It was another bright and early morning as we had a bus to catch! We woke at 6:50 a.m., threw on our warmest clothes, packed our day bags full of water and food, ate some yogurt and we were off to catch our 7:30 a.m. JB bus to Torres del Paine National Park.
We managed to find our way back to the bus station just fine with the help of Google Maps, but we could have just followed the swarms of backpackers that we met on the road who were all also heading to the bus station. Here, in Torres del Paine, the common thing to do is to spent 3-7 days hiking the “W” or “O” treks and camping at one of the many campsites found along the way. Well, we don’t have the gear, nor frankly the desire to sleep in subzero temperatures for multiple days, so today’s plan was to cheat the system and do the pinnacle of those hikes, the base to Las Torres section. It would be 18 km (9 uphill, 9 downhill) and we would have roughly 7 hours to complete it before we would need to catch a bus back.
We caught our bus at the station without issue and sat back for the 2+ hour ride out to the Laguna Amarga entrance to the park. Doug did some sleeping while Lynn watched the sun rise and begin to highlight the passing fields. At 9:30 we rolled into the entrance behind a number of other busses full of trekkers and began to wait. For what? We didn’t know either. The bus had just stopped but its engine was still running like it would eventually continue and the driver was not yet opening the doors. Over 5 minutes the entire bus started getting antsy as we saw the line to the park permit office grow and grow. The two of us were very happy to already have our permits and were looking forward to not have to wait in that line in the cold.
Eventually, someone in the back pulled out their guitar and starting playing as we have now come to expect in South America (Note: expect vs. enjoy are two different things). Thankfully, a park officer boarded a short while later and we found why we had been waiting. She walked through the process that the multi-day trekkers would need to follow before continuing on their way (register, get permit, view video, etc.) in both Spanish and English then we were free to go.
We made a beeline across the small parking lot looking for a shuttle we had read about that would take us to Las Torres Hotel where we could start our hike. The Las Torres Hotel plastered on the side of a white van seemed to be a good give away so we approached, bought some tickets, and we on our way in no time. Today was a lot more clear and the wind was a lot less harsh. This was good news!
About 10 minutes later we were dropped in the middle of a field surrounded by a few hotels and campsites unclear as to where to head from here. The other people on the bus who didn’t speak Spanish seemed equally unclear. A group of us clustered around a very unhelpful map (No “Etas Aqui” to be found) eventually turning to a pillar of directional signs hoping for more detail. This proved to be a bit more helpful combined with the map of the park that Lynn had kept from the day before. “It looks like we need to start by getting to Chileno campsite.” OK, so that is what we started doing, following signs for Chileno camp, past Las Torres Hotel, and many many multi-day trekkers with their huge backpacks heading the opposite way.
It is at this point that we got to meet one of the other day trekkers who was also initially lost with us: Ben, a Londoner insurance statistician who was on a solo extended trip throughout South America. He would continue to be a wonderful addition to our hiking team for the rest of the day.
The hike started of nicely, through the fields in front of Las Torres Hotel, over a running river, and then it started to pick up some height as we made it up and over a steep, rocky hill. The view from the top offered stunning vistas of the mountains further away and the Sarmiento de Gamboa Lake. The weather seemed to be warning up too so we all started the process of unlayering, but we soon turned a corner and the wind started picking up… So much for that.
We continued on into the valley where the Chileno campsite sits, spending some time at one of their picnic tables eating our sandwiches and getting more and more impressed at how cold it was when we weren’t moving. Back on the trail we were now protected by the tree-line, and pushed on over glacier-filled streams and mud patches.
Eventually we popped out of the tree-line and into the snow-line to start the worst of the ascent. For 1 hour we would be going uphill over massive rocks eventually reaching Las Torres. We took quite a few stops to admire the snowcapped mountains surrounding us, the waterfalls that looks like trickles from where we stood, and boulders that seemed to be spotted with 1-2 inch mini rocks.
Then, finally, with snow surrounding us, and even starting to fall from the sky we had reached Las Torres and the lake that sits at its feet at 1:45 p.m. Sadly, visibility wasn’t with us (much to Ben’s dislike) but we were able to see one and two briefly, but never all three. We were optimistic and pulled up a few rocks to consume a sleeve of oreos in hopes that the clouds would lift. Sadly, we got way too cold to wait forever, so gathered our things, said our goodbyes to Las Torres, and started the hike back down.
Going down was significantly faster and slightly less strenuous. The narrow paths did get us into a discussion of right of way. Is it supposed to be those coming downhill or those going uphill? We had arguments for both and didn’t see consistency across the other trekkers so we went with the motto of whoever got there first.
At one point we stopped for another snack only to be met with a parent fox and it’s three pups. They passed us at only 20 feet away and seemed little if at all frightened by our presence. We think it’s because people feed them which you most certainly should not do!
On we went stopping one more time for a break and some warmth by the fire at Chileno. Feeling guilty about using their shelter, Doug and Ben bought cans of soda for a whopping $2.80 USD each.
By 5:30 p.m. we had made it the 18 km back to Las Torres Hotel where we now had 2 hours to kill before our bus back to Puerto Natales. Initially the three of us had thought to buy a bottle of cheap Chilean wine, but all we could get at the bar was 12x what you could buy back in town. We did the math and figured we could buy 3 beers for less than a bottle of wine so we chose that option instead. Ben the spent 10 minutes teaching us the cardgame Kaboom, followed by 1.5 hours of him schooling us in it, but it was still good fun.
At 7:30 p.m. we caught our van to the entrance where we met our Magallanes bus to Puerto Natales. Why weren’t we on a JB bus back? We have no idea, but thankfully Ben speaks much more Spanish than we do and he had gleaned that this company is who you take back. We totally could have been stuck in Lago Amarga without that key piece of information…
While Doug attempted to sleep on the ride back, Lynn killed time by looking at all the photos on her phone including all the puppy photos that Jess and Chris had sent us through WhatsApp over the course of the trip. After 1 hour, Lynn was sufficiently homesick and we were back in Puerto Natales. You should note that it was 2 hours to get out there this morning so our driver was indeed booking it (this may have been why Doug couldn’t sleep…).
Back in town, we said our goodbyes to Ben and went to the store to buy some goods for a late dinner. We had originally planned to make chicken chickpea curry, but settled on soup when we couldn’t find curry powder. We probably should have seen that coming. Doug prepped dinner while we both watched another round of soccer before passing out from exhaustion.
Daily Walking Mileage: 17.2
- REI has confirmed that hikers heading uphill have the right of way.
- While in the U.S., we just have lawyers who handle both the preparation and delivery of court cases, the U.K. has barristers and solicitors. These are two different educational and career paths. Barristers deliver the case in court, while solicitors handle the preparation. We learned this from Ben whose girlfriend is a solicitor.
- We enjoyed this fact in our park map: “Hiking in the dark is dangerous because you can get lost, fall, or be attacked by a puma.” My, that escalated quickly.