Hiking in Patagonia

In December I was done volunteering and off to do some trails!

I spent 11 of the 21 days I had remaining to travel around Patagonia in the forest and be in love with the pure nature in Patagonia. I did the tourist track of Torres del Paine, Calafate and El Chaltén and then I decided to do a more local and lesser known hike/trek near Punta Arenas where I was living called Cabo Froward.

My first stop was Torres del Paine which you have to reserve in advance the campsites which is such a pain in the ass and so frustrating since there are 3 operators of the campsites, each with their own systems to reserve and in order to go you must have all spots along the trek you will do reserved (well kind of). It took me a few tries to get it all reserved but I had to change dates and go backward through the trek and in the end I only managed to reserve the W Circuit instead of the O Circuit which I prefered (the O is longer and less transited…I´ll have to try again someday). Although it was such a pain in the ass process it was way worth going to Torre del Paine.

From Torres del Paine I headed through to Calafate to see the Glaciar Perito Moreno and then off to El Chaltén for more mountain fun. Calafate is a very touristy Argentinian town near a pretty glacial lake but most pass here for the day to see the Perito Moreno Glacier and carry on, I stayed 2 nights then took the bus to El Chaltén for more hiking.

El Chaltén is just the cutest mountain town and it is literally just for hiking, rock climbing, biking and outdoor activities. It isn´t for everyone but it does offer many options for those who really enjoy nature to be happy as you can do day hikes, multi-day hikes, easy to difficult hikes and the same goes for rocks and biking. The main attraction being Cerro Fitz Roy and obviously if you can hike in and camp outdoors that is the best option because you can really connect with the mountains and you get some great sunrises (if you wake up early) and sunset views…

From El Chaltén I really wanted to cross the border to Caleta Tortel, Chile by foot (another hike/boat trip that is less transited because you need flexibility of time) and take the ferry back South through the Fiords to Puerto Natales, Chile where I had left some of my stuff. To cross to Caleta Tortel the weather is quite uncertain effecting a ferry crossing which would make me miss the Southern bound ferry so I returned through Argentina, back tracking to cross back over instead by bus :(. I wanted to make sure I was back in time to do the Cabo Froward trek. I will return one day and do the Caleta Tortel route and ferry though to the South.

All treks I did solo (although you are never really alone), there was no need for guides and all but the Cabo Froward trek I could run on…Cabo you could in some parts but it was just more challenging for running overall.

Cabo Froward (4-6 days)
The trek to the end of the South American Continent starts at the end of the road S. out of Punta Arenas (1 hour drive from town, there are buses but not frequent…hitching or getting a ride is best). This to me seemed like an archaic trail with few people that is quite challenging in a desolate area and can be quite slow along the many beaches with beautiful views, then add in Patagonian weather cooperating. Archaic because there is a route and markers but it is not as well kept as some trails and their is no support along the way. This trail has river crossings (3) which you need to time with the tides in order to cross (usually butt naked). The many beaches all seem different in little ways but most have sand that slows you down and eventually becomes your least favorite part because it is not firm ground and you sink in a bit…or jagged beach rocks you have to climb over or fallen trees, etc….always an obstacle on the beach. Between the beaches were forest trails (one is through turba or a bog like area) with each being more and more ridiculously challenging, the last one was with ropes…ha ha..and another was leaping between downed tree trunks with your backpack, entertaining to say the least. Needless to say the trail is definitely entertaining and a good mix of scenery and challenges leaving you thinking, what could possibly be next.

I got really lucky with weather because I had mainly sunny clear days but my first night I met a group that even had snow (during early summer time). I started solo but by my second day I ran into a guy doing it in 3 days and we paired up. In general I ran into 7 people a day which happened basically near the river crossings as all were timing their crossings or some marine life researchers camping on shore but besides this you were alone…also camping there were often at least one other group or a person nearby. Everything I read said not to do it alone but I still felt alone would be fine as long as you are prepared for whatever weather and take it cautiously on the crazy forest sections and slippery beach rock…more fun with people for sure.

The guy who I ended up doing the rest of day 2-4 with was doing it in 3 days while fasting and having biked out from Punta Arenas, crazy but he did it! If you have time though I recommend 5 days or even 6 to really enjoy the nearly untouched, unseen Patagonian beauty. Those on the trek were a good mix of locals and foreigners. I really enjoyed the trek and saw whales, dolphins and a King Penguin (Bahia Aguila…watch out for him) as nice surprises along the way. The actual end of the continent has an erected cross…that apparently has been reconstructed many times due to harsh weather since 1913, concrete, wood, steel and the current white steal tubed cross that is currently standing from Pope JP II visit in 1987…and is quite an interesting trek up the steep hill through a mix of turba with wooden and steel stairs at times. On a good day the views up there are spectacular; you see everything!

Totally happy I did this trek as it was challenging, beautiful, different and off the main travelers routes plus it gave me even more understanding of the local culture.

Fitz Roy/Parque Nacional de los Glaciares (1 day or multi)
After making a stop in Calafate, Argentina to see Perito Moreno Glacier at the S. end of the Park, the next morning I headed up N. for the 3 hour bus trip to El Chaltén to do the Fitz Roy circuit in the Northern part of the Park. As soon as I arrived I got some lunch and looked for some missing items I needed and headed up the trail only to run down soon with a bag of my excess crap that was not needed for where I was going ha ha now that Caleta Tortel was not happening (there is a shop here where you can pay the ferry and transport out to the start to cross to Villa O´Higgins, town that comes first).

These trails have basic campsites, all are free, you don´t reserve you just arrive and set up camp and enjoy. They are unmanned so respect the area and packing-out your trash is very important. Don´t expect shelter or food, bring your own and do it yourself here! You can choose any direction but I went out directly to Fitz Roy to set up camp. If you are a faster hiker remember that estimated times are for slower hikers and you will likely arrive before the set time. I would have hiked up to see it that day but instead I rested at camp and decided to go out in the morning then do the run (15km) I had to get in before moving to the next campsite by Cerro Torre. Fitz Roy was a difficult mountain peak for me to see because it seemed clouded over most of the time.

The following morning I got up around 7 am and did the trail up (1 hour hike from campsite) and still no show of the peak (the early sunrise was not visible as I found out either so glad I waited…it is win or lose) but I waited about 2 hours and it finally was quite a bit clearer with thin clouds but I saw the peak. While I waited (only 2 other people where up there at that hour) I was happy to have gone down to the lake and then up the little hill as there was another beautiful lake behind it which kept me occupied while waiting.

After hiking I went for the run, basically running halfway to where I was headed later and back, then rested a bit only to do it all over again but with my pack arriving to what turned out to be my favorite peak of my trip, Cerro Torre. When I arrived to that camp it was early summer evening (6pm, sunset was 9:30 pm). Here I saw some hikers I had met along the journey there and saw Cerro Torre around sunset without clouds…gorgeous with the tower like peak and the other jagged peaks formed around it…totally like a city of rocks with one prominent tower. Although nothing compared to what I saw at sunrise the next day. The girls camping next to me had said they would get up early (4:30am) for sunrise and I doubted I´d go but in the am I heard them and got out. Turns out it was other campers I heard and the girls I knew had actually slept in….bummer for them since the sunrise was sooooo worth it that morning!  The best view was at the lake about 5 minute walk away…just gorgeous…I stayed maybe 30 minutes watching then headed back to bed…lol I got up later to walk closer to the glacier below the peak then came back packed up and headed back to town with the decision to stay the night in town since I liked town´s vibe and the food options were really great there!

I would have loved to do the Huemul circuit (4-6 days and more challenging) if I had more time and had actually known about it before I started treking (I learned about it  from other campers headed there later). A good hiking guide book would be smart to buy if coming here! Also not being a rock climber and visiting Fitz Roy made me feel like I didn´t do the trip correctly since that is where all the stories and hype from here generally come from…if you are there, maybe give rock climbing a try for the full experience. Now I am not saying summit Fitz Roy rock climbing, because that takes major skills, time, equipment, planning and 4 days climbing to the summit…hard core!

Torres del Paine (4-6 days W Circuit)
Again a pain in the butt the reservation process plus it was also expensive but this hike was so worth it. So many times on the trek I turned a corner and was stunned by such gorgeous and pure natural beauty, that just wow´s you. Torres del Paine is sometimes considered the 8th Natural Wonder and it is very touristy but in general I felt as though there was not too many people on trails, except when going from Central Torre. There was just so many distinct combinations of reservations for how to go through the park that I never felt it was too touristy. Again except the obvious Central Torre with it´s huge hotel at the entrance and bus loads arriving to hike up to see the main attraction which by the way after seeing the rest for me it was not the most impressive of the whole Circuit, it was all just so amazing and unique.

I did the whole trek in 3 days but stayed for 4 and did an extra bit the last day. I had different camping options due to availability through the operators I had booked for each day. I did Paine Grande, Cuernos and then Central.

The first night I camped in my tent at Paine Grande and the wind literally destroyed it. Learned 2 things, the tent comes with strings to protect against wind and it is best at this campsite to set the tent near the hill! So I of course placed the tent smack in the middle even though I got there early and well the strings I didn´t even know I had them..I´d never had to use them….oops..so after hiking I finally put them on….around 10 pm lol but by then I had a nice opening in the waterproof layer of the tent 😦 …I got so lucky though and didn´t encounter any rain while camping the whole 11 day trip in the outdoors…I did end up later adding Duck tape and was placing a large trash bag as a ¨temporary¨ fix each night LOL.

To get to the Park you take a bus from Puerto Natales (or drive over). Since I started from Paine Grande I bused out then took a boat across the lake…beautiful lake….sooooo windy…but a great start either way! The Park caters to all types of travelers as I noticed boarding the boat, I saw people with day packs, roller bags, big backpacks, hiking boots, normal shoes, etc and this is because in the W Circuit (named for the shape around the mountains you do) there are options for all travelers, hotels with food, basic campsites, sites with tents, area to set your own tent and even cabins! All pay park entry but you can do it online in advance like I did to skip the long wait to register.

From the campsite I set out toward Glacier Grey that same day (many do this out and back)….I pretty much ran the whole way as I wanted to make the curfew cut off and get far. Here all trails were runable…though few seemed to do it…I saw about 2 others, one was running with his big pack, oh my!

I got to Grey and kept going to the hanging bridges. The trail was great as the glacier comes into view it is very cool plus I loved the glacier chunks from it floating on the lake. I believe this was the first glacier I’ve ever seen, especially that touches water. Impressive! When I got back to camp dinner was on the mind so I entered what they called the ¨kitchen¨, crazy place, enclosed building with tables and a few sinks and charging areas inside…the craziness was the amount of people and the amount of gas stoves making dinner inside…not your typical camping experience ever, but nice touch because Patagonia is so windy; imagine the second night was even worse.

My diet was very simple food, tuna and bread and slowly learned overtime to add cous cous to my menu lol..each meal after this was better and better..ha ha. In fact, the next night I actually reserved for dinner (which was very good)…I reserved because I felt this would be a long day and it so was. I mention food because it is important to know when hiking like this you need to get a lot of protein eaten after all the hiking. Generally it is the major weight in your pack and you look for ideas for light options…so tricky…but I think I did well on lightweight options that include protein. In the end my favorite was cup of ramen with tuna added in…

Day two I was headed to camp at Cuernos with a stop at Italiano to hike up to Britaníco. At Italíano they let you leave your bag and hike up, so so thankful as the hike to Britaníco is quite uphill and the day would have been really long with the pack all day! At Italíano most just go to the first view point but I pushed all the way to the end and it was a nice surprise to be enclosed among the mountains…just beautiful views…although my favorite was hearing the glacier on the first mountain break and fall…it sounded like thunder…. At the end of Britaníco you were surrounded by huge mountains on all sides of different shapes and colors which on a decently visible day it is impressive! Returning back to Italíano to refuel and head to Cuernos, where surprises kept coming… a Glacial lake and a fun river crossing (more fun when people watch, video you and put pressure on you lol).

At Cuernos I stayed on the platform, an elevated tent pad, and managed to convince them to let me use the tent placed on it already instead of setting mine. Best plan ever since this night the wind was crazy, making it so hard to sleep plus it would have destroyed my tent…not to mention I was pretty darn tired when I arrived…after 2 days of over 40 thousand steps (about 22 miles daily) I was ready to just eat and sleep. Mind you this was nothing as the next 2 days I managed over 50 thousand steps! Too much to see in the park in so little time. Anyway the dinner was actually very good, quinoa with salmon as the main plus salad, bread and desert…so yumm. So happy I indulged on this offering one night.

I thought the 3rd day was gonna be easy and it started out easy until I got to Central where I rested then saw that the day was perfect to summit Torres and if I left now and  ran up a bit I would make the cutoff that day…of course I was off. I made a pit stop for a nearly $4 US ice cream bar at the kiosk because I was craving it after my 3 day hike (plus
I had to celebrate that I actually finished in 3 days) and up the mountain I went…lol

The way up started off steep so I barely ran but after that all was perfect for running..up until the summit..which had way too many people and lots of rocks making running and passing difficult…but still do able, so that is how I summited Torres, it was great, the summit took forever and again no cool views until you rounded the last bend and surprise…just like the rest of Torres del Paine, surprising around every turn…. I had fun watching everyone up there try and make the most unique and best pose for a photo in front of the Torres…welcome to the world of Instagram and yoga poses…hum sad world…just sitting and enjoying was really nice (behind rocks away from the wind)…I did my fair share of photos there too so can´t say I am any better LOL. This whole out and back running took me 4 hours….I think this was an estimated 8 hour hike…oops!

Since I got that over and done with on day 3 I decided to walk out/run back to/from Serrón my last day and then I learned that you can walk in and out of the Park (aka not take additional $5 bus in/out or ferry over to Paine Grande) which sparked my interest so I also headed out hiking :D. The Serrón trail I found boring since it is on a service road, but I liked it for running and the campsite seemed nice…after this no more roads but that is the O Circuit start…so kind of a bummer. The other trail out of the park was surprisingly a lovely trail (even thought it follows along the road) since the massive Torres was there the whole time…for me it was the perfect was to conclude the amazing journey through Torres del Paine.

In conclusion, get out there, explore, be with nature because Patagonia is quite amazing, hostile, beautiful and unexpected always.


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