A storm had howled all night long with 40 mile per hour winds and spells of torrential rain on the skylight above our bed. It was well timed because just earlier yesterday I had been saying that I missed the dramatic storms that Texas gets. I was less enthused when it kept us up all night.
We were awake already when our alarm went off at 6.45 and our little house was freezing cold. Lynn hid under the covers while I collected her warm clothes that she could put on in bed. By 7 we were out into the streets where the wind had still not died down and was biting through the warmest clothes we own. At least the rain had stopped.
We made our way to the tour company we would be using for a tour of the Torres del Paine National Park today and thawed in the warm lobby while we waited for the bus, watching Spanish language news and reminded that we still haven’t really picked up any.
At 7.30 our bus arrived and we climbed aboard and then made our way through town picking up more passengers before heading off to the park. We both snoozed on the drive and through our guide, Carolina’s, frequent and lengthy descriptions of things we were passing or what we would be doing today. She spoke English fairly well but had not quite mastered tenses, preferring future or past to the much more appropriate (and easier) present tense. She also had a fun habit of directly translating the Spanish to English which resulted in some odd phrasing like when she called something pacific instead of peaceful.
We arrived after 45 minutes at our first stop, a prehistoric cave where the remains of several now extinct giant mammals had been found, including a 10 foot giant sloth and a floppy nosed camel. The cave was quite huge and had some interesting rock formations, but what we liked the most was that it blocked the frigid wind still howling outside. We toured the cave and both hugged the giant sloth replica before heading back to the van just as the rain started again.
Our next two stops would take us to two lake “miradors” (the English word is viewpoint, but everyone uses mirador anyway like it’s the name) where we could really take in the views of the landscape. We both decided that the word rugged has never been more applicable to a landscape than it is here. The craggy granite mountains with highlights of snow emerging from the fog back-dropped steep and rocky green hills surrounding a bright blue lake full of white caps whipped up by the wind.
After a perfect amount of time to stop and take pictures (we once again appreciated our guide’s timeliness) we entered the national park where we again had to stop and pay a park fee. We stopped at several viewpoints as we circled through the park and even passed a tourist bus that had rolled yesterday in the high winds. According to our guide, our driver was much safer and we need not worry. We both took a mental note to not ride Bus Gomez anywhere. Along the way we also kept stopping to so people could take pictures of tiny dots in the distance that we were told were condors. Lynn was excited because of the condors on her hat but we have no idea how people were able to get any decent pictures of them.
We stopped for an hour for lunch at a small restaurant in the park where the less budget conscious people on our tour had a mediocre cafeteria meal for $30 per person. Lynn and I ate sandwiches and peaches in the bus, having been warned ahead of time by wikitravel about the absurd cost of lunch in the park. Afterwards our next planned stop was at a waterfall. Carolina warned us it may not be safe in this wind but that we would check it out and see if it was possible. We arrived and it was apparently fine, but it made us concerned for how strong the winds can get here if the 40 mph winds we walked through to get to the waterfall were fine. From there we had some pretty great views for the first time of the namesakes of the park, the Torres del Paine. They are three granite towers at the center of a cluster of mountains “rising like horns” Carolina said, out of the clouds. We only were able to catch a brief glimpse of them before they once again disappeared into the cloudbank. But we decided they were indeed quite ominous looking and that even if “paine” is actually an indigenous word for blue, “towers of pain” is a more fitting translation of their name. It would also be the name of our death metal band if we were ever to start one.
Our last stop for the day was at Lago Grey, a lake formed from the snowmelt of Glacier Grey which terminates into it. We were given an hour to walk the 2 km out to the “mirador” and back but in the wind and rain we stepped out into, Lynn was determined that we would do it as fast as possible. We all but ran across a suspension bridge over a very swollen river and down onto a manmade jetty of loose rock that connected us to an island. From here it was a quick climb to the lookout where we were met with a tiny sliver of glacier peeking out from below the clouds. We did see some cool ice bergs floating nearby though which neither of us had ever seen before (the movie Titanic not withstanding). Disappointed in the rotten weather we quickly hurried back towards the bus. As we struggled through the loose footing of the rocky jetty the rain and wind picked up again we both were horrified by thought of what winter here must be like if this is summer.
Back in the safety of the bus, we emptied the rocks and sand out of our shoes and settled in or the two and a half hour drive back to Puerto Natales. We were dropped off back downtown, purchased bus tickets back out to the park for tomorrow, and stopped at the grocery store for dinner supplies. It was slammed full of backpackers stocking up for their four day hike of the W, two of whom we met while waiting in the checkout line and chatted with about their plans. We both decided that after just our day tour we had no desire to be out camping for four days in that weather.
Back home we cranked on the heat and Lynn set about making chili while we watched a soccer game. We misread the Spanish instructions on our chickpeas and would not be adding them to our chili after all since it turns out they need to soak overnight but it was a delicious chili, spiced up with our new favorite ingredient Aji sauce.
Daily Walking Mileage: 6 miles
- In 2011 a forest fire burned 68 square miles of the park, started by a backpacker who lit a campfire in the strong winds and it quickly got out of control. The park is now very strict about fires and you can face prison time of up to 3 years for burning anything besides a camp stove or even smoking.
- The Southern Patagonia Ice Field, of which Torres del Paine is a part, is the second largest contiguous ice field outside of the polar regions. The largest is Greenland.
- None of the tours include mandatory park entrance fees in their costs. Though this initially frustrated us, we have since learned it’s because prices are different for nationals, foreigners, and students and so rather than juggle all of those prices and fees the tours just have you pay your own way.