There is horizontal, freezing cold rain hitting my face. I can’t feel my nose or fingers, and yet my torso is boiling hot, and sweating under a cheap plastic poncho, which is doing a fantastic job of keeping the heat in but not such a great job of keeping the rain out. My silhouette through the rain is that of a hunchback. Also cramped under the giant poncho is the 26-lb backpack I’m carrying, which is the only thing stopping the gale force wind from blowing me over.
Welcome to Patagonia.
“Why are we doing this?” I repeatedly ask my husband Steven. “We really need to rethink the word ‘vacation’”.
1. Exploring Patagonia is not a “vacation.”
A few hours of trudging through the rain later, as the weather clears enough to take my hood off and see more than the path immediately in front of me, we come across a Scottish couple in their late 50s, looking significantly less bedraggled and defeated by the elements than we are.
“Well, you’d be disappointed if you came to Patagonia and only got fair weather,” he quips cheerfully. I know my facial expression betrays the fact that I think he’s insane. I would very much have enjoyed 16 days of sunshine and shorts in Patagonia.
After quickly gobbling up some trail mix and a few mouthfuls of cold, tinned food, we continue on, realizing we’re only halfway to our campsite and need to get there before dark.
2. The reward for the toil in Patagonia
About two hours later, I’m stopped dead in my tracks. On the path, just a few feet ahead of me is a large, stunning culpeo red fox, holding a dead rabbit in his jaws. We lock eyes for a moment as he hesitates, and then he’s gone. This fleeting encounter suddenly awakens my wonderment and appreciation for our surroundings and stays with me for the rest of the day.
This was day one of the 100km, five-day W-trek, in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, and one of many highlights of our two-week adventure in Patagonia. Along the way, we were consistently wowed by the scenery and unexpected encounters with wildlife. The park is full of guanaco, camelid relatives of Peru’s alpaca and llamas, and large rhea, which are large flightless birds, kind of like ostrich.
More reward comes the next morning, as we take a break from the hiking to kayak alongside Grey glacier, navigating between monstrous icebergs, glistening in the morning light. Completely inaccessible by road, in the heart of the national park, this is the recompense for our toil.
Each day is full of contrasts. The weight of my pack, the extreme weather, and the distance still to be covered continues to test my physical and mental resolve. Yet Patagonia keeps me going with her steady stream of surprises.
Four days later, we awake before dawn for the final grueling uphill battle. We’re the last ones out of our sleeping bags and bunks in our shared 8-person dorm at the Refugio Chileno lodge — everyone wants to get to the prize, with the early morning offering the best chance of clear skies to admire the famed “torres“, the sheer rock towers that the park is named after. We’re finally blessed with a beautiful day when it matters, after hearing stories of people hiking for five days to find the towers covered in cloud. It’s a magnificent sight with the granite towers perfectly reflected in the small glacier lake below them. We have our picnic breakfast of energy bars, sitting down for once, as the sun slowly rises in the sky.
I feel exhilarated.
Perhaps the crazy Scotsman was right. The rain makes you appreciate the sun, and as they say, no pain, no gain.
3. Preparing for Patagonia: What to pack
- The weather in Patagonia is notoriously extreme and erratic. You’ll walk through all four seasons in the space of an hour. Light-weight, waterproof layers that you can quickly pull on and off are a must. An oversized poncho is a great call if your backpack isn’t waterproof, but be careful of getting blown over in strong winds like I nearly did!
- It’s very important to prepare for the rain and keep your gear dry. A great tip is to stick a trash bag inside your backpack and pack everything inside it, also wrapped in individual dry bags. And make sure dry clothes, socks, and shoes are readily available for as soon as you arrive at camp, soaked. Because no matter how waterproof your gear is, you will be soaked.
- You’ll be hiking for up to eight hours a day. Many people take their own food and camping stoves. Alternatively, lodges provide three meals a day for a hefty price. But to fuel your hike in the most efficient way, pack some high-protein and high-energy snacks to munch on as you walk rather than a big lunch that you need to stop and prepare. Chances are, like us, you won’t have the time or weather conditions to sit and picnic. You can build your own trail mix from hiking shops in Puerto Natales, or bring some energy bars, gels, and specialty electrolytes from home.
4. What I would do differently in Patagonia
- Not overpack. Both in terms of clothes, food, and unnecessary toiletries. At the end of the hike, my favorite hiking trousers were completely worn, with others left untouched. Sleep in your clean base layers and socks for the next day. Carrying 26 lbs for five days will make you seriously reprioritize what you take along.
- Plan our timing better. Research how long each section will take, and leave early in the morning to give yourself enough time to enjoy the sights along the way, and arrive at your campsite or lodge before nightfall. Some trails to lookout points (like the beautiful Frances Valley) will sometimes close in the afternoon to ensure everyone is safely down before it gets dark, or because of bad weather. All trails are closed at night due to the danger of puma attacks.
- Slow down. Jut because the W is publicized as a five-day trek, doesn’t mean you have to do it in five days. There’s a lot to explore and admire along the way, so an extra day or two would be welcome. We managed to squeeze in kayaking early one morning before a full day of hiking, but with a bit of extra time you can do ice-trekking on Grey glacier, horse-back riding, small hikes to separate look-out points, or just relax at a lodge by a warm fire with a good book and a glass of wine.
5. Difficulty level of the W-trek
Compared to a lot of lofty hiking destinations in South America, like the Andes and Cordillera Blanca in Peru, Patagonia is low altitude. The highest you’ll get along the W-trek is about 3,600 feet above sea level.
The standard trail is not a difficult or technical hike, but it requires endurance and stamina. Relentless ups and downs will take their toll on your feet, knees, and energy levels. Paths can be narrow, precarious, and uneven in places, and some people opt for hiking poles for stability, especially when the gale-force winds hit. For the adventurous, the O-circuit adds on to the W, doing a complete circuit of the area, taking about 8 days.
6. How to be a responsible hiker
With thousands of people visiting Patagonia and the Torres del Paine National Park each year, it’s important to ensure that you leave as few traces as possible on this pristine and fragile natural environment.
Open fires are completely banned in the park, including smoking, and propane stoves are only allowed at designated cooking areas in campsites. You’ll see the devastating consequences of disregarding this rule — in 2011, over 40,000 acres were destroyed by a fire started by a hiker.
You should aim to pack out all your trash and take it back to Puerto Natales — garbage disposal is extremely difficult and costly for park rangers. Try to minimize your waste and plastic usage. Take a refillable water bottle and enjoy the delicious fresh spring and glacier water throughout the park: it’s safe to drink without purification or boiling.
On entering the park you’ll watch a safety video giving you instructions on things like fire safety and garbage disposal. Pay attention — it’s full of useful information.
7. Guides, briefings, and tour agencies
Almost everyone passes through Puerto Natales before entering the national park. It’s worth spending at least a day stocking up on supplies and preparing for the trek. There are lots of places to buy or rent camping gear. The Erratic Rock Base Camp Pub offers a free daily briefing at 3 PM for Torres del Paine which is full of useful information on what to pack, staying safe, and being a responsible hiker. I highly recommend it.
There are several companies offering guided group or private treks along the W-trek O-circuit, including porters if you don’t want to carry your own stuff. But it really is easy to do the trek on your own, as long as you’re prepared. Lodges and campsites can be booked through Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur and must be booked well in advance due to the huge demand. You won’t be allowed into the park without accommodation or campsites booked. The map from the park authorities is sufficient and the paths are well marked.
It will be difficult but guaranteed to be an adventure of a lifetime.