Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, Chile

Torres del Paine base hike

We caught the 7:30am Cootra bus from El Calafate and after the border crossings (delayed because, despite the giant signs and verbal warnings people were still trying to bring in fruits, vegetables and other prohibited items) we made it to Puerto Natales by 1:30pm. We walked from the station to Hostel Cordillera Azul and moved into a small but nice, clean room with a bathroom that reminded us of a cruise ship bathroom. Our first order of business was to get the rental car situation handled. We had received an email from the EMSA rental car (after already calling from El Calafate to confirm our reservation) that they actually didn’t have the car we were promised but instead had a car that cost twice as much. Of course it was siesta so their offices were closed. We found a pizza joint (Repizza) that had WiFi (and really good fries) and after some communication via WhatsApp, EMSA claimed that there was no reservation. Really? Grrr. Luckily we had also been in contact with Rent A Car Newen and went immediately to their office and secured a car for our trip to Torres del Paine National Park. Afterwards we went to the bus station and found that the only non-24 hour bus trip to Ushuaia was on BusSur at 6:45am each day. The friendly guy at the counter spoke English and explained that they had a direct bus Monday, Wednesday and Friday and on the other days they had an indirect one that went thorough Rio Grande where you changed to another bus company. The “direct” bus changed at Puerto Arenas (actually, they drop you on the side of the road 45 minutes from Puerto Arenas where you wait for the bus from Puerto Arenas) but you stayed with the same company (which meant they wouldn’t leave your ass if the bus arrived late). Warren said “So, the ‘direct’ bus is really ‘semi-direct’.” He laughed. Back in town we made reservations at Lenga restaurant for the following night, found a brewpub, Baguales, where we got decent food (quesadilla and chicken wings), decent beer and a decent price (we even got to sit at a real bar!), then headed back to the room

Saturday morning was spent checking other accommodations after the park since we wanted to be closer to the bus terminal given the early Ushuaia bus departure. We decided on La Base and then went to the bus terminal where we booked the “direct” bus (45,000 CHP) to Ushuaia and got our tickets to the park, paying by credit card vs cash at the park and avoiding the wait to watch the 6 minute Park safety video. The park tickets are only good for 3 consecutive days but you can go in and out as many times as you want; at 21,000 CHP per person it’s about as expensive per day as Yellowstone.  

Monumento al Viento

After a pizza at Repizza, we walked to the waterfront tourist office to grab the map that Rent A Car Newen instructed us to get and gave some pointers to a group of 4 tourists about going to the bus station to get the Park tickets. At 5:30pm, we picked up the car and drove down to the waterfront, taking some photos of the striking gymnast sculptures, then drove route 9 before heading to dinner at Lenga. We enjoyed a seafood dish called “Seafood Pil Pil” and a slow cooked guanaco dish called “Guanaco Cazuela” (nothing to write home about but we had to try it), and upon leaving the waitress gave us each a packet of their sea salt (for Cynthia, other than coffee beans, there is no better travel gift than salt!). After dinner we went to the grocery store to stock up for the park (our cart was half food and half wine which we couldn’t help take a picture of) and called it a day.

Milodon (Mylodon) cave

We still had one more day before we were going to head into the park so we took the car to check out some of the sights around the town. After a brief stop at The Coffee Maker where they, sadly, did not sell coffee beans (she indicated Patagonia Blend did but they probably weren’t open on Sunday. They weren’t.), we headed to the Cave of the Milodon or Mylodon, so we’re going to stick with the latter. A jaw bone of a Mylodon (mylos meaning “to grind” and odon meaning “teeth”)  was found by Richard Owen in 1842 and determined that it lived in the area over 10,000 years ago.  It was a very large (up to 2 meters in length and weighing a ton) extinct ancestor of the sloth “an herbivore of slow habits”. We walked around the main cave which was a huge natural formation that had a ceiling of compressed small river rock, making it feel like you were walking under a road. The other sites of the park were a bit of a hike. It was a rainy day so we hunkered down and started along the wide trail behind a gate. After a car passed us on the trail we had a “Hey, wait a minute!” moment, realizing it was possible to drive to the other sites (the sign on the gate just meant close it behind you) and avoid the hour hike in the rain. We backtracked, got the car and drove to see the Small Cave (panthers den) and the stone tunnel. From there we visited the Devil’s Chair, a big stone formation that resembles, well, a chair.

Lake Sophia

Next, we drove to beautiful Lake Sophia and had a late lunch on the tiny beach (where we had wished the weather had been better to see what we knew were beautiful mountains in the background) before returning to town. For dinner we had a delicious “individual” pizza at Base Camp which, for 4500 CHP it included 4 toppings pizza (any individual who can eat that must have not eaten in days), and not bring able to help ourselves, we also split the decadent almond ice cream cookie sandwich.

We got up at 4:30am to prepare for the park. Warren used the time (and now well-functioning internet – amazing how the whole town’s internet slows to a crawl during the day) to call AirBnB via the internet through our Ooma service at home; we had tried to book a place in Ushuaia but they had locked the final booking process and needed to text our phone with a code to unlock it. They suggested we have someone in the U.S. access our phone to get the code they would text. Firstly, that wasn’t possible because the phone was with us and it wouldn’t be able to receive their text. Secondy, really? How is that more secure than sending an email which all of our financial institutions will do but AirBnB will not? After a frustrating 30 minutes we gave up and left a message through AirBnB to the apartment owner in Ushuaia hoping we could work something out. After arranging to have the included continental breakfast at 6am instead of 7am, we drove to the park to make it there before the buses began arriving at 9am. As we got closer, the scenery just burst out of the horizon, strikingly blue-grey lakes and huge snowcapped peaks.

What used to be the road at Laguna Amarga park entrance

We made it to the Laguna Amarga entrance and at the park check-in we were told that we couldn’t drive up to the trail head Welcome Center unless we had the “proper equipment”. As we walked down the road, we saw a river where it used to be.With all the rains, the road was completely flooded and we would have to take an outboard boat across to a shuttle bus for the 4.5 miles to the Welcome Center. Evidently the “proper equipment” meant an amphibious vehicle.

Torres base hike

The shuttle buses are 3000 CHP per person one-way and are normally reserved for people coming in by bus from Puerto Natales or other destinations. Cynthia started to hand the woman a 20,000 CHP but she wanted smaller change or at least 1000 CHP more. Warren produced the extra 1000 and she handed us 15,000 in change. It wasn’t until later we realized she’d never taken the 20,000 note from us, only the 1000. Oh well.

The start of the Torres base hike

At the trail base Welcome Center, we used the restrooms which were large and modern and, refreshingly, had a sign instructing you to throw your toilet tissue into the toilet and not in the waste bin. Inside the center we had to check-in to indicate how many days we’d be gone before starting the trek to the towers. The kind young guy also warned us that, because of the rain, we should be careful of the many small streams and rocks. Later I wondered why he failed to mention the raging waterfalls you had to forge, the sheer cliff you had to fight the wind to make it through, and the giant rock slide of boulders you had to scramble up the last half hour…

Refugio Chileno

At 9:30am we began the trek from the building which started out flat through some pastures with bridges over a couple of streams before it began to incline. The climb was through what appeared to be washout containing mostly rocks that were not pleasant to walk on. We tried to use the horse trail as much as possible to give our feet a break. We made it through that section and onto the windy overlook. It was quite an amazing vista but a little nerve racking due to the steep drop off and strong winds. Our nerves didn’t get a break as the trail snaked along the side of the valley. The views were amazing with waterfalls everywhere, just don’t look straight down. After some heart pounding moments of forging through two waterfalls hoping not to be swept over the cliff, we stopped at the first camp, Refugio Chileno, an hour and 45 minutes into the hike. We stopped for 15 minutes to eat part of our supplies at a picnic table, admiring the stunning views of the river and distant Torres, before continuing on through a lovely, but at times technically challenging, forest trail.

It took over an hour to make it to the start of the rock climb to the base of the towers. It was quite a technically challenging and difficult hike, and it started snowing on us on the way up, but we made it to the laguna at the base in under 4 hours. The amazing view was worth it even though the tops of the towers were shrouded in clouds. We sat in the shadow of a rock trying to avoid the wind while we ate and admired the beauty of the place. After about 15 minutes, it was time to get moving or freeze so we began our descent. We saw a lot of people struggling up the hill (all signs indicate you must pull over and let people ascending pass) and to one exhausted looking group we told them “Don’t stop until you see the lake!”.

Torres hike – laguna at the base

It took over an hour to make it to the start of the rock climb to the base of the towers. It was quite a technically challenging and difficult hike, and it started snowing on us on the way up, but we made it to the laguna at the base in under 4 hours. The amazing view was worth it even though the tops of the towers were shrouded in clouds. We sat in the shadow of a rock trying to avoid the wind while we ate and admired the beauty of the place. After about 15 minutes, it was time to get moving or freeze so we began our descent. We saw a lot of people struggling up the hill (all signs indicate you must pull over and let people ascending pass) and to one exhausted looking group we told them “Don’t stop until you see the lake!”.

The rock tree

On the way back through the forest, we stopped to place some rocks on a rock tree before making it back to Refugio Chileno just after 3pm. At 3pm they had put a chain across the path preventing people from ascending further and we had to break the news to some people a bit later that that would be as far as they could go. The Refugio had a small indoor cafeteria and bar and after crossing the river we saw how they got their supplies as we watched a guy unloading 4 pack horses.

We made it back to the Welcome Center a 5:15pm. There were only 2 buses left that were scheduled to leave to the boats (6:30 and 7:15) so we bought tickets then purchased a resealable cold bottle of wine and a draft beer and sat down to celebrate and rest our aching feet. At 9000 CHP and 5000 CHP respectively they were expensive but soooo worth it! At 5:50, a woman came into the cafeteria and shouted “BusSur”. We were told we couldn’t board until all people for that bus line were onboard, but we did anyway (the driver didn’t care). Although the bus was not full, it left at 6:15 and we hoped people who thought it was supposed to leave at the posted 6:30 time were onboard.

Off the bus, we crossed the bridge to the boats. A woman ran head of everyone and secured passage for her remaining group, which was rude and as they pushed ahead of the waiting crowd, many grumbling. Fortunately the boat ride was only about 5 minutes so we chatted with one of the handlers and made it onto the next boat and back to our car around 6:45pm.

View of the Torres from Laguna Azul

As this first day looked to be our only really nice day in the park, we drove up to Laguna Azul (through a herd of Guanaco along the way) to get a distant view of the towers over the lake. The views were still amazing and at this time, most of the clouds had vanished and we could see them clearly. Driving south along the rough, bone jarring park road, we stopped briefly at the Cascada Paine, a wide, powerful waterfall, then continued on, marveling at all the amazing views of the mountains and lakes throughout the park. Cynthia especially liked the mountains near Pehoe and thought they looked like an imposing king and queen on their thrones. Words can’t do the scenery justice so we’ll let the pictures in the gallery do the talking. We made it to our hotel, Hosteria Lago del Toro, checked into room 10, cooked up some ravioli in our kettle in the room (not exactly legal) and fell exhausted into bed.

Foot bridge to Isla de Los Hielos trail

At 8:30 the next morning we had the typical continental breakfast offered by the hotel and then drove the 45 minutes to Hotel Lago Grey to try to book a Glacier Grey Cruise. Warren drove really slowly over a paved bridge and when asked what he was doing, he replied that he was just giving his teeth time to settle back into place. We arrived around 11:00 and put our names on the list for the 1:00pm afternoon cruise. Cynthia was on her way to the car at 11:30 to make some sandwiches for the cruise but noticed the chalk board now indicated the afternoon cruise had been cancelled due to high winds. Stopping at the desk instead, she was able to get us on the 9:00am trip the next morning due to some last minute cancellations. We decided to drive the short distance up the road to Guardia Grey and went for a hike on the Isla de Los Hielos trail. You had to cross a suspension foot bridge (which Warren hates) over a rapid river, so we tried to walk out of step with each other to avoid causing the bridge to bounce. We walked through the forested path until we came to the lake. Unfortunately due to the heavy rains, the trail across the beach to the island was completely flooded, so we turned back at the water’s edge and walked back to the car. We drove the park road to the parking lot for Hosteria Pehoe and made and ate some sandwiches in the car as we enjoyed the view overlooking the lake. With the weather turning we drove back to the hotel and spent the afternoon in the nice warm lobby/dining room (the hotel rooms were drafty and not heated during the day) and spent the rest of the day writing and relaxing.

On board Grey III

Rising at 7, we had the hotel breakfast and were out the door by 8 enroute back to Hotel Lago Grey. Since we were one of the first checking in at the Park office, we kept our eyes out for the endangered Huemel deer, but alas, saw none. We continued on hoping that our 10am cruise to the Glacier would not be cancelled. Luck was with us and we were in “grupo uno” as the first to board the shuttle boat at 9:10 over to the Grey III catamaran. There were 4 and 6 person tables and being the first to board, we were able to choose seats by the window. After a couple more shuttle boats, the navigation was underway promptly at 10 am.

We marveled at the icebergs, some rather large, as we navigated toward the glacier. After about 30 minutes, the captain allowed us to go out on deck. One of the crew militantly barred the way, only allowing you to pass if you had your life vest on and properly secured, which was fine because it was freaking cold outside and the life vest offered an extra layer of warmth.  Another 10 minutes and we were as up close and personal with the first “finger” of the glacier as you could get aside from walking on it. Since 1945, when it was one giant glacier, the glacier has retreated around two islands so the front of it is divided into three fingers that reach into the lake. On our second foray outside, Warren turned a corner and right into the wind. A quick muffled curse and we watched sadly as his baseball cap became a permanent resident of the icy grey waters of the lake. The lake truly is grey and, as it was explained by the guides, it is because there is a lot of silt in the water from the glacial runoff and no oxygen which means no photosynthesis and no life.

We visited all three fingers and again, words just can’t describe the glacier and its deep blue, white and grey ice. We did enjoy a tasty pisco sour poured over glacial ice that was included in the cruise (although for the high cost of the cruise, you’d think they could at least offer a free snack – fortunately we’d brought our own along with some white wine which looks a lot like a watered down pisco sour (couldn’t let that glacier ice go to waste now could we?)). We made it back on shore about 12:30pm and hopped in the car for the drive back to Puerto Natales.

In Natales, we stopped at the black building on Bernardo O’Higgins which housed Patagonia Blend but no one answered the door and, no surprise, there were no hours of operation posted. At La Base hostel, the guy called them and it turns out we were just a few minutes early as they open up again at 3pm (after siesta of course) so we drove back and were able to buy a half kilo of dark roast coffee beans (which turned out to be really good) for 8500 CHP. Dinner that night was at the Singing Lamb where we enjoyed some really good pork ribs and happy hour beers. After the cold, drafty room in Hosteria Lago del Toro, the heater in the room at La Base afforded us a toasty warm night’s sleep.

Puerto Natales

The next day dawned bright and sunny but chilly. We took advantage of the sunshine to walk down to the lake and see some of the sights without all the cloud cover. There were quite a number of Black-necked Swans in the water and quite a number of tourists not in the water. We tried to be patient and wait for the crowds to thin, but the mini buses kept coming, so we got the obligatory picture of the fingers sculpture and the Mylodon statue and walked back to town. Wanting to get on the WiFi and not wanting to walk all the way back to the Hostel to do so, we stopped for an early lunch at Repizza and enjoyed the lunch and free WiFi until siesta hit and everyone in town started using the internet and brought it to a crawl. We went back to the hostel and were sitting on the small couch in the common area, doing some planning, when a couple with large backpacks walked in inquiring about rooms and asking for help arranging a 10 day hike into the park. The guy kindly made a couple of phone calls, but without reservations at the Refugios in the park (which fill up months in advance) he had to tell them they were out of luck. We engaged them in conversation about getting a car and staying close to the park like we had. The $150 USD per night cost of the hotel we stayed in (the cheapest we’d found online) was too much for them, but Cynthia had taken pictures of hotel, hostel and cabana signs on our way out so shared them with them indicating that maybe there would be cheaper options. We gave them the map we’d gotten from the tourist office, told them where they could rent (and should not rent!) a car and wished them luck as they headed out the door.

Dinner again was at the Singing Lamb for pork ribs and a lamb burger which was outstanding. We had to ask the waitress if they could cook the burger “a punto menos” and she indicated she was not sure and had to ask the chef. She never told us of the outcome, but when the hair-netted, mask and apron wearing cook came out and pointed questioningly at the burger, we gave him a big thumbs up! Lastly we couldn’t leave town without one more ice cream sandwich from Base Camp.

Next stop, Ushuaia.

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