Puerto Natales–Torres del Paine

From El Chalten, I took a four hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, a small harbor town in Chile. PN was my favorite of all the small towns in Patagonia. It was less touristy, less expensive, and had the most village dogs. The houses were mostly made out of corrugated metal and were painted all kinds of great colors. I made my way down to PN because it’s the best gateway into Parque Nacional de Torres del Paine.

“Compared to my experience getting into Argentina a month and a half ago, this was an especially relaxed border crossing. The Chileans are super uptight about bringing livestock and agricultural goods over, but other than that, they seem to let people pass freely. I heard that you needed to pay a fee to pass into Chile, but I didn’t have to cough up a cent. We passed through a sleepy old mining town that was rusting away. The majority of the drive was along route 40, the road that cuts Argentina along its Andean spine. (Little did I know that I’d get to drive along the same road in the country’s northwestern province of Salta in only a few weeks). Plains. Cows. Horses. Giant birds of prey. Colossal walls in the backdrop. In and out of sleeping.”

“Chatting with a dutch aerospace engineer sitting next to me. He’s traveling in South America before going to design jet engines for Rolls Royce in Berlin. He had the classic Dutch look about him: slicked back and groomed hair, colored khaki pants, and a v-neck. He told me about a 3 o’clock meeting at Erratic Rock about the trekking loop.”

There is basically no good information about trekking in Torres on the web, so a bar/hostel called Base Camp/Erratic Rock takes the lead with an info session every day at 3pm. They’ve been running the information session for the past ten years to ensure that people who set off into the park have all the information they need and don’t pull any joey moves, such as burning half the trees down like some idiot Israeli kids did three years ago in the park. Torres del Paine translates to towers of blue, the bright neon blue color that you see in the lakes in the park.

The mountain range is much younger than the Andes, in fact it was all formed underground in a magma chamber, then shot upwards into the sky at some point in recent geologic history. The mountains here are not nearly as tall as the Andes get around Mendoza, Argentina, Bolivia, or Peru, but they appear to be much taller because they basically erupt out of the earth as vertical rock walls. From Torres-del-paine.org: The “Macizo de Paine” (the central massif) was formed when hot volcanic magma cooled and turned into granite. Over millennia, this area was covered by layers of sediment, compressing to form rock cap over the harder granite below. Over thousands of more years unbelievable geographical pressures forced the entire area to rise up. The area was then covered by glaciers and as they retreated the ice carved away the softer, sedimentary rock to reveal the harder granite columns below. The result is the jaw-dropping site of almost vertical columns of rock that shoot up from the ground like towers, rising to just below 3,000m in height.

“Puerto Natales is  an amazing place, on the broken up islands of the Pacific. It looks the way I’d imagine a small town in Alaska to look like. More stray dogs than I’ve ever seen. Wolf like about territory. The main street is run by 8 golden dogs, they look like family. They work in a pack to make sure no other dogs get onto the street.”

“At the info session a French woman, Armony, walks in 15 minutes late and sits down on the floor next to me. I share my dried fruit with her and she starts asking me questions. All her questions would have been answered if she came to the meeting on time. Her relentless barrage of questions pisses off other audience members. After the meeting, we started chatting and decided since we were both traveling solo, we should team up and split the costs. We were joined by two other guys and the legendary group was formed.

  • Armony, a 30 year old French engineer. She had a stereotypical type-A personality, and commandeered the trip planning, which I didn’t necessarily like, but I would go along with because she was attractive
  • Dan, a 26 year old Californian who grew medical marijuana plants professionally. He had a stereotypical type-B personality.
  • Bill, a 32 year old advertiser who was pretty clueless. He lived on a different planet.
  • and Me.

Buying food for a 4 day trip with people you met 15 minutes ago is a magnificent wet blanket, but we got it sorted. I demanded that everyone in the group elect their spirit animal. So Armony, the pit-bull, Dan, the eagle, Bill the wolf, and myself a black bear cub got ready to hit the trails. We couldn’t have been more different personalities– it was a very strange hiking experience compared to what I had been used to, just hitting the woods with friends–but it worked out great.

We woke up at 6 the next morning. All the hostels arrange a breakfast of toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, because they know that most people get up and prep for a big day of hiking. There was a two and a half hour bus through to the park.

I knew immediately when we had arrived. As you stroll up alongside the entrance, the park’s mountains are hanging off in a circular formation in the distance. I could make out three distinct valleys, each one had different weather. I couldn’t decide whether it was more like a Disney Land for Outdoor Recreation or like a hunger games arena. Whatever it was, that sight got me amped. We were just one of five coach busses that dropped people off into the wilderness of paine. The coach busses then filled the seats back up to return back to Puerto Natales. It was like clockwork, a factory line for getting people onto the trail. The park was swamped with people. But still insanely beautiful. I can only imagine how sublime the experience would be if there were fewer people there.

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The roads leading into the park were infested with Alpaca.

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Here are my notes from my experience in the park:

  • Azule of the Lago Torres. Carribean color.
  • Before we caught the ferry to the other side of the park and begin our hike, ran up to check out a waterfall. In the sky, there was an alfajor shaped cloud. (An alfajor is a classic argentine snack–an oreo type cookie filled with dulche de leche).
  • Standing facing Glacier Grey (the glacier in the park is connected to Perito Moreno, hundreds of kilometers away, through the Southern Ice Field) the winds are sweeping off the glacier and knocking me back. Staring down into a vast icy wind tunnel. From a distance the glacier looks like the great wall of the north from game of thrones.
  • Dan the Mt. Shasta pot grower had terrible blisters, told me he has worn nothing but chacos for the past four years. I treated his blisters–then told him to hike in his chacos for a bit. It was as if he had put wings on his feet.
  • Hanging glaciers–> waterfalls coming out of the clouds. Falling from the sky.
  • The rocks and mountains were formed from magma intrusions, vertical walls that were shot out of the earth. Multicolored with distinct lines. Purple to tan.
  • On the trail, we kept on running into a 70 or 80 year old Italian man. I got to talk to him a little bit in Spanish. He doesnt walk fast, but he never stops–like the way old timers play golf. They don’t hit it far but they hit it straight. He walks with a walking stick. He’s got a red LL Bean style jacket, ray bans, and a north face backpack that hangs low over his back like a 3rd grader. Hope I’m that radically awesome and am able to do this kind of thing at an age like that. As soon as I get to a point where I cant get myself out in the wilderness or force myself up a mountain to ski, its probably time to tap out.

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  • Last night, I met a woman who told me she has a great friend who did a Watson some years ago–something with painting and drawing. Now, she draws and records scientific expeditions. She just got back from Greenland where she artistically rendered a study on narwals.
  • The refugios here are incredible. Ski-lodge status. We’re hanging out by the fire here, but camping out tonight and every other night. There are comfy couches and even a bar in the other room. Just smoked Armony in chess. Checkmate after 8 moves.

Day 2:

30km today. 19km with a backpack to Campamento Italiano, the rest was a side trip up Valle Frances (the French valley lies between the English and Italian campsites–nice). Up to our left, there was a hanging glacier with waterfalls running off. The wind was so strong that the waterfalls never hit the ground, just blew off in a spray. Turned to mist by the wind. Climbing uphill. Beside us is a stream of intensely powerful whitewater–glacial runoff. Elegant violence. I always think of my friend Sarah Johnson when I see whitewater. On our trip through the swamps of Georgia and Florida, she would sit for hours just watching the rapids. Striking verticality of the mountains. Granite walls. So far on the trip, we haven’t been blessed by the weather. There’s been a relentless light drizzle. Just bring on the rain! As we ascended the French Valley, a pocket of light broke through the clouds and illuminated the Torres. Real treat. Writing this the tent on my mat. Legs numb. Feel great.

Pot-grower Dan is really funny. At one point he was talking about how much he loved American Spirit cigarettes and how he felt like the warrior on the label when he smoked them, “Grab my war paint and my peace pipe,” he remarked, “they dont really go together but f*** it.”

Day 3:

Long day hiking from Italia to Campamento Torres. Dan and Bill were a bit slow and injured so Armony and I cut ahead to claim campsites. The 3 valleys of the park are three microclimates. Today, we lucked out with the weather. Sunny day today. After the 8 hour hike, we set up camp then hiked 45 minutes directly up the ridge to the Laguna de Los Torres. Exhausted. Legs jelly, but I ran up to make sure I caught the Torres before the sun set. When I got up there, the sun was passing through each of the three towers, casting a triangle of light onto the lake, like a sun dial, as it passed between each of the towers.

We were up that same ridge again only 7 hours later. Hiked up in the dark to watch the sun rise up and over the ridge and light up a corner of light on the tip. Just the tip.

I cooked dinner that night, a three course meal of meat and lentil soup, mashed potatoes, and grilled cheese–or as Armony called them croque-monsieurs. I ran into Audrey Sherman at that last campsite, a Dartmouth ’14 who is good friends with one of my Hanover homies, Matt and great friends with Clare Sutphin from Bowdoin. The next day, we were back to Puerto Natales and met up for burgers and beer with everyone I met on the trail. Early the next morning, I hopped on a bus to Ushuaia. Armony decided to accompany me. It was fun traveling with a companion for a week.

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3 thoughts on “Puerto Natales–Torres del Paine”

  1. wonderful! reminds me so much of my sojourn into the Pyrenees. Catch as catch can. The BEST way to see the world!
    Tu mama en Chicago.

  2. HI David, I’m the woman who knows another Watsonian artist. Her name is Maria Coryell-Martin. Here is her website: http://expeditionaryart.com Glad to see you made your way across to the Towers! There is not a day that has gone by since we met at Campo Grey that I have not marvelled at the experience I had on the hike over the pass. Best, Kathy Darrow

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