Saturday, February 11, 2012

Torres del Paine - the towers of ..pain?

As long I was in Southern Chile, there was another must-see destination: Torres del Paine. One of the trekking capitals of the south, Puerto Natales, is the closest town (or a village really) to the mountain and the national park. It’s a windy little place with some quaint cafes and restaurants and tons of tour agencies and trekking outfitters. At the local hostel Erratic Rock they hold an information briefing for trekkers every day. I went in to have a peak of what they tell there and the place was full of gore text clad 20 and 30 something trekking enthusiast. This is really the area where you should head if you like to hike and camp in the mountains. If you hope it’ll be cheap – it won’t be. Just to get in to the park grounds you have to pay 15000 Chilean pesos (23€). You can either stay at the refugios along the trails or camp - not cheap either. But I’m sure the experience and the sceneries will be worth it.

But I wasn’t going to sign up for the 3, 4 or even 9 day hikes you can do around the mountains. No, I didn’t have the equipment for it or the time or the money – or the trekking enthusiasm. The next morning after I arrived there I went on a tour to the National Park around the mountains and I was happy I wasn’t going to camp or hike on the mountains. The weather was very unpredictable, one minute rain and sunshine the other, the winds were “knock you off your feet” –strong and the views sometime obscured by the clouds. I was quite happy with my cheap & easy option, the full day tour, safe & sound close to a shelter (a minivan) all the time.

First on the tour was a visit to the Milodon cave, a huge cave which was thousands of years ago the home to these huge mammals. It’s not a very interesting site but I was surprised to hear later they use the cave also to host some cultural events of the village – that sounds fun! After that we entered the park and headed to the lakes, first Lago Toro and then Lago Grey, where the Glaciar Grey icebergs float to shore.

Lago Toro - yes, the colours are crazy!
Entering the park

Did I mention something about the winds? We weren't even anywhere high up at this point.
Lago Grey area is best to visit in September when the ice masses accumulated during the winter are pushed afloat by the strong spring winds. The winter is also a good time to visit the park, there’s lots of snow on the mountains and you can see more animals, even pumas if you’re lucky. One winter though (1997) a puma killed a man in the park, a young inexperienced animal that had problems surviving through the winter attacked a fisherman. But that was the last known incident – usually the animals steer away from people.

Lago Grey - wonder where the name comes from....?
After that we continued to Lago Pehue and Salto Grande, which is a 40m waterfall – quite a powerful one. The winds on the top of the fall where so strong that I had hard time walking upright.. or walking at all. Close to the waterfalls there were also a group of guanacos, I got quite close to some of them :)

There was a massive fire in the park that started in December and a large area was completely destroyed – the locals were really devastated by the loss. You could see the damage in many places, with burned down trees and black ground. The park was just opened a day or two before I arrived there and they were still mapping the destruction. A lot of the vegetation and flowers in the areas may be complete lost since the soil is so poor that it will take a long time to recover. They still didn’t know how it affected all the wildlife and the animal. Before the fire there was 50.000 guanacos.

One of the last sites we visited was Lago Nordeskjöld, named after the Uppsala university director that was in the first explorations group to arrive to the area. We also passed through Lago Sarmiento where many of the famous puma documentaries are filmed. I’m still amazed at how blue the water was there. Even in a stormy and cloudy day the colors were piercing! I keep being surprised by the beauty of the colors in the landscapes in Patagonia – all the hues of gray, green, blue, purple, yellow, brown, red… Even the lakes are not the same, they’re black like oil or they’re gray, blue and turquoise.. and serving as a backdrop you’ll see grassy hills or black mountains with white snowy tops. And the wildlife is everywhere, we even saw some flamingoes! You’ll also encounter lots of farms with cows and sheeps mostly, some horses too as well as the more exotic ostriches. Along the road you might also run into some gauchos! Even when there’s nothing remarkable there, the nature is beautiful.

There are endless opportunities for an outdoor enthusiast in the southern part of South America. And tens or even hundreds of tour companies helping you to part ways with your hard earned cash, and also to experience it all. Information is available in town and at hostels, they can usually arrange the tour bookings, buses to the national parks etc.

Bring water- & windproof clothing, waterproof hiking boots and plenty of layers that can be easily put on or taken off as well as a comfortable backpack. But I have to mention I didn't have any of those, just lots of healthy adventure spirit (and common sense not to take on more than I could handle). Most equipement (up to the clothes) can be rented but if you have something you will be better off bringing your own. The tent I wouldn’t carry around from Europe, those are available even at some of the camping sites along the hikes. All kinds of hiking food (dried fruits, canned meals) can be bought from the town but note that if you’re taking a bus from Ushuaia to Puerto Natales don't shop already in Ushuaia, you can’t bring any food across the Argentina – Chile border: they will scan your bags and if they find fruits, meats etc you can receive a fine too. Our group passed the border with their foods (hidden) but you might not be that lucky. So leave time to go shopping for rations before heading off to the hills.

Bring lots of energy, “I can deal with any storm” attitude and rested feet – and don’t forget to charge up your camera battery!

Oh and if you'd like to enjoy some amanzing travel photos visit my new friend Steve's blog where you'll find pictures from this very location as well! Steve's a really nice fellow with lots of great travel stories and shots that make you hate him from his innumerable years on the road - I was happy to have met him and hopefully our paths will meet again!

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