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  • Writer's pictureMarion Marquardt

Torres del Paine - Patagonia's Nature Wonder

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

The O-Trek - epic trekking amidst one of the most beautiful landscapes in Patagonia
Endless glaciers, dazzling lake landscapes and the famous rock towers
Magical morning hours at the Laguna de las Torres - the loneliness has its price
From group travel to solitude, from comfort to sacrifice – there’s something for everyone

After a few relaxing days in Punta Arenas another highlight is on the agenda - the world-famous Torres del Paine National Park. Landmarks are the "Torres del Paine", three needle-like granite mountains that are between 2,600 and 2,850 m high. The 2,420 km² landscape of mountains and glaciers, winding fjords and large lakes was even voted the 8th wonder of the world in 2013. Accordingly, the national park is very popular with tourists. Nevertheless, we don't want to miss it. We plan a 10-day trekking, the so-called O-Trek, with a length of about 135 km. So we hope to at least escape the big crowds where possible. There are now more than 200,000 visitors per year. The blatant opposite to the almost unknown Dientes de Navarino Trek (>>> see our last blog), which we recently did. The campsites for the O-Trek are predetermined, in a specific order. Wild camping is strictly forbidden in the national park. It is said that without prior booking, you are not allowed to start the trek at all. The truth will turn out to be something different. Nonetheless, this is one of the measures taken by CONAF, the Chilean forest agency that manages the National Park, to regulate visitor numbers. We book the campsites at relatively short notice, only two weeks in advance, which works well.

In Puerto Natales, the gateway to the National Park, we prepare ourselves and pack our backpacks for the tour. 11 days are planned, including a relax day on which we don't hike. We opt for the self-catering option - by far the cheapest - and take all our equipment and food with us. However, this also means that we have plenty of luggage. Micha about 22 kg, me 18 kg - about 8 kg for food. I've never had such a heavy backpack while trekking. Thank God it's getting lighter every day :-)

Our first stage takes us from the Visitor Center to Camping Serón, a distance of about 15 km. The path meanders through a side valley with beautiful, turquoise glacial rivers. The first flowers are already in bloom. And we are the only ones on the trail. We didn't expect that at all. Only at the campsite we meet other hikers. Many have guides and so-called portadores (sherpas) - the all-inclusive package, so to speak. We get to know Kiara and Julia, two Germans who are also doing the trekking on their own. The coming stages we hike together until our paths separate. A very pleasant hiking company.

Camping Serón Torres del Paine Nationalpark Chile Wandern O-Track W-Track
On the way to camp Serón it's just us and some horses

In the morning we start the day with a yoga session and leave around 11 am. So we are automatically behind the organized hiking groups. The path takes us through Valle Paine, always along the river of the same name. Only a few meters in altitude have to be mastered. The weather has been surprisingly mild so far. We expected significantly cooler temperatures. However, the wind is mostly present and so the 15°C feel more like 5°C. From time to time violent gusts whistle through the valley. Just as we are on an open passage, one of them grabs the rain cover on my backpack. And it's gone. I can still see the blue cover blowing up the hill, Micha starts a short sprint. But no chance at 80 km/h wind speed. Shit! With the Patagonian weather, a rain cover could be essential... Around 5 pm. we reach our campsite at the idyllic glacial lake, Lago Dickson. Thank god. Today my backpack feels really heavy. My shoulders hurt. I feel a little better after a hot shower and dinner. Yes, there are actual showers, and they even have hot water. What a luxury. Each campsite is equipped with a sheltered cooking area and a mini market. There's even WiFi for those who can't live without a connection to the outside world. This is far more than we are used to (and want to) on our treks. For the average tourist, however, very important. Even the high prices (e.g. USD 8 for 1 hour WiFi, USD 7 for a beer) do not dampen demand. In general, the trekking reminds me more of a social event. We share the same mindset with Julia and Kiara, who have also been to the mountains a lot. After dinner I see a blue Deuter raincover hanging on the table. It looks exactly like mine. I ask the Chilean guide if it's his. Believe it or not, he found it on the trail. How lucky can one be :-)

The third stage is quite short at around 3 hours. It leads through a cool rain forest. A truly enchanted landscape awaits us. We start late and take long breaks. On the way we enjoy the first views of the Los Perros Glacier. Today's destination is the campsite of the same name. This is probably the most remote one in the entire National Park. Meals for those who have booked the all-inclusive option are carried there by horses. Beyond that, a few compromises have to be made. There are no hot showers, no WiFi, no alcohol. We enjoy nature, take a refreshing bath in the ice-cold glacier stream and watch the alpenglow on the surrounding mountains.

Los Perros Gletscher Torres del Paine Nationalpark Wandern Patagonien, Chile Highlights
View of glacier Los Perros

The next day promises a real highlight. We cross the John Gardner Pass along the so-called Campo Hielo do Sur, the Patagonian ice field. The stage is probably the longest and hardest - signposted with a duration of 10 - 12 hours. Everyone has to leave by 7 am at the latest. This is supervised by the rangers on site. The trail leads us directly uphill to the pass. We start in light rain at about 550 m. Soon we reach the tree line and the rain turns to sleet accompanied by a constant wind. This is Patagonia! Thank god I have my rain cover back - this time well knotted on the backpack. At the top of the pass at almost 1,200 m there are gusts that almost blow me over. Somehow, exposed to the forces of nature, I feel really alive. The wind ensures constantly changing cloud patterns and views. In front of us we can see a first glance of the ice field. With 13,000 km², it is the largest in the southern hemisphere, beyond Antarctica. It is partly in Chile, partly in Argentina. The views are stunning. The further we walk, the more endless the ice seems. In retrospect, this is probably the highlight of the trekking for us. We make countless photo stops and of course one or the other break.

Campo Hielo do Sur Torres del Paine Gletscher Gardner Pass
Marion enjoys the views of the Campo Hielo do Sur

Campo Hielo do Sur Torres del Paine Gletscher Gardner Pass
Unfortunately, the last stage together with our great hiking buddies

Nevertheless, we arrive at the Grey campsite at 4 pm. The trail durations are probably calculated for Instagram tourists. With all due respect - the majority here seems to have never done a multi-day hike before or have experience in alpine terrain. Camping Grey has the full infrastructure again. It can even be reached by boat, so you see many tourists there. For the coming day we have planned a relax day. We wanted to take it easy and rest a bit, although the trekking is not very demanding for us. The biggest challenge is the total length of about 8-10 days and the correspondingly heavy luggage. However, the latter can easily be avoided by either paying portadores or renting equipment such as tents, sleeping bags, etc. on site. Both not our way of trekking.

By coincidence (really!) our relax day is on the final of the Football World Cup. As if Micha had planned it :-) And of course there is a TV with live streaming at Refugio Grey. The match starts at 12 pm. local time. Countless hikers and guides have gathered in front of the television. A great atmosphere. Despite the kind of "friendship-hate" that binds the Chileans to their neighboring country, almost everyone is supporting Argentina. Of course we do so, too! And it couldn't be more exciting. A unique experience, on which we even treat ourselves with a beer at Oktoberfest price. We spend the afternoon in the sun, in a reasonably windless spot on the beach of Lago Grey. Not too bad!

On Monday we continue hiking. The stage is really short at 10 km and 3.5 hours time, but it doesn't feel like that to me. The relax day was rather counterproductive for my performance. Paine Grande camp is where we experience the full extent of mass tourism for the first time. We are now on the section that overlaps with the shorter, easier W-Trek and which on top is accessible to day hikers. Everything is strictly managed here. The campsite is paved with tents. Barely a meter between them. We can hear every word from our tent neighbors. Sometimes I wish I didn't understand the language.

Paine Grande Torres del Paine Nationalpark Wandern Gletscher Natur Highlight Patagonien
On the way to Paine Grande

Alpenglow at its best

For the next day we have booked beds in the Refugio - due to a lack of tent sites. Camping Frances provides a total of 32 beds in 8-person dormitories. Each with own showers and toilets. Not bad either. The campsite is idyllically situated on the lake shore. When checking in we are asked why we didn't book dinner. We cater ourselves - at $60 per person it was an easy decision. Of course we are a bit jealous seeing juicy burgers while we prepare the sixth instant meal in a row. But we were well aware of that. For me, trekking also means doing without something. Afterwards, everything tastes even better. On the list of things I miss the most are actually fresh fruits and vegetables. It was simply not justifiable in terms of volume to pack it. We have dried fruits and nuts with us. Unfortunately, the night in the refugio is anything but relaxing. The employees start their party right after work at 10 pm. I could freak out!

The day after we have booked a tent site again. We stay one more night at Camping Frances. The day's stage takes us to the Mirador Britannico. The viewpoint is in Valle Frances at about 900m. And that means we can walk with day packs. For Micha it's still a few kilos because of his photo equipment, but I have the feeling of taking off right away without a backpack. We leave early to be on the trail before rush hour. It drizzles all the time, at some point the rain gets heavier and fog comes up. Not so nice! After about 3 hours we reach the viewpoint. Just then the clouds are clearing and the sun is peaking. Perfect timing. The weather changes in Patagonia are very reliable. We enjoy dramatic views of the surrounding mountains and glaciers. A very nice place for a second breakfast. After the descent, we still have enough time to enjoy the afternoon sun at Lago Nordenskjöld and close the day with a yoga session.

Lago Nordenskjöld Torres del Paine Nationalpark Patagonien Highlights
What a beauty - Lago Nordenskjöld

There are still three more hiking days ahead of us. My longing for varied food (and a glass of wine :-)) is getting bigger and bigger. Abstinence sucks. Originally we had planned to continue to Camping Los Cuernos which is only 2.5km away, to have the option to explore the remote Valley Bader. A recommendation from a local guide. However, the weather is ... Patagonian - rain and wind. And actually we feel to have seen enough of the landscape here. However we still miss the highlight, the three Torres - easy to reach from the parking lot at the Visitor Center. So we decide to go back straight to our car. Unfortunately, we cannot cancel the booked campsite on short notice. The money is gone. Since the infrastructure in the National Park is managed by private companies, there is a profitable business behind it. Well, we walk almost 20 km and are so happy about some things in our camper to spoil ourselves. Even if we don't have fresh stuff in the fridge, our canned goods are a welcome change. Micha presents a perfect 3-course menu. Of course with wine accompaniment. You can't even imagine how good it tastes!

At the visitor center we inquire about the latest weather forecast. In Patagonia, it is more for the good feeling of being informed, but at least a trend can be derived. Supposedly it will be perfect the next day! Only few clouds, cloud base not too low. That sounds like a good view of the imposing Torres. We want to be up at the Mirador as early as possible. It is said to be a 4 hour 15 minute walk from the Visitor Center. Our plan is to leave at 3 am. That won't be nearly enough for sunrise at 4:51 am., but we're hoping for little traffic on the trail. The few hours of sleep before we leaving however should not be granted to us. There's a party at the Visitor Center. Christmas party for the staff or whatever. What a bad luck again... Well, at least we get up on time. We set off with headlamps. Pretty spooky, knowing that pumas live in the area. After about 2 hours we reach the Refugio Chileno in the valley of the same name. And soon we meet the first ones who were probably at the top for sunrise. We reach the lagoon in front of the three towers around 6:30 am. The light is still beautiful and the sun makes the granite rock glow golden. The bizarre towers, although located in close proximity to the Andes, have a completely different geological history. The mountain range was formed from bulges from a total of three magma ejections under the sediment of the sea floor. The sedimentary rock can now be seen as a dark layer on the mighty crags at the very top. Corrosion from glaciers, wind and weather brought the massif into its spectacular shape today.

Torres del Paine Las Torres Refugio Chileno Nationalpark Highlight
The world famous Torres del Paine

The name of the Torres del Paine includes "Paine", the native word for "sky blue". Translated, the National Park name means "towers of the blue sky". Up at 870m early in the morning it feels freezing cold. We wear everything we have with us. Micha shoots the photos as quickly as possible. Breakfast up here is no option. I can't even imagine how some people are able climb the Torres. As soon as we make our way back, countless people are on the trail. Most day hikers arrive at the visitor center around 8 am and then set off. I'm not sure if all of them can handle the 800 meters in altitude. The Mirador closes at 4 pm. Then a park ranger supervises that all visitors leave the site. We are back at our car around 10:30 am. Now we officially completed the O-Trek. Our feet and backs are very happy. And we look forward to a few relaxing days in Puerto Natales. Soon we make plans for the onward journey. Stay tuned!

Torres del Paine Nationalpark Patagonien Wandern Highlight Weltpunder der Natur las torres
One final picture of those epic rocks

Here are some tips and facts about trekking in Torres del Paine National Park. The information that can be found on the Internet, although extensive, is often contradictory and does not fully correspond to reality. That's why I share my experience:

  • The highlights of the park, in my opinion, are the Grey Glacier and of course the Torres del Paine. The latter are also accessible to day tourists. The most well-known multi-day treks are the O-Trek, which circles the mountain range, and the W-Trek, which only covers the southwest side. In both constellations you can reach the three well-known Miradores: the Mirador Grey, the Mirador Britannico and the Mirador Base Las Torres. However, Mirador Grey is nowhere near as good as the views of the Patagonian Icefield from John Gardner Pass (only part of the O-Trek).

  • For trekking tourists there is the possibility to sleep in refugios or in tents. In both options you can rent the equipment needed (sleeping bags, sleeping mat, tent) on site. Of course, that makes a huge difference in price.

  • There are mini markets at all campsites to buy essentials (e.g. toothbrush, biscuits, noodles). You can also book meals (breakfast, packed lunch, dinner).

  • The campsites are managed by two different companies, the ones on the O-Trek by Vertice, the others by FantasticoSur. The latter are again significantly more expensive (more than 50%) in terms of accommodation and food. Each company has its own (not very user-friendly) booking system, which makes reservations very complex. Various platforms offer cross-company bookings. It's not a really good solution either, due to limited availability and pre-built orders.

  • You can avoid all the hassle if you book with a tour operator. Of course that's their business. The agencies also offer packages with guides and portadores (sherpas). Compared to our self-organized tour you pay about 10 times as much.

  • Availability online is very limited for months in advance. Two weeks prior, however, many agencies and tour operators release their remaining contingent. This gives good chances for those who book on short notice.

  • Officially, all overnight accommodation must be booked in advance in order to start the trek. Nobody checked in our case. Almost all campsites have over-flow spots available on site (having your own equipment, mind you). Only at camps Dickson, Los Perros and Grey will you be sent away without having a reservation.

  • Entrance tickets for the park must be purchased online in advance and are checked at different ranger stations.


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