Searching for Unicorns in Patagonia

This post was originally featured on my previous blog


Glaciers, Rivers, and Mountains Galore!

Quarter-Life Crisis Come Early

The Most Beautiful Hike I’ve Ever Done

Sleeping With Mice

Bartering with Peanut Butter

Paradise at the End of the World

Those are just a few of the other titles I could have given this post, but really, who doesn’t love unicorns..

April 2014: I spent 6 days in Torres del Paine National Park in the Chilean Patagonia, and they were probably the most amazing 6 consecutive days of my life. I knew that Torres was a beautiful place, I mean I had been staring at the pictures and selling tours to the park for 6 months! But to finally see these places in person, and to push myself beyond my limits to reach these places was more than I could have ever asked for.

This will probably be one of the more in-depth blog posts I’ll have, as I know there are tons of people who search for info on how to hike in Torres del Paine, and you can never have enough info before starting a major trek. So from the beginning…

Pre-trip Day -1

I flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas, and opted to go straight for Puerto Natales due to lack of time, although I’ve heard that if you can, spending few days in Punta Arenas is worth it, whereas there is not a whole lot to do in Natales besides prep for your trek. The bus ride between the cities is about 2 hours, and only $5,000 CLP.  We arrived to Natales and walked down the hill into the town to find Erratic Rock hostel. This place was clutch. One of the most legit hostels I’ve stayed at (amazing breakfast! great people!), it’s owned by a couple of U.S Northwesterners, and ran by a plethora of super friendly and helpful people, all of whom speak spanish, english, and god knows what other languages.

They also run the Base Camp next door, a bar/gear shop in which you can get some amazing pizza and attend their 3 o’clock talk they host daily to get all of the information you will need before heading into the park. If you can’t grab a room at the hostel, I still highly suggest hitting up the info session, as it was very helpful.grupo

Pre-trip Day 0

The day before heading into the park, we spent preparing. I had met a chill couple on the bus ride in, Carly and Jace, and we met another solo hiker, Mike, at the hostel. The four of us decided to join forces for the hike, and went about the small town of Natales buying food and renting equipment. **NOTE** If you can do it, bring your own gear, at least sleeping pad and sleeping bag, as there is no such thing as a nice rental bag or rental pad. The stove we rented was fine, and we had our own tents.

Day 1 – Lago Pehoe ->Paine Grande -> Grey Glacier 10 km

The hike begins. We got on the 8:50 am bus to the park, which is about a 2 hour long ride to the park entrance, Laguna Amarga. From here, a lot of people start the W trek going from east to west, but as I had planned out, and as the folks at Erratic Rock suggest, we went farther into the park on the bus to start the W from the west side. We took the boat across Lago Pehoe to begin hiking from Lodge Paine Grande. It was 10 km to our campsite at Campamento Grey, and for someone who hadn’t worked out in over 6 months, it was quite a shock to the body. I struggled, I’m not going to lie, quuuuiiiite a bit. And this was supposed to be the easiest part! Anyhow, I finally made it, and I have to thank my newly made crew soooo very much for their support. Mike did his best to wait for me every now and then to make sure I was still hobbling along, and they were all setting up camp by the time I got there. Carly, Jace, and Mike, I just want to thank you guys for putting up with me those first few days, without you I would have been setting up camp in the dark every night and freezing my ass off!glaciergreyCampamento Grey is right next to Glacier Grey, a huge, beautiful chunk of ice feeding Lago Grey. We made the short hike up to the glacier overlook to catch the sunset and snap some great pictures. Then it was back to camp to cook up a nice meal and try to get some sleep.

So this is probably a good time to mention the sleeping with mice factor. In all of my research of Torres del Paine, I had not once heard of any hiker having problems with mice. Now when I do a quick google search I’m sure how that happened, but anyhow, hikers beware! There are mice a plenty in Torres del Paine! Luckily, the first night the nearby refugio had lockers we could store our food in, but we still spent the night swatting at the tent walls to stop the little rodents from chewing through. The following nights we had to string the food up in trees..

Day 2 – Grey -> Paine Grande -> Italiano 17.5 km

I knew this day was going to be hard. After struggling the very first day, there was no way day two was going to be easier. It was back down the 10 km to Paine Grande, and then onwards to Campamento Italiano, and additional 7.5 km. We started off in the chilly morning, hiking back down past Lago Grey, dotted with icebergs and the Andes mountains as a backdrop. I did alright for the first few hours, but began to lose steam quickly as we got closer to Paine Grande. I hardly had energy to eat lunch, but shoveled down a pb&j and grudgingly put my pack back on to go to Italiano. By the way, peanut butter is amazing for backpacking, and it can be hard to come by in Chile, so it can be used as a means of bartering, if you so need it… cuernos

After the first few kilometers, I knew it was going to take me a while. I told Mike to stop waiting for me – I would make it to camp eventually.. And then the quarter life crisis began. So I’m turning 25 in a month. I just finished my last requirements for my undergraduate degree. I’ve done a lot of amazing things in my life, and I know I’ll do a lot more amazing things, but while hiking through the beautiful Patagonian forests with a backpack weighing far too much, my knees where throbbing, my heart was racing up into my throat, and I just wanted to kick my boots off and cry. With every turn, my spirit weakened, I was so angry at myself for being this out of shape – a 24-year-old girl should be able to walk 7 k without wanting to die!

So I struggled on. The 2.5 hour hike turned into a 4 hour hike, and I collapsed as soon as I saw the bridge across the French river, meaning I had finally made it to camp. Italiano is one of the only camps on the main W trek that does not have full services, but it still had a nice cooking area, and the tent sites were nestled in cozily amongst the trees. I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing by, and woke up weary but ready to start anew.

Day 3 – French Valley  -> Los Cuernos  15 km

I had always heard that while Las Torres are the main attraction of the park, the French Valley, which creates the middle leg of the W trail, is the favorite. It is nestled in-between Paine Grande  and the French Glacier to the west and the crazy looking Cuernos to the east. And best of all, you can do the hike up and back to Italiano without your full pack! That made me happy.cuernosvalle

The weather had called for rain and horrendous winds for this day, but as it is Patagonia, the weatherman is hardly right. We lucked out with an amazing sunny day, making the hike that much more enjoyable. I took it easy, and let the crew go on ahead. Instead of going all the way up to the Mirador Britanico, I took advantage of the calmness of the main valley and meditated for a while. Perfect. I felt like a whole new person after. Of course my bad knees were still bad, and my back problems didn’t go away, meditation isn’t magic after all, but it helped get my mind back on track, and the rest of the hike was a lot less stressful.swimrio

The way down we decided to soak up some sun on the river. It was nice and frigid, and people passing by definitely thought we were crazy (we are…) but it was a great refresher to jump in the ice-cold river and goof around for a bit. Then we grabbed our packs from Italiano and continued on the last 5 kilometers to Los Cuernos. The boys ran on ahead to get camp set up before dark, and I hiked at a steady pace the whole way, actually making it within the suggested 2.5 hours! Yes, I was very proud of myself.

Day 4 – Los Cuernos -> Hotel Las Torres/EcoCamp 12 km

This was the day I split off from the crew for good. Cascada Expediciones, the company I had been interning with, gave me two free nights in their awesome EcoCamp, which is at the east end of the W trek, so I decided to take advantage of that. The other three continued on up towards the base of las Torres to catch the sunrise the following morning, which I heard was amazing, but I’m not going to lie, so was my ridiculously warm and cozy bed.riofrances

The hike from Cuernos to Torres is pretty mild, it’s supposed to only take 4.5 hours, but I took my sweet sweet time. I stopped at every lookout to gaze off at Lago Nordernskjold and marvel up at los Cuernos (they are by far my new favorite mountain feature, those sexy duo colored freaks). And I actually stopped to have lunch, and dip my toes in the lake, and overall enjoy my day. I arrived at the EcoCamp in time for one of the best showers I’ve had in my life, and sat down to a tasty meal, wine and all. It was heaven. I love camping, and I really do enjoy hiking, and I am not opposed to not showering while doing these activities, but after 3 freezing nights fighting off mice, sleeping in the dome on a comfy bed was so very welcomed.

ecocampDay 5 – Hike to the base of Las Torres 18 km

I woke up feeling so rejuvenated and ready for my last big hike. I ate a great breakfast and grabbed my day pack and off I went. Hiking through the lenga forests was where I was sure I would find my unicorn, but no luck. Although if there is anywhere on earth that the unicorn still roams, I am sure it is in Patagonia…  I made great time to the camp closest to the towers base, then it was up to the top. The last kilometer of the hike is more of a rock scramble for most of the time, but without my heavy pack, it went by quickly, and the view at the top was so worth it! Again, I had seen pictures of Las Torres so many times before, but nothing compares to being there in person. And the sun came out from behind the clouds just in time to light up the green glacial lake and provide the perfect setting for lunch a girl could dream of.torres

Then it was back down. I had so much energy from the hike I practically ran, but running in my hiking boots was not working, so I took them off. We hadn’t been getting along anyway. With my boots around my neck, I skipped down the last 5 kilometers back to the EcoCamp to celebrate. Wine and lamb steaks galore, I slept great that night.

Day 6 – Leaving the park

I woke up to the sound of rain on my dome roof, which sounded like I was inside one of those wooden rain sticks. There was no way I was getting out of bed, so I threw another log on in the wood stove and climbed back into the pile of blankets fit for a king. I finally got out of bed just before noon and forced my way down the hill to grab the bus back to Puerto Natales. It was a bit sad leaving the park. I felt like I had worked so long to get there, and that my visit was so short-lived! Alas, I will be back again, hopefully in better shape the next time! Overall, it was one of the most amazing experiences ever! Over 70 kilometers of hiking in one of the 8 natural wonders of the world, and we had great weather the whole time. Spectacular! Even the trees were smiling! treeface

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