I decided to quit my job so I could travel through South America with my best friend, Claudia. Next decision to take was where to start. We thought it would be a good idea to begin from the bottom of the continent. This way we get to cross it over. So, going to the Torres del Paine National Park, in the Magallanes Region of southern Chile, seemed to be the best starting point of the trip.
This park is one of the most visited in Chile, famous for the cool shapes of the mountains which give name to the park. It was called 8th world wonder by National Geographic in 2013 and its trekking trails are considered among the best in the world.
Tip: How to get there? Take a bus from Puerto Natales. Between October and April you can find daily buses with two schedules: 7:30 am and 2 pm. Here is the contact info of the bus company we took: Buses JB, address: Arturo Prat 258, Puerto Natales, ☎ (56- 61) 412 824, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claudia and I talked about which hiking path we should do. There are many options and the best decision will depend on how much time you got and if you are up for a challenge or not. The most popular hiking circuit is “the W”. Most people choose this because you can do it in 4 or 5 days. Some would think it’s easier because it’s shorter, but this is not the case. If you aren’t an experienced hiker, you will find it as challenging as if it was the hardest trek ever. Especially if you are not lucky with the weather and considering the trail is 76.1 km long.
So, since we had as much time as we wanted, and of course, because we were both looking to challenge ourselves, I proposed to do the complete hiking circuit. Claudia happily agreed: “this journey will be full of challenges, so we might as well start with a big one”.
The big circuit: challenge accepted
This trek is known as “the O”, because its 93.2 km trail goes around the park forming a misshapen circle, but its real name is “Circuito Macizo Paine” (that is “Paine Massif Circuit” in English). It takes between 7 and 10 days to come across, but I wouldn’t recommend to try it in less time than 9 days. Can be painful, but for sure it’s worth it! Especially because of the amazing view points of the Grey Glacier and Campos de Hielo Sur (the 3rd biggest ice field in the world, and the biggest one with land access and non-polar conditions).
Now, it is important to say the level of difficulty of the trekking will depend on how lucky you get with the weather. The fierce Patagonian wind may appear suddenly just to increase your heart beats, and hopefully not throw you flying (which has happened to some unlucky people).
Tip: Weather (especially the wind) is an important factor. Check this reliable web site: windguru.cz. Recommended months to visit the park: between October and April (most crowded months are between December and February). For visiting the big circuit, the recommended months are: November to March.
Note: Only 80 hikers are allowed to circulate through the “O” trek. Just before entering the park, in Laguna Amarga, you will have to pay a 15.000 CLP (approx. 22 USD) fee, and fill out an information sheet where you have to write the trekking you plan on doing and for how many days. Then you need to make a reservation on some campings (not all of them need and it only allows for one night). Reservations are in order of arrival (it is impossible to make them in advance).
So, it is good to be flexible with your route, especially if you want to take advantage of good weather or if you want to dodge the rain or cold, which is harder. But, try not to take more time than planned. Remember you are hiking in wild nature, you will have to carry your own food, plus the clothes and camping equipment. Everything adds up and your back will feel it, so plan this wisely. The best thing to do is think very well what you are going to eat each day and take just what you need, not more nor less.
Food tip: You need a good breakfast, oatmeal with dry fruits should be good, and you can use zipper bags so it’s faster to eat (just add some water). Avoid carrying cans, not only because they are heavy, but mainly because you will have to carry your own garbage (you can’t leave any garbage in any camping). Plan a menu for each day and choose food that gives you energy. Remember to take snacks.
About the circuit and our experience
There are different direction options. Our route started from the most common way to start: from Torre Central heading east. We heard it is the best way to go as the natural attractions are best viewed from this direction.
Note: For more information on campings, prices and stuff, please check on this very helpful web site: http://www.andeshandbook.org/senderismo/ruta/620/Macizo_del_Paine.
First trek: from Torre Central Refuge to Seron Camp
We spent our first night in a small camping area in Torre Central, which is in between the Paine’s towers trek and the first trek of the big circuit. This is not the same camping as “Base Torres”, which is only 45 minute walk to the towers (and needs reservation). Some people prefer sleeping here to go see the towers during sun rise, I’m sure it’s awesome!
On this trek we walked approx. 5 hours, and got to know for the first time the crazy wind of the Patagonia. As soon as we arrived we set up our tent and hoped for the wind not to break it. Luckily it didn’t, just bent it… but not all people got lucky (you need to take a wind-resistant tent).
Trek 2: from Seron to Dickson Camp
Dickson is one of the most beautiful campings of the circuit, although we got the worst weather ever: snow, clouds and freezing cold. Some people were even going back. But we didn’t want to abandon the mission, so from this camp onwards, I rented an extra sleeping bag so I wouldn’t freeze overnight. It costed the same as the camping (7.000 CLP).
Trek 3: Dickson – Los Perros
Los Perros camping is wet, dark and smelly. Here we bought the most expensive wine and shared with our new friends: the porteadores. Their job consisted of carrying other people’s stuff. The maximum weight is 15 kilos plus their own stuff, so at least they carry 20 kilos. But they have the option to carry double weight if they want, and get double salary. So some of them were used to have 30 kilos on their back! And there I was, complaining about my 12 kilos backpack… “It is impressive” we thought, the resistance they have, body and mind. They sure got interesting stories about the Patagonia and its mountains.
Trek 4: Los Perros – Paso
The ultimate challenge. It was the hardest (and the highest) part of the trek. We had planned to go directly to Grey camp, but by the time we reached Paso, after 6 hours of trek which included going up and down a mountain, it was over for me. Paso is the camp with worst conditions. You will find only one latrine, at least, it is for free.
This was the second and the last day we had great weather conditions, sunny and no crazy wind. Since we were going on top of a mountain (of approx. 1.600 meters), close to Campos de Hielo Sur and Glaciar Grey we found snow on the trail but not as much. Claudia got her feet wet but that didn’t stop her firm steps. I could see her from far down wishing to get closer. But suddenly, I got to see the spectacular view of the endless ice dunes. This was the moment where I remember exactly why it’s worth the pain. And I could only feel grateful for the good weather that allowed me even to contemplate for a while, and, of course, take some pictures.
Trek 5: Paso – Grey
This trek was hard especially because of the wild wind. It got scary since the trail was pretty narrow in some parts. I couldn’t stop thinking: “this is definitely the most extreme thing I have ever done”. It was a bit frightening, but pretty exciting.
Camping Grey has great facilities, good showers and good space for cooking as well.
Tip: Be careful with the water. Do not drink from the tap and, when cooking, be sure to boil it very well, since it is common to see some stomach virus going on, especially if you are on a busy month.
Trek 6: Grey – Paine Grande
Paine Grande was one of the best equipped camps we saw, they have lots of space, many toilets and showers, but it was really crowded! So, if you go on a busy month like we did, expect a queue for everything.
As soon as we arrived, I decided to abort mission. I was pretty sick because of the virus that was circling, so I decided to take the catamaran that led me out of the park and into a nice and hot shower. Although I abandoned the circuit, I’m happy to have done it. I’m still proud of being able to walk with heavy backpack in those hard conditions. I’m also grateful that we got to see spectacular views, in spite of the bad weather. But you already know, Patagonia’s weather can be in the way and also, your heavy backpack can really kill your appreciation for the ride. This is why I want to emphasize: only take what you really need.
Tip: when packing your backpack, consider on taking good quality hiking clothes. You should dress in three layers (first layer that dries humidity, a layer coat and waterproof-breathable layer), so you can accommodate to the abrupt changes of the weather. Use the same clothes for every trekking. Yes, you would probably smell, but it is Ok, everyone smells too anyways. Keep a change of clothes for when you reach every camp (you can sleep in this clothes too, you don’t need to carry PJ’s). Carry an extra pair of socks, you will be very pleased to change into dry socks. You’ll need a light sleeping bag, good for under zeros temperatures, hiking boots that have already been used, a good torch and a good attitude!
What I missed: Valle del Frances
It is the last trek of the circuit, and I hear it’s beautiful. It is also a part of the W trek, so I’m guessing it’s pretty crowded. Camping costs 7.000 CLP.