19 December 2009

Torres del Paine

With Torres del Paine, we concluded our tour of southern Patagonia and its triumvirate of stunning parks - Tierra del Fuego, Los Glaciares (Fitz Roy), and Torres del Paine. We spent the last month criss-crossing borders in search of the best backpacking. We found it in Torres del Paine (TdP), along with thousands of other people and high costs.

First, we left Argentina for the Chilean town of Puerto Natales. The only reason to visit this town is that it's the closest civilization to TdP. After a day and half of shopping for food and packing, we took a two-hour bus ride along with hundreds of other instant-backpackers.

For those of you who have been to the park, we did the W, O, P, Q and maybe some other letters. It was an alphabet soup of trails that didn't really matter. Basically, we saw everything there was possibly to see. We hiked somewhere over 240 km in the 10 days. Not super fast, but a lot of off-trail hiking and snowy/muddy areas.

The first part, the "W", is very popular is is probably what 98% of people see. We spent an extra day in each of the valleys of the W. After that, we hiked around to the back of the Torres to complete the circuit, continued south, then northerwest to Pingo and Zapata glaciares. We were very lucky with the weather. Our food estimates were pretty good, though as you may have guessed, there wasn't enough chocolate. But I don't think I've ever had too much chocolate on a backpacking trip.

The pictures will attest to how beautiful the park was even though they can only hint at the grandeur and scale of the the towers (torres), rock monoliths, waterfalls, peaks and (yes) more glaciares.

We thoroughly enjoyed the backpacking and natural environment, but I didn't really like the feeling of the park. Most travelers do a 4-5 day hike through the park, arriving at the same time, following the same trail, seeing the same things at the same time, and then leave on the same bus. I'm really not exaggerating. Additionally, the park was expensive - $30 entry, $30 bus ride, and $22 boat ride. There are only a few free camps, as most of the camping is run by a private company and costs $8 per person.

Expensive as this was, I more disliked being forced to camp in such an "improved" campsite with a store, restaurant, hostel, bathrooms and lots of other backpackers. I still don't understand why parks try so hard to make parks more comfortable. I'm glad that a park is on their South America "must-do" list, but the manner in which they see the park is not what K. and I were looking for.

Final thoughts? Tierra del Fuego was cool because it was so far south and such a dramatic change from Costa Rica. Los Glaciares was the most dramatic park. Plus, we found fun, inspiration, and peace. Torres del Paine had the best and most backpacking trails. And, the most amazing single moment - after 6 days of hiking, we surmounted the highest pass and finally saw the Continental Ice Shelf. I've talked about the Ice Shelf before in Los Glaciares, but we had never actually seen it. The ice field emitted a heavenly glow that seemed to reach to infinity. We were looking at a toothpick on the tip of a finger of the arm of the ice field. The size is mind boggling. I'd love to go back and explore it more, with more technical gear to actually get higher and camp on the ice shelf.

Spending a month in Patagonia was a dream come true. I hope our pictures have inspired other dreamers to take the long road to the "end of the world" and experience these natural wonders in person. Next up? Two days in Santiago before the family arrives for the holidays in Mendoza Argentina and Valparaiso Chile. Ciao!

Exploring Valle Frances, hiking off trail to a hidden glacier.

Valle Frances

Gorgeous hiking trails when the weather is good.

Ultralight backpacking vs. instant-backpackers: 8 more days for us, 3 more days for them.

Valle Torres.

The Torres del Paine, sunrise (5:15am) on a cloudless, windless day.

Exploring the hidden valley behind the Torres. Too much snow and sun, but well worth the suffering!

The seldom-seen top of the circuit with the outstanding view of the Continental Ice Shelf.

Glacier Grey leading to the Continental Ice Shelf.

Glacier Pingo, which we had all to ourselves.

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