Patagonia draws you in
Nature hits you in the face in Chile’s famous national park
TORRES del Paine; the name alone conjures up all the wildness of Patagonia and its snow-dusted granite peaks and azure lakes that are among the most recognisable images of Chile.
If you’re in South America and you like hiking there’s a good chance you might find yourself there – as my partner and I did in November.
The national park is a major drawcard for outdoor enthusiasts and for many the main motivation for coming to the country.
In Puerto Natales, the closest town, you’ll find no shortage of shops with adventure gear and the supermarkets have a large selection of dried goods, all the lighter for walking with.
Along the trails you can spot various species of hiker in every age group, size and colour of Gore-Tex you could imagine. And then you come across a different beast altogether.
In the communal cooking areas at the campsites you don’t often pay much attention to the lightweight dehydrated foods others are usually cooking on their tiny single-burner trekking stoves but one man got everyone’s attention when he pulled out a large camping stove and full frying pan and proceeded to cook a 5cm-thick steak, much to our collective awe and admiration.
Comparatively it might have weighed a tonne but at that moment no doubt every gram was completely worth it to him.
And that’s largely what it comes down to when deciding which of the many options at Torres del Paine to take; finding the balance between what you’re willing to spend and what weight you’re willing or able to carry.
If, like Steak Guy, you’re up to hauling everything but the kitchen sink, there are free campsites available and you can bring your own food, cooking equipment and tent and spend next to nothing. But if you don’t have some gear such as a tent, sleeping bag or stove or simply don’t want to lug them up there, most sites hire these basics at a relatively low cost.
And if you can’t stomach the thought of even sleeping in a tent there are the refugios that have showers and shared rooms with bunk beds.
At the refugios you can buy snacks and drinks and even choose to have meals included, which of course comes at a higher price but means you only need to carry spare clothes.
We decided to take the middle road and sleep in refugios but carry our own stove and food to cook.
It isn’t hardcore hiking in terms of a need for absolute self-sufficiency, but if you’re not a purist you’ll enjoy the prospect of a beer after lumping your pack for hours in the elements.
Whichever way you go, there’s one thing that you won’t have to carry much of – water.
One of the best aspects of the park is the abundance of water and being able to drink straight from the many fresh snow and glacial melt streams is a fantastic bonus.
One of the more challenging aspects of the park is, well, the abundance of water. It’s everywhere; in lakes, streams and glaciers, on the trail and more often than not falling from the sky as rain, snow or sleet.
Gore-Tex or no-tex you’re guaranteed to end up getting wet at some point and it pays to prepare with plenty of ziplock bags for your gear and a plastic pack liner.
The park covers 181,000ha and has a range of trails from day hikes to multi-day treks as well as hosting privately run kayak, horseback and boat tours.
The five-day W trail is probably the most popular multi-day option and was the one we decided to tackle because it featured a selection of some of the best bits of the park; the iconic spires of the Paine Massif, Grey Glacier and the mountainous French Valley. Going in spring also meant the chance to walk among wildflowers in bloom as we kept our eyes peeled for foxes, guanacos, condors and the elusive pumas.
It didn’t spare us from the wind though.
Patagonia is notorious for its blustery conditions but it’s difficult to describe just how relentless it is and how hard it can be to remain upright and moving forward in the face of it. And wearing a backpack that acts somewhat like a sail means it’s not at all uncommon for people to be blown completely off their feet by the ferocious gales.
With its combination of steep climbs, wild weather and postcard views, Torres del Paine is absolutely breathtaking, in more ways than one, and well worth withstanding the wind for.
The writer is travelling at her own expense.
A guanaco in front of the plains and mountains of the Torres del Paine hike.
TORRES DEL PAINE: On its own, this park is beautiful enough to draw people to visit Patagonia, the region that straddles the south of Chile and Argentina.