We woke up on our last day in El Calafate rested and ready for the next stop. The view was the same barren, rolling landscape that we had been used to for the last week of driving. Before we got too close to our next border back to Chile, we stopped for lunch outside of a fenced wetland and watched birds and otters play in the sun. This image sounds beautiful, and it was, but in the background Eric was cleaning up a ridiculous yogurt explosion in the fridge. Life on the road can get a little messy at times. We pulled into the mining town of Rio Turbio midday and stopped just long enough to get gas and know we should move along. The border here was the worst we had seen in quality and service between Chile and Argentina, although still a simple process in comparison to Central America. In the office there were two women from Spain discussing public transport options with one of the border control officers. He was explaining that they didn’t have an option as they would get to the next border too late and would be stuck in limbo until it reopened in the morning. They saw us from across the room, walked right up to us and asked if we had a car with room for them. We were a little taken back by how forward they were but didn’t really have a choice leaving these poor travelers with no option. Plus their threat level seemed to be at a minimum. So into Pedro they went and we were off. Their Barcelona accent was so thick but between broken English and Spanish we could manage a conversation about plans for Torres del Paine National Park. They were also going to be exploring the area and hiking. Their trip was around 3 weeks before heading back to Spain and back to work. We made them a bit jealous with what we had been doing and where we were still going.
In less than an hour we made it to the next town of Puerto Natales, the jumping off point for all visits to Torres del Paine National Park. The town was small and charming. The inland coast line was beautiful and the surrounding views were filled with large grassy fields and distant mountains every way you looked. We had two goals here. One, get more US currency. We underestimated how fast we would go through our supply and needed to restock before crossing back into Argentina. On a less under-the-government’s-nose type errand, we needed to stock our pantry. The store in town was overrun by groups of trekkers holding lists provided by their guides on what and how much to bring in their packs. It was ridiculous. We had never seen so many baskets of pasta sides and fake ramen in a check-out line. Luckily, we had only planned one night on the mountain and would move around elsewhere in Pedro, meaning less cardboard meals for us.
After stocking up we headed towards the park. We planned to spend two days camping outside of the park and three days inside. We arrived at the campground directly outside of the main entrance and found that we had it all to ourselves. The next afternoon we walked to the park entrance to gather maps and info and costs on camping and trekking. Eric spent that day getting our packs together and I was gathering up an odd meal to kick off our evening feast. It was Thanksgiving back home and we shared wine and pasta of chicken, sausage and veggies with our French cyclist neighbors who had arrived very exhausted that evening. It wasn’t mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie by any means, but we were happy to share the meal with new friends and have a great evening.
That next morning we drove to the park. We had to take it slow on the washboard roads but didn’t mind one bit with the views we had. On our way to the next camp stop we picked up a very kind and very smelly Dutch woman heading to catch the ferry. Around midday we made it to Hosteria Los Torres, a beautiful little hotel at the base of the trail where you are allowed to park safely if you are hiking. Inside their décor was beautiful and they had a myriad of spa treatments. Eric gave me the keep walking look and we gathered our things and took to the trail. Similar to hiking near Fitz Roy in El Chalten, this trail was busy busy busy. There are a lot of different options when it comes to hiking in this area. There is the most popular ‘W’ trek which you start or end with a ferry ride and walk out the other side of the trail, camping a total of three nights. There is another trek, the ‘O’ in which you do an entire loop around the backside of all the peaks most people see during the shorter hike. We had planned to take our time, go up to Torres del Paine to start and go from there. The views and scenery were beautiful. From large rockslide areas where it’s a one person trail, to very dense treed zones and rushing rivers, we had a great day.
Once on the trail, however, we realized how managed it was by the tour companies. The first camp was set up with bunks you could rent, meals you could pay for, and rental tents set up along the path. When we got to the higher camp where you leave for the sunrise hike to the towers, we saw the most tents we have ever seen, packed inside a small cleared area with pretty much no flat space. You were limited to the area they created for you, there was one toilet with instructions not to dig any other holes, if you know what I mean, and a 4x4 shed for all camp stoves to go into for cooking, no exceptions. We absolutely appreciate the park trying to protect the beauty of the land, especially with so many visitors, but man that was hard to swallow as an enjoyable camp experience.
Needless to say, Eric found us an awesome spot and we chatted with people about which way they were going or coming from, advice on where they have found the best spots to be and where they were from. It was a relaxing evening and most people called it early in preparation of the 3:50 AM wake up time for the sunrise over the towers. Our alarm went off in total darkness and it was all we could do to unzip the sleeping back and put on boots. Our deal was that if I packed the small bag to hike with, Eric would make coffee and oatmeal. The plan worked until we realized how slow we were moving and we were behind schedule to make the sunrise. I started leading us quickly straight up the trail. Eric was calmly telling me to slow down and I was not having it. About halfway up I started having nausea and cold sweats and thought I might puke, as my body just said no to my stubbornness. Eric was nice enough to give me some water and coffee and hold his I-told-you-so’s until we got to the top. Even though I was pretty ready to just sit down in the rock pile and quit with only myself to blame, we made it to see the hot red of the morning sun cover the granite towers when we reached the top. We sat among the other early morning risers and quietly watched as the sun breached the area and starting warming all of our cold bodies. It was a beautiful and memorable experience. The Torres del Paine are stunning as their granite texture reflects on the small lake at the base of the spires.
After that early morning glory we descended and returned to the tent to take a short nap, and being that the campground actually had a 10 AM “check out” time, we pulled ourselves back to the trail quickly. On the way down we stopped at a river to get water and noticed a tiny duck family swimming up steam. The mom and dad ducks were hopping from rock to rock and waiting for the two small baby ducks to try and make it. This event actually drew quite a crowd and at least 10 different hikers of all shapes, sizes, and ages stopped to watch. After the struggling baby ducks made it past the rapids and up to the slower water the crowd actually let out a cheer. When was the last time that you saw a group of people cheer on baby ducks, the positivity on that mountain was overflowing. We arrived back to the car and headed to our last camp spot in the park, Camping Pehoe. This campground could possibly have had some of the best views with the whole range in front of our window. While the peaks of Torres del Paine seem to be the most well known in the area, the entire range is visually impressive. The wind that evening was incredible. Coming right off the water, we had to hold our roof up with our trusty security Club and leave the back door closed for fear it would fly off. Eric made a fortress out of coats and clothing, all while inside of a shelter, to try and block the wind in order to keep our cook flame lit. That evening the storm rolled in even more and we had to close Pedro’s pop top to ensure we would have a roof in the morning.
The next day the perfect blue sky we had had for days was replaced with wind and rain and fog. Rather than hike back into that weather we drove around to the other side of the lake to try to see the Glacier Grey. On our slow drive there we came across a young hiker couple that was struggling to make any progress at all in the wind. We offered them a ride and they hopped in. It turns out they were from Northern Chile and had never been this far south before. They were a sweet young couple, who seemed unprepared for the W trek with plastic bags of shoes and food hanging off of their packs, but they were so excited. When we arrived at the ferry office, close to the Glacier Grey trail, they went in to find that they were at the wrong place. They needed to be all the way on the other side of the lake where we had originally dropped off the smelly Dutch woman. Since we were in no rush, we made a deal with them that if they walked out to the shore to try to see the glacier with us that we would drive them back to the correct ferry. Since this was their only option other than walking 8 hours and not catching any ferry until morning, they ecstatically agreed. We all wandered out to the shoreline in the craziest wind I have every felt. We were all being physically pushed around by the force of the wind. Although we couldn’t see the glacier from where we stood we saw bright blue icebergs floating around under the view of the mountain range. After a few photos we ran back across a very rickety river bridge and back to the car. The trip honestly was about 75 minutes with the slow washboard roads. I even think the passengers in the back napped. When they got to the ferry office they collected their items, almost forgetting a food bag and wallet, and thanked us profusely. The young girl gave us her own bracelet and said a blessing over it as a gift. That detour was a long one for us but to help the hikers make their adventure continue was worth it. We drove back to Rio Serrano that evening, which had been our first camp spot and now it would be our last.
That evening was quiet as we planned out our next couple days in which we would soon reach our most southern destination!