Let me start here: six days are not enough here.
Also, let it be known, I had six days filled with lemon drop sunshine, cotton candy clouds, dry ice fog, and not one drop of rain until the day we left. This is rare. And I can only thank the universe, God in her infinite glory, and Torres del Paine park itself for such a miracle.
In some ways, Patagonia is the raison d'être of my sabbatical. Yes, I had felt the itch to travel for a long while and an around-the-world trip, specifically, had filled my dreams for years. But as the sad end of 2016 came to a close, and the global nightmare of 2017 began, I started to realize I needed the wilderness. And not just six months away wilderness, time in the honest-to-god wilderness. We're talking John the Baptist, cloaks of camel's hair, leather belts, food of locust and wild honey kind of wilderness. No -- no, maybe not that extreme. But maybe just wild enough though to peer beyond the humanmade city walls to see that something still more magnificent awaits.
So that's when I started to think about Patagonia. First I looked into retreats, you know, Canyon Ranch style. Oh and they exist in Patagonia, for about the same price. (Sidebar, if I can ever afford Explora's ludicrous $1100/night "cheap room" I'll know I've made it.) So instead I found accommodations and a plan more suited to my bank account, age, and wilderness-need.
Enter the W trek.
I'm not a trekker. I don't hike. I don't run. But I have been known to walk around for hours on end with a massive backpack (right, Bri?) so I figured perhaps I could do a trek. Seriously, this is what I thought qualified me. And my sheer desire to get outside and experience something. I think the latter really kept me going even when my massively overpacked backpack was weighing me down.
If you're interested in a how-to guide for the trek, you can check out the Back-packer.org guide or Miss Tourist's W trek incredibly detailed choose-your-own-adventure plan. I will not write you a how-to guide. Frankly, I wouldn't trust my own advice because, unlike both of those writers, I got lost so damn often I'm just glad I have the photos to prove I was ever there.
That said, if you're a bit nervous about trekking the W, and perhaps you're deciding to do this on your own too, as a young-ish woman who has not really trekked before, then by all means, my trip will be a better guide for you. So for you, fellow city-dweller who follows the 'no fun, no gun, no run' mantra, I will write a guide for you. Later. I promise.
But for the rest of you who just want pretty pictures, well let's get at that shall we? I'll still narrate the experience for you day by day.
Day 1, Thursday - The "what the $%^@ was that" walk
I hiked "east to west" for those in the know, or those who know how to read a map. This is the map, for reference.
See how the map says like, oh, I dunno, 4 hours up to the Mirador Base Las Torres from Hotel Las Torres? So you think, ok, 4 hours up, 4 hours back, and actually I've already stashed the backpack at the Refugio so this should be a breeze. Well, when the sun rises at 8.30am and sets at about 6.30pm because it's fall, and you're only getting started at about 10am, that barely gives you enough time to get there and back in the daylight. And that's if you actually walk at pace, not stop-every-five-minutes to take a damn picture like me. And to whomever said "No hills, just a bit of climbing, not even every day" (Miss Tourist) well, I call bull. You see this 45 degree incline? I call that, oh I don't know, maybe a hill. And this is the first day.
So I started off this whole business of hiking with the assurances, you won't get lost, it won't be that hard, etc. etc. As they say, ignorance is bliss. But it also doesn't hurt to actually just be in pure bliss to start.
My morning started at 6am. Ever the nervous nelly about connections, I arrived at the bus station wayyyy to early. Miss the only bus to Torres del Paine National Park? Not me! Oh, wait there are like five other buses every hour? Okay fine. I'm still here on time. And as Ms. Lackay my Catholic school music teacher drilled into us -- early is on-time and on-time is late.
I dozed on the bus and annoyed my newfound Chilean friend Hector by taking numerous photos. And welling up a tad. Wouldn't you start crying if you only had six hours of sleep, fell asleep on a bus, and woke up to this? And then wouldn't you cry just a tiny bit more if only an hour later you were dropping off your bag in your dorm at Refugio Torres Central to discover this is your view for two more mornings?
Once I dropped my bag I set for the hills! Because remember kids, no matter what someone tells you, there are a lot of hills in Torres del Paine.
If you haven't caught on yet, this first day wore me out. Drained me completely. Physically. Mentally. Spiritually. Too much beauty. Too much incline. Too much getting lost.
I remember taking this photo. I was about maybe an hour or so into walking. I asked one of the people if I was on the right path to the Mirador. Yes, he responded a bit incredulously, but I had a long way still. Thanks, buddy.
But damnit man was he right.
Once I made it to the Chileno campgrounds I knew I was half way there. Wahoo! And ooh look a fox! #Nature
Excited by the fact I had passed horses, seen a fox, and made it to the half-way mark for the ascent-- quarter of the day done, wahoo! -- I walked more briskly. This time through a forest with trees so long they could scrape the sky. Only in Patagonia would even trees make you stop to look.
Really, one has to stop every five minutes I think to admire the view. And again, I was supremely lucky to enjoy the most perfect fall day, for six days in a row, so I could literally stop every minutes to admire, wonder, and photograph. And to catch my damn breath and figure out where to put my foot next.
Because the goal of Day 1 was Mirador Base Las Torres. What every other guide has seemed to leave out, or maybe supremely glazed over, was the summit.
Now I don't have photos of the climb. Just trust me. We walked basically 1km in the air, with a 300m pretty much straight uphill climb over boulders. By "we" in this I mean maybe the five other people arriving at 3pm with me. April marks the beginning of the low season, so you really don't encounter all that many people. Absolute blessing when you want some alone time. Absolute nightmare when you need a partner to make sure you don't get lost.
But then after some majorly wobbly knees you make it to the Mirador. And if you are mad enough to have brought your tripod on said climb over boulders, you too could make your own timelapse cloud video. (Also could have been made with the GoPro and a much smaller tripod she says to herself.)
But you don't climb up here for a timelapse video. I mean maybe you do. No most people climb to take the equivalent of the "Usted está aquí" signs we would see too infrequently. You climb to prove you did it. And well I #@$% did it. Photo. Proof.
After about 30 minutes up here I started to wander down. Only of course after the fourth couple asked me to take their photo. Yes, definitely, by all means, ask the solo individual who is clamoring to get the #$% down before sunset.
But enter Xavier and Claudia. One of the many nice couples I would meet along the way.
As I scuttled to get down the boulders before dark -- it had taken me more like 5 hours than 4 hours to get up so down would surely take as long given the increased wobbliness of my knees -- I started to climb down boulders than seemed way harder than the ascent. I decide, "nope, this can't be right" when these two angels appear and they also think this is the way. We then all try and think, "no I don't know...this doesn't 100% seem right...where are those damn orange markers that are so obvious no one can ever get lost, oh sorry the sarcasm isn't translating into my crap Spanish..." Then we see someone from a little ways over who beckons us back toward the right path and we're on our way.
See they were in a hurry to get back soon because they didn't have flashlights. But guess who had a headlamp? Yours truly. And guess who needed humans for the descent? Yours truly. So we struck a deal. They walked super effing fast and led the way and I kept up the rear and had the flashlight just in case.
I have never walked so fast. Claudia, as it turns out, is 22 and I think a meteorologist. Xavier in his 30s and also a meteorologist. I think. When you're tired and stopped taking Spanish your freshman year you don't learn words for different sorts of scientific careers.
This is what I do know. You know those little rabbits that the greyhounds chase at the race tracks? Let's just say they were the rabbits and I was a retired greyhound in it for one last run.
See the problem with the descent for me is that I don't like climbing down, making what feel like big leaps and hoping the walking pole is well positioned. I wanted to throw up from a mix of fear and exhaustion. "Get me down this $%^& mountain safely, alright?" I shouted silently. It's perhaps hilarious that the response I found the universe singing to me was Michael Jackson's "Beat it".
No one wants to be defeated
Showin' how funky and strong is your fight
It doesn't matter who's wrong or right
Just beat it, beat it
Thank you, Michael. I think I sang this the whole way down.
And we made it down as sun set. Perhaps the most liked photo of the trip was this one (edited for the computer now) and I have to concur it's stunning. Perhaps even more so when you consider my legs stopped wobbling long enough for me to get a still shot.
I got back, showered, and enjoyed the world's most delicious hot cocoa. I know I've had a lot of hot cocoa so far but nothing has hit the spot more than feeling dry, warm, and nuzzled into a radiating cup of hot cocoa. Even if it cost like $10.
So that was first day. Let's just recap what others said:
"You won't get lost." Yeah, right. We have different definitions of abundant signage.
"There are no hills." WTF do you call a hill?!
"It takes 4 hours." Map, me and you are going to have problems.
"The Mirador is breathtaking." Ok I made this up based on all the reviews I read. It's wonderful, yes, but I'll let you in on a little secret... I think the rest of the park is just as, if not more, more awe-inspiring. (But if you can, definitely do the ascent.)
Day 2, Friday - The "let someone else walk me" walk
Unlike pretty much every other trekker I met, I had opted to do horseback riding. I booked my tour through Fantastico Sur, one of the two companies who run the Refugios in the park. This way, I figured, someone would know if I had gotten lost on the trail. I was really worried about getting lost, if you can't tell.
Well Daniela at Fantastico Sur, she and I had about 35 emails between us to get this trip planned. I know -- staggering -- and a few dozen of those reflected what I've learned is a Chilean and broader South American difference in customer service -- not bad, just different. So Daniela, who it turns out hated horses and therefore could not recommend what to do, had booked me to essentially repeat Day 1, but this time on a horse for some of it. Logic being this maximized my time on a horse compared to the other horseback riding options. Illogic being I had literally just escaped the jaws of death and now she wanted me to do that again but on a horse?!
That's a big no thank you, in the words of the Anderson boys.
Instead I pleaded with the folks to let me do something simple and beautiful. Again, folks explained I'd have less time on the horse and again I countered, "yes but will the time spent be more enjoyable?" Ah, reason wins.
So after a delicious breakfast I ventured off to take a few photos of the moon still clinging to the sky. Strange thing about sunrises at 8.30am is that you can watch the moon hang graciously against the top of a mountain while the neighboring torres start to turn pink with the rising sun.
As I bid my roommates adieu I walked around to see the horses and meet the others who elected to calbagata conmigo.
Enter Ruby and Alex. a couple about my age from Hong Kong. They had just spent some time in Easter Island, had completed the W trek, and wanted to pack in one last adventure. So we three, and Juan our slightly forlorn horseback instructor, set out to enjoy a few hours in Cerro Paine. Cerro, for the record, means hill.
After what seemed like a promising start, my horse and Ruby's horse turned out to be absolute farts. Literally. All the horses farted and I couldn't keep it together. But they were also stubborn middle-aged horses, perhaps how I'll be when I hit my middle years.
Ruby's horse, Carito, seemed positively sad right from the start. Carito would only stand in the shade, stop to eat leaves, and fart. Eventually Juan had to intervene and lead the horse up the hill himself.
My horse, Pincoillo, was sloowwwwwwww. No amount of prodding, coaxing, clicking, would get him to move. Ever.
Alex's horse, well I never caught its name because it was always upfront miles ahead of me.
And Juan, well he had a beautiful photogenic five year old mare.
The horseback riding lasted maybe a couple of hours. It was indeed less time overall than perhaps worth the cost, but there's something remarkable Chilean about riding a horse through Patagonia.
And there's also something incredibly painful too as my tush soon realized. So I spent most of the rest of the day lounging around, reading by the first, talking to other trekkers and eventually walking to Lago Nordenskjöld. But mostly I just leisurely soaked up the beauty.
Day 3, Saturday - The "I swear I'm not crying" walk
I've told you how my eyes leaked when I first made it to the park, right? Well strange thing -- that happened again on Day 3 when I walked from Refugio Torres Central to Refugio Cuernos in the seemingly underrated Valle Bader.
This day the fog rolled in low and never seemed to leave. And that was quite alright by me.
Others, well, namely Jenn and Phil, the two amazing Brits in our dorm at Refugio Torres Central, had sufficiently primed me to expect very little, for which I am eternally grateful. The next place, Refugio Cuernos, while cozy, would be cold and small, and the views from the walk would be uneventful compared to what I had already experienced and what was still to come. Thus with my expectations sufficiently low I was shocked to find myself weeping at lakes like these.
During one of my many long breaks this day, weeping from the beauty, I met Arital and Israel, an Israeli couple a little younger than my parents who would be my friends, photography buddies, and night walking companions for the next few days. These two were a hoot. An absolute blessing for the rest of the trip as it I found myself thoroughly enjoying the time alone, but also wishing I had someone with my to share the wonder.
What struck me, and perhaps what made me so damn weepy, was this fog that clung to the lake, often obscuring most of the mountain but the tippy top. This gave the park’s wildlife a plush backdrop for admiration. Torres del Paine is home to so many different species of flora -- we're talking about a place with at least 7 species of orchids, just orchids! And with us just entering into fall, the leaves blazed fiery red, orange and yellow against a periwinkle blue backdrop.
This day I also ran into Matt and Charlotte, of youngandnestless (follow them!), whom I had met on the bus ride over from Punta Arenas. And while yes, I did pass one or two other familiar faces, those from the bus station, or the airport, I was so glad to see two people I felt I kind of sort of knew! If three hours together at the back of the bus doesn’t move you from acquaintance to semi-friend, what does?? (Maybe being from the same part of the USA and randomly meeting each other on the back of a bus three hour bus.) These two adventure seekers had recently quit their jobs to take 6-12 months off to travel through South America. Charlotte, a medical professional with dreams of opening her own clinic carried their Spanish skills, while Matt seemed to carry the “here’s how we’ll do this” go-get ‘em attitude. They were a great pair and well suited to the road ahead!
Day 4 - The “winter is coming” walk
This day began a cold snap that never quite seemed to leave. We’re talking frostbitten shrubs and icicle patched mud. Whereas the day before I was slipping and sliding for the last half hour to Refugio Cuernos, this day I crushed ice underfoot. See we were on the other side of the mountain and with a late rising, low hanging sun, its rays never seemed to crest the mountain peaks, leaving us walking in a midst, grey, overcast light that gave every second the appearance of walking into The North of Game of Thrones. (Side note, I stopped watching the show after the fourth season as I couldn’t take the violence so I have zero idea what happened to the north. How’s Jon Snow?)
This day was supposed to be a 10-12 hour day according to the map, with a horrendous summit to see the Mirador Britanco. That’s a big no thank you. As Arital had informed me, and in fact a few others confirmed, the additional 4 hours and awful uphill climb one had to tack on to get to Mirado Britanco did not “vale la pena”. So, the informed among us would venture to Mirador Frances and admire the glacier, listen for avalanches, and soak up the sun’s glorious rays while watching the autumnal trees glisten.
Along the way I met Rodrigo 2. I called him that because I couldn’t quite remember his name, and he was a spitting image of Rodrigo, our friendly and funny Brazilian designer. Rodrigo 2, also from Brazil, rushed through the frost to get to Campamento Italiano, and I admired his pace. Actually I really needed his pace to keep me on track so, like any good stray, I followed him quickly. He disembarked at Italiano and I did not see him again until he appeared at my hostel in El Calafate! Patagonia is a small, if enormous, world.
The Mirador Frances, itself a not so insignificant climb, really did vale la pena. First after leaving the camp site, you climb through a dry and not so dense forest. Then you get to what I thought was the Garden of Gethsemane. Then you get higher and the trees give way to rocks and sunshine until finally you’ve hit big boulders meant for sitting and appreciating the view. I could have sat there, warming up in the sunshine and watching avalanches, for hours.
Eventually I got back to walking and entered the area I think everyone associates with the massive wildfire started by a backpacker in 2011. The bare trees remind you of the emaciated E.T. when he's stuck in the dam and really do have a fire-burnt quality to them. While I'm not positive all of these were destroyed in the wildfire, the effects of the fire are profoundly felt.
Day 5 - The “aw it’s almost over” walk
This day began with a spectacular sunrise, a good omen for the day ahead I thought. Billed as a 3.5 hour walk, again, I took longer, though this time I finished in just under 4 hours.
Today’s goal: Grey Glacier, the slightly underwhelming glacier for those who have seen El Perito Moreno, but breathtaking nonetheless.
Along the way I stopped to chat with two more folks I had met at the beginning of the journey. First I crossed with Hector, the rather nice Chilean chap from my bus to the park who thankfully did not comment on my crying or obnoxious photo taking behavior. He spoke rather fast and I’m not entirely positive I understood everything, but he seemed to greatly enjoy the glacier and the cabin and wished me well, so I was excited to get moving!
While the glacier wasn’t visible until the end of the walk, we passed the lake leading to it, bespeckled with beautiful little icebergs.
I tried to walk slowly to just savor the view and the day. I paused often to admire the birds and the waterfalls. I smiled at people as they passed me. I even handed out candy to these American college students had I met Refugio the night prior. They said I was like Jesus and Santa on Halloween. Well, alright. I’ll take it.
And when I was about 20 minutes away from the Refugio I bumped into these folks I had met at the bus station who pumped me up for the trip before I left and pumped me up again that I was “so close!” To the Refugio and I was “making great time” — wahoo! (Unfortunately I forgot to get their names, but at least I remembered to get a selfie!)
And like they said, about 20 minutes later I made it to Refugio Grey where others were warming up and preparing for the next little walk to the glacier.
The glacier I have to say was stunning. Yes, it was too far away to really see it, and a little too ‘dirty’ looking to be called beautiful, but still, it was stunning. Then again, I might have just been stunned by the feat of getting "closer". The walk itself from the Refugio was marvelously pleasant with some mostly flat walking under a canopy of leaves. Then you emerge from the trees to see the glacier far away in the distance. As you get follow the path closer you realize it sort of just ends at a jagged rock formation. I watched five young latin men do what from my vantage point seemed like pulling themselves a full body's length straight into the air over the jagged rocks. I wasn’t going to do it.
That was, until Arital and Israel showed up and Israel said, “it’s just a bit of rock climbing” and he was off. And this was coming from a man who when he and his wife were quarreling adorably over their exact ages proclaimed "I am the oldest one on this trek and no one will take that away from me!" So well hell if he was going to do, I guess I could too! It really was ‘just a bit’ of rock climbing as he said. Nothing too bad. And this pano was worth it.
(Until, of course, I got lost trying to come back down and thankfully followed the three Chilean chicos I had followed/passed for the last couple of days. Well marked, my ass.)
So, finally, this evening, I shared a few glasses of wine with others to celebrate our trip and to toast to our new adventures. Never has wine tasted so good.
Day 6 - The "Blair Witch" walk
Last day! 😔 And well, this day had a strict schedule as the catamaran would leave at 11:30am and it would take at least 3.5 hours to get to it (okay clearly I mean 4.5 hours given my pace). But not worries, if you missed that one, you could catch the next one at 6:30pm. So… that really meant leaving at 7:30am, latest, when the sun rises at 8:30am. Oh the joy.
Needless to say, this day started out early. But I mean earrrlllllyyyyy. First, I woke up at around 3am and needed to use the loo. So here’s the thing. I had seen a sign on the bathroom door that said something to the effect of “hours 7am-10pm” and I thought that was only for showers, because, who limits bathroom time?
You know who limits bathroom time? Places that run on generators.
You know who didn’t realize this refugio ran on generators meaning there would be zero, zilch, zippo electricity or lights to guide the way to the bathroom until she was down the stairs and a few feet into the long and dark walk to the bathroom? This one.
I kid you not it was so dark I could not see my hand in front of me — even in the sliver of moonlight that cracked through the windows barely helped me see my fingers wiggling just inches from my eyes. Add to this my near blindness even in perfect daylight and I was out of luck. As I knocked over at least one vase and one massive bottle of water in my slow lurch towards the bathroom I realized I should just turn back around, go back up the stairs, find my room and my headlamp and try this whole thing over again.. Only… which one was my room? Was I the third door? Ah crap no definitely the second door. No, no, definitely the third. The thoughts of panic set in.
OMG AM I GOING TO WAKE SOMEONE UP AND SCARE THE #$^! OUT OF THEM AND MYSELF? WILL I JUST HAVE TO CURL UP RIGHT HERE LIKE THE STRAY CAT I REALLY AM??
I nearly started to cry until I remembered I put my hiking boots in front of our door. So I picked up the shoes at the third door and I didn’t recognize the scent. Yup, I might be blind but my nose is on point. So, nope, not those. Onto the next door! Ah, yes, these smell right. And they generally feel right… And they fit. Bingo! Like a bonafide hiker Cinderella the shoe fit and I was about to sit on my throne. So I quickly got back into my room, grabbed my head lamp and proceed to my porcelain throne like a champ. That whole excursion took a full 20 minutes and I literally only walked maybe 20 feet. Maybe. And I had to be up at 6:30am to leave.
So needless to say I barely slept and at 6am decided it was time to just get ready to meet Arital and Israel who had offered for me to join them to start our walk at 6:45am. Thankfully they had gotten up early too, so at 6:20ish we set out. Now to me, this walk on this side of the mountain already had a slightly eerie quality. Doing the walk in darkness with only headlamps to illuminate the odd branch and spider web right before it would smack me in the face… Now that was just effing creepy. Really, straight out of the Blair Which project. I was half expecting us to start running with to apparent purpose. But being slightly wigged out had the added benefit of hustling and giving me the tiniest bit of odd confidence to get us the @#$% out of dodge.
So, yes, me, this little stray cat who had followed so many couples and singletons up and down hills finally became the leader. “I got this!” I said to myself and silently to Arital and Israel — no really silently, they did not need to know the monologue I was reciting.
Eventually, we made it to the halfway mark. We celebrated with the last of their good chocolate — Cadbury Dairy Milk you are magnificent — and we kept on marching. Eventually my new disciples the college gals caught up with us and they led us the last 30 minutes back to Refugio Paine Grande where we awaited our catamaran in the cold, as clouds started to menace, and the rain began to drop ever so slowly.
We sailed back over Lake Pehoe back to a warm lodge where we awaited our next bus and a stinky horde of backpackers boarded the bus back to Puerto Natales. But everyone slept, exhausted by the journey. I, however, couldn’t believe the adventure we had just undertaken and wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye. I stayed up through the two hour ride, as we passed guanacos and sheep, and beautiful lakes.
If you ever get the chance to go, definitely do. You might not have the perfect weather I had, it really is a gamble, but I think a worthwhile one. Here's hoping it'll be as spectacular and awe-filled for you as it was for me.