Days 11 to 19: Chile's Incredible Torres del Paine National Park
8 days and 7 nights trekking through a contender for the world's most stunning areas, followed by a chill day in Puerto Natales.
When National Geographic Traveller brought out their “World’s 100 Most Beautiful Places” special edition, Torres del Paine was plastered all over the front cover. The National Park is perhaps the jewel in the crown of all of Chilean Patagonia. It's more for hikers (bikes are forbidden in most of it), but after a week and half of fighting headwinds of epic proportions I was ready to be off the bike for a while.
The park has 3 principal hiking circuits, with the longest being 8 to 9 days. I was originally going to do the middle of the 3 distances, but I figured as I may only visit once in my life, I’d change my mind and go all-in for the longest. My backpackers in Puerto Natales was nice enough to look after all my cycling gear while I was away, and I rented an 85-litre pack from an outdoors shop in town.
Despite there being small kiosk-type shops in a couple of the Torres campsites, for the most part hikers need to be self-sufficient. Therefore in my 85-litre pack not only did I have a tent, cooking stove, sleeping bag and clothes for the next eight or nine days, I also had food for the same duration. All loaded up, I’m pretty damn sure that pack was edging towards 20 kilos. As I stood there with the weight of the next week of my life literally hanging off my back, it became quickly apparent that the first couple of days were going to require stamina and patience, and if anything an incentive to eat what was in my pack at a good pace!
Although it is possible to go with an organised group and a guide from various agencies in town, the vast majority of people in Torres del Paine do so independently. I got lucky as I met 3 nice folk - Jaap from the Netherlands and Tania and Christin from Germany - who had the same plan as me & we ended up doing the whole trek together.
The 160km (100 mile) hike through the National Park was both mind-blowing, and clearly deserving of its lofty reputation as it just delivered up one highlight after another. The incredible French Valley was like Patagonia in a mircocosm, with a river cuttting a line between some of the iconic peaks one one side and an overhangning glacier tongue on another.
The Torres (towers) themselves were another highlight, and to watch the sunrise against them displayed all sorts of sparkling colours in the early morning light reflecting ethereally from the granite surfaces. I would scarcely have believed grey rock could reflect light like that.
Camp Dickson was a stunner, located on a grassy meadow on the inside of a horseshoe bend in the river which was ringed by tall trees. On the opposite side of the river we could clearly see Glacier Dickson tumbling down the hillside, and in just about every direction were snow-capped peaks carpeted with leafy green forest. When we first saw Camp Dickson we were up on a ridge about 100 metres above, and the view down onto it was just oh-so inviting. In advance of coming on the trek, if I’d been asked to imagine the most quintessentially Patagonian campsite possible, I doubt I could have imagined anything like this.
After summiting the highest point of the trek over the John Gardner pass, we were confronted by Glacier Grey. The glacier is a whopping 28km long, and even from our elevated position a few hundred metres high it rolled off beyond view to both the left and right. Its 6km width sprawled out in front of us before being brought to an abrupt halt by a set of blackened rocky peaks which formed the opposing valley wall. For me personally, this was the most stunning vista of my time in Torres del Paine.
The whole Torres experience reminded me of a great quote from John Muir, a Scottish-born American environmentalist who was instrumental in petitioning Congress to establish the Yosemite National Park in 1890. He wrote, “Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean”. How true it seemed after a week among the mountains and woods of the one and only Torres del Paine National Park.