eye somewhere in magazines or the internet. We visited Peru and Machu Picchu three years ago and Patagonia was one of the next areas we wanted to visit after that. And, travel to South America has been growing on us, too, as it’s such a vast and beautiful continent. We don’t really speak Spanish, but we’ve not really had difficulties getting around with our little bit of Spanglish and we’ve always been able to laugh at ourselves when we have mangled conversations with the wonderful people we meet along the way.
Patagonia is a region of South America. Specifically, it’s the southern part of South America. It’s so easy to get there, too – not. Figure that you’ll need to take an overnight flight from somewhere in the US (presuming that you’re one of my Americano readers) to Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina. From those cities, you can then jump in to Patagonia in quite a few different ways. In our case, we flew into Santiago and from there way south to Punta Arenas, Chile. We were extremely fortunate that on our flight to Punta Arenas the sky was mostly clear and we enjoyed some spectacular views of the southern Andes!
**As an important aside, Chile has received many blessings (and some curses) from the estate of Doug and Kris Tompkins. I’ll not go into detail here, but hope that you’ll explore what the Tompkins have done to protect Chile’s landscapes and increase Chilean tourism.**
We required about twenty four hours to get from home to Punta Arenas. We did sleep decently on the overnight flight, but we were still discombobulated from the travel (at least I was, which is typical for me.) Our first night was in a small B&B in the heart of the city and we enjoyed an evening walk to a nearby restaurant. In Punta Arenas, we were a few degrees further south compared to where we lived in Invercargill, NZ. The next stop south of Punta Arenas or Invercargill is basically Antarctica.
We rented a car in Punta Arenas from one of the only available places – EMSA Car Rental, which is affiliated with Avis. It is readily possible to create a trip to Patagonia by using the wonderful public bus transportation system, but we wanted the flexibility that a car offered (and, that flexibility cost us extra). On our first full day, we drove from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, making it there for lunch. It was a pleasant, modest drive, similar to driving in the western U.S. – lots of open space.
Puerto Natales is a tourist town that you can get to by car, bus, plane or boat. It serves as the jumping off spot for the tourist buses to Torres del Paine National Park (TdP). With the flexibility of our rental car, we could readily drive to TdP in a couple of hours and get to our (relatively expensive) lodging. There’s no gas, though, in or near to TdP, so plan accordingly. If you take a bus, then it also takes a couple of hours to get to the park, and then return to Puerto Natales in the evening to more affordable accommodations or you can camp or glamp at TdP. You’re either paying time or money, whichever you have more of. Our drive to TdP took longer than expected because we stopped many, many times to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Most of the roads to TdP, as well as all of the roads in the park, are gravel, so the driving is a bit slower because of those conditions. You’re definitely driving down the interstate anywhere in Patagonia.
I wanted to backpack and camp the famous “W” circuit in TdP, but I was outvoted by my girlfriend (she frequently has greater voting rights than me – go figure). We spent a couple of nights at the Hotel las Torres Patagonia – good food, decent room, great views. There are only a handful of lodging choices in and near the park, as well as a few campgrounds and glamping areas. On our first full day in TdP, we drove back through the park and enjoyed a couple of easy hikes, a lot of great mountain views, and watched the guanacos.
For those who might want to backpack the W circuit, it sounds wonderful and relatively pleasant and easy. The difficulty is that the “refugios” (sort of like campgrounds but with more amenities than backpackers usually get) don’t coordinate their reservations (yet?), so you have to contact each of the several refugios separately and hope that you can coordinate your itinerary.
The primary reason for going to TdP was to hike to the spectacular Bases del Torres mirador (viewpoint). You may not know the name, but you’ll likely recognize it. We also wanted to enjoy sunrise at the mirador. We went to bed early, tried to quickly fall asleep and then the alarm rang at 1:30 a.m. We were up and out of the hotel by 2:00 a.m. – and there were other people leaving at the same time. We also were fortunate that there was a full moon that helped a bit to light the way, but our headlamps did most of the illuminating. It’s “only” about a five mile/eight km hike to the Base of the Towers, but it’s mostly uphill, and the last kilometer or so is at about a 45 degree angle. When we got to the last steep portion of the trail, the girlfriend left me behind (I’m older, slower and carrying photo gear) so that she could make it up before ~6:00 am sunrise (so, yeah, it was about a four hour hike – in the dark). She got there with several minutes to spare and I made it with just enough time to set up my camera – whew! And, it was spectacular (and cold). We also got to enjoy the moment with twenty to thirty younger people, some who had come from the beginning of the track and many who had slept at Refugio Chileno (sort of a campground with extras) that’s at about the half way point. It was still spring time in Patagonia and there was still some ice on the tarn beneath the towers. We stayed for about 45 minutes and headed out. One of the great things about hiking in the dark is that on the return trip nearly everything seemed new to us. Check out time at the hotel was 11:00 am; we got back at 10:30, showered and finished packing just in a nick of time.
Next stop was a hotel on the southern side of the park that we had sorta passed on our way in – the Hotel Rio Serrano. Again, the hotel was pleasant but, for some reason, on our second morning there, there was no water. A “luxury” hotel, but no water. We enjoyed a relatively quiet couple of nights at the Rio Serrano, recovering from the Tower hike. Our main expedition from here was a boat tour of Lago Grey and Glacier Grey, which was about an hour drive from the hotel.
From the Hotel Rio Serrano we drove to – Puerto Natales for gas! Then we were back on the road, returning to the vicinity of TdP to cross the border into Argentina at Cerro Castillo, Chile. It’s a remote border crossing with few services (we heard that we “might” be able to buy black market gas there, but it wasn’t worth the risk). We also were fortunate that we got to the immigration and customs officers just before a bus load of touristas arrived (there’s another advantage of having a car – not waiting in line with a bus load of touristas). A few kilometers later, we entered Argentina and the differences were stark. Fewer services, poorer roads, and a smaller, simpler customs and immigration station. We then cut cross country on Argentina Route 40 which was very rough. We saw one or two cars in the hour we were on this road, but saw hundreds of guanacos and sheep, and even a few rheas. It was then another long, quiet remote drive to El Calafate.
El Calafate, Argentina is another town that is overrun with touristas (i.e., us) – but, they’re mostly well behaved and there for one reason – the Perito Merino Glacier, a part of Los Glaciares National Park. The Glacier is about an hour west of El Calafate and is truly remarkable. This visit was about the closest that we’ve ever been to a glacier. The Argentinian parks service has created an extensive system of boardwalks and grated walks so that you can view and enjoy the Perito Merino Glacier from a variety of angles and viewpoints. One of the interesting parts of the trip is watching all of the visitors – including us – waiting for the glacier to calve and hopefully snap a photo of the process.
After gassing up in El Calafate, we drove around Lago Argentino to El Chalten, the tourist mecca for Mt. FitzRoy (a.k.a, El Chalten, “the smoking mountain”), which is a different area of Los Glaciares National Park. The town of El Chalten is relatively new and serves as a tourist basecamp for exploring the area. We stayed another twenty minutes “up river” in a glamping ecodome lodge named Patagonia Ecodomes. We’ve never done that before!
The next day, we were up at a reasonable hour, enjoyed breakfast and then hiked to El Chalten. It was another 16-18 km hike and well worth it. The hike was modest and only became difficult at the last half kilometer or so when it was necessary to climb 400 meters – that only takes about an hour. Once we got on top of the terminal moraine that we climbed, we enjoyed superlative views of El Chalten, its surrounding peaks and the ice-covered tarn below. And, it was extremely windy!
After seeing El Chalten in full daylight and hiking to the Bases del la Torres for sunrise, I can’t really tell you which I enjoyed more. Both types of lighting had their own appeal.
The following day we had one of our easiest hikes from the village to Laguna Torre. That being said, it was also the day with the poorest weather for our trip. We had decent weather on the hike up and down, but the clouds socked in the mountains and the wind was again ripping off of the mountains, over Laguna Torre and right into our faces. We were fortunate that we were able to find a large rock and sit in the leeward side so that we could sort of enjoy our lunch.
After El Chalten, we spent a night at an estancia (ranch) on the shores of Lago Argentino and then, on sort of a whim, modified our trip and drove to the Atlantic coast town of Rio Gallegos. The draw here is that a mere 120 kilometers further south, over some very rough roads, you’ll find a Magellanic penguin rookery. After enjoying all of the beautiful landscapes that we could take in, it was very pleasant (except for the long, tire eating drive) diversion to enjoy wildlife in abundance.
There are many more details that could be shared about this trip, but I’ll leave it at that. Patagonia, and especially the mountain areas, are truly spectacular. We enjoyed a relatively quiet trip with only modest numbers of tourists, some good food, laughs at our Spanish, and some beautiful, long drives that might be similar to visiting the open spaces of the Western US or Canadian Rockies. I also want to write that we definitely want to return to Patagonia someday (retirement trip?) and especially to enjoy more of Chile.
This is a relatively large gallery of nearly 600 images (Adobe Flash Player required), so don’t feel like you have to stick around for the whole presentation! You may view the whole gallery at your leisure at Patagonia Gallery