Torres del Paine. the good, the bad, the ugly.

by Tobi on December 23, 2012

Torres del Paine.  the good, the bad, the ugly.

This year I continued my tradition of Thanksgiving-travel by visiting Patagonia, and Torres del Paine was the first of the highlights.  Before getting started though: Paine has nothing to do with pain.  It's an indigenous word for blue, in reference to the color of the lakes.  It's pronounced something like pa-ee-ne.


Though I had originally thought about trying the grand circuit, I changed my plans to only do the shorter "W" trek, named for its shape on a map.  The W takes the trekker to most of the highlights of the park, without the need to carry camping gear and food, as there are hostels (called refugios) and campsites, sometimes with tent rentals, along the way.


My endeavor was off to a bad start: I had planned to take the 6pm catamaran to Paine Grande, but it was so windy that the catamaran was cancelled.  With no means of getting to my first night's campsite and no other place to spend the night, I had to return to Puerto Natales and tried again the next morning, that time with more success.  Lesson: it really is windy in Patagonia, and even on the W, carrying your own tent can have its advantages.


Having lost half a day, I had to cut down the leg toward glacier Grey, and only made it to a hill overlooking its lake.  The weather was still dark and gloomy (and, yes, windy).  As I turned east again and walked around Paine Grande mountain, along lake Nordenskjold, the clouds started to break up slowly, and the hike became more fun as the day went on.  In the sun, the name Paine makes sense: the greenish blue color of the lakes easily rivals any Caribbean postcard.


I spent my first night in refugio Cuernos, where I had rented a tent along with sleeping bag and pad, and had signed up for dinner and breakfast at the refugio.  The tent was good quality, the campsites generally in sheltered places. And being cheaper, I would recommend them over the refugio itself.  By American conventions, I would call it a 2-person tent, meaning that at 6'3, I had to lay down diagonally.  I was warned that the sleeping bag was only made for people up to 5'11, and can vouch for that.


The next day, the weather was perfect.  The local joke is that you can have 4 seasons all in one day, and so I decided to make the most of it and spent much of the day on the trails, leading me up to the viewpoint of the towers that give the park its name in the afternoon.  The view really is amazing.  I had never seen such huge towers of granite.  Hiking the W west-to-east definitely makes this a worthy highlight at the end.  Most trails on the W are easy or moderate, only the final ascent to the viewpoint was strenuous.  Bad weather and strong winds will make everything harder though.


The trek ended the next day, when I hiked from the Chileno camp to Laguna Amargas, and took the bus from there to El Calafate.


As usual, a lot was learned along the way…


The good:  Overall, I had good weather, which made the trek a lot of fun.  The scenery is stunning and beautiful, even if not as massive as the Himalaya.  Having refugios at the end of every day’s hike makes the trek a lot easier.  You can drink the water from streams, and I did not see a single piece of garbage during my time there.


The bad:  In bad weather, this place is no fun, except for the hardiest of backcountry fans.  And the W is touristy.  Come here for the scenic sights or to practice your German, Spanish and French with fellow travelers from Europe.  Don’t come for solitude.  By backpackers’ standards, this park is not cheap either.


The ugly:  Travelers have caused 3 large fires in the park in recent years.  Just last year someone tried to burn toilet paper, and ended up incinerating 60 square miles of the park.  As a result, the woods in the western third of the W are gone and the hike through what remains is depressing.


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