Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mini Guide (ok, big) for our 6 days in TORRES DEL PAINE - CHILE - Wtrail

Finally! Here's the little feature Dave and I have been working on (and putting aside) for quite some time now, to share with my readers on how our trip to Torres Del Paine in Chile all went down. We took our trip to Chile and Argentina back in November 2012 but better late than never right? I will hopefully also cover other cities and attractions we have visited during our trip but one thing at a time. It was difficult to find details about pricing, transportation and accommodation for our trip and hope that these mini guides will be helpful references to travelers/backpackers out there looking to travel to the same destinations! 

Dave did most of the writing about the itinerary, costs and details since I did not have the patience to write in details about all that stuff he considers fun. He did most of the research for our trip anyway while I just wanted to see and talk about pretty things.

For those who do not care so much about the guide, at least look at the pictures and be in awe!

(Please comment below if you have returned from your trip and prices or anything else has changed. We saw a lot of price hikes from old blogs etc.)

Fitz Roy from the air. A destination we did not visit..except by air :)

Day 1

We flew out from JFK and arrived at Puerto Arenas Airport after 2 lay-overs in Lima and Santiago. We only had US dollars on us since we were expecting to be able to exchange it to Chilean Pesos (CHP) once we arrived to the airport but that proved to be a bad move because there were no exchange offices at the Puerto Arenas airport and so we had no money for the bus fare to Puerto Natales.  Good thing there was one working ATM machine which charged a fee of about 5 USD.  Oof. Anyway, exchange your money in Lima or Santiago!

There was a small information booth that gave us three numbers for buses that could pick us up and drop us off at Punta Arenas. We had to call the bus companies to find out if there was space for us because we had not reserved in advance. As mentioned, we had no pesos and thus no coins to make a phone call and so we were nervous about not finding a ride. That lady at the information booth would not lend me her cell... Luckily, I stalked a group of tourists who were making a call and I asked if they could see if they had space for us too. We got a ride on a bus from the airport at 2:30 p.m. (came at 3 p.m.) with Bus Fernandez. 

You are suppose to reserve in advance or else they won’t stop by the airport.  The 2.5 hour ride costed 5000 CHP per person with views of snow- capped mountains in the distance and cows, lambs, emus and guanacos along the way.

Bus companies for airport pickup: (try to see if you can reserve online)
Buses Fernandez 61-242313
Buses Pacheco: 61-242174
Bus Sur: 61-222938
Taking a picture of someone else's map

Once you arrive into town everything is walking distance and lots of friendly stray dogs roaming the streets and love to be petted (they will then follow you and you can pretend you own them for some time before they wander off with another stranger). We beelined to our hostel Erratic Rock, which we made reservations back at home, and dropped our gear off. We went out for dinner and stocked up on food for our 5 day hiking trip.  We needed to exchange more money for our stay and food. Turns out the best rate for an exchange was at 1 USD at 474 pesos at a small exchange office (note early closing hours). For comparison, postcards were 500 pesos each.

Most of the main strip was a tourist trap with expensive food.  We ended up having dinner at La Picada de Carlitos, a local fare that had big portions at very reasonable prices recommended by the locals as well as visitors.

Back at the hostel, we prepped our bag and gear for an early bus ride to Torres Del Paine.  If you had any more questions about the stay or hike, the staff at Erratic Rock are more than helpful and can answer all the questions you may have!

Argentinean steak at Picada Carlitos - Puerto Arenas

View of some mountains we think is Torres Del Paine from our private room

Erratic Rock 1

Day 2

While you can schedule a bus ride to Torres Del Paine on your own, you would have to "haul ass" (Dave's expression which I never use!) to the bus stop with your gear. We decided to schedule a bus ride with our hostel where the bus will pick you up at 7:30am at the same price, 15000 CHP round trip.

The bus ride once again had beautiful views of the mountain ranges with the addition of guanacos running around the side of the road.  While you get great views when you are actually in the park, the left side of the bus has the better view.  The bus also makes a few stops at a gift/coffee shop and a lookout for a picture opportunity. 

Lots of cattles, sheeps and guanacos by the road

View of the three Towers from afar 

Quick stop from across the mountains we would be hiking for the next 5 days
Across the mountains

My blurry face + Torres Del Paine national park

When you get to the ranger station, a park ranger hops on the bus and gives you a quickie speech on park rules, safety tips and a quick Q&A session.  Here you also pay the entrance fee of 18000 CHP for a foreigner.  They also provide the weather forecast on a white board and the only map you need for the entire trek.  Take the forecast with a grain of salt because the weather can be quite volatile and unpredictable.  Luckily for us, the forecast was warm and slight overcast which was accurate! The 'Big Circuit' was closed due to poor weather.

Torres Del Paine November 11-15

We eventually got dropped off at the Catamaran stop a little after 11 a.m. on the eastern side of Lake Pehoe since we opted to trek the W trail from west to east.  We rested and ate salami and bagels I brought from New York while waiting for the boat ride at 12 p.m.  I don’t recall how much the round trip ticket is but the one way I took was 12000 CHP.  The 30-minute ride had beautiful views of the south part of the trek. You can also see the waterfall Grande in the first 10 minutes. I wanted to trek there before the Catamaran ride but there would have been no time although some travelers say they have done it.

Lake Pehoe dock

NY bagels

Waterfall Grande -Torres del paine

As soon as we got off the boat we were on our way.  Our first stop was camping at Refugio Grey.  On the map, it was a 3.5 hour trek across a 11 km stretch.  Since we were inexperienced and also in awe by the views, we took a ton of breaks and stops for pictures.  In total it took us almost 5.5 hours to reach Grey.  The first hour was fairly flat but very depressing thanks to a forest fire years ago. The damage is very visible for half of the trek to Grey. Otherwise it was great views. If we ever do this trek again, we would’ve taken a lot less stops early on because there are miradors that great views of Lake Grey and the glacier.  This was also our first opportunity at drinking the amazing water from the natural springs and rivers. NO FILTER NEEDED!! But if you think you have a weak stomach, bring one but we were fine drinking straight from moving streams! There was a point in the trek where you could safely detour to the beach of the Lake.  There we got to fish a few pieces of icebergs out of the Lake and taste it.  Well worth the time.  After we dropped our gear at our tent, we pushed farther to get a closer view of the glacier.  There is a mirador only 15-20 minutes away that we checked out.  For a closer look, we’re told Los Guardas was best.
The service at Refugio Grey was great but the food and showers were probably the worst. We had our rented tent all set up for us which was great (for me!). We just brought our own sleeping bags for the trip but we met people who brought the whole package and set everything up themselves. If you made reservations for either camping or the refugio, definitely bring a print out of the confirmation or else you may not get your room.  Also, definitely bring your tourist/immigration card you get when you enter Chile or else you’ll definitely face issues.  (note: keep it for when you leave the country too).  The refugio, like most, does not have internet.  It does, like all refugios, have outlets if you need to charge your camera.  As soon as we finished eating, we settled into our tent and passed out only to be woken up sporadically by strong wind.  Even the earplugs couldn’t block out the sound since the tent shook so hard.

Total Hike: 11 Km

Highlights: Lake Pehoe, waterfall Grance, Glacier grey

Excited on our first day!

Walking towards Glacier Grey across fire devastated forest.

Walking towards Refugio Grey
Fishing for ice -Glacier Grey

Ice from Glacier Grey! Delicious!

Glacier Grey

Unappetizing looking dish even if I was really hungry and t'was expensivo -Refugio grey dinner

Refugio grey cabin

Our campsite on night 1 by Refugio Grey. Amazingness!

Day 3

When we woke up, a lot of our clothes we washed the past night were dried thanks to our 70 cents rope and the strong overnight wind.  The air was crisp and we were ready to head back down the mountain.  On the way down, we barely made any stops nor did we take any pictures since it was the same trail back. It only took us a little over 4 hours to reach Paine Grande. There, we rested for 30 minutes and was on our way again. The itinerary for the day was to reach Cuernos and it was at this point we realized we may reach the Refugio too late for check in. We started to pace faster and reached Italiano in less 6 hours. The stretch was fairly easy and not very memorable. Similar to the hike at the prior day, ther was a lot of evidence of past forest fire. We were also very tired as we had already hiked for almost 19 Km and still had 5.5 more. Immediately before entering Italiano we got to cross a wigly wooden bridge where only 1 person is allowed to cross.

The hike from Italiano to Cuernos was a nice experience. Not only because we eventually hiked this section 3 times, but because here we walked through thick forests, a beach, crossed a roaring river and had nice views of the Lake Pehoe. This is a fairly flat path that we hiked in a little over 2 hours even though the map said to allocate 2.5 hours.

Also during this leg of the trip we thought we had heard thunder rumbling through the air. However there wasn't a cloud in sight as it was a beautiful day. We later realized this was the thunder from avalanches up the valley. Yet another first experience for us!

When we reach the Refugio, it reminded Dave of the final scene of Jarhead. We were extremely exhausted at that point but when we reached camp, every guest was standing around on the deck with a beer or pisco sour laughing and partying. Dave said that if he had a gun, I would probably fire off my magazine in the air too. As for me, I never saw Jarhead so....he's just crazy I thought.

We immediately checked into our dorm and grabbed dinner. Service was very poor but the food was better than what I expected in the middle of a mountain. Once again, we passed out after we had dinner.

If I could change my itinerary, I would not have made such a strenuous day.  My rationale was to be able to leave our bags at Cuernos and hike up the French Valley bag free the next day.  While I had read it on a blog somewhere prior to the trip, I forgot that we could leave our bags at Italiano.  If we had followed that plan, we would've stayed the second night at Paine Grande instead.

The best water ever

Sighs. Parts of the park destroyed by fire

Mother nature reaching out to me :)

Pisco sours. Alcohol to boost morale

Add hot water and wait wait wait

Hardy salty breakfast 

Total Hike: 24.1 Km
Highlights: Lots of leg and butt exercises
Un-highlights: busting my knee
Day 4

The plan was to leave our bags at Cuernos since we are staying a second day and hike back up the French Valley. As we walked to Italiano, we stopped and took pictures that we didn’t in the haste of the previous evening.  Once we reached Italiano we saw all the bags of Trekkers we met the first day stacked up by the ranger hunt. We continue the up the valley and faced a great distance of rock scrambling.  We eventually reached the first Mirador with a beautiful bright view of the side of a snow covered mount.  Here, we heard and saw the frequent avalanches rolling down the face of the mountain.  We took in the view as we snacked on jerkies, bread and salmon.

Mirador Frances Lookout -Torres Del Paine

After a long rest, we continued up the valley to see how far we can get.  We crossed many streams and walked through vibrant forests.  However, due to poor timing, my bad knee and Dave's painful walking toe, we decided to not continue to the final mirador (sad!).  We turned around and trekked back down the valley. At one point, Dave dropped my water bottle but luckily a hiker behind us caught up with us and returned it! My name was on it so I guess they figured it belonged to someone Asian :) They also respect the 'No waste left behind' rules of the park!

Since we had time to spare and had a good idea of how much hiking was left, we took a break by the beach and dipped our feet in the cold water.  What a tranquil lake and large pebbles that massaged the feet.  When we reached Cuernos again, we faced a booking issue that eventually got settled (Paypal refund!).  We stayed the night in the comfort of our own private room but the private cabins with a view is what we wanted.

Beauty you cannot describe

Further up the Frances valley
Glacial water was so painfully cold yet felt so good after hours of hiking...
Free drinks to make up for the booking error. This can of coke is $5 usd!
One of the better dinners we have had

Total Hike: ~16 Km
Highlights: Mirador Frances, rocky beach


Day 5

The next day, we prepped ourselves for a moderate trek up to Refugio Chileno.  Thanks to the booking error and the subpar solution, we also got free breakfast and packed lunch for the hike.  That helped with our morning tasks since it always took forever for us to pack, cook and prep.

For the beginning of the trek, we continued along the northern banks of Lake Pehoe with the same beautiful views.  It got extremely hilly at points so there were steep inclines followed by equally steep declines.  I had a bummed knee at this point so we took adequate numbers of breaks.  We took a long rest where a group of Belgians also stopped.  When it was time for lunch, we rested on a rock on the face of a hill overlooking the lake.  There was light rain but not enough to rain on our parade :)

If you are trekking from Cuernos to Chileno or vice versa, there is a shortcut that is not on the official map but widely noted in forums and other blogs.  By taking this shortcut, you avoid a large portion of the very long steep incline up to Chileno from Las Torres.  We chose to take this route and probably saved us almost 2 hours in total at the rate we were hiking.

Cabins with a view which we never got

Horses! for carrying provisions and luggages only.
Lunch with a view

Kissy face
Once we reached the valley, it was another sight to see. The eastern side of the valley had trees growing on it while the western side was full of jagged rocks.  In between was a roaring river that flowed from the glaciers further upstream.  While not too dangerous, there were points here if you had slipped, you would tumble a long way down.  As you trek up the western side of the valley, you also encounter a lot of day trekkers following tour guides who summit up to the Torres del Paine Mirador.  Sometimes, I cant help but judge those who are ill prepared for their day hike even though we aren’t experienced ourselves. Polo and bermudas? Really?

After a relatively steep uphill battle, we crossed over the river via a bridge and reached Refugio Chileno.  We faced a little difficulty checking in again since I didn’t have my tourist card that you get at Customs but nothing I couldn't talk my way out of!  After dropping our gear off and a nice shower, we relaxed and enjoyed the view from the lounge/dining area for the rest of the evening.  We met other trekkers and came up with a plan to do an early morning scramble up to mirador Las Torres to catch the sunrise. The park is named after the towers of Paine "Torres del Paine".


Towards Refugio Chileno

Only 1 person allowed to cross 
Total Hike: The shortcut was not on the map..I'd say 8 km?
Highlights: The valleys, free packed lunch

Day 6

The next morning, we woke up around 3:30 a.m. to prep for a 4 a.m. departure in total darkness.  The wind was howling outside and blowing hard against the refugio windows. With nothing but our headlamps on,some Clif Bars, a camera (and iPhone!) and trekking poles, we were set to head out.  It was a very sizable group who all went at a different pace and time. W
e only knew people were around from their headlamps lights In total darkness. It was a surreal experience as we crossed over rivers, hiked up the sides of mountains, through forests and even over patches of snow all in total darkness with nothing but our headlamps.  Sabrina, a backpacker we met the day before, led the way which was great because one of our headlamps started to run out of batteries (the day we needed it the most!).

With very little gear and a decent evening of rest, we made it up to the mirador in just under 2 hours.  Not bad considering it was dark and we were slow.  It gave us ample to take a rest on large boulders, enjoy the scenery, and wait for the sunrise reflection which happened in minutes.  What a sight to take in when the towers turn red against a nice blue sky!  If you do make it up for the sunrise, be prepared to take pictures quickly. The sunrise will come and go in a matter of minutes!  Once again, we were lucky to have mostly clear skies so the towers was barely obstructed by clouds which is not what we were heard from other hikers who were there just a few days before. Some hikers faced high winds and snow and did not even have the chance to go!

5 something in the morning..almost at the towers...

The sun is just about to rise but we're not there yet!

The sun is rising!

6 a.m. sunrise at the three towers - TORRES DEL PAINE 

Look at that little cloud hovering over the tower

New friends
On our way back to the refugio, we can see all the views we missed while it was still dark...

a beautiful waterfall

snow capped mountains
Back to Refugio Chileno

Once we have taken in the view of the towers, we knew our trip has peaked and is almost coming to an end.  The rest of the way is a downhill trek to the shuttle pick up location at the bottom of the mountains.  But first, we hiked back to the Refugio to finish packing.  After finishing our freeze dried breakfast (rice and chicken in a bag! yum!), it was time to head back out again.

Eventually we reached the shuttle pick up location and rested for a couple hours on some picnic tables where people were having meals and napping.  There was a gift shop and a lovely hotel with a nice looking restaurant where you can grab a celebratory drink, which some of the trekkers did to kill off time. I also used the super fancy clean bathrooms which I have not seen in days! The shuttle came a little late which made us worry about missing our bus back to the city but with only two shuttle rides per day, we're probably the only trekkers they would be waiting for right? (well, you can save some pesos and walk to the park entrance as well). When we arrived to the park entrance, we hopped onto the wrong bus since the drivers didn't care tickets we were holding and all the buses were going back to the city anyway. Our bus did not drop us back at our hostel which screwed us over because well, I absolutely didn't want to walk anymore with my bad knee and heavy backpack. But, it gave us the chance to buy our bus ticket to El Calafate ($51 USD for two people) for the next morning (8 am) before returning to the hostel so it worked out.

Our lunch: Rice and chicken and oatmeal!

Last leg of our trip down to our bus stop. My leg was in pain!
Horse vacation
And back to the city of Puerto Natales where we get to chill with the doggies again! ...and eat a big meal! Erratic rock also recommended this laundry place that was still open and could wash all our dirty clothes from the hike within an hour so, we dropped our stuff, had dinner and went back to grab our clean garments! They also had delivery service but we wanted to be assured to get our stuff back since we were leaving early the next morning!

Cute street dogs of Puerto Natales
overpriced tourist trap meal but whatever!

Torres Del Paine is one of the top recommended trekking destinations in the World and we can totally see why.

This trip challenged us in many ways both physically and mentally. Despite my bad knee early on the trek (this is a lesson for me to get in shape before our next trekking adventure), I didn't want it to stop me from enjoying the hike. Sure I cursed and wondered why the fudge did I take this trip when my backpack was beginning to weigh me down and my "broken" knee became more and more painful with every step, but I knew I had to go on (or sleep out in the cold) as I wanted to take it all in. For me, it was kind of a once in a lifetime trip. Our favorite part of the trek was the hike towards the three towers at 3 in the morning to catch the sunrise.

Would we recommend this trip to anyone? Absolutely! For anyone looking to spend 5 great days in a pristine park with breathtaking views. Breathing the clean crisp air and drinking the naturally filtered glacial water money can't buy. To add to your adventure, try camping all the way (except maybe for Refugio Italiano which looked like it was mosquito infested!) and leave the refugios to city gals like myself although my favorite night was our first camp site at Refugio Grey because it was peaceful and we didn't have to share a room with anyone else...but most probably I was okay because I got to take a hot shower which is all I ask for :)

Thank you for reading! Next stop, Argentina where we visited El Calafate (Perito Moreno), Puerto Madryn and Buenos Aires!

1 comment:

  1. Hiya,

    First of all, I would like to thank you for this very INFORMATIVE review on your trip. My friend & I are going to Chile this Thanksgiving. We decided we wanted to go on a trip and we couldn't decide where we wanted to go [Patagonia vs. Easter Island vs. Santiago [only] and ended up deciding on Patagonia & Santiago.

    I love your pictures and the information you have for the trip. I do have a few questions and didn't know if you can help?

    You mentioned on Day 2:

    "If I could change my itinerary, I would not have made such a strenuous day. My rationale was to be able to leave our bags at Cuernos and hike up the French Valley bag free the next day. While I had read it on a blog somewhere prior to the trip, I forgot that we could leave our bags at Italiano. If we had followed that plan, we would've stayed the second night at Paine Grande instead."

    Do you mean that you would not have camped at Camp Grey and would have gone back to Refugio Paine Grande? Then you would start out Day 2 in Refugio Paine Grande, drop off your things at Camp Italiano [and camp there?], head to Valle Frances & come back to Camp Italiano? Or would you have been able to just drop off your things at Camp Italiano and then come back and pick it up and head to Refugio Cuernos?

    You mentioned on Day 6 this:

    "Once we reached the valley, it was another sight to see. The eastern side of the valley had trees growing on it while the western side was full of jagged rocks. In between was a roaring river that flowed from the glaciers further upstream. While not too dangerous, there were points here if you had slipped, you would tumble a long way down."

    What do you mean by tumbling a long way down? I get nervous around heights (my friend can stand at the edge of a cliff but I have to stand like 5 feet away.

    Did you think camping was very 'safe'? I have never camped before and don't think I would have a problem with it [except for the safety issues]. It would be me and my other friend (another female). Your comment that they set up the tent was funny! (because I was wondering the whole time if they do set it!)

    Is there any other tips that you would give out? Is there anything else that you would have done differently? Thanks in advance!