It is a beautiful clear day. There is an air of tranquility and crispness. The sun is warm, casting small patches of dancing light on the undergrowth. Mystical chatter comes from the trees. A pair of ears flick back and forth behind the shrubs as massive towers of granite loom overhead. Glaciers cling on gnarly rocks whilst icebergs float in glassy blue lakes. It is a magical world where you would expect to see goblins and gnomes peering over rocky mounds and fireflies darting about the woods. It is magical indeed, for this is Patagonia and the Torres del Paine.
It is perhaps one of the most photographed landscapes in Patagonia, if not the top spot in South America and is a delight for any lens. It derives its name from the massive towering granite horns that stand like sentinels over many of the blue lakes, the most popular being Lake Pehoe. It is translated to be the ‘Towers of Blue’, though many hikers have aptly named them, the “Towers of Pain.” The blue tips and base of these peaks stand in stark contrast to the grey/white band in the middle.
There are plenty of hiking trails here. Torres del Paine offers backpackers a smorgasbord of paths to choose from. With about 50 options on the menu, the choice can be overwhelming. At the end of the day it all comes down to a few simple questions; how long do you have, how difficult a trail do you want and do you want to camp or have the luxury of a soft warm bed at night? Some of the shorter trails on offer are around 2.4km taking you to look out points, easily accessed from your vehicle en route to your next stop in the park. Others are solid day hikes of around 17km. For those wanting the longer options the two best are undoubtedly the W Trek and the O circuit.
What seems like the start of a spelling bee is actually the letters that aptly describe the trails. The W trail is shaped exactly like a large W and runs up three beautiful valleys covering a distance of around 80km, and the O circuit is a large circular track which incorporates the W, stretching to around 120km.
For those wanting the shorter option of the two, the W trail is a four to five day hike between mountain Refugios (Cabins) or campsites on the southern flanks of the mountain range. It is normally walked east to west, starting at Refugio Las Torres and ending at Refugio Paine Grande. The first of the valleys is the Ascencio Valley which takes you all the way to the base of these massive granite towers. And don’t be fooled by the word ‘valley,’ for it is an 800m demanding climb to get to stand in their vast shadow. The reward of Ascencio Valley is the view of the tall cathedral like spires of the blue/paine ‘horns.’
The second valley, the French Valley forms the central arm of the W and takes you through dense beech forests in a deep valley to the hanging tendrils of Glacier Francés which rumble, creak and groan beneath the Patagonian sky. The final leg, tracks along side Lago Grey. The lake embraces the end of the 270km2 Grey Glacier which is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. This massive lake is the final resting place of the large icebergs that calve off the front of the glacier as they slowly roll, break up and melt away. Beneath the bright sunlight they radiate intense shades of blue reflecting years of compression of snow and ice.
The more rugged and less populated route is the longer O circuit. It’s undoubtedly a tougher trail marked by steeper paths and a lack of Refugios on the northern side, but worth every extra day given the magnificent views. One of the most breathtaking is the rugged John Gardner Pass which brings you out above grey glacier at an altitude of around 1,200 metres above sea level. In this serenely beautiful national park flanked by tall towers and the odd screams of the Guanaco, it is easy forget that you are shoulder-to-shoulder with the largest expanse of ice in the Southern Hemisphere outside Antarctica. It stretches over 350 km and its current size is estimated at 12,200 km2.
So what about the weather? Well if all the talk of ice, glaciers and lakes has not yet conjured up the idea of a winter chill, this is the time to unpack the warm winter woollies. The weather, like the contrast between the grey and blue of the towers, is juxtaposed. Mornings can start off crisp with clear skies and warm sunshine and within half an hour have winds gusting up to 18km an hour with sleeting rain and dark skies. It is not surprising that many trees grow bent like old withered spines.
Terms like “four season’ ‘Roaring Forties’ and ‘wind-chill’ are synonymous with the park, but so are Puma, Guanaco, Red Foxes, wild horses, Huemul, Condors and every kind of plant imaginable.
Torres del Paine offers a banquet of delights for the soul. It captivates the senses, charms the camera and invigorates the mind.
by Debra Bouwer