The Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is the most famous national park in Chile. The Torres del Paine – The Towers of Paine – is technically part of the Patagonian Andes Mountain range, but isn’t actually part of the main Andes chain. It’s also the second most expensive hiking area in South America after Machu Picchu.
There are three main hikes in the Parque Nacional, the W, the O and the Q.
The W is the main reason the park is so popular. It sees hundred of thousands of walkers a year, sometimes with a hundred tents at each camping site each day during peak times – December to March. It’s called the W because of the distinctive W shape that it makes from one end to the other. On average it takes between 3 and 5 days to hike and there are refugios – small hotel facilities that rent beds, provide food etc – along the way, so not all travellers have to carry equipment or camp if they choose not to. You must pay to camp and most camping sites and they provide facilities such as toilets. During the low season, some of the campsites are closed – you can still camp there, it’s free, but the facilities are all closed.
The Paine Circuit, is called the O because it walks you around the entire Paine Massif. It’s not really in the shape of an O, as it includes the W and takes 8-10 days to complete. It’s where hikers go to both avoid the crowds of the W and to get a more hardcore experience – the paso John Gardner. During peak seasons, though, there can still be plentiful people on the O, sometimes up to 50 tents at the the one Refugio on the other side.
The Q, is simply the O, but with the extension added, a small ‘tail’ heading from the Administration building, for almost 20km to the beginning of the W. This adds another day to the O.
For my hike, I decided to do the Q and went along to the daily information session at the Erratic Rock, a hostel in Puerto Natales, to find other hikers to do it with. There were 4 others that I joined up with and while I’d only be walking with one other during the day, we’d hang out together as a group at each campsite. Walking alone is not recommended when doing the circuit, as Paso John Gardner can be challenging. We also planned to do the hike over 10 days, although that could change as we go depending on whether and length of some sections. At Erratic Rock, there were 30 other people that were planning to do the W. It’s low season, but it will still be fairly busy.
Day 1 – Administrativa to Campamento Las Carretas
We designed today to be a short day along the tail of the Q and as an initial warm up for the coming days.
At 7:30am the bus picked up the masses from around town to head the 2 hour journey to the entrance of the Parque Nacional. While it’s the end of the season, there are still 5 buses going. We stop at the entrance – Porteria Y Guardia Laguna Amarga – where we pay the entrance fee and watch a short ‘be nice to our parque’ video. Some walkers leave from here via a short van ride to the Hotel Las Torres – the official eastern starting point of the hike – but most continue on to the western start point, via catamaran across the Lago Pehoe – another 30 minutes on the bus.
Then on a single bus, my little team of five, continue for yet another 30 minutes to the parque administrativa centre and the beginning of the Q.
After some last minute preparation, we walked out across the flat grassy plain with the entire massif in the distance. Most of the two hours of todays hike was flat until the last couple of hundred metres where hills ran up the side of Rio Grey.
As we walk, we split into two teams, myself and an American guy walk together, while the others are two Australians – a guy and girl – and a female Brit. It doesn’t take us long to arrive at the camp site and we set up our tents and check out the place. There are only a small number of tent sites, a cooking shelter and a toilet, that we promptly ban anyone from using, preferring the wilderness latrine style of digging a hole. The day had been beautiful, so the five of us hung out as we cooked dinner and chatted until it grew dark.
While we were there, we met a Polish couple going the other way. They had just done the W and it had rained for all 5 days. We are hoping for a better experience.
Overnight it did rain a little and we were woken by brisk winds blasting at our tents. While the wind remained in the morning, there were blue skies.
Day 2 – Campamento Las Carretas to Campamento Italiano
We headed out into the brisk wind through the hills above Rio Grey. We weaved along the side of the river for some time eventually taking a break in a protected valley as the rio turned off.
The hill then led down onto a yellow grass plain where wind hurtled towards us with such force that at times we couldn’t move forward. With packs on, the wind can really blow you around. We struggled on towards the main towers of Cerro Paine Grande.
Eventually we arrived at Mirador Pehoe – a lookout across Lago Pehoe – the aqua waters being hammered by the winds.
We spied the midday catamaran crossing the lake to deliver a new load of hikers to the refugio. From the mirador the terrain became more hilly and we climbed up and down through burnt forest. We eventually came down a steep hill and arrived at Refugio Paine Grande where we stopped for lunch.
The refugio has a shop and I enjoyed a coke and some chocolate before we headed off again. The terrain became fairly hilly as we headed for the next campsite under the 3km tall towering mass of Cerro Paine Grande – the tallest peak of the massif. We passed several groups of people, going in both directions. The next couple of days is going to be busy as we’re on the W, the most popular part of the hike. We then walked along the length of the Lago Skottsberg, it’s water a totally different blue…
We took a break as the trail began to get a little muddy. It was here that the burnt trees stopped and living trees began again. We set off again towards the rocky spires of Cuernos del Paine, which will be above tonight’s campsite.
A one point, a group of guys came past and between them a guy sitting on a specially designed wheeled carriage, obviously specially designed for him. It was great to see how the group had found a way for their less able friend to hike with them. We continued on passing the snow covered glacier face of Cumbre Principle – the main peak of Cerro Paine Grande. We arrived at a river and crossed into Campamento Italiano. After setting up camp, our little group of five sat at the river watching pieces of the glacier calve off from the mountain.
The Trail Wanderer