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Hiking the “W” Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park – Patagonia-Chile

A hiking trip at the end of the world is not something I would normally consider. I am a girly girl whose ears perk up at the mention of booking a “spa” or a “villa” rather than doing “rugged mountain hiking.” The luxury travel magazines Travel & Leisure and Departures are my vacation planning sources. Nonetheless, my tennis partner and good friend, Donna, had planned a trip to Patagonia to celebrate her birthday and insisted I do something new and different for my next vacation. Always up for an adventure, I agreed to tag along.

Two months later I found myself on a 10-hour flight from Dallas to Santiago: the first leg of a trip that would end at Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile. Torres del Paine is a spectacular, unspoiled national park boasting a breathtaking mountain range, azure lakes, and magnificent flora and fauna. Located 1,000 miles north of Antarctica, the park attracts tourists from all over the world.

I didn’t have time to do much research about the trip and had envisioned the hike to be filled with rolling hills and gentle sloping paths set with a spectacular mountain view. The Sound of Music comes to mind. However, instead of a relaxing walk through nature, the “W” Circuit (named based on the shape of the trail) was a truly challenging hike covering over 30 miles of territory in only four days. It was to be a grueling trip for a first-time hiker.

The rugged terrain and long hiking days were not the only challenges. Patagonia’s remote location meant there were no TV, radio, and phone or email access available. Having zero communication with the outside world was daunting, at first, but soon became one of the most alluring aspects of the destination. Our entertainment was the untarnished beauty of the region. Pure glacier-fed springs with fresh water and magnificent mountains revealed nature at its best.

After a layover in Santiago, the capital of Chile, we took a four-hour flight to Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the geographically long and skinny Chilean countryside. We stayed a night here before driving three hours to Puerto Natales, Chile, a small town that serves as the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. Here travelers stock up on food and camping supplies before heading into the park. Our group had food and lodging supplied for us since we had decided to take a small hiking tour arranged by an American adventure travel company that specializes in South American treks.

The first day was a four-hour boat ride into the park where we viewed a colony of condors, sea lions, massive glaciers, and an authentic estancia before stopping for lunch. After lunch was the much-anticipated two-hour zodiac boat ride taking us deep into the park and offering unsurpassed views of Cuernos del Paine, a part of a magnificent mountain range. It was beautiful ride but bone-chilling cold. Even the immense parkas the guides wrapped us in were not enough for the sharp Patagonian rain and winds in the open boat. And, there are no bathrooms on zodiacs. I found that out the hard way.

After our zodiac trip ended, we were taken to our first night at Eco Camp, environment-friendly accommodations comprised of private tents with two twin beds but no heat. Clean bathrooms with hot showers and delicious meals were provided. Here we met the other members of the hiking group: two ladies from Pittsburgh in their mid-50’s, and a young couple from Tampa. Everyone was a seasoned hiker with the exception of myself. We chatted over a hearty dinner and went to bed early for good night’s rest before the first hiking day.

Glorious blue skies, warm temperatures and a gentle breeze welcomed us to our first day of hiking along the shores of Lake Nordenskjold. I was advised this five-hour trek would be the easiest with rolling hills and only a few steep ascents. The azure blue water of this dazzling lake was my constant companion as I hiked along its path to our destination at Cuernos Lodge. It was a beautifully quiet day where nature was picture-perfect.

Cuernos Lodge was the first time I had stayed at a hostel. Each traveler is given a sleeping bag and a bunk bed in a room with eight hikers. No thought is given to gender or nationality. You just grab a bunk and hit hay. The lower bunks always get snatched up quickly as hikers are exhausted from the trek and don’t want to climb one more thing at the day’s end. I even politely asked a flirtatious German man to switch bunks with me as I was afraid of heights and received a solid “no way”. It was everyman for himself.

The next day we rose early to begin a challenging ten-hour hike that runs along the base of Cuernos del Paine, which are tremendous granite towers in the middle of this circuit, into the French Valley. It snowed all day making the hike beautiful but a bit treacherous in places. Covered in layers upon layers of clothing, toting a heavy backpack, and walking in a line of similarly clad travelers made me feel as if I was part of an Everest Expedition. We hiked all morning until lunchtime where we sat in the snow to eat. Ravenous from the difficult trek I polished off two huge sandwiches in less than five minutes. After lunch we had five more hours of hiking. We all collapsed exhausted at Camp Pehoe at nightfall.

The third day took us through the Wind Valley and to the base of Grey Glacier. Unbelievable 45mph gusts of wind made the trek difficult. It was like hiking against a wall of hurricane-force wind. The ever-changing weather in Patagonia could be discussed at length but suffice it to say that in a brief span of our four-day trek we experienced everything Mother Nature could throw our way: bright sunshine and warm temperatures of 65 degrees, followed by temperatures plummeting to the 30’s with snow, rain and winds close to 45 miles per hour. Travelers should bring all waterproof gear for the hike and dress in layers as the daily temperatures vary greatly in this part of the world.

On our final day we left Eco-Camp and headed to the base of Torres, one of the most popular viewpoints on the circuit. The challenging ten-hour hiking day began with bright, sunny skies as we hiked from Eco-Camp to the Chilean Camp where we stopped for a quick rest. Hours later we found ourselves at the bottom of what some refer to as Boulder City: a seemingly endless expanse of large rock boulders heading upwards. At the top of the boulder field, far, far away a saw a speck of a man. “We’re going there?” I asked my guide in disbelief. I could not believe the trek that lay ahead. As I took the slow climb up, I found myself shedding layer up layer of clothing as my heart rate increased from the difficult climb. I crouched low and steadily moved from rock to rock. At last I reached the top to glimpse the massive towers in the distance. I felt truly insignificant compared to the majestic mountains surrounding us, and enjoyed the feeling.

Back at Eco-Camp we all celebrated by sipping on Pisco Sours, the country’s national beverage made of pisco brandy sugar and lemon juice, and discussed the trip. While some felt a great sense of accomplishment for completing the circuit, I simply enjoyed the fact that I had made it to the end in one piece. My friends congratulated me on successfully completing my first hiking trip and prodded me to join them again on a future trip in a new destination. Everest anyone?

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Trip Tips:

Come equipped with waterproof gear, comfortable hiking boots, wool hat and gloves, water bottle, sunscreen and wind-resistant gear for the regions inclement weather

Plan your trip in Spring/Summer (November – March) when the temperature in Patagonia is mild in comparison to its intense winters.