Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Doing the W and flying in the wind

After a 3 segment, 13 hour flight from Rio we arrived in Punta Arenas on Christmas morning. We landed at the airport at about 430am and the first thing we did before venturing out of the airport was bring the woollens out. For the uninitiated, Punta Arenas is the southern most city in Chile situated on the Strait of Magellan (yes the one we read about in geography classes way back in the hazy past) and the only other large habitable city to its South is Ushuaia in Argentinian Patagonia. Both Punta Arenas and Ushuaia are used as bases for tourist expeditions to Antarctica by sea (1-2 week cruises) or by air (2day/1night packages for approx US$2000/person).

I had heard a lot about the Patagonian wind especially the intensity during the summers but the first experience quite literally hits you. Our plan was to move to Puerto Natales, the gateway to the Torres del Paine National Park, which is about 3 hours by bus north of Punta Arenas. According to Lonely Planet buses stop at the airport on the way to Puerto Natales so there was no need to go to into the city of Punta Arenas. However at the airport we found no signs of the bus and after a few enquiries figured out that the next bus from the airport for Puerto Natales was at 830am. With approx 3.5 hours we and a bunch of other people shared cabs to the city and spread out looking for information about buses. There is no central bus terminal in Punta Arenas, buses leave from the offices of the bus companies spread around the city. While the city is not large, the central area is spread around an area of 10 blocks by 10 blocks which we figured was a pain to walk around with our rucksacks especially in the strong wind that was blowing around town.

While Pooja suggested getting into a hotel to wait out time till the next bus for escaping from the wind, I suggested stopping at the central square, which was surrounded by nice thick trees that I hoped would provide reasonable cover from the wind. As usual situations where I make a strong stand have a habit of blowing up right in my face and within 2 minutes of sitting in the central square we figured out that the trees were no help against the wind. Tail between my legs (till the next time I took a stand that is), we moved to the comfortable lobby of Hotel Cabo de Hornos and wolfed down a lovely buffet. Being early on Christmas morning the restaurant was empty and the staff was extremely helpful in guiding us about the timings of the bus to Puerto Natales.
The 8am bus run by Pullman by full and we took the next bus at 9am run by Bus Sur (CLP 4000/person, about US$8) which dropped us in Puerto Natales at noon. We stayed at Hostal Lili Patagonicos which was my favourite hostel along with Elefante Rosa in Buenos Aires. It had nice cosy rooms for CLP 18,000 (US$36/night) with wi-fi, TV having quite a few English channels and the yummiest comforters imaginable that just made you want to curl up in bed and not get out. Lili Patagonicos also had an attached travel agency from where you could book bus tickets to Torres Del Paine National Park and other day trips such as the boat ride to Serrano & Balmaceda glaciers, Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina etc. Ivan, one of the owners, was extremely helpful and guided us on some of the trails that we should do and how we should structure the days.
The Towers

We spent 26th Dec – 29th Dec hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park. The park gets its name from the Towers that are the most well known sight of the park. Other than the towers, the distinctly shaped peak called Los Cuernos and the panorama around it form another well known photographic landmark. The park has received a lot of publicity from travel aficionados over the past few years, due to its presence on the “things to do before you die” list for an increasingly large number of people it is extremely busy year round in spite of the inhospitable climate in Patagonia so do make your reservations well in advance especially in the summers.

People visiting have the option of doing the “W Circuit” or the “Full Circuit” (also known as the “O circuit”). Most people end up hiking the W circuit given the better infrastructure. If you are interested in hiking the full circuit it is important to have your own equipment as the only accommodation is in camp grounds. The W involves hiking approx 50km over a 5-6 day period. While that might sound scary, it is possible to create itineraries that are tailored to an individual’s fitness levels by blending hiking with bus & ferry travel. The adjoining map shows the W trail, the ferry options and the roads that allow hikers to create tailored itineraries. We hiked approximately 23km over 4 days and were pleasantly surprised that we ended up with so much time to laze around and enjoy the mountain panoramas at all of our stops. I actually think we undersold ourselves and could have done this circuit in either 3 days or included another 6-7kms to hike in another part of the park. 
W Map

There are hotels, hostels and refugios spaced within the circuit and the typical days hiking is from one rest stop to another. We stayed for 3 nights within the park in refugios which cost us US$80 per person per night including full board. The price increases by another US$10/person if you want sheet and linen. We decided to be kind to the environment and travelled with our sleeping bags. Private rooms in the hostels should cost approx US$120 per person per night including full board and hotels vary anywhere between US$250/night to US$1000/night. We spent 1 night in Hosteria Torres Norte and 2 nights at Hostal Chileno. As part of the full board the hostals give you the option of choosing a packed lunch (while hiking) or a hot lunch that is served in the hostal restaurant. The packed lunch is extremely good if you are hiking extensively with lots of fruit, juices, energy bars and sandwiches.

Wind Warnings, ignore at own risk

Two aspects should be kept in mind while planning the hikes. Since the hike is from one hostel to another, you end up carrying your stuff so pack light. We left our rucksacks at Lili Patagonicos (it’s a free service that’s provided by all hotels in Puerto Natales) and hiked the park with smaller backpacks carrying enough clothes to last us the 4 days. The packed lunch also adds to the weight. The second thing is the wind. On a bad day the wind can blow the entire day and is strong enough for small stones to start flying around. We were reasonably lucky with the wind that the stone flying phase happened just once and that too briefly on the first day. The effect of the wind also got somewhat accentuated with the backpack and sleeping bag acting as sails and it is quite a struggle not to get blown off course. For those at a reasonable fitness level (read more than mine!!) 6km-8km/day is a breeze. The days are quite long during the summers (sunrise at 515am and sunset after 11pm) so leaving after breakfast you can typically cover 6-8km by 2-3pm and have the rest of the day to read, drink and make merry.

Los Cuernos in the background
 We did a fairly easy 4km hike away from the W circuit to a view point overlooking Los Cuernos on Day 1. After taking the early morning bus 730am bus (CLP 15,000/US$30 per person return) from Puerto Natales, we reached Laguna Amarga, which is the entry point into the national park at about 9am. The bus waited for us while we paid the cost of entrance (CLP 15,000/US$30 per person). We got off at the next stop called Pudeto at around 1030 am. Pudeto is also one of the embarkation points for the ferry ride on Lago Pehoe that can take you directly to Refugio Paine Grande.

Wind spray in the lake

This is one of the short cuts that enables you to see the entire park without having to hike the 50km around the W. Our hike started with a short uphill trek to reach the Salto Grande waterfall and then a level hike for the next 2 odd kms walking alongside Lago Nordenskjold before it ended on the lookout point over Los Cuernos. The wind was stiff and we had to take shelter twice, once from the spray that was blown from the lake and the other when the pebbles starting flying. We got back just in time to catch the bus on its return loop from Pudeto back to Laguna Amarga from where the connecting bus to the Hosteria Las Torres was waiting for us. We reached the hostel at about 330 and spent the rest of the day reading, sleeping and playing TT.

Sunrise on day 2
Day 2 was an uphill 4.4km hike from Hosteria Las Torres to Hostel Chileno. After the first km the trail become quite steep and we had to huff and puff our way uphill. The overall scenery was nothing spectacular but the location of Hostel Chileno is absolutely amazing. It is right alongside the stream in a narrow valley surrounded on all sides snow covered mountains rising steeply. We started from Las Torres at about 930am and we at the hostel by 1pm in time for lunch.

Outside Hostel Chileno
Hostel Chileno is the closest hostel to the Mirador Las Torres, the viewpoint over the towers that give the national park its name. Most guidebooks recommend going up to the mirador in time for sunrise when the tower turn deep red. The best place to stay to observe the towers at sunrise is Campamento Torres from where the mirador is a steep 45min-1hour hike. The camping ground is about 4km from Hostel Chileno, but the only challenge is that you need to have your own camping equipment to stay there. If you don’t, then to get to the Mirador by sunrise you need to leave Hostel Chileno at about 230am. We left at about 315am and could not make it up to the mirador by sunrise. The pace was slower considering that it was pitch dark and we were walking with a torch as our only light source. We met this Canadian-Ukrainian girl called Yana at Hostel Chileno who had worked as a software engineer in Canada for 4 years saving money and was now travelling the world. She had already spent 1.5 years in South America and planned to travel to Africa and then Asia for another 1.5 years before getting back to Canada. Yana was part of our traveling party in the middle of the night hoping to get up to the Mirador by sunrise.

The first hour was a relatively easy climb except for the darkness and the small streams that we had to go through on the trail. It was quite slippery around these treams and Yana did her ankle around one of these streams about an hour into the hike. However she bravely carried on and made it to the top half an hour before us which was partly due to the fitness she had built up hiking over the past 18 months and partly due to my habit of taking guide books too literally. Our mis-adventure started just before the last part of the climb up from Campamento Torres to the Mirador. We came off the trail into the camp looking for a rest room while Yana carried up on the trail. Rather than walk the 200m or so back to the trail we saw signs posted within the camp pointing towards the trail. Following those signs we lost the trail and ended up at the bottom of a hill made completely of boulders that looked to be going up in the general direction of the mirador. Since the lonely planet had mentioned that the last half an hour was a “knee popping scramble up boulders” I was quite adamant that we were on the right track. The absence of any people or the orange trail markings was an obvious inconvenience that i chose to ignore and rather than go back more than 500m I decided to believe that we were on the right track. We spent close to 45minutes climbing boulders after boulders, including some that were clearly not stable in their position, and could have started quite a land slide. The story of the Czech backpacker, who in 2005 burnt 7% of the national park as a stove fire and the Patagonian wind conspired to create a raging fire that went out of control, was fresh in my mind. With each unstable step the diplomatic face off between the Indian and Chilean government to control the actions of irresponsible travellers causing land slides began to take on an air or inevitability.
In 45minutes, we climbed up from an altitude of approx 490m to 675m (according to the altimeter on my watch) one boulder at a time but we at least had the sense to walk in the general direction of where the trail was and finally merged into proper trail. It took us a further 30 min to get to the top and were met by a cheerful Yana on her way down while we were still 15 min from the Mirador. By this time it was nice and bright but the towers were still a sight to behold.
The journey back was uneventful and we were back in Hostel Chileno before 10am after covering 9 odd km. We could have gone back to Puerto Natales on the same day but we had budgeted for an extra day for bad weather and just chilled out the rest of the day drinking wine and reading up on Ambani and Sons by the river.

Day 4 was a 1.5 hour downhill hike back to Hostel Las Torres from where we got on the bus back to Puerto Natales. While waiting for the bus we came across 2 guys who looked Indian. To confirm their nationality without having to resort to asking them, we played “Sheila ki Jawani” on full volume on our Galaxy tab and the speed at which their heads turned to try and find the source for Sheila in the middle of Chile had to be seen to be believed :)


  1. Hey Mohit, you write very well.

    Pictures look very beautiful.

  2. You have become a great travel writer! I think you have an alternate profession :)