Having gone to sleep in a howling gale, listening to the sound of rain on the camper van roof, I woke up to silence and opened the doors to find a beautiful blue sky with the Torres del Paine in all their glory. I got dressed at top speed and jumped into the driver’s seat to head up to the park. It wasn’t too far a drive and before long I’d paid the park fee ($20,000, or just over £20) which would allow me entrance to the park for 3 days. Having seen in the weather forecast that this was to be the best day, I’d earmarked it for the hike up to the base of the towers, which would keep me busy for the whole day.
The car park for the towers hike was quite full already and I parked up next to another Wicked camper van. It didn’t take me more than about 10s to decide that I had by far the more attractive van of the two!
I tried not to waste too much time getting myself ready for the hike, but I needed to get my waterproofs and fleece out of the suitcase and into my day pack. As I was about to set off I spotted a caracara strutting across the field, so I stopped to swap over to the telephoto lens for a couple of photos. Then I got as far as the bathrooms before realising that I hadn’t changed from my running shoes into my hiking boots, and that I’d forgotten the trekking poles so I had to go back to the van and extract my suitcase from under the bed again to get at the trekking poles. Finally, after a lot more faffing about I managed to start walking only to be told by one of the rangers that I wasn’t allowed to walk around the visitors’ centre, but instead had to walk through it.
The first bit of the walk was along a track past the campground and hotel buildings. This turns out to be the busiest part of the park, and I think that the hotel is pretty pricey.
What I hadn’t anticipated before I came here was just how many different types of landscape I would see. The walk started out in the grasslands but quite quickly became more rugged. The paths were good quality, and no doubt are quite heavily maintained given the amount of traffic that comes through here.
There were a number of little bridges to cross, most of which only allowed a couple people on at any time. Fortunately, as it was still before 9am, it wasn’t too busy so we didn’t have wait too long.
The path very quickly became steeper and I took plenty of opportunities to stop for photos and to catch my breath. A few times the path became less distinct or split up and it seemed that every now and again its course has been changed to let areas regenerate.
After a little while the path levelled off as we rounded the hillside and entered into an attractive valley with the river rushing along at the bottom. By this point larger groups of walkers were beginning to appear with tour guides. Whilst I’m sure that the guides were useful for providing some extra information about the area I can’t see any real reason to do this walk in a group as there was certainly no difficulty in following the path. My policy very quickly became stepping aside and letting the groups past so that I could walk at my own pace and enjoy the scenery, rather than frogmarching along in the middle of a crowd.
When we came across a stream I stopped to fill up my water bottle and eat an empanada that I’d picked up at the supermarket the day before. It turns out that empanadas make very convenient hiking food (they’re basically the south american version of a Cornish pasty) and I wish I’d bought a few more.
From the stream the path sloped downhill as we approached the campsite on the river. This was, more or less, the halfway point of the walk, and many hikers stop here overnight to split the walk over two days.
The alternative to hiking to the campsite is to go with a group on horseback. Whilst I suppose this would save some effort, the reality is that the first half of the hike is the easiest so this wouldn’t save as much effort as it first appears, although I suppose that it would make it easier to complete the hike in a single day if you weren’t used to long hikes.
The campground looked rather appealing, but apparently you have to book up early if you want to stay along the way. Some day I’d love to come back and do one of the multi-day treks that this is part off and I can definitely see the appeal of not having to carry a tent on my back, but on the other hand, I much rather stay somewhere less busy. I didn’t hang around at the campsite for long as there were a lot of people around and I preferred to just keep walking. After being in the sun for a while it was lovely to enter the forest and have a little shade. If I’d had any sense I would have stopped and topped up my suncream. Needless to say, despite the factor 50 I did finish up the day with some sunburn.
After a nice stint in the forest the path opened out again and it began to get more rocky, so it was time to get the trekking poles out. I don’t use them often and it took a little time to figure out the best way to hold the trekking poles and still manage to keep the camera from swinging around too much.
Not only did the path get harder to navigate at this point but we were beginning to meet a lot of people coming back down, so there was a lot more stopping and waiting at narrow points. By this time it was mid afternoon and very warm. Like those around me, I was at the point where I would be very glad to get to the top.
Finally I rounded the last corner and the view opened up to the lake and towers. The scenery is beautiful but it was very crowded and noisy. Getting any photos without people in was a real challenge as people were practically lining up to pose for photos. I watched as person after person climbed up onto the big rocks in the foreground and were photographed in various different poses, almost exclusively facing the camera rather than the spectacular sight ahead of them. I did my best to ignore everyone and just soak in the moment, but it was a bit of a challenge. I think I was the only person who saw an orange butterfly flit past, totally incongruous in that environment.
After a while it was time to stand up and head back down again. Clambering over the rocks on the descent with weary legs was challenging and I was glad of the trekking poles at this stage.
Getting back into the forest was a huge relief. I’d woken up with a headache, no doubt thanks to the minimal amount I’d managed to drink the day before and despite my best efforts I wasn’t really managing to rehydrate myself on such a sunny day. Getting out of the light felt fantastic.
I stopped to let some people past and noticed the shiny bark on this tree which everyone was using as a handhold over a tricky bit of ground.
On the way up to the towers I saw one of the tour guides stop and fill his bottle here. I decided to follow his example on the way back down.
I had hoped to find something tasty to eat at the campground on the way back as my empanadas and I’d got bored of cashews and I was feeling very low on energy. There was nothing there that took my fancy though so after drinking my fill of water and sitting for a while watching the sparrows I set off for the last part of the hike back to the start.
Not much stopping for photographs on this last part of the journey as I just wanted to get back and sit down! I hadn’t yet decided where to park up for the night so that was something I also had to figure out. As we neared the bottom of the hill I heard hooves and turned around just in time to see some horses being led past. I guess more people want to ride the horses up to the campground than come back down again.
By the time we approached the hotel my legs were dragging. Not really surprising as it was 14.5 miles and 1100m of ascent since I’d set off in the morning. Having got back to the van I took the laptop and spent a little time in the visitors’ centre downloading my photographs and charging up my laptop as I wasn’t sure when I’d get another opportunity.
Having ascertained that it would cost me to spend the night in the car park, which I didn’t really fancy anyway (except for the convenience of having the toilet block on hand), I found out that I could park near the park entrance for free and decided to go there instead. That would set me up well for the drive up to the northern part of the park in the morning, so it seemed like a good plan. As I was leaving the car park a young couple of trekkers waved me down wanting to go the same way, so I cleared everything off the front bench and let them in. They were from Santiago, but their English wasn’t too bad so we managed to communicate fairly well. I think they were quite surprised at just how noisy a camper van can be on gravel roads, as they got giggles every time we went over a pothole!
I parked up for the night in a parking area next to the river, along with a couple other camper vans. It was a good spot with a nice view to the towers, but there were a lot of mosquitos which did make things a little unpleasant. I sat out long enough to cook and eat my pasta and then put myself to bed, totally exhausted. Having falled asleep I woke up a couple hours later desperate for the loo. After doing my best to ignore the need and failing I eventually decided that I had no choice but to go outside if I was going to get any sleep. Having opened the van door I was immediately glad that I’d woken – I’ve never seen such a spectacular night sky with stars blazing. I stood in awe for some time admiring the Milky Way before I finally dealt with my call of nature and then put myself back to bed.