Hiking the O circuit in Torres del Paine

I arrived in Punta Arenas as tired as you would expect after 18.5 hours of flying and made my way to the lovely ilaia hotel.

The next morning I started my journey to Torres del Paine. The road adjoins the Magellan straits at the beginning and the wind literally howls off the water. The landscape is endless plaines, windy and stunted trees, with the rare house made of corrugated iron and blasted wood. Further north the landscape softened with beautiful roadside lupins, mountain views and flocks of guanaco. It was desolate but quite beautiful. The voyage was made entertaining by my companion Lorenzo – a 78 year old Italian who has been everywhere, and was hilariously charming with his pickup lines.

After three buses and 7 hours, I arrived at the welcome centre for the Torres park. I wanted to leave immediately. There were way too many people!!!. I had a quick Diet Coke and found the trail head and set off as fast as I could.

Blissfully I saw no one for the 13k to Camp Seron which took a little over 2 hours. But, the landscape was uninspiring, like a farm in NZ. The only thing interesting I saw was a herd of horses, and much of the trail followed a fence line. Part of me was worried that I had made a huge mistake and I was going to have a crap few days hiking. Oh well. Things got mildly better at the end when the trail opened up in a river valley.

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Sector Seron – view down to Rio Paine
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Next to Camp Seron

The campsite was much flasher than I expected. There were flushing loos, showers, and there was food available (at appropriately high price points). Posh people had dinner inside with three courses. Dodgy campers had dinner in a drafty tent (park rules limit the locations where people can cook. While this is annoying, I understand it, as the park has twice had massive sections burn down as a result of hikers cooking fires). In case you wondered, I was with the dodgys eating instant mash potato.

 

I went to bed early and was serenaded by the howling wind wearing all my clothes

Day 1 Camp Seron to Camp Perros (33k 6 hours)

I was up early with the wind noise. It was freezing so I illegally made breakfast in bed (cooking up coffee from my sleeping bag). I didn’t head out particularly early for me but was the first out at seven.  I didn’t pass anyone en route to the guard post at cordiron, and I was the first to check in with the guards (a mandatory procedure on the O circuit). The route was relatively flat and meandered along the Rio Paine. Nice but nothing spectacular.  But at least I had the trail to myself.

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Coiron – with really strong winds next to Lake Paine
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Coiron
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Lake Dickson – the camp is on the spit

I was delighted to head over the ridge to see the lovely camp Dickson (after 19k) at 10.30, but surprised to to find people still hanging out finishing breakfast – honestly how long does it take to get up in the morning!   I was starving so had some pasta and coffee and then headed out again through a lovely bush trail. I put some good music on and amused myself by counting how many hikers I overtook (31). The highlight of the day was the glacier at Perros about a km before Camp Perros. The glacier feeds a pale green lake which is stunning. As you crest the ridge to see the lake the wind was so strong it blew me several metres backward.

 

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Rio Perros
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Glacier Perros
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Glacier Perros

I arrived at the campsite far too early at 2pm, and passed the afternoon drinking tea in the cooking room and listening to all the young kids talking about their big OEs (gap years). I am feeling so old. I also found two ‘kiwi’ guys (actually a Brit who lives in Nz and an American who used to), to entertain me. I strolled back to check out the glacier as the sun had come out, still stunning. More tea, some pasta and chocolate and then in bed by 8.30 listening to the wind howl

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Home for the night

Day 2 – Camp Perros to Refugio Paine grande (34k 7 hours)

I had wanted to sleep in as it was raining, but lots of people were up early talking so I gave up and made myself a coffee at 5.45 and hit the trail out of perros at 6.30. I passed two surprised people at 7 and then had the trail to myself for the three hours to Camp Paso.  It was a freezing windy misty rainy morning heading up the pass, in and out of the trees (which were blissfully warm) and then back into the howling wind on the rocky scree slopes. I had my hardcore mountain gloves on but was going full kiwi in my shorts. I have a cold so it was a bit of a slog going up the hill, trying not to sweat too much as that sweat would make me cold when I hit the top and the wind. The hills was dotted with orange trail markers which are very reminiscent of Nz.

I took some photos near the top, and put on an extra layer and my hands froze. As I went over the pass I had no feeling in my fingers and it took me ten minutes of heading down hill to make my hands work to get the camera out. Which was a shame, as the view was astounding. As you come over the pass it looks like there is a huge white lake below you, except it’s a glacier. I have never approached a glacier from above before and it was amazing.

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Grey Glacier from the pass
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Grey Glacier

I bombed the steep slope down the hill, willing my fingers back to life and hoping I didn’t fall as I wouldnt be able to use my hands! I was happy to arrive at camp paso at 9.30 to make a coffee. The ranger wasn’t impressed that I woke him up, but it is mandatory to register when you pass and he hadn’t left the book out. I was amused to find at least half a dozen occupants in camp still packing up

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Grey Glacier
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Grey Glacier
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Grey Glacier

 

From Camp Paso it was an easy two hour stroll down to Refugio Grey with the trail popping in and out of the trees to stunning views of the glacier. There were three awesome suspension bridges, and some excellent rocky rooty sections which reminded me of home

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Grey Glacier falling into Grey Lake
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Grey Glacier falling into Grey Lake

I got to Camp Grey at 11.45 so decided to have a lazy lunch, and the ‘kiwi’ guys from the night before rolled up (it turned out two of them had left perros an hour before I had, and had made it to Paso ten minutes before me but were too nice to wake up the ranger). We had a long gossip with three cups of tea and some tuna and then I decided to roll on. Grey was a bit of a zoo with music and a shop and too many day hikers

From Grey to Paine grande was not my favourite. This is where the ‘O’ circuit (which is one way and requires you to actually carry stuff) intersects with the W circuit and the day hikers, most of whom haven’t learnt basic trail etiquette of saying hello and letting faster hikers go by. But I had quite a lot of fun in my shorts and T-shirt (everyone else was heavily rugged up) body surfing the howling winds along the ridge line.

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Grey to Paine Grande through the fire damaged (cause by someone smoking apparently)

I got to Paine grande just after three and was shocked by how many people there were. I contemplated briefly ordering a pizza in the restaurant but decided instead to retreat to the campers kitchen where I belong. Am sitting here surrounded by various nationalities cooking up a range of freeze dried delicacies (I had mug shot pasta), and drinking more tea with some alfajores I treated myself to at the mini market

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Paine Grande camping – my worst nightmare

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I tried to go to sleep early but the tourist neighbours weren’t great at their camping etiquette and kept talking until 10.30, well after hiker bedtime

Day 3 Paine Grande to Chileno via Mirador Britanico (38k, 8 hours)

I woke up without the alarm at 5.30am and decided to get moving. I was planning to do the up and back hike from camp Italiano to mirador britanico and by all accounts it can be heaving. I was in luck as I had a solo stroll from Refuge Paine to the Italian camp. There was a crowd there about to start so I got going before them. I did get overtaken the first time on the trip, a guy who was running the 60k w circuit in a day. I used the motivation of being overtaken to speed up and I tailgated him to the top. The mirador (lookout) was amazing. Stunning views of the glaciers frances on one side and the Torres de Paine (from the back side) ok the other. It was a magical morning!!!

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Cerro Paine Grande
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Back of Las Torres from the Valle del Frances
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View from Mirador Britannic
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View up Valle del Frances

Coming back down I started to hit the legions of hikers, so was glad i had made it up early.  I was starving and hadn’t had coffee so stopped to cook up an odd breakfast of couscous and coffee and then headed out along the side of Lake Nordenskjold to Los Cuernos refuge. I stopped for a quick dip in the lake (bloody freezing) and then stopped into the refuge for a Diet Coke and some biscuits and a chat with an international bunch of hikers I had met the day before

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Lake Nordenskjold

From there it was a meandering 16k to the campsite at chileno. It was hot so at each stream I came to, i took my shirt off, dunked it in the water, squeezed it over my head and put it back on again. Bliss – it’s hikers aircon

I arrived at chileno at 3.30pm and was planning to head up to the towers but was told I couldn’t as the closed the path further up at 4pm. Oh well, I was always going to go in the morning anyway, but it would have been nice to see the evening light.

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Home at Chileno camping

To make up for it I had my first shower in four days (the other places had cold showers and there was no way I was doing that). I was probably overdue as I noticed that the people walking past me smelled of soap today, which is normally a signal that I don’t smell great. I am really putting icebreaker to the test on the ‘no stink’ promise on their clothes.

As Chileno doesn’t allow campers to use cooking stoves, I ordered a big arse pizza, it was so big I could only eat half (the rest I had later for second dinner and breakfast). Then I had several litres of fluid (Diet Coke, tea, hot chocolate and rehydration fluids) and couldn’t resist paying $10 for the WiFi. Of the 247 emails I had, only about three were urgent. Off to lie in the tent and hope for quiet neighbours.

Final morning walking out

All I had to do today was wander up to the famous towers and then stroll out of the park to get the bus. Most people go up very early in the morning to get there before sunrise, but I had heard stories of people getting really cold in the dark so decided to sleep in and head up later. It was a good decision. I left at 5.30 and didn’t see a single person for the first 40 minutes of the hike up, and then the last 20 mins there were lots of freezing people coming down. The walk took me just over an hour but would have taken longer in the middle of the night in the dark with a head torch and lots of people in the way. The view was lovely but I met some Belgians who had headed up at 1.45 am, it took them two hours to get there and then they sat freezing for over an hour until the sun came up. The view wasn’t that lovely that I would have been happy to freeze my butt off.

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Torres
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Torres

I stayed for 15 minutes and then strolled back to chileno refuge for coffee and cold pizza for breakfast. It was only 3km to get out of the park so I wasn’t in any rush to get out as the bus wasn’t until 14.30.  It was amusing watching the day hikers struggling up the hill even at the very beginning of the trail. Some of them were even taking a break in the first km. Good on them for giving it a go, but I did wonder if all of them would make it

I found a posh hotel at the base of the hill and rolled in for a coffee and some strawberry tart and caught up on my email. I got chatting to a fascinating Aussie guy who had been tracking puma in the park (you can follow him at chris canguro on insta), he had the most amazing pictures and it was good to know the pumas are being looked after.

After that, more cake and Diet Coke and the bus to Puerto Natales.

Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas

I had a free afternoon wandering around Puerto Natales and most of a day wandering around Punta Arenas waiting to get back to Santiago.  While neither is a worthy destination in their own right, they were both friendly towns, with a good vibe,  decent coffee, lovely street art and interesting buildings.

Next stop meeting the hubby in Valparaiso and then off to the Atacama

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Street Mural – Puerto Natales
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Street Mural – Puerto Natales
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Street Mural – Punta Arenas
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Street Mural – Punta Arenas
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Street Mural – Punta Arenas

Additional notes

  • To get to Patagonia, Fly to Santiago then take a Three hour flight to punta arenas. From there take a three hour bus to Puerto Natales (Fernandez) then another two hour bus to Laguna amarga, and then you can hike the dusty 7km to the park entry (on the road) or get the shuttle which takes 5 minutes
  • Don’t bother with a water filter, it was fine to drink everywhere
  • If money is no problem you can underpack food as there is chocolate and biscuits at every refuge, but there are no good dehydrated meals so bring those
  • If I did it again I would probably pay more for a private transfer to the park from the airport at Punta Arenas, as all the bus trips take a lot of time. I would also do more each day, as three days is more than enough.
  • I stayed at hotel ilaia in Punta Arenas and vendaval in Puerto Natales- both were good

 

December 21, 2018, Punta Arenas

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