I have been delaying writing this post because I honestly do not know where to begin. How can I pick which details to tell you or attempt to summarize 5 days of hiking through the most pristine and breathtaking place I have ever been?
I was very excited to begin the trip because it was the one place I was determined to visit when I decided to study abroad in Santiago. With my 5 friends, we took a sunrise flight to Punta Arenas, the southern-most city in Chile, and then a bus 2 hours north to Puerta Natales, the town closest to Torres del Paine, the National Park in Patagonia. Foreshadowing more happenings to come, Sara’s wallet was stolen from the seat next to her when we all fell asleep on the bus. We spent the afternoon and evening going to an orientation (we got a little frightened by warnings of extreme wind and weather and sub-zero nighttime temperatures), renting equipment, and organizing our packs. Our hostel was really adorable. It was owned by a man from Oregon and managed by his friend, Julie, who we loved.
The next morning, after a anxious night’s sleep, we received a great breakfast before getting on the bus to Torres del Paine. During the ride, I saw flamingos and guanacos, a South American animal similar to llamas. At the park entrance, we watched a video about the rules of the park and paid the (Chilean!) entrance fee. We walked out of the building to find that our bus was not there! After finding out from a park employ that “no, this never happens,” we ended up getting on another bus, but were really worried that we would not get our packs from the our bus. When we arrived at the Catamaran, our bus was there. Of course, the driver just shrugged and none of the other passengers had said anything even though they knew we weren’t there! We took the Catamaran across the lake and met some Israelis that we continued to see for the next 5 days. The moment we were on land near the Refugio and trail head, everyone split! We realized that even though we had a plan, everyone else was one step ahead. After some organization, we started the day’s 4 hour hike to Refugio Grey.
Our packs were heavy, but the hike was so spectacular we forgot after a while. We stopped at the first river to experience our first drink from nature. (The water is so pure that it is possible to drink without boiling or iodine). We saw glaciers including the largest, called Glacier Grey, and the landscape was beautiful. We climbed and descended hills, mountains, cliffs, and rivers. The first part of the hike was charred from last year’s fire (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/30/patagonia-forest-fires-close-park_n_1176327.html) but gradually we saw more green. The was also the windiest part of the 5 day hike. At times I had to use my poles for balance because the wind was blowing me over. When we arrived at camp (a paid campsite with a cooking area and bathrooms), everyone was already cooking or relaxing. We struggled in the wind to put up our 4 person tent and then went to cook dinner. After one of the cookers caught fire, we were told to move our tent because it was in the direct path of the wind and would “go to sh*t” in the night. After pasta, we crawled into our sleeping bags. The first day had been quite the adventure and a learning experience and we knew the next days we would only become better!
The second day we re-traced our steps (we were at the top left of the W) and continued on 2 more hours. The landscape was again burnt, but the last hour of the hike was stunning. We were hiking with a view of the lake and the campsite (a free one without any provisions) was right next to a huge running river in the mountains. We set up much faster and Miranda made a great dinner of couscous, almonds, raisins, and cinnamon. After chatting with our Israeli friends at dinner, we cleaned up and went to our tents. I fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing past the campsite.
view from campsite
I woke up the next morning to the sound of rain hitting our tent. We packed up everything even though the next part of the hike was without packs. Then, we realized that wasn’t smart because we needed to put our packs somewhere dry. We re-pitched a tent and then headed on our way up to a summit. This hike was a favorite of many. Taking a 360-degree look, it felt as though we were in multiple different biomes. There were mountains, waterfalls, forests, and a lake in the distance. It was unbelievable. We enjoyed the path and the rain. Unfortunately, a little twinge in my knee from the previous days turned into a stabbing pain when climbing or descending. However, I sucked it up and we all had a great time. We met some Chileans from Santiago and Valpo on our way down and the took to calling us “gringas locas” for the next few days. We grabbed our stuff from camp and headed on to the next campsite. The trail was again above and along the lake. The best moment of the day, and after group reflection— of the trip, was when the path brought us onto the beach next to the lake. We took off our packs and laid down right next to the water, soaking up the sun. The rocks felt like a massage. After a long break, we arrived at the Refugio in awe. The site was a the bottom of the mountains and there was a waterfall visible. It was also right next to the river. Also, there were platforms to put our tents! They felt like a plush mattress after 2 nights of sleeping on the ground. We had green tea and noodle soup for dinner and then curled up in our tents.
view from campsite
After our daily dose of oatmeal, we continued on our 4th day of hiking. The trail felt like the countryside. We crossed many running rivers and muddy areas. Sara decided that walking straight through was the best option at one of the them, but it definitely was not. It was like quicksand and she got mud up to her knees. We saw wild horses and passed many travelers. It began to rain when we were about 2.5 hours from camp. By the time we were at camp, we were wet and cold. The temperature had dropped and we rushed to set up so we could cook. The site guard asked us if it was our first time setting up our tent. We told him it was our 4th. He then asked if we need help and Tess responded sternly in Spanish, “We don’t need help!” We ate pasta and the smores we had been saving and were snuggled in our sleeping bags by 7:30 PM. We finally went to bed at 9 with our alarms set for 4:30 AM.
Waking up at 4:30 AM to complete darkness, freezing cold, and the sound of pouring rain was not encouraging. We debated for about 10 minutes and then decided we didn’t want to miss the sunrise over the towers (the 2 mountains the park is named for). We hiked 45 minutes up and arrived at the end of the W trail. Unfortunately, the day was very cloudy and we couldn’t see the sunrise. However, it was vale la pena (worth it) because it started snowing!! The way down was awesome. The path went back down the mountain and through the forest and the snow made it feel like a winter wonderland. My knee was bothering me so I took my time and it was great to have some time to think alone. We gathered our things at camp and decided to keep moving to stay warm. Luckily, the weather improved and we hiked to where we had planned to take the shuttle to the park entrance. However, we arrived there 3 hours early and just decided to hike the 7.5 extra kilometers to the entrance. We were exhausted, but exhilarated. It was an unbelievable moment to know we had hiked the entire trail, 51.3 miles in 5 days.
We slept the entire way back to Puerta Natales and after struggling to find our hostel, I took my first shower in 5 days. The water pressure was horrible and the water was scalding hot, but it felt like the best shower ever. We celebrated the end of our adventure with avocado, pizza, and wine. It was so fun and perfect. We had a room to ourselves so we climbed into Michele’s bed to look at pictures. Then we reflected and went to sleep. The next day, after narrowly catching a bus to Punta Arenas and being entertained by the deaf bus attendant, who luckily Tess could communicate with, we arrived in Santiago (with our Chilean trail friends).
It was an incredible trip—I learned so much about myself and my friends, the best way to deal with difficult situations, etc. After my knee bothered me, I took a moment to be thankful for health and wellness because as a young person, I don’t appreciate my body and health until it is not perfect. It was truly a growing experience as we all realized how strong our bodies as well as appreciating the great company and the experience. It was also a blast! We laughed often and loved that other hikers thought we looked young enough to be in high school and called us “las gringas locas.” We met people from all over the world and formed a resemblance of community with fellow hikers because most people follow the same path and we saw the same people day after day. I LOVE being outside and being active and it was the most breathtaking, spectacular place one could ever hope to hike.