Dear concerned readers (all three of you, bless your hearts):
Fear not. I am alive. I survived nature, just barely. Let me tell you about it. I apologize for what will be a very long entry here—most disagreeable when blogging, I’ve been told—but this is the Patagonian frontier, after all.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is located in southern Chilean Patagonia, and is probably one of the most well-known—and well-travelled—national parks in South America. It has everything a North Face-clad, Geo-trekking nature nut dreams of: imperious snow-capped mountains, rivers and lakes galore, picturesque views surrounding you on all sides, and even a glacier. Can I say that again? It’s got a goddamn glacier.
Now, I want to make something clear here before I go further: I am not a North Face-clad, Geo-trekking nature nut. I am not even close. I do not own hiking boots. The backpack I am traveling with is not actually mine. I can’t remember the last time I took a long walk outside just to see the trees or whatever. I am a city girl. Even when I wasn’t living in the city, I was a city girl. My essential items are red lipstick and cute underwear, not wool socks and granola bars. As a general rule, I don’t camp—not like a live-and-die-by-this rule, just like, a guideline for my comfort zone. My idea of roughing it is a bunk bed and instant coffee. Okay? Good? Scene set?
Nevertheless, I will most likely never be in southern Chilean Patagonia again, and even if I am somehow, it will probably be less substantial. When I booked this trip, I left all my inhibitions and general rules in Minneapolis—so when the opportunity to experience unbridled natural beauty arose, I jumped. I signed up for ten days in Patagonia (go google it or something, it’s a giant region), five of which were to be spent camping in Torres del Paine. I rented a tent, bought a mat, and told myself that the souvenir llama socks I bought for my parents would have to be put to early use, since my sleeping bag was a summer weight at best.
The journey from Punto Arenas to Puerto Natales to the entrance to Torres del Paine by bus comes to something like seven hours all together, give or take, and I hardly need to say that it is all beautiful. Plains and mountains I’ve seen before, but Ecuador and Peru were more green, more jungled—driving through the countryside here was a feast of colors: blue skies and gold fields with patches of green hues and always, mountains in the distance, with white peaks and cirrus clouds hanging low. Flocks of sheep and herds of guanaco roamed leisurely; it was impossible to be bored.
Some years ago, when I was about thirteen years old or so, my family took a vacation to Yellowstone. I remember lots of geyser-watching, one very exciting thunderstorm where a moose ran across a field and nearly trampled someone, and being fairly miserable and cramped. I can vaguely recall being impressed by the scenery, though I know it was grand. What I remember most is walking through lots of guided trails, with lots of signage, lots of outposts, fences and maps and so on. I remember always knowing exactly where we were, and how far we were from another place, and what we should do in case something bad happened (like a moose trampling, or something). I’ve carried the assumption with me all these years that all national parks are like that: well-marked, easily navigable, and for the most part—aside from bugs—very safe. It was with that assumption that I took on Torres del Paine, feeling that even if I wasn’t totally prepared, I would undoubtedly figure it out—this has been my attitude abroad, and I’ve done okay by it.
But Torres del Paine is not a part-time jaunt, and I realize now that my impression of national parks led me into a regrettably false sense of security about camping in Patagonia for five days. You get a map when you enter the park, and you’re kind of shit out of luck if you lose it. The trails stretch for miles without any marking beyond a little orange arrow here and there to let you know you haven’t accidentally wandered off, but even supposing you accidentally did, there would be no one to know.
I will give you the highlights here, because you’ll see the details, I hope, in the photos that follow. Basically, Torres del Paine is a hiker’s park—the sort of thing you do with a tent and a sleeping bag and a cooker strapped to your back, following skinny little winding trails that lead up and around rocky mountains—trails that are more mountain themselves than anything else. Unless you’re on a day trip to Torres del Paine, you are taking one of two hikes: the “Circuit”, which loops around the whole length of the park and takes approximately nine days, or the “W”, which takes five days and is kind of a “greatest hits” version of the park (you see Torres del Paine and Glacier Grey with lots of views between, and the route makes a “W”). My group—a hearty 19-year-old German girl and a vegan, tree-hugging 22-year-old Italian super chica—opted for the W.
The first day was five hours of hiking with backpacks that felt like lead after about ten minutes. Then tiredly munching on some bread, pitching our tents, and pretending to be comfortable as the temperatures plummeted. The second day started at 8 AM, as we hiked up to the Mirador del Torres (sans backpacks, thank God), and that was something like three hours uphill and scrambling over boulders, before returning to our campsite, packing up, and setting out for the next stop—a hike which should have only taken four or five hours by our map, but which ended up taking over seven (a vast oversight in distance judgment). The third day, a more gentle hike—just a little over four hours—to the next site, which was the coldest yet, and found the three of us crammed into my rented two-person tent when the other broke. The fourth day, we decided to cut our losses and skip the glacier in favor of a three-hour hike to a boat, which would deliver us to a bus, which would take us back to civilization in Puerto Natales. None of us were prepared for the severity of Torres del Paine—it is not a landscape suited for B- hobbyists (or C-, in my case)—and we limped back to warm beds with scrapes and bruises.
That said, I regret nothing. I would change nothing (except maybe my footwear). The views… Well, the pictures are below. Try telling me it wasn’t worth it.