Patagonia would be my last adventure before returning to my home country of Colombia. I found a flight for only US$673 to cross practically the longest stretch of South America from Barranquilla all the way to Punta Arenas. It took me a full two days to make it to Puerto Natales where I began my travels in the Patagonia region. Unfortunately whenever I arrive late in the night to a new place something usually goes wrong. Arriving into Bogota to spend the first night was not easy. The hotel manager could not find my reservation and tried turning me away at 1:00am. I was upset of course and did not leave his lobby until he found me other accomodations. Come on! It is 1:00am and I am in a big unknown city! He finally helped me and sent me to a friend’s hotel nearby and paid for the taxi ride there. Something similar happened when I arrived into Puerto Natales from Punta Arenas by bus on the second day. The lady that ran the guesthouse that I had booked did not want to open the door for me at 2:00am. She just looked through the window everytime I rang the bell (and I rang it three times) but would not open the door. This is even after having emailed her to tell her that I would be arriving at that time and to let me know if there would be any issues. In this case the driver stayed with me until I found other accomodations in town. Punta Arenas, my first stop was nice but I did not stay there very long since I was on a mission to get to Natales as fast as I could. I had to begin my trek in Torres del Paine as soon as possible, my time in Chile was limited. Puerto Natales is a great little town with lots of good restaurants, trekking gear shops, and lots of hostels. I highly recommend Lili Patagonico’s where the service is very good, the beds comfy and clean, the breakfast is included and very complete, and they do laundry as well. This is also a good base town to head into Ushuaia or Tierra del Fuego.
My trip in Patagonia begins with a visit to the Torres del Paine National Park. This is a beautiful park inside the protected area of Magallanes in the Chilean Patagonia. I had dreamt about doing the well-known “W” trek for a few years; which consists of 76 km (45mi) of hiking up and down well-marked and beaten paths around spectacular scenery. In a matter of a few hours you are in the middle of green steppe, gigantic rocks, ice fields, glaciers, tall snow-capped mountains, lakes, and sheer walls of gray granite. There are also many animals around including the guanacos, the Andean Condor, Pumas, and deer amongst others. Unfortunately I was not lucky enough to see a Puma but I heard from two girls that arrived at my campsite the second night that they had seen two Pumas walking on a mountain near the Catamaran dock. How lucky!
You can take as much time as you want to do the W trek, however, you have to reserve all of your campsites or refuge stays in advance. You can always pay a tour company to arrange everything for you, from your permit, to your night accomodations, all meals and snacks, and even porters to carry your bags. I decided to do the entire trek on my own, not only because I was on a tight budget but because I wanted to show myself that I could do it. One of those times in life when I wanted to see what I was made of. I was also craving for some alone time in nature. I wanted to experience this beautiful trek enjoying every sound and sight. The difference in prices between the two ways is big. If you join a tour group you may pay around US$3,000 for 5 days. I did the entire trek for only US$200, including permits, camping gear, food, and even one night at one of the refuge dormitories. If you would like a very detailed explanation of how you can plan this trek, please visit my friend Rebecca’s blog: https://28tolifeblog.wordpress.com. The most complete post that I have seen on the subject so far. I followed every piece of advise she gives and it all worked really well for me.
I took a bus from Puerto Natales to the National Park and after paying the entry permit, I got back on the bus to continue on to the last stop where everyone has to get off, at the Pudeto Guarderia on the East side of the park. This is the place from where you take the Catamaran across the Pehoe Lake to the Paine Grande. This is if you want to do the trek from West to East. I had reserved all of my campsites about two months in advance and I was able to find camping at all of my chosen sites except for Grey Glacier where I stayed in a dorm room in the refuge. I rented all of the camping gear and bought all the food that I would eat in the next 5 days in Puerto Natales.
Here is a quick recount of my trip day by day:
Paine Grande to Grey Glacier Refuge: My first day in the park was the most spectacular one, not only because I had began a long-awaited adventure but because I got to see my first glacier against water, ever! This was exactly what I pictured everytime someone spoke about Patagonia, big glaciers against big bodies of water. We had arrived to Paine Grande at around 11:00am. I took about an hour to have some lunch and repack. I decided to pay for storage to keep my sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent there since I had a dorm bed at Refugio Grey. This would save me at least 3kg of weight on my hike of 11km (6.5mi) to Grey. It was a beautiful hike to say the least and I arrived to the refuge just before sunset. I dropped my stuff off and took an extra 20-minute walk to reach the furthest point on the mountain before reaching the water on Grey Lake. I enjoyed the sunset right in front of the Grey glacier. It was truly spectacular to see my first glacier of Patagonia. A massive body of ice extending for miles and miles from the mountains onto Grey Lake. One of the most incredible sites I had ever laid eyes on. It was incredible to hear how the ice moved around on the water. I got to see pieces of ice falling off the glacier and crashing into the water. It sounded like thunder. There was a group of kayakers manuvering around the big pieces of ice; which looked very risky but definitely fun. I walked up to the tallest point on the hill, from where I could see a big island of ice or rather big icebergs that had broken off the glacier and were floating solo. After such wonderful day I didn’t know what to expect from the rest of the trip. It was already really awesome!
Grey Glacier to Italiano: The following morning of Day 2, I retraced my steps and followed the same trail back to Paine Grande. If you can imagine the shape of a “W”, I was doing the first line on the left of the letter. These were the same exact 11km with the same scenery but somehow felt a lot longer. I made it back to the Grande refuge to get my stuff back from storage. I took about an hour to have lunch and repack my entire bag so that I could continue trekking to my destination, Camp Italiano where I would spend my second night. The trail to Italiano is one of the easiest parts of the W trek but it seemed hard since I was carrying an additional 5kg on me and I was already tired from the first day. It was another 7.6km to Italiano where I crossed a bridge across the Rio Frances before reaching the camping grounds. The scenery seemed to keep getting better and better. This time I was by a beautiful rushing river just below the Frances Glacier. After checking in, setting up camp and making dinner, I headed back down to the river to sit on the rocks and admire the beautiful glacier while I ate my dinner. Everyone else stayed in the asigned area for cooking so I had the entire rocky river area to myself. It was a very peaceful night with the sound of the rushing river putting me to sleep. Italiano is one of the free camps offered by the park, and one of the best.
Italiano to Frances camping: The third day was a bit easier. I was in the middle of the “W” shape at this point. It was only a 2.5km hike from Italiano to the Frances and Britanico miradores (viewpoints). This was all up hill but without any gear since we could leave it at the campsite during the day. On the hike I met a really nice couple of travelers, Carrie and Mark, two very succesful professionals in their fields, from Australia, who had also quit their jobs and were just beginning their journey around the world. There were a few of us hiking on the trail that day in a cloudy, foggy, cold morning. We were lucky enough to see the Frances Glacier from the Frances Mirador; which would be hidden inside the clouds for the next few days later that same day. We met other travelers along the way and we all got to observe the most spectacular show of ice falling off the Glacier. Some of us continued on to the highest point, the Mirador Britanico; which was two more hours up the mountain. When we got there it was completely covered in fog and we did not get to see anything. We were dissapointed as this was one of the best views in the entire park but we were still happy to have made it up there safely. It was wet and slipery all around.
After enjoying one last stop at the Frances Mirador (on the way back down) we made it back to camp to get our backpacks and continue on the trail only 2km (1mi) to Camp Frances where we all had reservations to spend the night. Camp Frances offered nice camping platforms all up the side of the mountain where we could set up our tents. They had the best looking bathrooms and showers of the entire W trek. The staff there was super nice and helpful, they even helped me set up my tent. They also had a beautiful restaurant near the domes area where the dormitories were located. The refuge area was located on the banks of the Nordenskjold Lake. That night I made a delicious mixture of couscous, nuts, raisins, and tuna; which tasted amazing… or maybe it just tasted great because I was really hungry.
Frances to Cuernos: I woke up to heavy rain, with lots of hiking ahead, but my knee was feeling better. I began my trek in the rain with Mark and Carrie. I had about 8 to 9 hours of hiking ahead of me. Immediately after I began the trek I was completely soaked. I had bought a cheap rain coat that ended up not being a real rain coat. It was also a bit big on me so the water just kept going in through the neck area. Only 5km into the hike and I was already shivering and exhausted. I was also terrified because we had to cross a creek that had grown so much due to the rains that became rushing white water. I have a fear of being in white water and of course losing control and falling. One of the guides that was on the other side of the river helped me cross. The stress that I felt was so bad that I immediately developed a migraine and I could not see through my left eye. I continued the hike in the rain but with Mark and Carrie. About 1.5 hours later, we had arrived at the Camp Cuernos where I decided to take a rest and asked Carrie and Mark to move on without me. I would catch up with them later at another camp. I found out through other hikers, who were going the opposite way, that all river crossings between Central (where I had reservations for the night) and Cuernos (where I was) were out of control and hard to cross. The thought of going through white water with my heavy pack and in my already wet clothes made me very afraid. I decided to talk to the reception at Cuernos and pretty much beg for them to let me use one of the “emergency” tents. They let me stay the night but it did not come cheap. I had to pay for the tent and all meals at the refuge; which turned out to be around US$75. I was hoping that the rains would stop by that night. After getting a good night’s rest I could finish the additional 7 hours that I still had to hike to reach Camp Central. I met some really nice Chilean people at Cuernos; which entertained me the rest of the day with their stories. We spent the entire day trying to dry our clothes by the fire in the dining room and hearing everyone’s stories about the non-stop rain and flooding everywhere. The refuge staff said that they had not seen a storm like this one in years.
Cuernos to Central: The next day it was not raining, great news! we had a great five hour hike to camp Central. We crossed many streams and some bigger rivers but all manageable. I still got my feet wet crossing many rivers but they had already gone down a lot. I was very happy to have changed my plan and stayed at Cuernos. We got a couple of good glimpses of the cuernos or horns and fantastic views of the Nordenskjold lake. We had heard that the trail to Torres, the end point of the W and the one that offers the best views of the famous pointy towers of granite rock had been closed. The trail had been eroded by the rains. A few hours later I said goodbye to my new friends and continued on my own to Central. My Chilean friends went up the mountain to stay in Camp Chileno. Camp Central was very big since it is the closest to the park entrance where a lot of day hikers stay. It was also by one of the bigger rivers in the park; which made for a very relaxing camping experience.
The following day we had a clearing in the clouds and were all able to see Torres from the camp just for a few minutes before the clouds covered them again.
I left my bags at Central since I would later take a bus from there to leave the park. I hiked up to the Camp Chileno to only find out that the rest of the trail to Torres was still closed and would not open until the following morning and it was not even for sure. I decided to turn around to catch the 2:30pm bus back to Puerto Natales. Although I did not see the most famous view of the Torres on my W hike, I was very happy to have seen Grey and Frances Glaciers, and the Cuernos. A lot of people did not even get to see any of these because of the storm.
The bus trip back to Natales was excellent. We saw big groups of Guanacos, flamingos, and sheep. This was a beautiful trek and a wondeful place to learn to backpack on my own, well, mostly on my own as it was always easy to meet people along the way. If you decide to do this trek, I defnitely recommend going to the daily talk offered in Natales at Erratick Rock at 3:00pm, and also reading my friend’s blog for detailed information on how to prepare for it. Happy trekking!
When I found out that the most beautiful places in the Argentinean Patagonia were so close to Puerto Natales, I decided to plan a trip to Calafate. This is a small city near the Lago Argentino (lake) and the hub for trekkers that want to visit Los Glaciares National Park. I went to Calafate by bus; which takes 3 hours to reach from Natales. The border crossing was super fast and easy, we just had to unload the bus a couple of times to cross both check points. The town is very touristic and there are many “parrillada” restaurants, all types of outdoor stores, and outfitters to take you to many beautiful places in the park. Soon after arriving I headed to Hielo y Aventura to book the trek that I had dreamt about for a while, the “big ice”. This is a trek that takes 4 to 5 hours, where you use crampons and put on a harness for safety measures. They usually form groups of up to 10 people and a guide takes you deep into the glacier. It was a fantastic experience where we got to see small lakes, ice caves, and tall ice peaks. And what a small world! I ran into a friend that I had met in Beijing, China about 5 months earlier on my trip. We learned that unlike other glaciers that are retreating, this one is actually advancing everyday. There is snow that accumulates about 2 meters each day at the top of the southern icefield and makes the glacier move forward. This is why pieces of ice are constantly falling off everyday. The entire southern ice field is moving like water down onto the lake. The center of the glacier always moves faster and can be more unstable, this is why the sides are safer for doing the long treks. There are crevasses inside the glacier that are 30 meters deep. The guide tells us that this glacier usually advances fast but that the movement has also been affected by global warming. We walked for about 4.5 hours up and down the glacier making a loop. the guides dug little steps for us to avoid falling or breaking our ankles. We had lunch by a beautiful blue lake inside the glacier. We also learned that this was the first National Park in Argentina and the second in the world after Yellowstone. The glacier was named after Francisco Moreno a “perito” or an expert on the region that negotiated a lot of territory for Argentina at the time when Chile and Argentina had a big conflict over their borders.
This trek cost 4000 pesos or US$300; which was a lot for a budget traveler like me, specially at the end of my world trip, but it was well worth it. There was a cheaper option of US$160 but of only 1 hour on the ice, I thought it was not enough for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Before trekking on the glacier the tour included a stop at the balconies where you can get amazing views of the entire glacier and even see ice coming off the glacier and crashing into the water. Another beautiful spectacle of nature!
EL CHALTEN, ARGENTINA
I also took advantage of visiting El Chalten, a beautiful small town surrounded by tall peaks further up north, also on the southern ice field. This is the starting point for many famous hikes in the region, with the most important one being the iconic Fitz Roy Glacier. The bus trip was very scenic with views of snow capped mountains, tons of sheep, and vicuñas everywhere. We arrived at the visitor center where all buses have to stop for a talk from the rangers. Surprisingly I ran into Mark and Carrie, I was happy to see they had made it through the storm and were doing well.
El Chalten is a true wind tunnel. It is very hard to walk through town without being pushed over by the big gusts of wind. I rested in the Rancho Grande hostel and treated myself to one of the many great restaurants in town since there was nothing else to do in the crazy wind. The second day was sunny, the wind was very light and it was perfect for a good hike. I did a 12-mile round trip to Laguna de los tres; which is right at the base of Fitz Roy. The last kilometer of the hike is the hardest one. It is very steep and rocky but the views at the end more than make up for any difficulties.
Other almost equally amazing hikes in the park are “Mirador de Condores”, where I saw five condors flying over. The “Mirador de Aguilas” on the same trail offers incredible views of the gigantic Lago Viedma.
Patagonia was amazing; truly one of the most spectacular regions of the world. It was a very special part of the trip for me. It was the fulfillment of another one of my dreams… to see a glacier on water. And even better, to trek inside a glacier.