A Glorious “Paineful” Trek

Preamble

Flights from the bay area to Patagonia seem far and in between . I started my trip with a long layover in Mexico city and two red eyes , one to Mexico city and the other from Mexico city to Santiago . I debated visiting Santiago but I was more in a rush to get to Punta Arenas and start my trek . The only odd thing that I did was when the Chilean immigration official required my address for the duration of the stay , I simply put in Torres Del Paine and the Immigration officer did not even blink when he saw that .

Having researched Patagonia in terms of treks , I had conjured up an aggressive plan to finish my O Circuit in 5 days and then go to El Chalten for the Huemul circuit so that required me to start the O in Torres Del Paine as soon as possible . So I ended up in Punta Arenas a day earlier and dropped off clean clothes at the AirBnB that I was going to stay before I came back home .  This AirBnB turned out to be an extraordinarily convenient location because it was located two blocks from Buses Fernandez and 4 blocks from Bus Sur , both of which make frequent runs to Puerto Natales , the gateway to Torres Del Paines . As I walked into the Bus Fernandez office and asked for a ticket to Puerto Natales , they had a bus leaving in 5 minutes so off I go . The buses are extremely comfortable and it was a 3 hour trip where I kept seeing guanacos but it never occurred to me to click any pictures , primarily because I was expecting to see them inside the park and I could not take my eyes off the trees .  I do not think I have ever seen trees grow in such an odd and misshapen manner .They were so bent as if almost beaten to the ground , probably the famous south winds that I had always heard of but would now experience .

Day 0

Puerto Natales is a small town and I made quick inquiries after landing at the bus stand and found out that all the buses leave for Torres Del Paine at 7 AM . Apparently that is the only time of the day that they leave (I am not convinced that is true based on my latter experiences but I don’t speak Spanish and they dont speak English and I can only get so far with a phrase book and Google Translate) so lot of scope for miscommunication.  I booked an 7 AM ticket and decided to go find food given that it was almost 11 PM and everything in Puerto Natales is shut down . I was in a mild panic because I need alcohol for my alcohol stove , I had bought two small bottles of hand sanitizer which I could use in a pinch but I needed alcohol or gasoline or anything that was portable and could burn , fortunately I found one store who seemed open and could speak a little English .It seemed to be a general store with fruits and confections and an enormous amount of liquor . I looked around and did find Bacardi  151 which could be used if I could not find anything else but fortunately after I explained what I needed , he had exactly two small 250 ml bottles of cleaning alcohol both of which I purchased immediately!!! Luck was definitely on my side , I land at an unknown place at 11 PM and found the one thing that I desperately needed for this trip . He also directed me to a Cantina nearby where I could eat . I found the cantina deserted and asked for a burger with a fried egg and onions on top . The burger was oddly reminiscent of what I am used to in India  . The bread is flat and enormous , so is the patty . I gobbled it down and started looking for my hostel and again turns out that my hostel was a mere 2 blocks away and crashed after a shower , no idea when I am destined to have another shower.

Day 1 – From Paine Grande to Mirador Valle Frances ~10 miles

The next morning , I find a bunch of people in the breakfast area including a girl and her dad who were speaking English . I introduced myself and found out that the girl Talia was from Oakland and her dad was from Harrisburg,PA . Not even a few days have passed and I am already running into folks from the Bay area.

The bus ride to the park from Puerto Natales was uneventful and we reached Park HQ after what seemed liked an eternity . The Park ranger  grilled me in English as to what my plans were and asked me what camps I had booked . Fortunately I had read on blogs previously that you need to print all your camp permits and take it with you so I showed him my stack of papers . He then asked me how many days was I planning to stay and the camps that I had the permits for (he did not want to look at my permits after seeing the size of the stack), but as soon as I pointed them out on the map , he was satisfied and asked me to go the Fee counter and pay the park dues . The park had multiple choices 1 day  and 3 days or more . I ended up choosing the more than 3 days option and the fee was 35000 CLP . I was also told to bring cash but they were accepting credit cards as well as US dollars but I paid in pesos  . They also have a bunch of rules especially “no fires except in designated spots inside the camps”

My plan was based on the 7 day trek from this site . So I had to take the Pudeto boat ride  across Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande which is my starting point . The boat was crowded !!!  and everybody wanted to take pictures of the gorgeous scenery . This was also where I first set eyes on the famed Cuernos de Paine ( Horns of Paine).

Apparently the W also starts around here and there are a lot of chartered group hikes , majority of which happen on the W which actually gets almost 60-70% of the highlights of the O trek . As soon as the boat docked , I made a beeline for the trail head and found a guide who told me to look for the French valley and always keep that to my left . Turned out to be a lot easier , the trek was beautiful with gorgeous views of  Lago Skottsberg .

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I walked by several people but then I ended up pacing myself with a local guide who kept talking in English, pointed out an enormous spider to everybody around and some edible berries called Murta , I needed no further invitation . Asked for advice as to what I should go and see . She asked me how far I was going, on finding out that I was doing the O , she recommended that I either go to Central or Chilleno and definitely not Seron (which is what I told her mistakenly) . She told me in no uncertain terms that I would be crazy to miss the Base Torres which is actually the climax of the park (that was the whole purpose of my trip so I had no intention of missing that). She also suggested that I should drop off my backpack , take a water bottle and go up to Mirador Britanico . The entrance to Italiano is quite dramatic , you cross a hanging bridge across a rather gusty river. Only one person is allowed on the bridge at one time . It is a series of 2×4 tied together with metal cables and the bridge tends to sway precariously at times so definitely a fun crossing .

I registered with the ranger (very very important !! they take this too seriously so don’t mess with their rules) and headed off with my bottle towards the Mirador Valle Frances and the Mirador Britanico . The views at the Mirador Valle Frances are spectacular , it is a massive glacier and if you are lucky , you can witness an avalanche every now and then.

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It was essentially my first glacier in the park , my first in Patagonia . One of the things that I realized that I forgot to bring was my dayback or a fanny pack so I had to carry my water bottle which meant no hiking poles . The trail is extremely rocky so painful on the knees , poles would have helped greatly . After the Mirador Valle French , Mirador Britanico is a mere 0.5 miles away but for reasons that I am not sure , the ranger was quite insistent that I do not have time for it (it was about 3 PM and the sun does not set until past 10.00 PM). And to add to the confusion , I lost my way on the trail , my AllTrails app failed to load , so after a few frustrated detours in the wood , I chanced upon a familar part of the trail in the distance and made a beeline for it and headed back to Campamento Italiano.  I set up my tent and made my way to the designated area for cooking . It turned out to be a pile of stones and sheets of wet wood covering it from 3 sides . I lit my alcohol stove and heated water for my dehydrated meal and tea . I promptly turned in for the night and drifted off to a tired sleep.

Day 2 – Italiano to Chilleno ~10 miles

The next morning , I woke up to cold winds and rain , I decided to sleep in and wait out the rain , eventually I decided that I needed coffee and ventured out in the cold windy rain and heated up more water for a Starbucks Mocha and proceeded to pack up my tent and head on towards Campamento Frances which was about 3 miles away . I decided to set down my pack and look around , they had some odd offerings like an entree “Salmon and hummus” for what seemed like an exorbitant price . They were selling Peanut Snickers for 2000 CLP (~$3 ) but then I found they were selling internet access , I paid $5 for 30 minutes of internet access and managed to start up AllTrails . Rest of the trek to Campamento Chilleno was a long tiring uphill slog .

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This was the most spectacular visual treat of the day , though it was actually quite disheartening to actually have to descend all the way to the river and then climb back up!!

Once I reached Chilleno , I was grateful to use their pre setup tents rather than set up mine one one of these platforms .

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The clerk who was checking me in was named Alejandro Arun and turns out that his mom was infatuated with all things Indian and had named him Arun . He also informed me that after I checked out in the morning , I could leave my backpack in the restaurant and head on to Base Torres and pick up my backpack on the way out , a fabulous piece of advice that nobody should neglect.

Day 3 – Chilleno to Mirador Base Torres to Seron ~20 miles

My sole regret is that I did not get up at 3 AM and go see the sunrise on the towers . But otherwise it is a magnificent (and extraordinarily strenuous) trek and the top is a visual treat nonpareil. These are the famous Towers of Paine (Torres Del Paine)

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The hike back from the towers to Central and then to Seron is a painfully long one and I quickly realized why the majority of people start from Central , this is perhaps the most mundane portion of the trip and here I was  on this section after having experienced the ultimate spectacle of the trip. The highlight of this part of the trip was running into a father and son duo,  Don and Peter . I also ran into a Ukranian hiker who will feature again in a rather dramatic fashion .  Thankfully after about 6 or 7 miles, things started looking spectacular again, ‘Torres Del Paine’ style.  Campamento Seron had a warm shower option with a line of folks lining up for both the western style potty and the shower . The shower lasts exactly 5 minutes after which the water turns freezing cold but this was my first shower after 40 miles and 3 days , needless to say I was delighted!! There were strange hawks that seemed to hang around the camp the whole time , looking for food.

I could not help but reflect that animals and birds seem to develop a sense of danger or safety fairly quickly . The geese around the bay area have no trouble chasing away humans who venture too close to them but any other place they would take off in an instant . Ditto with the seals and sea lions in the bay area , thundering trucks overhead on the Bay Bridge don’t even elicit a sleepy eyebrow raise.  These hawks seem to know that they are the center of attention and revel in it. I ended up eating dinner with Don and Peter and I noticed a block of Tilamook cheese with Don, Don saw my look and proceeded to tell me that when he had done a section of the Pacific Crest trail , one of the staples was Tillamook cheese and Summer sausage . It sounded  very yummy to my very hungry tummy .

Day 4 – Seron to Dickson ~12 miles

Starting from Seron , the sights do not disappoint .

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Something that changed about halfway through the trek , lot of signs on the trail that warned hikers to turn back if they did not have reservations . It was definitely puzzling but I did not pay much attention until I stopped at the CONAF ranger station at Coiron which explicitly stated that I had to register before proceeding and the ranger came out and attempted to chat with me in broken English and me attempting to respond in broken Spanish. By this time my Brazilian buddies Roberto and Ariel also reached and Roberto pulls out a flask and a packet of Yerba Mate and proceeds to make Mate , all the time chatting with the Ranger in fluent Spanish . The ritual is an interesting one , Roberto prepared the mate and set the bombilla (steel straw) inside the mate gourd in a particular spot and then poured hot water from his thermos and proceed to hand it to Ariel who drinks it and hands it back to Roberto who calmly proceeds to fill it with hot water again and give it to me. I did exactly what Ariel did but also proceeded to adjust the straw which is when I was informed that if I attempted to do this in Argentina , they would cut my hand off !!! Suitably chastened , I finished the drink and handed it back to Roberto who proceeded to fill it again and hand it to the ranger who by now had managed to attract a second ranger . The ritual continued until we had emptied the thermos . I also learned that to say Gracias in this scenario was an indication that you do not want mate any more so I asked how do I say Thanks . I was informed that you do not .  The idea of sharing a straw among 6 random people seemed like a recipe for getting sick . but I knew better than to bring that up right now. Suitably refreshed , we got up and proceeded to head on towards Dickson which was still another 9 KM away. As I kept walking , I keep eating the Murta berries every opportunity I got but I could not stop fantasizing about the block of Tillamook cheese.

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Rest of the trip to Dickson was a slog and I started realizing that my big plan of going from Dickson to Grey the next day might not materialize . The terrain is not easy and what makes it harder is that there are no switchbacks here . I have not figured out why there are no switchbacks , I can only speculate that it has been a conscious decision to forego switchbacks because creating switchbacks takes a far greater toll on the landscape and is definitely more expensive . Once I reached Dickson , I promptly registered with the ranger and then proceeded to the Vertice Patagonia office where I had to show my reservation . Apparently my reservations for Dickson , Los Perros and Grey  were all off by a day (I arrived a day earlier) which caused them no small amount of consternation. But they told me to go ahead and get my tent set up and I could come back in 30 minutes to get details . I did as instructed and by the time I was done setting up my tent , I was starving and decided that I was going to treat myself to an Almond snickers that I had seen and also a pound cake and maybe even some chocolate cream cookies . As I walked back to the store/registration , I saw the Ukranian hiker who looked despondent , I waved but he seemed too distracted .  The almond snickers was 2000 CLP (~$2.50) , the pound cake was 5000 CLP (~$7) . I presume there are two reasons for the extraordinary premium that we are paying , a) They have a captive audience , I am not going to find a supermercado (super market ) in a radius of 50 miles and b) the cost of bringing in these goods by mule . I have experienced the same issue in Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and in Glen Aulin in Tuolomne Meadows , Yosemite where they were charging $4 for a Clif bar. I shared the pound cake with my Brazilian buddies and I mentioned the Ukranian hiker which is when Bruno , the third Brazilian who had been hiking with him mentioned that apparently the Ukranian had not reserved any camps except for Seron so they had confiscated his passport and told him to collect it from park headquarters near Central , a distance of almost 31 km (~20 miles) and thats when I also found out that the Ukranian had not packed any food or tent or sleeping bag . How does one embark on a 7-11 day hike without bringing any of these ? I was astounded !!! My alcohol stove now seemed to have caught everybody’s attention , I have to thank Andrew Skurka for that idea . Finished another tasteless dehydrated meal and went back to my tent and ate my Almond Snickers for dessert and promptly went to sleep

Day 5 – Dickson to Los Perros ~9 miles

I woke up to a beautiful morning , I had two choices , either I follow everybody to Los Perros or I continue onwards to Grey . If I wanted to make it to Grey , I should have woken up a lot sooner , it did not take too long for me to talk myself out of that option and then somebody mentioned that there was a beach behind the camp . Curious I decided to go check it out . I was mesmerized , I was all alone on this gorgeous beach , the lake was an inviting turquoise teal that all Glacier melt lakes seem to have , with mountains and glaciers in the background . After about an hour of delightful reverie,  the Huemul circuit all but forgotten,  my Brazilian buddy Ariel joined me and kindly agreed to take my picture.

I could not believe that I could actually be here taking all this in . I swore to myself that the next time I am here , I am going to spend two nights at this camp , this is one of the most beautiful , serene places that I have ever seen.  Finally I decided to leave and head for Los Perros , no way was I going to make it to Grey , the rangers shut down the trail at a certain time and they will not let you proceed once they have closed the trail . The trail is beautiful and can be treacherous at times , I crossed a hanging bridge , went through some interesting micro eco systems before I encountered the famous southern winds . I saw people lose their backpack raincovers , even ones that were clipped in . The wind was so dreadful at one point that I was forced to take shelter behind a rock, I cannot recall ever encountering winds like this . I cannot imagine being on a ridge trying to fight these winds which is exactly what happens near the Paso John Gardner , now I also understand why the rangers will not let you pass if the winds are too high . Once it calmed down , I hurried and finally reached the Los Perros Glacier which is another beautiful lake crowned by the Glacier, spent some time admiring the lake and the chunks of ice floating around and some wild birds nearby who seemed oblivious to the humans around who were gawking at them.

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I tried in vain to see the dog(s) (Los Perros) in the glacier form but failed .

Dinner at Los Perros was a quiet affair , everybody knew that we had to get up early and cross the pass as early as possible since winds pick up later in the day. So after a quick dinner , everybody retired to their tent.

Day 6 – From Los Perros to Grey ~12 miles

The day started off with a rambling trail in the woods on rocky ground , finally after a couple of miles , it leveled off but that was only a brief respite .

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Before too long , we started climbing on rocky terrain , on the way I met a doctor from Pensacola, FL. Spending extended time in a country where one does not understand the local language renders you extra sensitive to any familiar language and when I hear English with an American accent , I do not need an invitation to pepper them with questions  as to where they are from . I have always found it fascinating that when I am abroad  ( England , Italy , Japan ) people know where I am from based on my accent , however Americans in general seem oblivious and they would invariably respond “I am from the US” but this gentleman recognized my accent  and responded with “Pensacola” .

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Trekking across an ice field!!!

And then as we got closer and closer to the summit, we started seeing the Grey Glacier . It is a magnificent sight .

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I cannot get over how blue the ice is

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Lago Grey and Grey Glacier. The Grey glacier melts into lago Grey , big chunks of blue glacial ice float around . I could sit here and watch this for hours .

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Lago Grey

And then the descent starts ,  in typical Torres Del Paine fashion , it is brutal on your knees . I was grateful for my hiking poles. At some point , I ended up being solo again and then I entered Campamento Paso which is the second camp that CONAF manages so it is free but it has no facilities . But you have to register so do not forget to register even though you are merely passing through. The cooking area was a shed where I found another bay area buddy , Adrian who had been hiking for the last several months and was heading north to Argentina and then onto Brazil and eventually Bolivia, he planned to get back to Oakland around May or June . After exchanging pleasantries , I wished him all the best and hurried on towards Campamento Grey which is still a good 8-10 KM away . As I was walking , I suddenly felt an eye on me and startled I looked up to see an Andean condor not a 100 feet away ,gliding and giving me the eye . I was in such rapture that it took me a few seconds to gather my wits and grab my camera and take a picture of his rapidly disappearing form .

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Having lived in California for 6 years , I have vainly tried to see if I could locate Condors but have never seen them , 6 days in Chile and I see this amazingly graceful bird  , what a treat!!  If I could pat myself on the back , I would!!! Every mirador sign that I saw , I made it a point to check it out , at one mirador I ran into a bunch of  CONAF rangers , one of them was cordial and even though I could not speak Spanish and he could not speak English , we managed to have a fairly long interesting conversation about the South Patagonian Ice field, the Dickson Glacier , the Grey glacier and he even identified several of the berries that I had been chomping down , most notably the El Calafate berry .

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Legend has it that once somebody eats a Calafate berry , he will come back to Patagonia . Just for good measure , I grabbed a few more handfuls and gobbled it up just in case the superstition has some truth to it. It is quite tart and tasty . There were some ripe Murta bushes nearby and I helped myself to those as well and then proceeded onwards to Grey . This was the first time since the towers that I would be venturing back into the W territory and I was in for a rude shock . It was so crowded (at this point 20 people is a crowd) , I saw a sign for the ranger station and I started walking towards it even though it was taking me away from the camp . When I reached it , there was no ranger in sight and some helpful women told me that I do not need to register at the ranger station here so feeling a little grouchy (that extra 10 minutes was painful!!) . When I entered Campamento Grey , I was awestruck at the number of people and tents . I went in to register at the Vertice Patagonia store / register . They checked me in and told me to pitch my tent within the camping area and there were showers next door . At this point , I ran into Peter and his dad Don who informed me that they were doing dinner at the Cafe . Sounded like a great idea but the need for a shower seemed to precipitate every other instinct in me so I decided to take care of business first . Along with showering , I also washed my clothes . The winds in Patagonia ensure that all your clothes will be dry in a few hours , and you also have to make sure that your clothes do not fly away so I ended up using duct tape which worked admirably well . I had made some new friends , Kendall and her brother Stephen and I ate dinner with them . Dinner was a treat , a 3 course meal with soup , steak and potatoes and a lemon cake dessert . The service crew were very conscientious , checking constantly if everything was ok and anybody had food restrictions or allergies. 

Day 7 – Grey to Paine Grande ~8 miles

A slow start , generally reluctant to get moving and I ended up skipping breakfast and got coffee from the cafe and then bidding adieu to my new friends , headed on to Paine Grande .

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One last wistful look at Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier

It is a short trek with some of the scenery reminiscent of what I am used to in the bay area . Saw several condors and then finally laid eyes on the turquoise teal of lago Pehoe.

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When I reached the lake , I saw a sign that had an arrow sign with “Italiano” , I was puzzled and looked around and realized that I had almost walked past Paine Grande and I was seized by an intense emotion , just sadness swelled up inside me  . I am done with my trek and I am going to leave this beautiful park!!

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I decided to go inside the cafe and celebrate . The cafe had a deal where you could get two beers with a pizza , sounded too good to pass up . The pizza was made fresh but tasteless so I asked the clerk if he had any spices , he pulled out a tray that had 3 sets of spices , I promptly dumped a spoonful of what seemed like the spiciest onto my pizza , his eyebrows rose , I took another bite and ended up dumping another spoonful and it still tasted bland!!! A very anti-climatic celebration to what was easily one of best trekking experiences of my life.

I could not help but reflect that the sole reason why the trip turned out to be so much easier than expected was the fact that I did not carry any water (for the Grand Canyon, I carried 3 liters and had to be replenished at the bottom , an extra 6.6 lbs!!!) . I drank water unfiltered from streams (always get it upstream) , glacier melt is delicious!! Almost decadent!!! Never pass up a chance to drink Glacier melt.

The boat finally showed up and I sailed off to Puerto Natales and onwards to Argentina (just to clarify , the boat takes you across the lake , rest of the trip is on buses) .

Once I got back to Puerto Natales , I promptly booked a ticket for the next morning to go on to El Calafate , gateway to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares , reconciled to the fact that I am coming back to Patagonia to do the Huemul circuit.

Week 2

6 thoughts on “A Glorious “Paineful” Trek

    1. I am doing well ,my friend . I am truly sorry I have not been around these last several months. I just read about your surgery. Glad to hear you are recuperating well .Thank you for keeping us updated

      Liked by 1 person

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