Sitting in the sunshine in Patagonia’s beautiful French Valley, part of the Torres del Paine national park, with a huge glacier on one side and turquoise blue lakes on the other. Not a terrible place to sit and contemplate life for a while.
I did just that for a couple of hours, but only because my right knee really hadn’t liked the previous day’s steep climb to see the famous three granite towers that give the Torres del Paine park its name. Despite the resulting pain I’d managed most of the French Valley trek, but as the last part was an uphill scramble I decided to let the group go on without me and not risk making it any worse.
Our guide Trisha had warned us that the first day of our three days of trekking in Chilean Patagonia would be the worst, but I don’t think anyone in our group of six was expecting it to be quite so tough. Not helped at all by the fact that it rained all the way up and quite a bit of the way down. The scenery we’d come for was very misty and our eyes were firmly focused on where we were putting our feet, though we did manage the occasional smile for the camera.
And it’s not to say the walk wasn’t spectacular in parts. Walking through the forest was amazing and much drier. And while the rain meant walking through a lot of water it also meant lots of gushing waterfalls and rivers. Plus we could fill our bottles for free with the purest ice cold water.
But by the time we reached the Torres ranger station there was no sign of the rain letting up, so Trisha suggested we didn’t continue to the top as we were unlikely to see the towers. Instead she took us to a hidden viewpoint where we sat and ate our lunch in the rain and briefly caught a glimpse of all three towers when the mist lifted momentarily.
Although the way back involved some steep downhill walking, return journeys often feel quicker and it definitely got easier when the rain eventually stopped. We stopped to take photos a lot more and chatted to a lovely couple from New York during one section which was a great distraction.
But the best photos we took were back at Refugio Torre where we were spending the night and had travelled to by minivan that morning to drop off our bags. We’d seen nothing but rain and cloud then, but as we walked across from Torre Central to our room at Torre Norte we realised the towers were right there in front of us.
Dawning on us that we’d just hiked 7.5 hours in the rain to not see them and here they were made us slightly hysterical. Even more so when we got up the next morning to see what the towers looked like at sunrise.
So if you’re not much of a trekker, its perfectly possible to come and get the money shot of the towers without too much effort. Yes I did feel something resembling a sense of achievement after enduring that trek, but I do wish I’d known about the alternative.
And I think that’s the advice I’d given anyone considering a trip to Torres del Paine. There’s a hard way to do it, hiking the famous W – we did 50km or so which was all but one section of it. And there’s an easier way that involves seeing some of the highlights by car and others on less challenging hikes and boat trips.
But back to day two and after a Pisco Sour, a surprisingly nice dinner at Refugios Torres and an early night we woke up to that amazing sunrise view of the towers and no rain. Hurrah! So it was a nice drive to Pehoe to see some fab views from the catermaran that crosses Pehoe Lake.
On the other side we checked in at another of Torres del Paine’s refugios, Paine Grande Lodge. It wasn’t as nice as Torres overall, but our room had an amazing view and more space for the thee sets of bunk beds. Yes, our whole group shared a room both nights – myself and my friends, Miriam and Jo; Jianing a Chinese girl living in Brazil; and a married couple, Maryann and Brian, from Australia. I really don’t think Brian expected to be in a room with five women when he signed up for the trip!
You could just book a bed and take a sleeping bag, but ours were made beds and surprisingly comfortable. And sharing with so many worked fine apart from having three snorers out of the six, some of which even penetrated my normally very effective earplugs!
So once checked in it was time for the trek along the lake to reach the French Valley, where I started this story. For the first bit there are views of Lake Pehoe before heading across the headland to Lake Skottsberrg.
That’s when you start to see some of the dead trees that were destroyed by a huge fire in 2011. It was allegedly started accidentally by a tourist and impacted a large part of the Torres del Paine park. There are much tighter restrictions on any use of matches now.
When you look at the map, the trail looks like it’s then a gentle stroll along the shore of Lake Skottsberg. But pretty soon the lake is out of sight as you’re following a sometimes very narrow path through the undergrowth. But on the plus side there isn’t too much up and down, hence my knee held out and it was a mostly enjoyable experience, even crossing some wobbly bridges one by one.
Heading away from the lake and up the French Valley we passed the Italian camp before reaching the stunning spot where I was happy take time out to start writing this post. Although I did also spend quite a bit of time practicing my selfies in front of the French Glacier. With time on my hands I think they’ve definitely improved, but see what you think below!
As before, the walk back was easier and quicker and our efforts were rewarded by a pretty decent dinner and drinks in the Lodge Paine Grande bar which has huge windows and phenomenal views.
Day three in Torres del Paine was probably the hardest and also the most rewarding. The morning was a pretty horrendous hike along Lake Grey, initially in steady rain but then in absolutely pouring rain. We were supposed to see amazing views of Grey Glacier as we approached it, but only managed to a brief stop to look at a few misty icebergs.
The terrain was very up and down with some very steep sections on granite, so it was tough going on my knee. The only saving graces were my fantastic new Lowa Renegade hiking boots and the hiking poles I’d hired from Trisha. As well as the rain we had to walk through lots of muddy pools and even a waterfall, so I don’t think any of us had ever been so wet as when we arrived at Refugio Grey. The sense of relief all round was palpable.
After lunch we headed down to the boat for our cruise to see the glacier up close. It had stopped raining just before we arrived at the refugio but then started again as we left, so we weren’t feeling very optimistic as we boarded the boat.
To start with we looked out of the window, but quickly decided it was worth getting wet to get a better view of the glacier. And then by some miracle, once we were on deck, it stopped. So we were able to stay and fully appreciate the stunning Grey Glacier which really is a highlight of Torres del Paine national park.
The boat takes you up close to three sections of the 2km wide glacier which still stretches back for 15km, although global warming means it’s eroding every year. There are also some huge icebergs that have broken away and like the glacier are the most extraordinary blue colour.
Horrendous hike forgotten we stayed on deck until the boat was heading away from the glacier and along Grey Lake. Then it was back inside to enjoy Pisco Sours cooled with glacial ice with our lovely group. Maryann, Brian and Jianing had been great people to spend time with and helped us get through the more challenging parts of the hike, even carrying my rucksack to take pressure off my knee.
That injury helped us get on another boat to the uber fancy Lago Grey hotel where our driver was collecting us. Otherwise it would have been another half hour walk which no one felt like doing. Instead we were able to have a hot drink in the hotel bar and admire the views before the bumpy drive back to Puerto Natales. Oh and if you don’t fancy that four hour hike along the lake you can just do a round trip on the boat from where we got off!
Puerto Natales is where we stayed the night before and after our Torres del Paine adventure as it’s the closest town to the park. The Natalino hotel was nice and quite trendy – it even had a swimming pool that we didn’t have time to use. And they helpfully stored our suitcases so we could take the minimum we needed for our time in the park.
We had some nice dinners at La Guanaca Pizzeria and Cafe Kalkan and on the day we arrived we went for a walk around the town and along the ocean front. It was a nice spot to get our first look at the Patagonian mountains, but other than that Natales didn’t seem to have a huge amount to recommend it.
The next morning was the 2.5 hour return drive to Punta Arenas airport before a 3+ hours flight back to Santiago and 2 hour drive to the Colchagua Valley wine region. Chile is a big country so not quick to get around! The road to Punta Arenas seems practically straight the whole way with very flat land covered with yellow grass and black bushes. So a bit dull, but we did spot a few native animals – the ostrich-like raya and the guanaco.
And that was the end of our Patagonia adventure. Would I have done it that way if I’d known how hard it would be? Probably not. But it’s definitely an experience I’ll never forget, not least for the amazing views, stunning glacier and new friends that I hope to meet again.
Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and visit the Chile section of my blog for more posts from the trip now and in the future.