The bliss of hiking Torres Del Paine, Chile:
It’s dark when the shuttle bus arrives in Puerto Natales, a ramshackle lakeside town in
Chile, to collect the trekkers.
Everybody shuffles onboard in the morning mist, dressed pristine in their Mountain
Design wind proofs and heavy-set boots, some just bought from town, which
seemingly survives off the last-minute trek buyers.
By the time the bus arrives at the National Park, Torres Del Paine, the sun will have
risen and the sights people have travelled across the world for, will overwhelm.
You can see the mountains sprawl across the landscape, snow-capped and forming
Straight away you see them, those three 8000 to 10,000 foot granite monoliths that
coil and twist like frozen waves of rock above glacial lakes spiked with icebergs.
People sign the forms, promising to leave the land untouched, and split off into
guided or unguided tours of one of the most spectacular National Parks in the world.
You have the choice: the ‘W’ Circuit, taking roughly five days, or the full circuit of
the park taking nine days and usually reserved for experienced hikers.
Pay the entrance and then here, at the end of the world, you are free.
Everything you were before now disappears.
For the next week, way down in the Southern Chilean part of Patagonia, mountains,
glaciers, lakes, sub-polar forests, and rivers encompass you.
The Cordillera Del Paine is just the centerpiece.
For a week you will be waking up at sunrise to beat the crowds, filling your backpack
with minimal food and clothing for all variety of weather, and set off for six, eight,
ten hours to experience natural wonders of the world.
Forget the camel sack of water, there are enough natural streams on these trails to
provide the coolest, purest water you could ever taste.
At the start of each track, you can take any of the walking sticks, well-chosen
branches, gently stacked in a pile from those preceding.
And arriving back at camp, bliss will be hurling off heavy boots and an afternoon nap
in the grass, and if you’re travelling with guides, savouring a hot pasta meal with
multiple local beers and a game of Argentinian cards.
Sticks, swords, gold, and copas.
The sun in Patagonia doesn’t set until 10pm in the summer so you can take your time
experiencing it all.
Every hike will be different and every day will be too.
Patagonia gets a feisty reputation for its sporadic climates and intense assortment of
It’s why there’s only one-person per-square kilometre living in the region of
The ‘W’ Circuit
Hector, a native guide from a small Chilean town, says it’s not easy to live here.
The parks close in the winter and the entire park is buried in snow and storms.
“Imposible,” he says.
The sun doesn’t appear long in the winters and sometimes only for few hours.
But Carla Laguardia, 25, and another guide from Ushuaia is used to this.
She’s a tour guide for Intrepid and does the Torres Del Paine – El Chalten – Ushuaia
circuit every two weeks and says she is the ‘luckiest person in the world.’
She meditates when we stop for rest and talks like a Latin Buddha.
When she gets holidays she treks to the mountains of Bolivia and soon she’ll be
saving for Kathmandu.
Carla and Hector are taking a group of three Americans, who flew down for a week,
that’s all the time they could get off work.
There are two Swiss, who have been travelling the globe for a year, both engineers
and one a ‘serial-surfer-dude.’
And there’s another Australian woman, in her forties and in need of a change.
Everybody you see on the trail is different and has come here for different reasons. 4
“I don’t like hiking,” Marcel, the Swiss surfer says, “but it looks beautiful and I want
to see it.”
Margaret Czervionke, 28, previously a junior accountant for Lehman Brothers in
Manhattan, took ten days off to fly down and do the trail.
She hasn’t got a minute to spare in her cutthroat Wall Street environment, but she
needed some fresh air and a chance to forget it all.
Young broke backpackers carry their lives on their backs, trudging through the full
circuit to sleep under pieces of material.
A group of grey nomads will overtake you, all dressed in the highest-grade
equipment, their knees in surprisingly good condition for the steep up and downhill
Carla talks about a well-known mountaineering couple that is up in the distant icy
mountains creating a new trail in Torres Del Paine, in an area not yet explored.
These days, hiking isn’t just limited to the professionals; it’s become a vacation.
Instead of resort holidays more people are doing trekking tours of the world, in Nepal,
United States, New Zealand, South America, and Europe.
Everyone can take part in variety with teahouse trekking, homestay trekking, full
camping, and on and off trail hikes.
Why do people do it? 5
“It’s a challenge,” everybody in the group agrees together.
That sense of fulfillment you get when you reach the peak of that seemingly
And, in many ways, it’s a chance to escape the mundane and witness true nature
Because the real beauty isn’t in the cities and people don’t want to forget that.
Southern Ice Field, Grey Glacier
Here in Torres Del Paine, some treks take half-days, gently sloping through bushy
spiky steppes to see cave paintings, and look for condors, the evasive pumas, and
relatives of the llama, guanacos, dotting the landscape.
Or perhaps it’s an afternoon hike along the white-blue glacier lakes like Lago
Nordenskjold, mirrored between the deep blue rivers and the mountains reflected in it.
On the other side of Lake Pehoé, crossed only by ferry, is the French Valley, the most
challenging of hikes for its steep climbs over powerful streams, and the Grey Glacier,
a brilliantly massive part of the Southern Ice Field.
It’s colder this side of the lake as the glacial regions approach nearer.
Everybody goes inside the main camp lodge for shared mate, an Argentinian tradition
A bitter kind of tea, served in a ritualistic fashion by filtered straw, the leaves give its
drinkers warmth and energy to trek through the rain to see the ice fields.
Finding the base of the Grey Glacier is an easy hike, passing through forest and
seemingly endless grassy fields along Río Grey.
This section the forest is burnt and gives the landscape a frightening feel.
It’s the result of a terrible bushfire caused in 2011 by an Israeli camper, who
disregarded campfire regulations.
Since then Patagonians have been unforgiving to any Israeli visiting the park, and
don’t shy away from saying so.
It’s the same reason why winds blow strong through the Refugio Grey campsite,
sometimes breaking and tearing apart almost every tent on site.
Carla says the wind was going at least 80 kilometres per hour last night, because there
was no surrounding forest to protect.
The rain has let up and Hector goes swimming a small lake, leading towards the base
of a glacier.
Everybody squeals and another trekker tries to be brave and join him but is out in a
Hector just laughs and casually floats in the water like it’s a warm bath.
Trekkers stop here for a nap, we’re ahead of time, and enjoy lunch, skip stones,
chasing each other and giggling like children. 7
The clouds pass and we can see the peak of the mountains, shielding the Torres, only
The hike to Valle Frances is five hours one-way from Cuernos or Lago Pehoé.
In clear weather this hike is the most beautiful stretch, between 3050m Paine Grande
to the west and the lower but still spectacular Torres Del Paine and Los Cuernos to
the east, with glaciers hugging the trail.
Hector runs back from the trails, at full speed, and rests while the other hikers spend
three, four hours coming back.
A group winding uphill towards Lake Nordenskjold
And while the National Park offers so much to the trekker, everybody here has come
for the main trek, the eight or ten hour climb to the main attraction or quirk of nature,
translated by native Patagonians as ‘Towers of Blue’ for their colour, or ‘Towers of
Pain’ by tourists.
Torres Del Paine is one of those wonders, when you reach it, over the physical and
mental pain, which leaves the viewer silent.
In bliss. 8
And bliss is what you feel when you scramble over that last impossible rock in the
painful ascent and reach the summit to a wonder so spectacular it cannot be
When you catch your breath in the fresh air and stop, dropping your backpack and
feeling the glacial breeze dry the sweat in your hair.
And you can finally see, up close, those three smooth skyscrapers of granite that are
usually half-penetrated by cloud but today are not.
Everyone goes silent for a minute.
The trekkers, who come from all over the world, and the guides, even though they
have done this a million times before.
This is truly a place to which every serious mountain lover must visit at least once in
Patagonia is an uncompromising environment, punishing those who don’t prepare,
and rewarding everyone with its mass of natural wonder.
The staggering vistas of monolithic rock spires and jagged snowy peaks, the vast
stretch of the Patagonia Ice Field, tranquil glacier-fed lakes and golden grasslands that
form the Patagonian Steppe, bright with wildflowers, make this one of the great treks
of the world.
Story by Lauren Rutter
Photos by Marcel Hug and Reto Suter