Jan 2002: We'd planned to go to Zimbabwe, but those hopes were fading as the lead-up to the local elections there became progressively more bloody. Then out of the blue, Lyn was asked to do a week long workshop in Santiago Chile. It took two weeks of scrambling—Lyn, to get the work aspect of it organized, and I, to find some hiking in Patagonia for the following week. We finally managed both and took off on March 15th for what turned out to be one of our best trips yet.
City stays are not the focus of our website so won’t dwell on our week in Santiago, but we were pleasantly surprised by the hospitability of Chile in general and Santiago in particular. This is a city of 5 million people and we expected the usual big city problems—crowds, pollution, undrinkable water perhaps, insects, tourist hassles and crime. Well, pollution was bad, as Santiago is trapped between peaks on three sides and has the same basin problem as LA. But other hassles were not evident at all, and during the week we wandered freely about the city on the very clean, cheap and comprehensive subway system, and on buses that were frequent, noisy, cheap, and whose drivers were occasionally friendly; we had no problems drinking tap water (although the ice water from the hotel cooler was more appealing), and there were no mosquitoes. We ran into a couple of oddities: the “Rue Septembre 11th”, which led past our hotel, commemorates the day the military seized power from Salvador Allellende in 1973, not the New York disaster; and the much celebrated liberator of Chile, who has his name attached to everything from streets to national parks, is none other than Bernardo...O’Higgins.
It’s worth getting oriented first. Patagonia forms the bottom tip of the South American continent. (Santiago is roughly half way down the country of Chile yet it takes a four hour flight to do the other half.)
Until we went on this trip, Tierra del Fuego conjured up images of barren and icy tundra, like the far North of Canada. But TdF isn’t as far South as we expected. Southern continents do not extend as far South as Northern ones extend North and the tip of South America is only at about 52 degrees south—about where Liverpool or Prince George would be in the northern hemisphere. The terrain therefore is closer to “Yorkshire moorland” than Canadian tundra.
We landed in Punta Arenas around 2pm, and began the drive North. The 400Km trip took us through what looked like brown farmland. The land adjacent to the highway on both sides extending back over the rolling hills was fenced pasture! Sheep grazed in some of it; dairy cattle in others; we saw a few guanaco farms (left). Not much human habitation--a few isolated farms, and only one village in the 200Km drive to Puerto Natales. And beyond Puerto Natales, nada (apart from some heavy road-building activity just north of the town, where an armada of gravel trucks was roaring back and forth even though the light was fading).
Torres del Paine
We are quite a distance East of the Andes at this point, and their snowcapped peaks are barely visible on the western horizon. In this region, the Eastern slope of the Andean range is covered for about 360Km (N to S) by the massive Southern Patagonia Icefield. Torres del Paine (pa-een-ay) is one of several odd shaped massifs along the eastern edge of the Southern Ice field. You can get a sense of where we are if you follow the link below and find Glaciar Grey. Torres del Paine is the white just above the wording.
The picture above is NOT a studio photo! It was actually taken on our last day, from approximately the bottom middle-left of the map on the right. Our two guides are at each end of the group. Above Rodrigo’s head (far right)are the actual “Torres del Paine”, the three towers of Paine (2500m) that the park as a whole is named for. Above Armando’s head (far left), and over the hill is Glacier Grey. The peak in the middle of the picture and at the left centre of the map, is the Paine Grande (3050 m).
I’ve marked our big hikes in yellow (hike 1 on day 3 etc).
- from the Refugio Pehoe (pay-hway) to Glaciar Grey
- from Pehoe to Refugio Los Cuernos (marked with the red X) via Camp Italiano, with a side trip up towards Camp Britanico
- from Refugio Los Cuernos back to the Eco-camp
- From the eco-camp up to Torres del Paine and back.
(End of) Day 1
We drive into the park, and immediately see wild guanaco grazing on both sides of the road. We stop to take photos and surprise! a grey fox trots out of the grass, plops down about 20 meters away and watches us. Some of the group try to approach him but he stoically gets up, moves to the same safe distance and flops down again.
Within half an hour, we arrive at the eco camp, are allocated domes, throw our bags in and make our way to the main dome, where we begin with Pisco sours all round. That's the good news; unfortunately there is bad news: we are told that two US tourists died while sleeping in the domes on the previous night! As if that news isn't unnerving enough, we are also informed that while the police are conducting an investigation, we are not to use the propane stoves in the domes as a carbon monoxide leak is suspected. The distress factor of the first news is overshadowed by the second: the temperature has plummeted below zero since the sun went down, and the prospect of a night without heat is not attractive.
Day 2 (Drive, short walks)
Everyone froze during the night and slept badly. The temperature was about -5 degrees; we slept in our clothes--3 pairs of socks and a toque. But as the sun comes up we’re immensely cheered by the fact that the weather is clear and we’re in for a sunny day. Inhaling a good breakfast and finding a propane heater roaring in the dunny also helped. We set off for a day of driving around the southern roads of the Park, stopping for spectacular views over lakes, peaks, and glaciers and the occasional walk. We won't be back to the eco-camp for a few days and have had to take only a smaller bag of belongings, leaving most of our gear at the ecocamp.
We took plenty of vista shots but you can see equally good ones at this link:
At 6pm, we boarded a boat across Lake Pehoe, and after about a 30 minute trip, we disembark and take a short walk to the tents set up in the nearby Refugio. The Paine Grande looms almost 10,000 ft above us but the sun is heading down and it’s beginning to get cold again. We have a fabulous dinner in the main tent (jostling for the best seats in front of the propane heater) and retire by 9pm. But it’s another crackling cold night even though we are better prepared.
Birds and Vegetation
Birds are plentiful and varied. On the drive North, we saw plenty of the crested caracaras, and an occasional eagle--sometimes in clusters around a road kill. There were also smaller birds, although these tend to be harder to identify. For the inveterate twitcher, it's an intriguing combination.
Takes a bit of getting used to the fact that all vegetation seems to be covered with lethal spikes.
Day 3 (Hike 1)
I wake to find horses grazing between the tents. It’s bloody freezing. Nobody slept well and everyone’s a bit grumpy. On top of that, our nearby ‘facilities’ have frozen pipes. I head over to the main Refugio where there is at least some running water...and another thankfully warm dunny.
But we’re in luck with the weather again: still clear and sunny. And the hike to the glacier today is supposed to be spectacular. The first part of the trip is mostly a long and gentle climb of about 5Km, 300 meters vertical, to our lunch lookout over the glacier. The trail proves to be highly varied and interesting. High on our right is the Macizo Grande del Paine—the sheer, ice covered face of the big peak. We are hiking parallel to the shore of the Lake on our left, but a low ridge blocks a view of it and the Glacier. The trail wanders through one subtle change of sub-climate to another: first we’re hiking through English woods; then we’re in Canadian swamp; then over Scottish moorland, and so on. We see a variety of birds, including a couple of nonchalant bi-colored hawks inspecting us from a branch almost within reach. We eventually mount the ridge to our left, and emerge on a rocky knoll overlooking Glaciar Grey and Grey Lake. It's an astounding view. To the West, the Andes, and in front, and as far as we can see North, the enormous Southern Patagonian Icefield. It wraps around the shoulders of many nearer peaks and one arm snakes down towards us as Glaciar Grey. The lake below us (Lago Grey) is filled with dozens of blue icebergs.
Our main guide, Armando, is excellent—an endless source of answers to our questions about birds, flowers, geography…and not a bad hand at preparing Pisco sours either! He is ably abetted by Rodrigo who is only 18 and already better dressed than any of us!
From the lunch lookout, we hike for another two hours—a further 5K--down for a closer look at the glacier, and end up within a kilometer of the 60 ft wall of ice at the end of the glacier. We are lucky: as we sit down on the rocks, there is a thunderous boom and a pillar of spray appears, as a part of the glacier breaks off and sends another iceberg into the lake. Apparently, this isn't seen that often.
Our hike back completes about a 20K day, and we have climbed/descended about 700m. So on our return to the camp I’m keen to have my first shower since Santiago, and rush to grab some hot water before it runs out. I’m half successful: coat myself in soap…then the warm water runs out, so I have to rinse off in glacial cold water. Figure how much fun that would be on a cold night.
However, that night we are given fleecy liners to our sleeping bags and we all sleep the sleep of the pharoahs.
Day 4 and 5 (Hikes 2 & 3)
In the morning we have to pack enough gear in our “daypacks” to last us the next two days as we’re headed for Refugio Los Cuernos tonight, and don’t get back to the eco-camp (and the main part of our gear) until tomorrow evening. It’s a bit overcast but we have another great hike. We’re headed across the southern face of Grande Paine, which rises on our left, and have great views looking over the several lakes below us. It’s perhaps 6K to Camp Italiano, where the others head up the river to the French Lookout (on the way to Camp Britanico) while John stays down at Camp Italiano to fend off a head cold. From here we head across the front of Los Cuernos (“The horns”), three strange looking peaks! (see below)
Our “scientific” language is not the one used by the guides for this section of the trip. According to our guides, the trek will only take "2+2.5+2.5" (they do the math) ”…about 4-5 hours”, and is “flat”. This actually turns out to mean a 7 hour day and another 600 metres up and down. Rain the week before has created havoc with the river beds and the trails generally are wet and boggy. Horses use these trails too (actually, they were horse trails first) and there is considerable erosion. When we get to the Refugio, we find to our joy that we’re sleeping inside (albeit in bunk beds—8 to a room) and there are hot showers! That evening we have gnocci, prepared from scratch by the cook, and we couldn’t have felt better if we’d stayed at a Hilton.
The next day, we (reluctantly) head out from the refugio later than usual, for a shorter hike of about 12K, headed back to the main ecocamp. We still encounter a few steep ups and downs. On the way, we spot eight Andean condors circling on the currents high above crusing amongst the peaks of Los Cuernos.
We didn’t take many pictures on this route for some reason. I suspect that the camera just couldn’t capture the variety of landscapes and views that we came across continually. To the South, the hills looked as though they had been churned by giant rock reptiles whose petrified figures are still buried in the brown hillsides; and hemmed by lakes that took on various colors from blue to turquoise, to blue grey. Below us, small copses of trees would appear to have been lifted from some Lord of the Rings set.
We arrived at the eco-camp around 3pm, and relaxed for the rest of the day. Cristian, one of the banqueanos leading the horse rides, saw a puma crossing the road not far from the camp on the previous night.
Day 6 (Last Big Hike)
Today we gain/descend about 3300 feet, in about 18Km and an 8 hour hike. We begin, after crossing the river, with a 45 minute climb to the shoulder of the valley (photo top left and bottom right, going in the opposite direction). We then head down and along this valley, and eventually turn left in about 5Km, to climb the morraine.
We are again exposed to continually changing terrain. In places the steep slope on our left has been devastated by slides caused by rain the week before, and the trail is unnervingly fresh (ie this ground could give way again!). However, we’re just glad that this week the sun is shining and we’re OK so far!
Eventually we reach the bottom of a boulder moraine leading in to the side valley of Los Torres (photo middle left). We have another half hour of steep climb, clambering up the side of and then across the moraine. Finally, we (and by now, a steady stream of other exhausted hikers) come over what turns out to be a lip, and we are looking at a bowl with “the towers” above us, skirted by glaciers, and below us is a small lake (photo bottom left).
We take a very leisurely lunch here. There are hikers from Spain, US,Germany, and Canada of course. Judging by the comments that we have heard about this area and the other photos we have seen, a clear day like this, especially at this time of year, is not common so we are very fortunate.
Some of the slower hikers in our group are not far behind us but the guides give the OK for four of us to head back on our own. We slog out in under 3 hours, glad to grab a shower, relax and read while the others trickle in.
That evening, the corpse eaters are treated to a meal of roast lamb but even the vegetarian side dishes are splendid…especially with liberal doses of Pisco sours.
The next day, we are packed and ready to head out at 8am. We have a five hour drive ahead of us, and not much time to spare for some to catch the afternoon plane in Punta Arenas.
Lyn and I overnight in Punta Arenas (not a tourist mecca, so not much to report there) and then undertake what turns out to be a 34 hour return trip to Vancouver. It was worth it though!