Hiking to Torres del Paine

22 February 2012

Hola, mis amigos! I am writing to you from lush Puerto Varas, Chile, on the shores of Lake Llanquihue. Over the past five years, I’ve visited many places in the world, but none resemble my home so much as this place. At times, I could swear I’m in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. But I’m not. I’m half a world away.

So far, our group has ventured from Buenos Argentina to Cape Horn, “the end of the earth”, as it’s billed down here. It’s the southernmost continental point in the world (before you reach Antarctica). We’ve visited penguins and puppies, eaten empanadas and beef. Lots of beef. I’ll cover all of these things in due course, but for now I want to share my favorite part of the trip so far: hiking to Torres del Paine.

Tip: Torres del Paine is pronounced something like “toe-rays dale pie-nay”. Please don’t say “towers of pain”.

Our group spent last weekend at a hotel in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, near the southern tip of the country. Sunday and Monday, we were scheduled to do bus tours of the surrounding countryside. Bus tours have their place, but I was itching for some exercise. Besides, it seemed a shame for a fellow who loves hiking so much to be at the base of a spectacular trail and not make use of it. So, I skipped Sunday’s bus tour in order to explore on my own.

I’d left my proper hiking gear at home, but no matter. I laced up my sneakers and set out.

Start of trail to Torres del Paine
The start of the trail at Hotel Las Torres

At first, I was a little worried. The start of the trail is moderately steep. I knew I was in for a 9km hike (about 5-1/2 miles) each way. Without proper shoes, how would I fare? And without any sort of physical activity over the past couple of weeks, would my body hold out? The warning signs didn’t bolster my confidence.

Warning on the path to Torres del Paine
Warning sign on the trail to Torres del Paine

Fortunately, that sign came 90% of the way through the first of two steep climbs. By then, I knew I could make it. This helpful signpost came soon after:

Sign on the path to Torres del Paine
These signposts along the trail were actually very helpful.

After 2.4 km (a mile and a half), the terrain leveled and soon I reached the “Chilean campsite”, a refugio for trekkers. Here folks can pitch their tents for the night or grab a snack or a meal as they walk through the park.

Torres del Paine National Park is huge, spanning more than half a million acres. There are several major treks through the nearby mountains, as well as hikes to and from the many lakes in the park. For my one day of hiking, I elected to take one of the most popular paths, the one leading directly to the towers.

After passing the refugio, I entered el bosque, a lightly forested area full of gentle creeks spanned by wooden bridges.

Bridge on the path to Torres del Paine
A bridge at the start of the forested section of the trail

After several relatively flat kilometers through the forest, the path to Torres del Paine once again began to climb, following a rocky creekside. In fact, the path became quite steep in parts. And eventually, it cleared the canopy of the trees for a final push to the towers over scattered rocks and boulders.

Forest canopy near Torres del Paine
Coming out of the forest with a view of las torres

Three hours and three minutes from starting my hike, I crested the final ridge to see a sight more stunning than I had anticipated: Las Torres del Paine towering over a glacial lake. I recruited two German hikers to snap my photo.

Standing before Torres del Paine
A fine morning’s work

But, of course, the towers look even better without my ugly mug blocking the view.

Torres del Paine
Las Torres del Paine

I sat on the boulders, soaking in the sun, admiring the beauty before me. I ate an apple and some peanuts. I drank agua con gas. I watched my fellow hikers laughing and chatting. But I felt most akin to the others who sat silently, reverentially taking in the view.

After 45 minutes of personal meditation, I picked up my stuff and started home. The downhill trek was much quicker — it took only two hours and seventeen minutes — but in many ways it was more difficult. Because I hadn’t planned to do any hiking, I didn’t bring trekking poles. And my old knees need trekking poles. I was sore for days after. But you know what? The pain was worth it.

End of trail to Torres del Paine
End of the trail…

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