Torres del Paine - Ushuaia
The bus picked us up from our hotel again very early in the morning, to head across the border and into the Chilean Torres del Paine National Park. The 3-hour bus ride took us across the desert plains of Patagonia where the mountains seems so far away in the distance. Quite a change of scenery from the lakeside Calafate or the mountainous Chalten.
The land itself seems very arid and dry, with long stretches of nothingness, only interrupted by the occasional signposts. But most of the side of the highways were bordered by barbed wire fences. A somewhat subtle reminder that despite the beauty and desolateness of Patagonia, the region was once marred by bloodshed and sorrow.
Much like the forceful removal of American Indian tribes from their own land in the United States, Patagonia was also forcefully taken by the Argentine government in the late 1800s under the leadership of General Julio Argentino Roca. Thousands of natives were killed and tens of thousands more relocated. It also served as a proxy war between Chile and Argentina, as both contested dominance over this land.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
As we crossed over the border and took care of our paperworks, we switched to a smaller tour bus that takes us into the Chilean national park. Along the way, we made a few scenic stops to get an overview of the park. On our first stop we were able to see the mountain range and the Torres nestled behind Paine Grande mountain and covered by clouds.
Guanacos are also abundant in the park. Essentially undomesticated llamas, they roamed free just like buffalos in Yellowstone.
We could’ve stayed in the bus to tour the whole park, but we decided to get dropped off early at Laguna Amarga to catch another private bus that would take us into our first campground near Hosteria del Torres. This would be our first stop of the W-circuit trek. You’ve got to rely on the buses around here.
The W-circuit is a portion of the complete trail system that encircles the Paine mountain range and the park. While the complete circuit would take 9-10 days to complete, the W-circuit covers the southern portion of the full circuit and usually takes about 4-days to complete. We settled in our tents fairly early in the afternoon and mostly rested for the rest of the day before our hike the next morning.
Torres del Paine (9 miles | Time: 10 hours | Weather: Cloudy and Windy)
Our first hike took us towards the famed Torres del Paine and the glacial lake below it. We started the hike early in the morning, and spent most of the way there climbing up an incline. The weather was mostly cloudy but mild. However, as we come around the mountain pass towards the Campamento Chileno, the wind really picked up and it became very cold. Campamento Chileno and ours is one of several privately run campgrounds, or ‘Refugios’; and actually portion of the park is considered private land.
I never understood how this was worked out between the private landowner and the government, but it seems the private businesses profits more out of the relationship. Private refugios tend to be more facilitated, has a small supply store, hot showers, and sometimes even provide meal plans. While the public campgrounds may not even have a shower facility, and you are only allowed to camp for one night; though it’s free.
Just like our climb towards Fitz Roy, the last mile of this hike is quite treacherous. The climb is steep, through loose rocks and over large boulders. Not to mention this area is a lot more windy and colder without any tree coverings. But as usual, the view at the top makes the hardwork worth it.
We found a small spot behind a large boulder where we were mostly covered by the wind to have our lunch. Though cloudy, you can see the finger-like granite towers of Torres del Paine, coming up from a green glacial lake. The three granite towers makes for a very alien-like landscape. Carved leftovers of a massive glacier sheet that once covered these mountains.
We couldn’t stay for too long since it was getting colder, and the wind seems to be picking up even more. We headed back down and retraced our route coming here. Got back around 5PM to prepare dinner at our camp, and get some rest before we have to pack up and move to our next campground at Camp Frances.
Camp Torres - Camp Frances (Distance: 13 km | Time: 8 hours | Weather: Clear / Windy )
We packed up our stuff and started hauling it early towards our second Refugio at Camp Frances. The total hike is fairly moderate, not too many steep climbs until we started tracing the lake’s coast line. The weather was windy and pretty cool for most of the trip, which kind of helped the fact that we had to carry all our stuff: clothing, food, stove, sleeping bag, and all, on our backs for 6-hours. Can’t say I enjoyed this part of the hike, especially since we still have most of our food to carry.
We reached Camp Frances around 5PM and was pleasantly surprised at how nice the bathroom and shower facilities were. Plus they had a camp store / lounge area that served beer. And they take credit cards… $6 for a cerveza? Hell yes, please.
Camp Frances - Valley Frances (Distance: 17 km roundtrip | Time: 8 hours | Weather: Overcast, Windy)
Starting from around the middle of the “W” circuit, we hiked up towards Valley Frances on our 4th day. Passing through Campamento Cuernos, you get a clear view of the south end of Cuernos de Paine. One of the other signature peaks of the national park.
Irregularly shaped peak with tri-colored striations distinguishes this rock. We’d hike northward around its foot, up to Mirador Valle Frances where we have our first clear view of the mountain range surrounding the valley. Being pitted between two mountain ranges and a glacier on the west side, this was probably one of the windiest area we encountered. We could barely stand straight without getting blown by the wind.
Moving on, we started coming back down below the tree line where the wind subsided a bit. But you can still hear it blowing through the tree tops.
About 4 kilometers up, we passed by a barren area of the valley with a large swath of dead trees. This used to be Camp Brittanico, but a few years ago a fire accident by hikers trying to cook open fire caused a forest fire that devastated the area. This is why nowadays open fire is not allowed, and most camps or refugios have designated stove cooking areas. Sort of a shame really, seeing how a little fire and mistake can cause such a horrible destruction.
Passed the old campground, just like the other hikes we’ve done so far, the last kilometer or so becomes very steep and rocky. Scrambling through lots of loose gravel and rocks, we pushed upwards towards the north tip of the valley. Coming upon an view point where you get a sweeping view of the mountain ranges and the cuernos. It was really windy and overcast when we got here, but no sooner as we wrapped up our lunch, the sky cleared up and the mountain range comes into full view.
After a while, we’d come down the viewpoint and backtracked our way to Camp Frances, where we’d spend our last night camping… and finishing up all the dehydrated food we got (spare one for lunch the next day).
Camp Frances - Lake Pehoe (Distance: 11km | Time: 5 hours | Weather: Rain/Hail/Gusty/Freaking Cold)
The rain started overnight and didn’t relent until the morning. We had our last granola / oatmeal breakfast for the trip, gave away our propane canister, and started making our way towards Lake Pehoe. We have to catch a catamaran at Lake Pehoe that leaves at 1230, then to catch our bus out of the park. Which means, this time, we’re on a timeline and have to get to Lake Pehoe early enough to catch the boat. Otherwise, the next boat won’t leave until 630PM and we’d miss our bus.
It started out relatively sunny with just a few drizzle. But the last stretch of the hike, around 2-3 kilometer of it, we were pelted by hail, rain, and strong gusts By the time we reach the dock, my pants were soaking wet down to my socks.
We made it in time and early enough to get a good spot to sit on the boat. Joined by a few dozen other hikers and campers, the catamaran quickly filled up.
Once reaching the other side of the lake, we hopped on a bus to start our way out of the park. This was pretty much it for the heavy hiking portion of our trip, and I felt a little sad leaving the park. Even on the way out, we’d see awesome view of the mountains out of our window.
While I was happy to be done with camping and eating mushy food, I can’t help but think that we didn’t spend enough time here, and wonder when we’d be able to see these beautiful mountains, turquoise lakes, and enchanted glaciers again.
After a series of connecting buses, a night at Puntas Arenas (which I’d come back to visit again), and a ferry ride across the Magellan Channel, we finally arrive at the island of Tierra del Fuego. We were on our way back into the Argentine territory and city of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world.
Tierra del Fuego is a large island south of the mainland, though still considered part of Patagonia region, it’s much more lush and in some ways less rugged. The mountain ranges are still part of the Andes system, though at a much lower elevation.
Magellan had sailed and stopped at this island while searching a passage to cross over to the pacific ocean towards India. Charles Darwin had also famously boarded the HMS Beagle through this region.
A popular ski resort during the winter season, Ushuaia is a very touristic city with a bustling city center with lots of shops and restaurants.
It is also a popular jumping point for going on an expedition to the South Pole (next time maybe). It is famous mainly for a few things: penguins, seafood (king crab, seabass or also called merluza or hake), and the Tierra del Fuego National Park.
We stayed at a very quaint bed and breakfast in the town and did a few touristy excursions from there. Some light and guided hikes that are very family-friendly, easy enough for young children to come along. So it was mostly a pretty relaxing few days for us and we were able to taste some very delicious food, not to mention the gigantic king crab.
The highlight from Ushuaia is the Penguin island, east of the city. A guided trek with a tour company, we take a small zodiac to a penguin colony where three different penguin species stay yearlong. Not much to say about penguins…. so here are some gratuitous photos of these cute little critters:
We also took an enjoyable boat ride around the bay, where we were able to take view of the city from the water, stop by a couple islands populated by sea lions and birds, and also the famed lighthouse.
Flying out from Ushuaia back to Buenos Aires, I felt satisfied and glad having the opportunity to see and experience Patagonia. But also felt like I barely scratched the surface of this beautiful and rugged landscape.
We have a couple more days to spend in Buenos Aires before heading back stateside, but Patagonia already left a mark for me and now holds a special place in my mind. I hope I'll still be healthy enough to hike these trails when I come back next time.
Backpack/Daypack: Osprey Aether 70L / REI Flash 18
Camera: Fuji X-E1
Lenses: Fuji XF 55-200mm f/3.5-5.6, XF 10-24mm f/4.0, XF 35mm f/1.4
Tripod: Mefoto Backpacker
Planning and coordination: Lisa Maria