Punta Arenas and Torres Del Paine

The strange feeling we got from reaching the destination we had been thinking about for the past year quickly passed as we headed back to the South American mainland. After a quick tire change we headed out of Punta Arenas for a hike toward Cabo Froward, the southernmost point of the mainland. We went for a beautiful day hike along the Straight of Magellan out to a lighthouse. A great introduction to the hikes to come.

From there it was only a few hours to Puerto Natales. We spent our coldest night of the entire trip on the way there. Leika’s water bowl froze overnight, our olive oil was no longer liquid, but we were completely fine without a heater, just using a second blanket. A benefit of having our bed platform up high is that it stays warmer there. Just getting out of bed was a bit more difficult that morning!

Before we could visit Torres Del Paine National Park, we had to find a place for Leika to stay. Unfortunately the park doesn’t allow dogs, and since we wanted to do a multi-day hike there, we were in a bit of a bind. However, after some asking around we found a hostel owner who offered to watch her for us – he had a dog himself and said it wouldn’t be a problem for as long as we want. So we stocked up on food, got all the info on hikes, and drove into the park.

We decided to do the ‘O’ hike, which is about a 130km loop. We had heard that it may not be possible to do this loop because there’s a mountain pass that is closed out of season, but went ahead and started the hike the next morning. As we were getting close to our camp in the afternoon, we came across three guys from Ohio that had just been turned around by a park ranger. He had told them that the pass was closed and so they headed back. We went to our camp site and had dinner. We met some other people at the camp site who had just crossed the path the other way, which apparently was allowed. It was only in our direction that people got turned around. When the ranger stopped by to tell us that we needed to hike out, we were really bummed out. So we did the logical thing (ha), got up at 4:30am and started hiking up the pass, hoping to avoid the ranger. We knew the weather had been ok, with no snow on the pass. While we were hiking in the dark it was actually hard to find the trail, as it was often muddy with lots of leaves. A dying headlamp didn’t exactly help the case. Our constant fear of being chased down by the ranger didn’t either. We didn’t stop to take a break until 9 in the morning, paranoid to get caught at every turn.

We did make it over the snow-free pass, and started hiking down. All of a sudden the clouds cleared off, and we started seeing a blue-white object down in the distance. It was Glacier Grey! Within 20 minutes the sky cleared up and we were on a hiking trail next to / above a massive glacier, and we could see the flow of ice from the ice field all the way to Lago Grey. It was the most impressive thing we’ve seen. After lunch and finally realizing that we no longer needed to fear the ranger chasing us, we got to enjoy the views at the next campground. Given that it was only 2pm even after an extensive break, we decided to head on and continue on the trail to the next campground. As we arrived, we found out that it had been closed, so we continued onward for a second day of 30km. We arrived at Refugio Grey, one of the more luxurious campgrounds we have ever seen (hot showers!) and set up our tent, exhausted.

The beauty of Torres del Paine is truly stunning. Around every corner we saw fascinating scenery that kept the camera out the entire time. And without planning for it, we were here at the right time with the weather not too cold but the summer crowds gone. We continued our third day in the park with a bit of a shorter hike to the next valley. Unfortunately Valle de Frances was closed due to heavy snowfall. After setting up camp, we did a quick hike and a glimpse of some peaks and glaciers around us (lucky), and then turned back. I’m glad we did as Nikki’s achilles had been acting up from the long days the day before, so an “easier” 20 km day was in order.

The views continued as we headed out from Campamento Italiano. Since leaving from Pennsylvania, we had been getting up around sunrise every morning, a rhythm that had us up and about at 6 or 7 am every morning. It was funny because we were always packed up, ready to go after our breakfast as others were crawling out of their sleeping bags. It also kept the trails emptier for part of the day. On day 4 of the hike, we headed towards the Torres, which the park is named after. We set up camp and headed up to the main view point, in perfect weather. It was gusty with really strong winds that could easily sweep you of your feet and blow dust into your eyes. We spent some time watching the rock formations and taking pictures.

Back in camp we met a few other backpackers that were finishing up their hike as well. After heading up to the viewpoint again in the morning for sunrise, we packed up and made our way down, back to our car. We were hoping it hadn’t been blown away by the wind. Everything was in order, so we packed up our things, ate some victory chocolate, and gave our new acquaintances a ride back to Puerto Natales. At night we celebrated with pizza and beer at Mesita Grande, which we can also highly recommend.

Torres del Paine is a fantastic park. It offers something for everyone (you can do it in luxury or free with no amenities), has well-marked trails, amazing scenery. We also got all the weather we could have asked for (sun, rain, snow, wind, heat, cold…), and in the shoulder season we didn’t feel it was crowded. This place should make any list of “must see before you die” (and it probably does already without me writing it).

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