The W Trek, Day 4 – Mirador Las Torres

Our final day in Torres del Paine started bright and early… if by bright you mean dark because the sun wasn’t up yet. We had about 9.5 hours of hiking ahead, and we needed to finish by 3ish. So, we set our alarm for 5AM. Well, I set mine for 4:50 so I would be ready at the same time as Mike, and then I ended up waiting for him until 5:40!!! 5AM Lara was a little grumpy about that, but I suppose it just makes us even for all of the days when I was the slowpoke.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

Here’s our map one more time… Day 1 was up and down the pink. Day 2 was along the blue and then up and down the vertical part. Day 3 was along the orange. Day 4 part 1 was up and down the purple, and then part 2 was along the yellow.

I read in various places about doing this hike in time to see the sunrise. From the end viewpoint, the sun doesn’t actually rise in a direction where you can see it, but I guess you’re supposed to do it for the golden morning sun reflecting on the rocks.  Our campsite was about 4 hours away from there which would have meant waking up around 2AM and hiking the whole thing in the dark. I bet you can guess what we thought about that idea. No. Freaking. Way. I know that sometimes I do things that may seem a little insane, but middle-of-the-night hiking on 3 hours of sleep is not something I’m generally interested in. Personally, I was more than pleased with our view of the sunrise over the valley, but I’ll let you be the judge.

Here comes the sun…

You can do it, sun!!!

WHAT JUST HAPPENED? THE COLORS! THE VALLEY! MY EYES! I know I keep promising this, but it really DID look like this! Don’t ask me how. I DON’T KNOW HOW.

Morning trail views

We hiked for about 1:40 before hitting the first landmark of the day, another campsite, Chileno. It didn’t have any vacancies when we were booking which is how we ended up in the middle of nowhere… but after hiking there, I was actually happy that things turned out the way they did. The path to the campsite is a lot of up and down, and a lot of super steep, gravelly up. If we’d been camping there, we would have had to carry all of our stuff up those hills instead of just daypacks, AND we would have done it at the end of Day 3. Noooo thank you. Things worked out exactly the right way.

Headed to Chileno

We saw maybe 3 people on our way to Chileno but figured we’d see some life once we made it to the campsite. Nope. Chileno was like a ghost town. Seriously, we saw zero people during our stop there. Zero.

Oh well! All the better for our hike. It was pretty ideal – the temperature was super pleasant, my legs were feeling completely fine, and the scenery was beautiful. While the walk to Chileno was very sun-exposed, it didn’t matter because it was still so early. From Chileno until the next landmark (about 50 minutes away), there were a bunch of pretty forests to keep us cool. The trail had a lot of up and down which could have been annoying, but it was easy to get distracted because of the trees and the rivers and the overall ambiance.

Seriously the best kind of trails… easy on the feet (no rocks, thank goodness) and sOoOo pretty! (Not sure why I did that obnoxious “O” thing, but it felt right so I’m leaving it.)

Slightly more trustworthy bridge than the usual…

The next landmark is the ranger station at the base of the ascent to the viewpoint. When we got there, we saw the first hikers coming back in the other direction, aka the crazies who hiked up to see the sunrise. If they started at Chileno then it’s not THAT crazy, but we saw some people who were definitely at our campsite. Good for them, I suppose.

From there, it’s less than a mile in distance to the viewpoint, but the time estimate for that segment of the trail is 1 hour. That information alone gives you a pretty good idea of what the trail is going to be like – steep, steep, and steep.

Sure enough, it was. Mostly, it was like stairs… not in the way where the rocks are actually planned out and are reasonably sized like stairs, but in the way where there are rocks and they’re big and maybe if you were a giant they would be good stairs, but since you’re normal sized, it’s much less convenient. The whole time, you’re thinking, “Well, this is better than if it was just super steep,” but you’re also wondering if you’re just saying that to make yourself feel better. And then you hit a stretch where it IS just super steep, the trail is loose gravel, and you worry about your foot slipping with every step… and you think that maybe the rocks were actually better, but “better” still doesn’t mean “good”.

Thankful for shade.

This is where you get your first glimpse of the top of the towers, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was too busy crying over the fact that we weren’t at the top yet (or possibly just sweating from my eyeballs).

The beginning part was kind of okay (the “giant steps” part) because it was under tree cover, but the last stretch was horrible. No trees, just a rock wasteland. A very vertical rock wasteland. A very vertical rock wasteland with a very bright sun determined to melt off our skin. We kept asking people who were coming down how much we had left, and I could tell from their faces before they even said anything that it was an answer we didn’t want to hear. I so prefer being the one coming down rather than the one on the way up, begging for information.

I was about ready to say forget it (though not really because if you’re going to stop a hike before you finish, it’s better to stop it before you even start. Once you’re going, there’s no giving up) when we came around a corner, and BAM! We were there, hit with an insane view of a lake and the famous torres (towers) of Torres del Paine. It is still completely baffling to me that we spent so much time hiking up… to a lake. Lakes, to me, are things that happen in low areas, not things that you find at the top of mountains. Mind. Blowing.

BAM! First look when you turn the corner

Then you get a better view of the lake… (brace yourselves for the same picture a few more times).

Down by the water. Are you sick of the same picture yet? SORRY BECAUSE I’M NOT FINISHED.

Reflections!

Not posed. (Definitely posed, though this is basically the position we were in the entire time that we weren’t taking pictures. Staring with “how are you real? eyes.)

Looking the opposite direction from the lake. Give this lonely landscape a little love! It’s pretty but probably underappreciated considering the competition.

Even though we got such a late start (hehe), there still weren’t many other people at the top when we showed up. There were maybe three other groups, but you still could easily get pictures without anyone else in them (the most important thing, of course). We hung out/snacked/stared in awe for about 40 minutes. I would have been cool with staying longer, but Mike said we should get going to make sure that we had enough time to make our bus. Ugh. What a painfully rational thought.

As good as my knee felt on the way up, that’s how bad it felt on the way down. I tried to keep as much weight off of it as I could, but it was impossible. By the time we got to the bottom of the super steep part, I could barely walk. Great.

We did it!

Back down, through the rocky desert, slowly melting into a puddle (but prob that would have helped because then I would have flowed my way down the mountain instead of creak, crack, crying my way down.)

I don’t know what happened. There must have been some kind of trail magic because after maybe a mile of screaming on every step, it was like it got tired and gave up. And then it never hurt again, for the rest of the trip. I suppose I finally broke my knee’s spirit and transformed back into the youthful 20-something I actually am, instead of a creaky, old 30-something in desperate need of a knee replacement. Weird, right? (I clearly have high hopes for my 30s.)(Jk though I’m sure it’s going to be great.)

We definitely started our hike at the right time because there was barely anyone on the way up, and we saw a TON of people on our way back. Between the guard station and Chileno, we kept passing people who were already SO tired, and they hadn’t even made it to the hardest part yet. AND it was only getting hotter outside. They’d ask how close they were, and I usually didn’t need to say anything because my “Oh no, how do I break the truth?” face had already given it away. I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news! We were the bearers of a LOT of bad news.

Almost back to Chileno… one of our last moments of somewhat peaceful nature

Back at Chileno, it was a completely different scene from the morning. Chaos. There were people EVERYWHERE. Mike and I looked at each other and were like, “Get us out of here.” Tourists are the worst, amirite? (I know.) Seriously though, having some sort of awareness of the people around you is generally recommended and seems to be something that people often forget to bring with them on vacation.

THESE were the tents at Chileno. Would you sleep on one of those platforms? Definitely not for active sleepers! No chance I would have made it to my tent if we stayed here (because sad, tired legs), but they’re fun to look at!

From there back to our campsite, we passed so many more people. It was definitely the most crowded day. Finally, the crowds I’d been promised! Good thing we already had enough time for our “just us and nature” moments, so we were fine with sharing. This hike is the most accessible because you can drive almost directly to the trailhead (the parking lot is closer than our campsite was), so there were day hikers which we weren’t used to. That also meant that there was a much more varied population of hikers, rather than the slightly more intense backpacking crew of the previous few days. Some of those people… I don’t know. They might still be hiking up that mountain they were moving so slowly.

On our way back out of the valley

90% of the pictures I took of Mike were because he was standing in the way… so I would take a picture with him in it and then tell him to move. I’d say it’s a win-win. He got some nice pictures out of it!

Spot the sad hikers

Ignore how gross and sweaty I look (you can focus instead on how gross and sweaty Mike is). But this was quite possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten.

Ignore how gross and sweaty I look (you can focus instead on how gross and sweaty Mike is). But this was quite possibly the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten.

We ended up making great time on the hike back and were at our campsite 40 minutes ahead of our goal! That gave us time to cool down a bit and pack up the tent without having to rush. Our celebration was a little premature, though. We still had to get to the visitors’ center to catch our bus… another 7km away. Everyone said it would take 1.5 hours to walk which didn’t sound so bad, but I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of “you’ve already been hiking for 8 hours before this”.

We thought about hitchhiking, but it turns out that neither of us is brave enough to commit to a solid attempt. So, we walked. Looking back, I’m 100% confident that we could have gotten a ride. What a day to choose to be shy. I blame Mike because that’s what siblings do. And also because he talked a big game and had no follow through, so it’s clearly his fault.

This bridge was literally the only cool part of our walk to the visitors’ center

It was all the way on the final kilometer though, when the destination was in sight…

So we totally could have just gotten a ride and then walked back 5 minutes to see the bridge.

Unedited post-hike state

By the time we made it to the visitors’ center, both of us were about ready to keel. The entire 7km was shade-less and also essentially view-less which meant there was nothing to distract us from our misery along the way. I was thrilled to have 6 hours of bus ride ahead. I felt like I wanted to sit down for the rest of forever, and basically, I got my wish.

The ride back to Argentina and El Calafate went smoothly, and we even got back before the grocery store closed which was clutch. Mike boiled us a feast of ravioli for midnight dinner, our first cooked meal in four days. And what a feast it was!

And then we procrastinated re-packing our bags for the next leg of our trip and ended up going to bed SO late even though we had an early bus to catch. Classic.

Me sitting at Mirador Britanico

The W Trek, Day 2 – French Valley

I had possibly the worst sleep of my life after our first day of hiking in Torres del Paine. The day was windy enough to make you feel like you were going to blow away, and the night was even worse. I woke up around 12:30AM because of the WIND. Let me be clear – I am NOT a light sleeper. I’ve slept through hurricanes and thunderstorms and being stepped on. This time, though, I woke up terrified that our tent was going to blow away and could not fall back asleep. There was no reasoning with my middle-of-the-night mind. How could the wind lift our tent + me + Mike + our stuff? Irrational. I just wanted it to be morning so that we could leave.

View of Lago Pehoe

Photo taken while death-gripping my phone so it wouldn’t blow out of my hand

I suppose I must have fallen back asleep a few times because it didn’t feel like I was awake for 6 whole hours. Even so, it was not a restful sleep AT ALL. I kept waking up to my whole body tensed up and my heart beating like crazy.

As soon as my alarm went off at 6:30AM, I was like, “Great! Let’s go! I’ve gotta get out of here.” I think I was up and out of the tent before Mike even opened his eyes. He wasn’t quite as freaked out by the wind, but he did say that he got out a couple of times during the night to make sure the tent stakes were still in the ground.

Lago Pehoe

This is the same lake that we took the boat across on our very first day

There was actual danger of the tent blowing away as we disassembled it, but we managed that with body weight and a pile of rocks. I’m sure we looked like very competent campers… We also discovered that the tent didn’t come out totally unscathed. A few of the tent poles had a slight bend in them that wasn’t there before. So, I’m not exaggerating. The wind. Was. Crazy.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

The W trek is the pink, blue, orange, and purple lines put together. We went up and down the pink line on Day 1. On Day 2, we walked the bottom part of the blue and then went up and down the vertical part before getting to our campsite where blue meets orange.

This was our first time hiking with our full packs since we only needed daypacks the day before. We walked about 2.5 hours along the first bottom part of the W (starting from where blue and pink meet, we walked along the blue line) before we got to drop them off again. The beginning of the hike was brutal, not because the hike itself was difficult but because 1) the wind was still insane and 2) my feet weren’t numb yet, so the impact of Day 1 was being acutely felt (despite the super fun blister draining party I had the night before).

Sun rising over the lake

Early morning lake views

Mountains along the trail

Mike loves his panos… and I love this one he took. Those mountains! I can’t handle their awesomeness!

Mountain peak in the distance

Hey, pretty mountain

Gorgeous mountain peak

This mountain actually doesn’t look real

Pretty mountains in the distance

The wind may have been brutal, but I was definitely still enjoying the view

Thankfully, the whole hike wasn’t a windy mess. By about 1.5 hours in, my feet were back to a comfortable numbness, and we hit a forested area that helped to cut out the wind. From that point on, it was like a whole new world. I took off my winter coat and rain pants and actually felt hot instead of like a windblown icicle. Numb feet, comfortable temperature, beautiful mountains… what more do you need?

Forested hiking path

So much better than hiking the windy plains!

The remains of burned trees

Another tree graveyard

Deep blue lake

I can’t get over the colors

Suspension bridge

A suspension bridge across the river… this one was marked with a capacity of 1 person at a time. Not scary at all.

A river with mountains in the background

View from the middle of the bridge

Looking downstream from the bridge

Looking the other direction… Still a beautiful view!

Suspension bridge with mountains behind it

The suspension bridge (from the spot where we stopped to fill up our water bottles!)

When we got to the bottom of the middle leg of the “W” (where the blue line turns north on the map from before), we left our big packs at the Italiano ranger station and continued on with only daypacks. The day’s hiking to that point was fairly flat, so it wasn’t bad having to carry everything. After that, though, there was a LOT of uphill, and I was happy to have a lighter load.

From the moment we started the second part of the hike, Mike was saying that we needed to go faster. I guess he was worried about the time? I thought we were fine and was mostly concerned with doing what little I could to appease my very unhappy feet. There was a zero percent chance of me speeding up and maybe a 5% chance that I was even physically capable of doing so. I told him to go ahead, especially because this part of the hike was slightly more crowded, and he kept practically running to pass people. Nope. Not a chance. So, off he went, and I made friends with some of the other slowpokes around me. There’s nothing like shared discomfort to jump start a friendship!

Trees along the trail

This part of the hike was cool… you basically walk along the top of a ridge that’s lined with these funky trees.

I was extra happy that I sent Mike ahead because the hike was gorgeous, and then I didn’t feel guilty about stopping to gape and take pictures (and catch my breath…). My gosh. The mountains. The river. The blue skies. The trees. I kept blinking, trying to clear my eyes because it absolutely did not look real.

Me on a rock in front of the snow-covered mountain

The first clear view of the avalanche mountain

Mike was waiting for me just before the first viewpoint. I don’t know that he meant to stop like 2 minutes short, but it was nice to get there together. I was already amazed by the little glimpses of the mountains that I got along the hike. The view when we stepped into the clearing was jaw-dropping. We literally sat there and watched avalanches cascading down the side of the mountain! They’re pretty frequent, too. Terrifying. But also amazing. And also terrifying. You can hear them happening… It’s a low rumble, like a plane taking off or thunder in the distance. Crazy!!

Me standing on a rock and short Mike with the mountain behind us

Me and Mike in front of avalanche mountain. I’m standing on a rock.

Avalanche mountain

One more so you can enjoy an unobstructed view

We hung out and ate a snack before continuing to the next viewpoint, Britanico, maybe another hour and a half away. The beginning part was flat, flat, flat, so we stayed together because I could maintain a Mike-acceptable pace, even though my knee was starting to act up again. At the very end, it’s steep, steep, steep… and you emerge to this view that’s somehow even more incredible than what you’ve seen up to that point. I don’t even know how to explain it. There are mountains on every side up ahead, and when you look behind you, there’s the super blue lake from the morning in the distance and you’re like, “I CANNOT BELIEVE WE WALKED ALL THE WAY FROM THERE TO HERE.”

A lake in the far, far distance

I CANNOT BELIEVE WE WALKED ALL THE WAY FROM THERE TO HERE!

Pretty forest

More forested paths on the way to the final viewpoint!

It was so worth it. So incredibly worth it. We said we were going to stay for half an hour and then ended up almost doubling that. Mike and I kept looking at each other in disbelief. How does a place like this exist??? Brace yourself for approximately infinity pictures.

River with mountains

Getting closer to the viewpoint…

River with mountains again

I know these are all basically the same, but like… I’m obsessed.

Mountains!!

What the what.

MOUNTAINS!

SO COOL!

Britanico lookout peaks

How. Are. You. Real?

Me with mountains in the background

Me standing on the most epic rock. You have an unobstructed 360-degree view from up there!

Mountain peaks

<3 <3 <3

Panoramic shot on the way to the last viewpoint

Almost there!

Me sitting at Mirador Britanico

Enjoying the view from my snack spot

Panoramic photo at the Britanico viewpoint

Mike took this 360-degree panorama picture that can kind of help you imagine what it was like… but just imagine it all much, much bigger.

Finally, we set off for the ranger station. That’s when my knee really started hurting, and the rest of the hike was a complete mess. Between my feet, my throbbing knee, and the fact that I was just tired, I was not moving quickly. Sorry, Mike! He, on the other hand, seemed fine. Ugh.

We eventually made it back to our backpacks and from there, had only another half hour to hike to our campsite. It was all flat. Thank. Goodness. It was a shorter day than our first, only 12.5 miles and about 9 hours (basically a walk in the park), but by the time we made it to the campsite, we were both ready to collapse. The girl at reception pointed us to our tent… up a hill, practically the last tent. Then, she explained where the bathrooms were… all the way down the hill. We looked at each other like, “Yeah, right,” and decided there was no chance we were using the bathrooms.

Flat hiking paths on the way to our campsite

The final leg of our hike… wonderfully flat

Another fab mountain view

On our way to the campsite! The views just don’t stop.

Mike passed out before 6PM, almost immediately after we ate. I, unfortunately, got to the point where I REALLY had to go to the bathroom. I did what anyone would do in that situation… and spent the next 20 minutes writing in my journal, trying to convince myself to just go. It went something like this…

“It’s 8:17PM, and I have no interest in being awake anymore. “So go to bed,” you say. “What’s the problem?” Ah. Yes, there is a problem. I have to go to the bathroom, and it is so incredibly far away. And on a hill. I mean, I don’t know if the actual bathroom is on a hill, but our tent is near the top of one and the bathroom is at the bottom. Aka getting there would be very easy, but coming back would be all uphill. No, I take that back. No direction would be easy because my feet are killing me and my knees hate downhills. Also fun side fact, I’m fairly certain that one of my toenails is going to fall off because it’s currently blue.

I know what I have to do. It’s not even really a question. I just don’t like the answer. I need to get up. I need to walk to the bathroom and stop whining. Then, I need to suck it up and walk back to our tent where I will be able to sleep without worrying about waking up in the middle of the night. Then I get to sleep for like 11 hours straight, and what could be better than that? Okay, I think I’m convinced that this is the only way. It really is though… I need to just do it.

Step 1: sit up and drag body to tent door.
Step 2: open door and put on flip flops.
Step 3: open rain fly and try to look semi-coordinated while getting out.
Step 4: don’t cry the first time you put your feet on the ground.
Step 5: do what you need to do, knowing that you have such wonderful things (aka sleep and not feeling like you’re going to pee your pants) ahead.
Step 6: go into a comatose sleep because you took a Benadryl, so you should probs get moving before that fully kicks in and you just pass out.

I’ll let you know how I do.”

Clearly, I survived. It wasn’t pretty. I hobbled my way down the hill, baffled by the fact that everyone else around me seemed to be doing just fine while I was a total wreck. And then, I hobbled back up the hill, collapsed into the tent, and enjoyed my 11-hour hibernation.

Tent on a platform at our campsite

This wasn’t our tent (because obviously I forgot to take a picture of ours), but you get the idea… except now imagine it at the top of a big hill.

The W Trek, Day 1 – Grey Glacier

Torres del Paine National Park is well-known for two major treks. One is called the W, and the other is the O… very creatively named for the approximate shapes of the trails. Based on our time constraints and wanting to have some diversity in our trip, Mike and I decided to do the shorter W (4 days rather than 8ish). For sleeping arrangements, you can choose to camp with your own tent, camp with rented equipment (that’s already set up at the campsites), or sleep in refugios (aka indoors with a bunk bed). For food, you can either bring your own, bring some of your own and get breakfast and dinner provided at the campsite, or get breakfast and dinner plus a bag lunch.

A map of the park with different legs of the trail highlighted

Here’s a map I marked up in an attempt to simplify this explanation for you. The W trek is the pink, blue, orange, and purple lines put together. The O is those plus the green line over the top. Our first day was spent going from the bottom of the pink line to the top and then back again.

Selfie of me and Mike

Smiling because this was still very early in the day

We were trying to do this on the cheap (well, I was. Mike was fine with spending some money. I guess that’s what happens when you actually have an income. I don’t remember what that’s like…), so we brought our own tent and packed our own food. The challenge with that was the fact that most people bring camp stoves and eat actual food during the trek. We had no camp stove and no desire to figure one out before our trip… so we packed all dry food. I felt okay about that because it was only going to take four days. Any longer and we would have considered other options, I think. But nope! Four days and a good supply of protein bars, peanut butter (and jelly for Mike), bread, ham and cheese, gross chocolate cookies that I picked out (whoops! You win some, you lose some), peanuts, and dry ramen noodles (for me. I actually kind of like them that way. Mike thinks I’m crazy). Hehehe. Maybe it wasn’t the most elegant solution, but it worked just fine.

I was VERY worried about our first day of hiking. Mike and I have hiked together in the past, and we have very different approaches. I like to stop to take pictures, take frequent snack breaks, and enjoy the ambiance. I keep a good pace usually, but I’m all about the journey. Mike is a speed hiker. He doesn’t take breaks along the way. I don’t understand how he functions. I need snacks! I need water breaks! I need exhaustion breaks! He just powers through until the end. He might be a robot (the most likely explanation).

Gravel path flanked by green plants and pretty mountains

Such a pretty valley!

We decided to start “early” because I’d rather get out and back early to beat the heat and not have to worry about the sun setting (though with a 10PM sunset on this trip, there wasn’t much danger of that), so we left our campsite at Paine Grande around 7:15. Based on the blogs I read, I was expecting the trails to be crowded. Everyone said that this is the high season, expect crowds, you won’t have that “just you and nature” kind of feeling, so if you’re into that, too bad. I was ready for crowds. We spotted our first hiker approximately 3 HOURS later. Geez, if only the trails were always that crowded. We seriously wondered if maybe we weren’t allowed to be hiking yet, like maybe there were opening times we didn’t know about? Nope. There just weren’t any people. I mean, spoiler alert, there were more people on our way back, but crowded? Definitely not.

Happy Lara walking through the valley before she blew away

You don’t even know how many people we had to ask to hide in the grass so they wouldn’t ruin our pictures

The first part of the hike was through a little valley. It was raining, but after our day on Perito Moreno Glacier, I felt pretty hardcore and was like, “Rain? Psh! NICE TRY, TORRES DEL PAINE. YOU’RE GOING TO HAVE TO DO BETTER THAN THAT.” Then we got out of the valley. And the wind hit us. And I ate my (mental) words.

Valley covered in plants and a pretty, windy trail

Try to tell me this isn’t beautiful (I won’t believe you).

Another view coming out of the valley

I can’t come up with more words to express how pretty it was there

That was around the time that we reached the lookout at Lago Los Patos (Duck Lake) which I, for some reason, thought was a hilarious name. In hindsight I’m not so sure what I was going on about, but I must have laughed about it for a whole mile at least. From Duck Lake on, the day’s hiking followed the lakes’ edges, and it was all incredibly windy.

Lake views with a mountain backdrop and aggressive winds.

Laguna Los Patos. Check out the plants blowing in the wind!

Laguna Los Patos

I can’t get over the colors in the lake!

Streaky rock formation

I thought these rocks were super cool.

Duck Lake

I didn’t realize this until Mike pointed it out, but when you look out in the distance, it looks like the surface of the earth just falls away. Behind this lake is Grey Lake which is at a lower elevation. So weird!

Hiking in the wind is the worst. Especially when the wind might actually be strong enough to blow you away. There were times when it was so strong that my trekking poles essentially turned into stakes that were the only thing keeping me from blowing off the trail. Each time I picked up a foot to take a step, I had zero confidence that it would land where I was aiming. And when the winds were strongest, they pretty much never did.

Lightly forested trail leading away from Laguna Los Patos

Walking away from Duck Lake

Pretty pink flowers along the way

Trail flowers

Laguna Los Patos is tiny compared to Laguna Grey, the next lake we encountered. We walked along Duck Lake for maybe 15 minutes. We walked along Lake Grey for the rest of our day. It took around three hours to make it to our first real checkpoint, Grey Campsite. That timing was nearly spot-on with the estimate listed on our map, and it made us start to think that we needed to take Chilean hiking estimates much more seriously than we take the ones in the States. At U.S. national parks, if you’re someone who has any experience hiking and is in decent shape, take the hike time they give you and divide it in half. We were thinking that might be the situation here as well, and it was not. Instead, it was like they wanted to give an estimate of how long it would actually take! Imagine that!

Grey Lake with some small glacier pieces floating around

Laguna Grey with the first glimpses of glacier pieces. Can you see them?

The hiking trail leading towards snowy mountains

The rocky trail. My feet did NOT like those rocks on the way back.

Grey Lake with its pretty, mountainous surroundings

So. Pretty.

Actually though, my toes were screaming.

Grey Lake with a faint rainbow

Rainbow! We could see both ends of it, too!

Dead tree skeletons

The tour guide on our ride into the park the day before explained why the park is super strict about where you can set fires (only in designated cooking areas). There have been a couple of forest fires accidentally set by hikers, and thanks to the strong winds, they spread crazy quickly and destroyed huge areas of the park. I don’t know if that’s what happened to these trees, but anytime we walked through a tree graveyard, I assumed they were tourist fire trees. They’re eerie, aren’t they? Like sad tree skeletons.

View of a little river gorge from the bridge

We crossed this super cool river along the way

View of the trail with Grey Glacier and Grey Lake in the background

That view… <3

From Grey Campsite, we went on a hunt for the Glacier Grey lookout point (yes, another glacier!). I say “hunt” because the lookout’s location was SO not obvious. Every other trail in the park was extremely well-marked, so I don’t know what happened with this one. After it was all over, I still wasn’t confident that we ended up in the right place. Oh, well. We did find a high point with good views, and what more do you need? Mike’s response to the glacier: “It’s not that cool.” Well, since we were hiking ON a glacier two days prior, yeah, seeing one across a lake wasn’t as impressive. I still thought it was cool though… because everyone knows that glaciers are made of ice! (Bad joke, ignore me.)

View of Grey Glacier and Lake Grey

Checking out Grey Glacier from our “lookout”

Mountains near the glacier. The continuation of the trail runs along the base of them.

Forest view with yellow and orange leaves on the ground

I love the colors!!

When the wind at the “lookout” became too much for even Mike (he said he was getting cold which is something I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say before), we headed back to the main trail. We had one more side trip to take before going all the way back to Paine Grande. There are a couple of suspension bridges near where the O trek meets up with the west side of the W, and I wanted to check at least one of them out. I don’t know what Mike wanted, but I assumed he’d be fine with it because he’s always up for doing more. I guessed that reaching the first one would take about an hour and a half of hiking from the campsite, and apparently at that point in time, an hour and a half extra in each direction (after already being out for 4 hours so far) seemed like a reasonable thing to do.

Plank bridge along the way

There were so many fun little bridges and things along the way! I was impressed with the trail building.

For possibly the first time in my life, my estimate was exactly right (estimating is not a strength of mine), and we were there in an hour and a half. I thought the bridge was awesome. It seemed like some people were afraid to walk across, but things like that don’t scare me (I’m only scared of ACTUALLY scary things, like oranges). The height/potential instability probably made me like it even more.

View of the suspension bridge from the side

The suspension bridge! With some random girl crossing

Mike on the suspension bridge

Mike striking a pose

Me crossing the bridge

Venturing across the suspension bridge!


I felt like it was worth the extra time to get there, plus we also got a slightly closer view of the glacier. We crossed and thought about going to the next bridge as well, but as soon as we hit some stairs (maybe like 10 minutes after crossing the bridge), my legs said no way and we turned around.

Slightly closer view of Grey Glacier from below the suspension bridge

Another glacier view

Grey Glacier from slightly closer

Our closest glacier view of the day… aka not very close at all

The walk back to our campsite was painful. Up-and-back hikes are always a little rough because you know that however far you go is how far you’ll have to return. I’d just about reached my limit on the “go”… so the return was rough. My feet hurt. My legs were tired. I had this irritating knee pain that couldn’t seem to decide which knee it wanted to afflict more, so it settled on harassing both. Mike was in his “power through” mode, and I was in my “slowly crumble into pieces” mode. Not compatible.

The trail snaking up a mountain

We went from that nice, wide, rocky trail to this little, skinny, hiding-from-you trail.

Charred tree skeletons along the trail

Tree graveyard.

View of the lake with the water blowing in the wind

Windy, windy, windy

Thanks to a series of brief “second winds” (hehehe) – more like second, third, and fourth winds – I survived (meanwhile, the actual winds were NOT helping). Barely. Mike seemed fine the whole time which made me feel extra pathetic, but he collapsed into the tent when we got back which made me think that maybe he was a little tired too? I had some stellar blisters on my toes which explains the foot pain. My general assessment of my physical condition was, “I’m going to die,” for the first hour of sprawling on the ground, followed by, “Well, maybe not but I definitely need new feet.” I suppose this is what happens when you go straight from 30-minute dance workouts in your living room to 9.5 hour, 17-mile day hikes. Thank goodness I knew that was going to be our longest day because I don’t think I could have done it again without a little recovery time. I felt slightly more alive after a hot shower but was not feeling terribly confident about Day 2.

Me looking like I'm about to blow away

The Road to Torres del Paine

My alarm jolted me awake at 5:15AM, and it didn’t take long for the feelings of soreness and tiredness to sink in. Ugh. Mornings are the worst. Especially early mornings after long days of hiking on glaciers (I know, your feelings of sympathy must be overwhelming). But, we had a bus to Chile to catch, and staying in bed wasn’t an option.

I booked our bus online before the trip because we wanted to take a slightly less common route to save time. Instead of bussing from El Calafate to a town in Chile and then from that town to the national park, I found a company that goes directly from El Calafate to the park. It was a little more expensive but essentially saved us an entire day. Worth it when you have limited time! Booking things online always makes me nervous, so I spent the morning crossing my fingers that the bus was actually going to show up. They sent a confirmation email with a pick-up time of “6:15AM +/- 2 minutes”. That seemed crazy because how can you only give yourself a 4-minute window? Well, turns out that you can’t… or at least you shouldn’t. The bus came at 6:45 which isn’t actually bad, but by then I had already spent 25 minutes going over alternate plans in my head, wondering at what time I should start to seriously panic. Moral of the story (and the ongoing struggle of my life) is that I need to chill and not worry so much.

Mountains along the drive

Decent bus views

It took about 3 hours to get to the border checkpoint between Argentina and Chile. Everyone got off the bus to get stamped out of Argentina, back onto the bus to drive to the Chile checkpoint, and back off again to get into Chile. They’re a little intense about preventing people from bringing fresh foods and uncooked meats into the country, so we had to fill out a form declaring what types of food we had with us while a dog sniffed everyone’s luggage from under the bus. We had lunch meat that was okay because it was cooked and some eggs that were acceptable because they were hard-boiled. Customs was another thing I was irrationally worried about, and of course, it all worked out just fine.

The border adventure took around an hour and a half and then we got onto a smaller bus with the other people who were going directly to the park. We soon realized that most of the people on our bus were doing a day tour which seems absolutely insane. It’s like 10 hours on the road for max 3 hours of actual driving in the park. Oh well. That situation worked to our benefit because instead of taking us straight to our final destination, we got to stop at the viewpoints along the way and listen to the tour guide give background info.

Sarmiento Lake with mountains in the far distance

Our first glimpse of the park across Sarmiento Lake.

Another picture of Sarmiento Lake with a slightly different foreground

Yes this is practically the exact same picture, but I love them both so much and couldn’t decide which to cut so here they both are.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine was established as a protected area in 1959 after being severely damaged by cattle farming and intentional fires set to clear the land for that purpose. “Paine” means “blue” in the indigenous Tehuelche language, and the “towers of blue” are three granite peaks that form the park’s most distinctive landmark.

A guanaco that we passed on the way to the park

A guanaco chillin’ by the road

The park is diverse in its landscapes, plant and animal life, and climate. There are glaciers, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls, over 500 different types of plants, and 25 native mammals (including a very high concentration of pumas… hurrah!). There are grasslands, shrublands, forests, and deserts. We were amazed by how quickly the entire landscape could change during a day of hiking. Along the way, the guide pointed out some of the different animals. We saw guanacos (similar to llamas), flamingoes, and rheas (large flightless birds).

 

A lesser rhea bird by the side of the road

Spotted! Mike took this picture of a rhea. They’re huge!

Pixelated flamingos near the shores of a lake

Flamingos! Sorry they’re so pixelated but hey, phone zoom has its limits and they were VERY far away (I’m usually very anti-zoom on phones, but trust me, without the zoom you wouldn’t have been able to see them at all).

When we got to the park entrance, we all got off the bus to pay the entry fee, and Mike and I had to register to let them know that we were planning to stay in the park. Some of the people on the tour were confused about what they needed to do, and the guide explained that they only needed to register if they were planning to hike and stay overnight. Someone’s response was, “Why would anyone want to do that?” Ha. The park ranger went over some standard safety stuff with us and gave us park maps which, side note, were incredibly nice. Not only were they very useful information-wise, but they were also made of this soft plastic-y material that made them incredibly durable. It definitely makes sense because of the extreme conditions in the park! Rain, wind, no problem!

Laguna Amarga with its white-ish water and shores

Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lake). It gets its color and weirdly white banks from calcium deposits.

Incredible blue lake

SO BLUE!

We made a few more viewpoint stops inside the park limits before Mike and I were dropped off at the Pudeto catamaran stop and everyone else continued on their merry tour way. Unfortunately, the next boat wasn’t leaving for another 2 hours, so we attempted to find a sheltered place to wait. The wind was insane! This was our first real taste of the famous Torres del Paine winds. The mixing of warm air from the equator and cold air from Antarctica causes strong winds, and since the southern tip of South America is SO far south, there aren’t many land masses in the way to slow them down. I call them the winds blown ‘round the world. It certainly felt like they had a world’s worth of acceleration time.

Mike and me with a lake and mountain backdrop

The girl who took this picture for us asked if I wanted to take another picture because wouldn’t I regret not looking normal? The answer is no, I don’t. No fake smiles here! Instead, it will always remind me of how cold and windy it was.

Me looking like I'm about to blow away

So windy.

Me laughing after nearly blowing away

Impossible to take a normal picture.

Blue lake with big mountains in the distance

Those mountains in the background are exactly where we were headed to hike… not really UP the mountains, but around the bases of them.

Another incredible lake with mountains view

Seriously none of this looks real but I promise I’m not tryna scam you, this is actually what it looks like.

Lake Nordenskjol with mountains in the background

Lake Nordenskjol. Mike and I were baffled by this because the name belongs in Iceland…

Mike and me with a lake and moutains

One cute pic of the two of us. Side note, pretty sure everyone we met thought we were a couple at first and I’m like… we look identical.

The catamaran left right on time (something that consistently threw me off on this trip. My previous South America experiences led me to expect things to always be operating behind schedule, but everything in Patagonia was crazy prompt!), and it took about 30 minutes to go from Pudeto to Paine Grande where we were camping for the night. The water was the same, bright blue as we experienced in Iceland. Beautiful! We only lasted for like 2 minutes outside before we decided to hide from the wind below decks.

Crazy blue water with cloudy mountains in the background

View from the catamaran… mountains looking nice and mysterious, shrouded in clouds.

View from the catamaran

More cloudy shroudy mountains.

On the other side, the catamaran left us right next to our campsite for the night. Oh, and when we were on our way off the boat, Mike went to get our bags and smacked his head on the low ceiling of the baggage area. He sliced his head open (not too badly, but it still wasn’t good) and was started bleeding everywhere. So we were 2/2 for bloody injuries and days of the trip.

We checked in and went to scout out a spot for our tent. Every blog I read before the trip recommended putting your tent near the edge of the mountain to help block some of the wind… which was great to know, except there was literally no space left next to the mountain. No blocked wind for us! It was a fun adventure trying to assemble the tent without blowing away. Once we got inside, neither of us wanted to leave again (also, is it just me or is it incredibly hard to get out of tents?), but I rallied and took a surprisingly hot and satisfying shower before getting ready for bed. We played a few rounds of Hanabi, Mike’s favorite card game, and then passed out. It was probably good that we didn’t have an intense day because even without doing a lot of hiking, we were completely wiped. Plus, we were starting our big trek the next day! We had an upcoming stretch of four fairly intense days of hiking, and as I said in my voice journal for the day, “I’m mildly terrified, but it should be good.” Optimistic!

(Side note, my journaling strategy for the trip was to do voice journals instead of written ones to save time. It worked… okay-ish? I’ll just say that voice recordings are definitely not a strength of mine, as anyone who’s ever received a voicemail from me can attest.)

Looking back at the Paine Grande campground and facilities

Paine Grande campsite. The buildings have beds inside if you’re not doing it on the cheap like us. To the right, you can see tents set up by the mountain.

Hanabi cards from our game

We played a perfect game in Hanabi, nbd but we’re kind of awesome. (It’s a cooperative game which means we both won.)

Welcome to Patagonia!

I know, I know. I practically just welcomed you to Peru, and now we’re in Patagonia? What is this? Confusing, that’s what. But here we are, and if you ever want to hear about Patagonia (trust me, you do), the time is now.

The trip kind of came out of nowhere. Mike (my brother) had a two-week vacation and no plans, and I had no job and also no plans. An ideal pairing! We had talked briefly a couple of months earlier about maybe travelling together, but then it wasn’t mentioned again. I assumed that meant it wasn’t happening. NOPE. About three weeks before the departure date, we decided to go to Patagonia, and I was assigned the task of planning the trip.

My biggest recommendation? Don’t start planning your trip 3 weeks before you go. My gosh. I nearly lost my mind in that first week because I knew that there were things that needed to be figured out ASAP… like an itinerary so that we could buy our plane tickets and book places to stay. You know, those semi-essential details. The short timeline definitely complicated the process, especially because the “busy season” is around December – March. With a little maneuvering, I managed to come up with a rough plan, talked to Mike, and started booking things like crazy.

My “rough” plan (haha). I’m all about that wandering life when I have an extended period of time in which to travel, but for short timeframes, schedule schedule schedule! Within reason, of course. I’m not a total lunatic! (But maybe a little bit of a lunatic because I did also make a detailed schedule with times on it. But that’s just for reference!)

Here’s the tip of South America. Patagonia is generally considered to be the region south of the blue line I drew (very precise, I know).

Patagonia is the region that covers the southern tip of South America. It’s in two countries, Chile and Argentina, and borders three oceans, the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Antarctic. It’s a weird place. In my pre-trip research, my general conclusion was that no rules of nature apply there. Everyone said to pack for all four seasons, even though we went in the summer, because you can feel like you’re experiencing all of them on the same day. People also couldn’t say enough about the strong winds, especially in the park we visited in Chile, Torres del Paine. So, we did our best to prepare for anything while also only packing in our backpacks. Simple. Mike had the bigger challenge because he insisted that he could take the whole tent in his bag… something I think he later regretted, but it was great for me!

I did my best not to look at pictures while I was making our plans because I didn’t want to have any expectations. I think I did a good job of that, but in hindsight, I also think that it wouldn’t have mattered what pictures I saw because they wouldn’t have looked real to me anyway. It’s like when you look at a picture of the Grand Canyon and think, “Yeah, that’s pretty. What’s the big deal?” versus when you’re there looking at it in person and your brain can’t begin to comprehend its size or the fact that what you’re seeing is real. That applies to anything magnificent, really. Pictures are great for giving you a taste, but you’ll always wonder if the water was really that blue, if it was really that impressive, if it was really that serene, etc.

Bus ride views

Mike and I flew out of New York on a direct flight to Buenos Aires, Argentina (hooray for 11-hour flights!), arrived in the middle of the night, and had about a 6-hour layover that got delayed to more like 8 (no complaints from me because I spent most of it sleeping on the floor of the terminal). We got our first taste of summer at the airport as we walked between terminals. We were spared the sun since it was the middle of the night, but even 15 minutes outside was MORE than enough, between the humidity and the fact that we were still mostly dressed for New York winter. My gosh.

From Buenos Aires, we flew to El Calafate, a town in Argentinian Patagonia and our main hub for the trip. Here’s the 5-second summary of my travel planning approach: I made a map of all the places people recommended going, scrapped the outliers, picked the ones that seemed to be at a reasonable distance from one another, and looked for the cheapest plane tickets (that still weren’t very cheap) to get us there. So, at the end of all that, we found ourselves in El Calafate.

This picture will forever make me laugh. It was taken from the airport just after we got off the plane, and the corridor was completely roadblocked by people taking this exact picture. Yes, it’s definitely pretty, but this is probably also the least magnificent view we saw during our trip. I should have taken a picture of the people practically standing on top of each other to get their pictures. Mike and I are too cool to do that, obviously… he took forever getting off the plane, so by the time we walked through the corridor, the crowd was gone and there was no fight required to snap this pic.

Our first day was fairly relaxed… and it was the last relaxed day of the whole trip (Mike’s approach to vacations is, “Let’s do everything. We can rest when it’s over.” My approach is, “Let’s do a lot and also not die from exhaustion.” Even though I planned it, this trip was more of the former than the latter). We got into town around 3 and spent the afternoon getting ourselves organized in preparation for the days to come and warming up our rusty Spanish. We had an early start the next day and planned to go to bed early so we didn’t hate ourselves in the morning… but, surprise! It didn’t get dark until around 10PM which made us completely lose track of time. Whoops. Off to a great start!

Looking (and feeling) nice and sleepy