We had no reservations. We hadn’t glanced at a park map. We weren’t even sure of what country the park was in. This is not what people do when planning a trip to Torres del Paine, Chile’s premier natural attraction.
We at least caught wind of a town called Puerto Natales, gateway to Torres del Paine, and three hours by bus from Punta Arenas. Touristic but clear of tourists during the day (they’re all in the park). Yuppie coffee shops, bistros, and a chill brewpub, all smacked up against a lovely blue lake framing snow-capped mountains in the distance. We spent our arrival day scourging the spotty Internet for inspiration but alas, to little avail. It seems that few have ever approached Torres del Paine free ballin’ and flailing.
One thing was immediately clear: we weren’t hiking the W. Or the O. Or any other part of the alphabet. This wasn’t for lack of foresight; we just didn’t want to. Part of the consideration was time, which was insufficient. Patagonia is just part of our South American journey, not the whole tamale. Another was equipment, also insufficient (yes, rentals are available but this too requires advanced planning). But honestly, a lot of it was our desire to tranquilo. The idea of another 4-trek— thanks, Ciudad Perdida— in the frigid, windy conditions of an obnoxiously expensive park didn’t thrill us. We envisioned next week, up north in El Chatan, where hikes are day excursions. For free. From town.
“It seems that few have ever approached Torres del Paine free ballin’ and flailing…”
But all that didn’t mean we were gonna miss the park in its entirety. So with our three days and random insight we could piece together, we made a plan. And it somehow worked, enabling us to see park highlights from unique means:
Torres del Paine via a car
We read somewhere that one can preview the park by driving through it. That is, stop and go and pee as you please without the restrictions of a tour bus. Not being fans of tour buses, or the sort of folk that ride them, we decided to rent a car. It was a bit of endeavor trying to track one down literally the night before— go us— but it worked out. For about 65,000 pesos (most are 45,000 but beggars can’t be choosers).
With a German hitchhiker in tow, who handed over his park map, we drove the 1.5 hours to the park entrance. But even before we got there, the obligatory photo stops were resplendent. Guanacos. Turquoise lakes. The three towers towering in the foreground. Goddamn, this place is visually spectacular.
Once inside the park, we paid the fee (21,000 for three days) and commenced the scenic tour sans hitchhiker (the crazy f*&$ was doing the W). It was quite the preview. As promised. From one end to the other, we took about five hours to savor the sites. Smiling a lot. Counting out our hashtags #blessed #grateful #bucketlist #wanderlust. Perhaps best of all— thank you sort of low season— was that we had the park to ourselves. Why does no one think of this?
Tip: They say you can drive any car through the park without incident, but the ride will be significantly more pleasant in an all-wheel or 4-wheel drive vehicle. Muchos huecos, my friends.
Torres del Paine via a kayak
Chile, and especially Patagonia, ain’t cheap. And at some point, you have to say f*$% it and dole out the big bucks for something. We chose kayaking. Most cool people chose Bigfoot’s tours but the rude ass lady working the counter in town didn’t sell it well. What’s that? You have to arrange your own transport all the way to Gray Glacier, including a pricey boat ride? Nah, that doesn’t mesh well with our tranquilo mentality. So we went with Kayak en Patagonia, who DOES arrange everything for you. From town. And just happened to have a few spots left for a day we were in town.
“Patagonia is a fickle bitch and decided to throw in a curve ball for the day. One that was 70 kilometers/ hour…”
In our fantasy, we imagined effortlessly gliding past icebergs in our kayaks. Maybe high-fiving a penguin along the way. Gentle. Scenic. Very tranquilo. In reality, Patagonia is a fickle bitch and decided to throw in a curve ball for the day. One that was 70 kilometers/ hour. After our safety briefing and training, we were quickly informed that our first challenge would be to furiously paddle across the raging river or risk being sucked under the glacier. Ok, it wasn’t that dramatic but that’s where my mind went. It didn’t help that it was the type of kayak where you plop down into your manhole, then cover your manhole with a skirt. A skirt. It also didn’t help that the water was cold. Titanic cold. Needless to say, I made the decision not to die. The glacier nodded in admiration and let me pass.
So besides my fear instilling personification, it was a lovely 20 kilometers of easy— albeit swift— kayaking. With full views of the Torres and great company. Weirdly, my favorite part was having to paddle through a section of rapids, which left me cackling with delight. See how easily I embrace death after the fact? No icebergs (too windy, too warm). No penguins (whatever, I saw them last week). But plenty of beer at the end.
Torres del Paine via a day hike
Even though we chose to forgo the W, we weren’t going to miss the most iconic part of Torres del Paine: the three towers the park is named after. In passing, several tourists spoke of an intense day hike that took you to base camp and back in 8 hours. Add in bus transport to/from the park and you got yourself quite the stinker. Luckily, we stumbled across this article about day hikes in Torres del Paine and confirmed what we had heard. Sweet. Let’s attempt. Bus tickets purchased for 7:30 a.m. the following morning.
“When you finally see the towers, it’s hard not to mutter random expletives on repeat…”
One of the advantages to having done that drive tour two days ago was that we avoided the mess upon arrival. Everyone on our bus, in addition to all the other knuckleheads on the others, queued up to get their 3-day pass. We blew past them and immediately jumped on the hotel shuttle bus (the hotel is where the hike starts), saving at least 30 minutes. Suckaaaaaaaas.
We were told 8 hours of uphill hiking, both ways. We didn’t rush, nor did we stop. It took us 6. Plus a 30-minute lunch break at base camp. Call me crazy but the actual hike was relatively easy. Sure, the last scramble to base camp was irritating. If only because the towers were beckoning and the wind picked up. And of course, the trek down was excruciatingly painful on my old woman knees. F*&$ being 33. But overall, a manageable hike indeed.
And those towers. When you finally surmount the pile of rocks leading up to the finale and see the towers, it’s hard not to mutter random expletives on repeat. We stuck around long enough to realize that the rocks don’t move (what no light show?!). And that tourists seem to take the same damn picture over and over again (facing the rocks, arms outstretched, like you actually did the W trek or something). As beaten down as most of the other hikers looked, I’m glad we chose the alternative path. It’s not like anyone needs to know otherwise…
Tip: The hotel shuttle, as well as the highway buses to Puerto Natales, only make their return twice per day: once around 4:00 p.m. and the other around 7:00 p.m. The dramatic lady who sold us the tickets in town didn’t divulge this information, so despite finishing our hike ahead of schedule, we unknowingly missed the first window by about 5 minutes and were shit out of luck. Well, temporarily…I hailed a stranger graciously gave us a lift (hitchhiking here is a wonderful option). If you choose to do a day hike, either a). take the earliest bus out and hustle for that 4:00 option or b). Sleep in a bit and opt for the later version.