Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Torres del Paine: Hiking the W Circuit

One of the best parts of our travels through Patagonia in February was doing the "W" in the Torres del Paine National Park. It really is worth the hype- the views are constantly spectacular, no matter where you are in the park, and while the crowds can leave you feeling claustrophobic at times, one benefit is the opportunity to meet interesting travelers from every corner of the globe.

There are two main options for long hikes in the park: the "W" or the "O" circuits.
The "O" is much longer and does a complete loop around the main peaks in the center of the park. It can take anywhere from 4 to 7 days depending on how fast you hike. The "W" is much shorter, only going around one side of the peaks in the shape of a "w", and takes about 3-6 days. If you're doing the "W" you can start from the east or west side of the park. If you start on the east you will go straight from where the bus drops you off at the park entrance to the trail and will head up to see the Torres first.

Photo from here.
We started from the west, which I really recommend, because it means that you are always facing the best views of the peaks as you walk and you can save the Torres for last. If you go this way, you have to catch the ferry when you first arrive in the park. Just stay on the bus until the last stop to get there. The ferry gives you gorgeous views of all the main peaks as you cross the lake, so have your camera ready!

Day 1: Glacier Grey

Walking down to see Glacier Grey at the end of day 1
After getting off the ferry by Lodge Paine Grande, we started the trail to Refugio Grey. We started at about 2 or 3 p.m. and the trail took us about 2.5 or 3 hours so we arrived at the refugio (lodge) just around dinner time. Along the trail were burnt forests from the huge wildfire a few years ago, as well as beautiful wildflowers, views of the lake, and glimpses of the glacier. After arriving at the refugio, we set up camp and walked down a short trail to see Glacier Grey, which is small but very pretty and an exciting way to end the first day of the "W".

Day 2: Refugio Lago Grey to Campamento Italiano

View of Los Cuernos just after leaving Lodge Paine Grande
The next day we hiked about 2.5 hours back to where we got off the ferry the previous day by Lodge Paine Grande. We stopped in the lodge for coffee and lunch (our own food as all the food in the park is outrageously expensive) and then continued our hike towards Campamento Italiano. Along the way we had stunning views of the Los Cuernos peaks. The trail was not difficult and we arrived at Italiano around 2 or 3 p.m. Italiano is a nice campground, sheltered by tall pine trees and next to a river with clean drinking water; it's also one of the only free campgrounds in the park, which means you can only stay there one night.

Day 3: Campamento Frances and Los Cuernos

The river by Italiano - the campground is in the trees to the right
Because of the "one night" rule at Italiano, which we didn't know about until we arrived there, we had to wake up early the next day and move our things to the next campground nearby, Campamento Frances. It's the newest campground in the park with raised platforms under an area sheltered by trees (but nevertheless very windy!) It's more expensive than the other campgrounds in the park, but it's only 1.5 hours from Italiano so it can also be used as a base camp for doing the Los Cuernos trail.

View from the top of the Los Cuernos trail
After setting up at Frances we hiked back to Italiano and started the Los Cuernos trail, which goes straight up a very steep incline towards a viewpoint of the peaks. From there you hike a long a much flatter route through beautiful forests and alpine meadows to the final viewpoint of the mountains. It was beautiful but also very windy and cold, with off and on rain the entire way.

Day 4: Frances to Campamento Chileno

Hiking through the valley towards Chileno and the Torres
This was our longest day on the "W" and it started off wet, with about 2 or 3 hours of hiking in our rain gear through the mud. The trail takes you along the beach of the lake, then up to another refugio where you could camp if you wanted to break the trail into two shorter parts. We continued on, through lovely meadows and eventually up a very steep slope towards the entrance to the valley that leads to the Torres. At the very top of the hill where you enter the valley, the winds can be really strong and the drop on the side of the trail is pretty high, but after that it's a gradual descent towards Chileno at the base of the valley. We camped out there beside the river (which you have to pay for) and enjoyed cooking a hot dinner inside one of the park's biggest lodges for campers. Because of past wildfires that destroyed so much of the park, campers can only cook inside specified buildings or shelters, some of which are tiny and you may have to wait a long time for a spot at a table to cook dinner.

Day 5: Chileno to Campamento Torres

Getting some rest before our 4 a.m. climb to the Torres!
We decided we really wanted one day to relax and we also wanted to climb up and see the Torres at dawn, so day 5 was a very short 2 hour hike up to the base camp by the Torres. We set up camp around noon and then just spent the rest of the day wandering around the old growth forest nearby and relaxing. It was a great chance to have some quiet time in the park and really enjoy the scenery without big backpacks.

Day 6: Las Torres - the end of the W!

On our final day in the park, we woke up at about 4 a.m. and joined the other campers at Campamento Torres in climbing the steep, rocky trail up to the towers in the dark with our headlamps. It was reminiscent of climbing Mt. Fuji during the peak season - a long chain of hikers in the dark slowly making our way up the mountain. But unlike Fuji it's a much shorter and less difficult climb. After about 1.5 hours we made it to the top and then sat around admiring the towers in the dark while waiting for the sunrise. Other, smarter people had brought sleeping bags and hot drinks with them - which in retrospect, would have been worth it, as it was freezing up there.

Despite the cold, the sunrise was absolutely beautiful and definitely worth waking up at 4 a.m. to see. It was definitely the best part of the hike and I'm so glad that we saved it for our last day.

Absolutely worth the cold, dark climb to see such a gorgeous sunrise on the towers
 After watching the sunrise on the Torres, we hiked back down, packed up, and then hiked back through the valley and out to the nearest bus stop that would take us out of the park. Leaving the park was a typically Chilean chaotic experience, with people scrambling to get onto the buses and no one bothering to stick with the bus company they originally had tickets for. It's a first come, first serve mess and something the park really needs to improve for the future. But we were able to get on a bus and made it back to Puerto Natales in time for showers, clean clothes and a really fantastic dinner at a lovely microbrewery in town.

Torres del Paine is crowded, but it's absolutely worth visiting. The views, the Torres, and the other travelers made for a fantastic, memorable experience that I am really grateful to have had.

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