One of the first conversations I usually end up having with a Chilean person who I meet for the first time is about where I have gone and what I have seen of Chile in my two years here. Part of my answer has always been the fairly typical touristy places such as San Pedro de Atacama and Valparaiso. But beyond that I usually surprise people since I have been to many small, off-the-beaten-track locations that your average Chilean has not visited. However, in these same conversations I am usually asked in I have been to Torres del Paine which is the most famous and renowned attraction in Chile. Up until last week, my answer was always “not yet”. But not any more…I can finally say “yes, I have”!!!
Torres del Paine is a national park in the Magellanes region of Chilean Patagonia and is also a UNECSO World Heritage Site. The name is a mixture of Spanish (Torres = Towers) and the language of the native (extinct)Tehuelche people (Paine = Blue). Some of the peaks have a blueish tinge thanks to the unique geological history of the area.
Approaching the park by bus from the closest town Puerto Natales (170km away), I was struck by how the famous peaks abruptly ascend from the surrounding rolling hills. Over a very short distance the altitude changes from a few hundred metres above sea level to over 3000m. This dramatic landscape of the torres (towers), cuernos (horns) and peaks is something that has to be seen to be believed. I don`t think any photo or words can really do it justice. But I will give it a try anyway…
Most tourists in Torres do one of two trekking routes: 1) The 3 or 4 day W circuit or 2) the 8 day O circuit. While I do consider myself to be fairly fit and accustomed to hiking, the O was definitely too daunting since it meant carrying all your provisions for 8 days (besides the fact that we didn`t have that length of time available). But based on the advice of Rodrigo`s cousin who lives in the south and worked as a park official in Torres, we decided to do the W (with a few deviations from the norm).
After setting up camp at our first site, we quickly packed some provisions, picked up our walking sticks (no longer will I ever think that walking sticks are for the elderly) and headed up the first valley to view the Towers after which the park is named. The weather was predicted to be rather unstable and thus we were never really sure if the Torres would be covered in cloud when we reached them or not (this is a very common occurrence). But the whole route up we caught glimpses of them and the clouds appeared to be holding off thank goodness.
The first ascent was rather brutal. Not because it was that steep, but because the landscape was rather boring, with just grass and small bushes.
Although looking behind us at one point we had a spectacular view of the rolling hills which looked quite velvety.
But after about an hour or so, we came around a bend in the path and besides being hit by an incredibly strong wind, we were looking down on the most beautiful, lush valley with thick forests and a raging river far beneath us.
The next two hours or so, we snaked along the valley floor, close to the river and through these amazing forests.
Juan Carlos and I crossing the river through the forest.
Then came the final push… 45 minutes of steep climbing over loose stones in and huge boulders. In this area we were also hit by the full force of the wind rushing down from the peaks above us. But we couldn`t really moan and groan too much because I was struck by the amount of elderly people (mostly British) putting us to shame by hiking up the steep path as if they were out for a Sunday stroll in the Cotswolds.
But all the effort was truly worth it when we came around the final rock and were face to face with the three HUGE, granite towers and a vertical granite wall below which was a small glacial lake.
The colour of the lake is rather difficult to describe – a blue/grey, milky colour due to the glacier above.
Sitting on a rock looking at this majectic scene made me feel truly small and insignificant. Sadly for us though, we were sharing the experience with a loud, rather uncouth Chilean family who insisted on shouting to eachother from different rocks and screaming instructions on how they wanted their photos. Never mind that the rest of us wanted to sit and contemplate the awesome power of nature in peace and quiet.
Besides the rude family, we had another reason to head back down the mountain before too long and that was the 9km we had to hike back down the valley to our campsite. We didn`t want to be caught in the mountains after dark and the sun was already hidden behind the storm clouds blowing over from the north.
We made it back to camp around 8pm, tired, but very content and feeling very privileged to be able to have had the experience of seeing the Torres up close, in all their glory.
Day 1 Statistics:
Distance: 18km (return)
Time: 8 hours
Change in altitude: 850m
Wind: Strong in parts, but we could still stand without having to use our hiking sticks (not having technical meteorological equipment, this was my measuring system…)