After 4 hours on the bus from El Calafate, we arrived to the Chilean border, where the customs officers were on strike (taste of home!) We sat in a nearby cafe until the customs agents arrived to open for 1 hour. Luckily we all made it through – third time sneaking my meat past the border, phew – and the bus continued to Puerto Natales, which serves as the tourist base for the Torres del Paine National Park.
Puerto Natales is a quiet, windy town full of camping equipment stores and not much else; these happily took my money as I rented a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat, and bought a camping stove, walking sticks, and sunglasses (as my old ones accidentally found a new home in the lake near El Calafate). I spent a couple days shopping / panicking / shopping some more, then spent a relaxed Shabbat reading in my hostel. Luckily, my hostel had a homey atmosphere with a living room, shared dining room table for all, tv area, etc, which was perfect for those few days.
Saturday night I packed and repacked my backpack – food, equipment, and one change of clothing – and Sunday morning I was off to the national park.
Day 1 (10 km)
After a couple hours on the bus, we arrived to the park and caught our first glimpse of the imposing “towers” for which the park is named. We were forced to listen to 17 speeches about not starting fires in the park, and then we headed to a catamaran which would take us across the lake to the other side of the park. We would spend the next 4 days basically walking back along this lake, coupled with outings up mountains/valleys alongside it.
The catamaran arrived at the campsite around noon; most people continued to the next campsite, for an extra night in the park, but I stayed and immediately went to go put up my tent, something I’ve done a hundred times before, right?
Putting up a tent in Sataf and holding on for dear life to your tent in 60km winds is not exactly the same experience. After desperately tossing rocks atop various parts of my tent, and staking it with one hand while throwing my body on top of it to keep it from flying away, I looked at my tent flapping in the wind and had little to no hope of it staying in place. After repositioning and restaking it not once, but twice, my tent looked slightly more stable, an hour had passed, and I was exhausted but ready to start my hike up to the glacier.
The winds were not any better along the hike, whipping me in all directions as I slowly trudged up the hill. After 5km, I arrived at the first view point of Glacier Grey, barely able to see, using all my energy to stand in place, my mind registered that I was seeing a glacier, registered that it was beautiful, registered that I should take a picture, took out my phone, snapped a picture, upon which I decided that this was surely a good enough view of the thing, and I turned around to head back to the campsite, skipping much of that day’s walk. I was done with that wind.
Back at the campsite, I entered the shared “kitchen and dining room” (a big room with tables, benches, and a sink) to prepare dinner on my camping stove (pasta with tuna, if you’re curious). A few of us went into the refugio (basically a hostel) next door to grab a beer. By 6:30pm, I was back in the tent, feeling a bit lonely but lucky to be inside, because a few minutes later it started to rain. I lay there, feeling a bit ill, unsure if the tent would hold up in the wind or keep out the rain, wondering what exactly I was doing there. Finally, I fell into a restless sleep, woken up regularly by the wind, the rain, the hard ground, the cold, until the early hours of the morning.
I could barely lift my head in the morning, and it took my until day 4, when I was feeling better, to realize that this was not “what it feels like to wake up in a tent” (duh) but rather “what it feels like to wake up in a tent with a fever.” I made breakfast (oatmeal), packed up the tent, hoisted up my pack, and started off toward the next campsite. After a couple of hours I arrived at the base of the French Valley, where I left my pack before heading up the mountain. This was a beautiful hike alongside a gushing stream and below a glacier, from which we constantly heard the thunderous sound of avalanches. Unfortunately, the last kilometer to the lookout was closed, so we just sat at the top eating our lunches in some combination of rain/snow/sun, but luckily mostly sun.Back at the bottom of the valley, I grabbed my pack and walked the last 30 minutes to my campsite for the night. This site didn’t have a room for us to cook in; instead, we were each given a platform on which to set up our tents (nailing them into the platforms, what?!) and do our cooking (with wooden windshields for our stoves, seriously, what?!) I had met someone in the French Valley who was staying in the campsite and also hiking alone (his friend had backed out after the first day, a girl after my own heart), so we hung out and cooked our dinners together. But still, by 7:30 I was back in my tent, and an hour later I fell into a restless sleep, interrupted throughout the night by the insane winds around us.
Despite the fact that I was carrying my pack all day, and despite the fact that I was still pretty ill, the third day was the most beautiful and relaxing day of the hike. After another morning of oatmeal, we set off to the next campsite to pick up another girl who was hiking alone. The three of us walked along a beautiful stone beach and stunning vistas of mountains and lakes, keeping a pretty intense pace but stopping occasionally for snacks/pictures/shmoozing with other groups of English speakers. After a lunch break all together, I split off from the rest of them, headed to a different site at the bottom of the mountain.
The last part of the hike was a bit of a bummer – it was in the vicinity of the park entrance, and the walk was along the road, with cars passing by and sleet coming at my face. When I finally got to the campsite, giving my shoulders a relief, I found a couple of Americans I had met the day before, and we headed to the refugio for some drinks and Jenga before coming back to the campsite to prepare dinner in the rain (surprise, pasta!). It was a fun, relaxed evening, and I went to sleep super late that night (read: 11pm).
Day 4 (16km)
The last day is the climax of the trip, with a climb up to the base of the “towers.” Most people start the day at one of the campsites partway up the hill, often hiking up to see sunrise at the towers, but we were staying too far to do this – supposedly a 5 hour walk.
I headed out a little after 8am with a Canadian couple, Nicole and Brett, with a plan to head up and back down in time to catch the 7pm bus. We walked pretty quickly up to the top, partially to get out of the wind, partially Nicole and I trying to keep up with Brett. The last kilometer was a beast, basically climbing straight up a bunch of big rocks, as everyone coming down kept reassuring me that “it’s worth it.” Finally we got to the top, to the base of the towers, where we took the requisite pictures (though they were somewhat hidden by the clouds).
After the pictures, we looked at our watches – it was 11am. After a quick debate, we decided to try to make it down for the 2pm bus, which would mean doing a supposedly nine hour hike in five hours. We booked it. We hopped down the boulders, jogged through the forest, took a 90 second bathroom break, and basically ran down the last hour to the campsite, where I still had to pack my tent. It was nuts, but invigorating, and I arrived at the campsite by 1:10 – plenty of time to pack, drink water, and acknowledge the fact that I could barely feel my legs. I got on the bus at 2pm, feeling accomplished and satisfied and ready for a change of clothes.
That evening, back in Puerto Natales, a bunch of us that had hiked together over the last few days met up for some beers (and pizza for them), happily showered and in clean clothes and ready to sleep in a bed.