The Z writes...
Haje, Catherine, and I (Ziah) decided that as part of our tour of the wonderful wilderness of Patagonia, we should definitely spend as much time as possible in the Torres del Paine National Park. We wanted to get a feel for all the parts of the park and see some of the highlights, but avoid too many other tourists and also avoid the parts of the park that were recently damaged in the fire.
We found a company that offers guided treks through the park via Swoop Patagonia, which is UK based company that helps people plan their trips in Patagonia. They put us in contact with Dittmar Adventures, and then Laura from Dittmar Adventures helped us to plan out the following itinerary:
Day 1: Puerto Natales -Lago Porteño- Rio Serrano
You will begin the day in vehicle taking an alternative route towards Torres del Paine. You get to the Milidon Cave and if you like stop in to check out the huge cave. You finally will reach Lago Porteño and stop for lunch at a place locals enjoy camping at during long weekends! Here you will prepare to cycle the rest of the way into Torres del Paine. The views of Lago Toro and the Torres Massif are amazing! You will stop every so often to take photos and really have the opportunity to enjoy the views along your ride into the park. Finally you’ll arrive in the Rio Serrano sector of Torres del Paine and here you will be able to enjoy a hearty dinner after a long day!
Includes: support vehicle, bikes, helmets, breakfast, lunch and dinner, guide, camping
Day 2: Lago Porteño – Glacier Grey – Camping Las Torres
Again you will have a leisurely morning. You will leave Rio Serrano Sector in a private transport heading into Torres del Paine National Park. You will go to Hotel Lago Grey and board the Grey II boat at about 11.00 hrs. The boat will take you across Lago Grey and let you admire the Glacier from a bit closer. The excursion is approximately 3 hours and you will be left at the hotel just around lunch time. After lunch you will drive to the other side of Torres del Paine, along the way you can stop for pictures and see some other spectacular parts of Torres del Paine. In the evening you will arrive at Las Torres and have a hot meal and a nice rest before a big day of hiking!
Includes: private transport to navigation, entrance fees, guide, BLD, tent, sleeping mat, navigation, transfer to Camping Las Torres
Day 3: Camping Las Torres – Camp Japones
After a relaxing breakfast you will begin to hike up Almirante Nieto, a mountain that takes you to an incredible view of Lake Nordenskjold and the Asencio Valley. You have to hike up the mountain and then into another valley. This isn’t as difficult as the pass, but it feels like the incline will never end. After passing Refugio Chileno you will hike one hour through a dense Lenga forest. After leaving the forest, you will approach a moraine. Just as you are about to begin up the moraine, you will leave your things at the Campamento Las Torres and continue to hike about 1 hour up a steep moraine to see the icon of Torres del Paine — the Torres! After returning to your Campamento Las Torres you will hike to a climbers camp called Camp Japones. The Camp Japones is the original camp where the climbing pioneers stopped to get away from the weather and prepare the hike to the top of the Torres. You will settle into this camp for dinner and prepare for a big day!
Includes: Guide, BLD, tent, sleeping mat
Day 4: Camp Japones – Paso Oggioni – Dickson
You will wake for an early breakfast and a nice cup of hot coffee or tea and then pack up camp and begin hiking today. This pass is a very unique pass and almost no one does it. There is no real trail and is marked only by little stone towers that the previous hikers left. You will begin by going along the trail to the back side of the Torres, but then as the trail continues straight, you will detour and hike down towards a waterfall. You will cross over the waterfall on a natural stone bridge and then jump between a few big boulders to arrive on the other side of the glacier. Afterwards you will then hike over two glacier moraines. Finally you will start uphill. If you have a good map you will be able to see Oggioni Mountain in the back of Valle de Silencio (Silence Valley). You will hike over this mountain; the hike is difficult because the as you get above the treeline you will find that the ground is composed of a shale like rock and not a firm dirt or sand ground. You will have to hike up with your pack through the shale and then begin back down. After you have made it over the pass and back into the treeline you will become lost in a dense forest and need to be comofortable walking over tree trunks and through dense brush. Finally you will see Dickson and continue out of the forrest to an open field. You will continue on until you finally reach the refugio. Today is a long day and you will be happy to arrive after such an exciting, but exhausting day. I think tonight would be a good night to sleep on a bed inside the refugio!
Includes: Guide, BLD, bed in refugio
Day 5: Dickson – Cycling to Lago Paine
After a hot breakfast we will begin cycling away from Lake Dickson! First we have to cross Lake Dickson on a small boat operated by the refugio. The ride is 15 km and the trail is a single track (a hiking trail) that
takes you over and through streams and creeks. Finally in the afternoon you will arrive at Camp next to Lago Paine. You will rest, enjoy the views and see the Torres from afar.
Includes: Guide, BLD, bicycle, transportation of your backpack to Lago Paine, tent, sleeping mat
Day 6: Lago Paine – Puerto Natales
Again we will start out on a single track heading towards Laguna Azul, on the east side of Torres del Paine. This is the same trail that Lady Florence Dixie mentions in her book, Across Patagonia. The trail is 18 km long; along the way we again will cross numerous streams and creeks sometimes riding through them and others portering the bikes across. You will see the famous Torres distinctly from many other tourists and enjoy the rolling hills along the track. You will finish the day by meeting with a van that will take you and your gear back to Puerto Natales for a delicious meal and a good night’s rest.
Includes: Guide, BLD, bicycle, transportation of your backpack to Puerto Natales, private transfer from TDP to Puerto Natales, accommodations in hotel/hostel
Day 7: Puerto Natales – El Calafate
Today you will take a bus to El Calafate. You will arrive in El Calafate at 14:30 hrs. You will say goodbye to our staff and continue your journey home or to your next destination!
Includes: Breakfast, regular bus to El Calafate
Laura was really great – answering all our questions (of which we had many), and adjusting the schedule so that it would work for our personal tastes. She also let us book our own accommodation in Puerto Natales (since we were planning to be there a little before our trip into the park), and took out that portion of the cost. She was really great to work with in the planning stage, and made us feel like everything was all sorted and we wouldn’t have to plan anything, really.
We started our interaction with the team from Dittmar Adventures the night before we were scheduled to leave, meeting in the hotel in which we were staying. Laura & David (who would be our guide) met us and walked us through the itinerary, letting us know what we should bring, and giving us last minute tips. Thankfully, the weather forecast looked pretty good for our trip. I had only brought a pair of running shoes / trainers with me on the trip, and wasn’t sure if I’d need proper hiking boots in order to complete some of our treks, but David assured us that we all needed some serious hiking boots. I’m so glad I rented some before we left, and you’ll see why later in this post. :)
Day 1 – Driving, biking and camping
The next morning, David came and met us at the hotel, this time to introduce us to our driver, Scott. Scott would drive us in a big truck into the park, spend the first night camping with us, and then continue driving us on day 2, where we would then meet up with David and continue our trekking part of the itinerary.
Scott was great. He’s from Boston originally, but found himself in Patagonia and knew that he never wanted to go back. He’s been living in Puerto Natales for 7 years, and has a little girl (who speaks better spanish than he does). :)
We drove into the park from the south from Puerto Natales, and the scenery was stunning. We stopped in the Milodon Cave first, which was a pretty cool (and rather large) cave that was created by glaciers and in which they found the remains of a Milodon.
Next we continued towards the park, and stopped for lunch at a beautiful lake, which was crystal clear because there was very little wind. We took some great photos there of the mirror-like reflections on the lake, and Haje took a beautiful time-lapse of the clouds moving over the lake.
We drove further towards the park (but still weren’t inside it yet), and then we got a chance to hop on some mountain bikes and ride on the (bumpy gravel) road, passing more stunning scenery on the way. The ride was not that difficult, although there were some pretty serious uphill sections. Thankfully, Scott stayed in the truck behind us, catching up with us every so often to make sure we were okay. We generally were, except for one time when Catherine’s chain came off her bike, and one time when we decided we were done going up a huge hill, and Scott threw our bikes in the back of the truck and gave us a ride up to the top. It was pretty great to have this kind of “safety net” for this portion of our trip, since it was our first day and we were still not in the best biking shape. :)
After our biking, we drove a little further to our camp site for the first night in Rio Serrano. Scott set up our tents (with help from Haje & Catherine) while Ziah went to take the world’s coldest shower. It turns out that there was no hot water in the girls’ side of the bathrooms, but the boys’ side was fine, with lovely warm water. Haje definitely won. We had a nice dinner in the lodge at the campsite, and (what we thought) would be our last glasses of wine/beer before actually getting into the park.
Day 2 – Boating and Driving and Trekking
That night was very cold, and we had to wake up before the sun came up the next morning to drive to Lago Grey for a boat trip around the lake and glacier. Taking down the tents in the freezing cold and dark was not the most fun, but Scott was great. With our toes actually frozen we made it over to the restaurant at about 6am, where they gave us a breakfast of toast, eggs, and cheese in the dark. We weren’t sure if the generator was broken or what was going on, because we had to use our head-lamps to even be able to see what we were eating. And we were still pretty cold.
We hopped in the truck and drove to the Lago Grey Hotel, where we tried to thaw out a bit and got signed in for our boat trip. The boat left from the dock on a beach below the hotel (you had to hike out about 10 minutes), and the sun was still just rising, which made for some great photo ops:
The boat trip lasted about 3 hours – and it navigated the whole lake, going past beautiful icebergs and going right up to the face of the Glacier Grey.
I spent a good deal of time admiring the rock formations, which in all my nerdy geology musings were really interesting, being carved out over years of glaciation
The glacier ice was often very blue, which our tour guide on the boat told us (in Spanish & English) was due to the fact that when water molecules in the ice are very compressed due to glaciation, there isn’t any room for air molecules. Without the air molecules, which create little bubbles, the water molecules act as a prism, only letting blue light pass.
We all got tons of beautiful photos from the boat, despite still being freezing cold. By the end of the boat trip, all three of us had taken a little nap and were getting slightly thawed by the sun, which finally peeked out from behind the mountains around us.
After Lago Grey, we hopped back in the truck and drove through the park, stopping for lunch at (yet another) beautiful lake, and fending off the birds and the very domestic red fox, who wanted to eat our sandwiches.
We carried on in the truck, stopping at a beautiful and huge waterfall. Then we saw some of the fire destruction that had occurred about a month before, and it was somehow strangely beautiful – the black charred gnarly trees against a beautiful blue sky. We stopped at a place where there was a swamp/marsh that remained green with burned trees all around it. Very beautiful.
We continued driving, seeing tons of Guanacos, which are like llamas – cute, but kinda strange looking.
Finally, we made it to the end of the section of the tour where we got to be driven around in a truck. We said our goodbyes to Scott, and met up with David, who would take us through the hard part – trekking.
We put on our backpacks and started uphill towards our campsite at Campamiento Torres. This was the first time any of us had had to hike with a pack, and it turns out that adding that much weight on your back does indeed make things *way* more difficult.
Thankfully, David had the genius idea for us to stop at the first refugio we came to – Camp Chile, rather than pressing on for an extra couple hours to get to Camp Torres. We stayed that night in tents that were already set up for us after having a delicious hot meal (and again, beers!).
Day 3 – More trekking & the Torres Viewpoint
The next morning (not too early, thankfully), we started out for Torres, and left our packs at the camp before making our way up the lookout, which was an hour long scramble up a steep hill to an amazing view of the Torres and a little lake at the base. The weather was perfect, and we stayed up there laying in the sun on the big rocks for a while, taking in the beauty.
We went back down to the camp, where we met with our Porter, Claudio, who would join us carrying our tents and food for the rest of the trip. We had a quick lunch of sandwiches in the shade, and since I was a bit chilly I went out to the trail which was more open and sat on some rocks in the sun. I saw a kid who had clearly fallen and had a torn leg on his pants going down towards the camp. When I went back down to the camp, we found this kid who had just fallen and cut his knee open pretty bad, while spraining (we think) his opposite ankle. David did some first aid (which was funny because we were just talking about how he had to carry all this first aid stuff but had never had to use any of it before). After we helped this kid, we carried on to our next campsite, Japones.
The track was pretty easy, as it ran more-or-less along the river, so it wasn’t too bad getting there. Along the way, we saw a huemel, which is apparently pretty rare to see in the park. She was just hanging out along the river, munching on grass, and didn’t seem to mind us as we took photos of her.
We set up camp at Japones and David & Claudio made us a dinner of lentils with bacon and garlic – it was delicious, and it turns out the only meal we didn’t have in one of the refugios. That night was pretty cold – when we woke up (early) for our big day the next morning at dusk, there was frost on the leaves.
Day 4 – The Big Trekking Day
Today was the big day – the day we had all been fearing since knowing about our schedule. It was a very difficult hike up over the pass, on very loose rock, where you kept feeling like every step you took forward you slid back and had to scramble with your pack up the hill. There were places where the rocks just crumbled when you stepped on them, and you had to be constantly careful of your foot falls.
David was great about helping us out, giving us his walking sticks for the sections that were quite difficult. Claudio, our porter, was usually behind us and seemed not to find the hike particularly challenging. I asked him at one point if this was a very easy hike for him. He said he had just come from climbing on the Torres, and that this was his break. He said it was quite easy, but that he was accustomed to this kind of thing – which I guess is true. Still, I was impressed – he was carrying all of his own stuff, plus our tents and food and things, and he didn’t even seem to break a sweat. I think he probably could have made the hike in 1/2 the time it took us.
After we (finally) made it to the pass, we actually scrambled up a little higher on the hill so we could see a lookout that was panoramic around the entire area. You could see everything, and since it was such a clear day and not too windy, we were very lucky to even have been able to make it to this lookout point. David said this is the first time he was able to go up here to this point, because usually the weather didn’t allow for it.
While we were up there, the condors started circling around and got quite close to us, so we were all able to get some great photos of them:
We probably spent about 30 or 40 minutes taking in the views up at this lookout, but then it was time to get back on the trail and go down the other side of the pass, which was *very* loose rock, and it was actually (from the description) the part that I most dreaded. It turned out to be not that bad at all, because it was *so* loose that it was a bit like walking/running down a sand dune. You just dug your heels into it and kinda slid down the hill. I’m pretty sure we each slipped and fell at least several times, but it was like falling on sand, so it wasn’t too bad. David and Claudio both *ran* down the mountain, racing at times. The probably made it down that entire section in 5 or 10 minutes. Haje’s knee wasn’t hurting too bad, so he made it down pretty quick, too.
Here’s what the back of the pass looked like once we made it down… you can see our tracks in the side of the mountain where we basically slid down…
Once we made it to the bottom of this loose sand-like shale, it got a bit more tough, because there was still further to go down to the entrance of the forest, and the terrain was more like it was on the way up the mountain – the shale was loose and wobbly, but still pretty solid. Or at least solid enough you couldn’t treat it like sand. This party was tough, but thankfully it was only about 20 or 30 minutes.
We were all so tired at this point, and it was probably about 6pm. I was personally quite done with walking. My feet were sore and aching, and my back was tired from carrying my pack the whole way. We all packed very light, only bringing one extra set of clothes to sleep in, and our warm layers, yet somehow our packs were still full and a significant weight.
The next part of the walk was the part I (and I think Catherine and Haje) could have done without. Because we were already so tired, walking through the forest was really tough. There was no trail, and we had to step over huge fallen trees, branches, roots, and basically bush-wack our way through the forest. Also, it was far. I think we had to go about 4 or 5 km through the forest, and it seemed like it would never end. David knew that this was the part where all of his clients started hating him, so he (cleverly) stayed ahead and scouted out the best routes around trees and creeks so that we could have an easier path.
I was convinced we were lost in the forest and that we’d never make it out. I was swearing and muttering about how this was clearly not a good idea, and that the walk was too long for one day. Grumble grumble. At one point, since I had no idea how much longer I’d have to walk thru the forest, I was about ready to just give up and sit on a log and camp there. I was done. Toast. Every step I took hurt.
Finally, after about 2 or 3 hours in the forest, we made it out onto a trail. It was the happiest I’d been, as I thought it meant we were very close to done. But it turns out that once we reached the trail there was still about 1.5 hours of hiking on the trail until we made it to the Dickson refugio.
The mosquitos were everywhere, and it was already dusk. David wanted to carry on quickly because it was already starting to get dark. I changed out of my hiking boots, hoping that by wearing my little “barefoot” trainers my feet wouldn’t be in as much pain, but by then the damage was done and my feet were destroyed. Every step I took I wimpered and whined, and it felt like I’d never get to stop walking.
Angrily, I limped along. After what felt like forever, it started getting actually dark. The sun had set and now I was worried we’d need to get our torches (flashlights) out in order to see the trail and where we were walking, but a few minutes after I asked David if we needed them, we saw some lights in the distance, and then the most beautiful thing we’d seen all day – the refugio.
We were all *so* relieved to be done. We dumped out backpacks at the entrance, and went straight to the dinner tables to eat what was probably the best meal we’d ever had (or at least seemed it at the time). We were all broken. Our feet were aching and blistered, and we were all DONE.
Day 5 – Rest day!
We thought we were supposed to ride our bikes 34km the next day, but were almost crying thinking about the thought of that. Catherine and I had said to each other in the bathroom that we wished we could just stay in the refugio the next day and rest. And at dinner, David recommended the same, that we stay in Dickson 2 nights and go on the bike ride the next day (and our last day on the trip).
We were all relieved to be able to stay in a bed an extra night, and to let our feet and bodies recover an extra day. Thank goodness we had the time built into our schedule to take this rest day – I’d recommend it to anyone who was planning to do that trek from Japones – Dickson. It’s too bad there’s no where else to stop half way on that day, because going all the way up that pass and back down, and thru the forest all the way to Dickson is TOO FAR!
If I had it to do over again, I would have hired an extra porter just to carry my stuff for me. I think if I could have done the hike with no extra weight on my back it would have made a huge difference, and maybe I wouldn’t have been in so much pain by the end. I cannot stress enough to those thinking of doing this trek – no matter how much it seems like it’s not worth the money to hire a porter to carry your stuff, and no matter how hard-core you think you are… get a porter. Really. There’s no need for you to have to carry all that shit.
Anyways, we all enjoyed our rest day in Dickson. We spent most of the day either sleeping or reading in bed, with brief breaks to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was a much, much needed rest day. It also helped that it was raining almost the whole day, so we’d glance outside and think how glad we were not to be out in the rain and mud on bikes.
The rain did have one great bi-product, and that’s the cool rainbows it created when it would stop briefly before starting back up again
Day 6 – Bike Day & wrapping things up
The next morning we left relatively early for our last day on mountain bikes. We biked about 35 km, through rivers, up and down hills, pushing our bikes uphill when they were too steep (which was quite often). Thankfully, we had 2 extra porters meet us in Dickson to carry all our stuff so all we had was day-packs on our backs while riding.
One of the porters went a different route than we went, catching a bus back to Puerto Natales with our backpacks. But Claudio and another porter took the same path we took on the bikes, only on foot. And despite the fact they were carrying all of their own stuff and ours, and despite the fact they were on foot, they still managed to beat us to the end. The other porter was a tall lanky Spanish guy named Saul. He was like some sort of superman, practically running the whole time. At one point, we were biking up a big hill and everyone got off their bikes to walk them up the hill. I was in the back, and taking my time hoofing it up the hill with my bike. Saul came up behind me with his huge pack and his walking sticks, practically running up the hill, He was like “do you want help?” and grabbed my bicycle and handed me his walking sticks. He pushed my bike up the hill, and I walked behind him (as he was going much faster than I, even pushing my bike and carrying my shit). Catherine, Haje, and David were at the top of the hill waiting for me, laughing as they saw Saul and I come into view.
The bike ride was a little bit miserable at first, because it was raining and cold, and we were all wet. We had to cross a river, which had 2 forks… we took off our shoes and socks and rolled up our trousers so they wouldn’t get wet, and we had to wade about mid-thigh high into the FREEZING cold river to cross. Catherine was so cold and stunned, she kinda fell into the river.
The ride was difficult, because it was such a rocky/bumpy trail. For most of the time is was on a 4×4 road – but what 4×4 could make it on this road is beyond me… the road was bumpy and steep and crazy. I’d hate to have to drive on it in even the highest-clearance 4×4.
We finally made it to the highest peak, and then the ride was quite pleasant, mostly going downhill (with some uphill bits) and a lot of flat parts riding along the side of the lake. The weather cleared up and stopped raining, and we all started drying out a little bit (although we all had wet shoes and socks even once we made it to the end).
When we finally made it back to the refugio where Scott was waiting for us in his truck – we told him “You’re the most beautiful sight to see” because we were all so tired and excited to get back to civilization.
We spent a bit of time there in the camp while Scott took the two porters to the bus stop so they could catch the bus back to Puerto Natales. We had a change of dry clothes and changed into them, and laid in the grass, happy to have finished our 6 days in the park alive.
Scott came back and picked us all up and we drove back to Puerto Natales. The ride back was beautiful, although we were all so tired that I think we didn’t really have the energy to appreciate it. We saw more guanacos and some ñandus (a strange bird that looks more like a brain with legs):
We stopped and got coffee and hot chocolate and had a bathroom break about 1 hour into the ride, as we were leaving the park. And then we made it back to our hotel at about 6:30, and were so happy to take showers and change into CLEAN new clothes that were waiting for us at our hotel with the rest of our stuff we didn’t take to the park.
We met up with David & Laura (and a friend of Laura’s) at 8 at a local pub where they make their own micro-brewed beer and serve burgers, ribs, and even some tasty chicken wings. We were all super-tired and happy to be having a few pitchers of beers and reminiscing about our trip – both the good parts and the not-so-good parts, where we thought we might die. :)
All in all, it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip where we got to see and experience some of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve seen in my life.
David & Laura and the whole Dittmar Adventures team were fantastic. They took really good care of us, were super nice, and were very flexible in the scheduling, letting us do things like stay one night in a closer camp, and stay 2 nights in the bed at Dickson refugio when we were clearly too tired to do any more adventuring.
I can’t recommend them highly enough. I’d happily go on another adventure with David – only this time I’d make sure I hired my own personal porter to carry all my stuff so that all I had to do was worry about carrying myself, which in and of itself would have been plenty. :)