Patagonia is a distant land full of awe & wonder, an explorer's dream. It seems no less adventurous now that when Magellan, Drake and Darwin ventured there in centuries past.
The region of Patagonia spans from the southern tip of South America, across Chile and Argentina. Patagonia links Puerto Montt to Rio Negro in the north to the archipelago of Terre del Fuego and the infamous Cape Horn in the south. It’s a far away place, remote and wild; this makes it all the more special. There is no doubt that the long journey to get there is well worth the effort, it is simply spectacular!
Our journey to the end of the world began on the 16th March; after 30 years on my bucket list I couldn’t quite believe I was finally heading to this extraordinary part of the globe. Our plan was to focus on the mountainous area around the Southern Patagonian Ice Field; Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and the Los Glaciers National Park in Argentina.
After a stop in Santiago we took a flight down to Puerto Natales starting with a recce of Chilean Patagonia. The recent development of the local airport makes the journey much more straightforward. Before then it was necessary to fly to Punta Arenas further south and then take a 3 hour bus ride to Puerto Natales. We had the most amazing flight, with clear skies we had extraordinary views of the Southern Patagonian Ice field, Mount Fitz Roy, Cerro Torre and Torres del Paine. We lost count of the times we said WOW! This truly set the scene for the next two weeks.
Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
Located in the southern most part of Chile this area of natural beauty was declared a biosphere site by UNESCO in 2013. It's an area of stunning geography, a feast for the eyes with it’s huge sprawling glaciers, turquoise lakes, icebergs and of course towering granite spires. The nearest town to the park is Puerto Natales, this is a small wind swept town located on the Senoret Channel. It forms a base for many expeditions; for example, venturing out into the Torres del Paine National Park and also a stop off point for Antarctic exploratory cruise ships. Puerto Natales doesn’t seem overdeveloped with tourism, which is initially a surprise but a nice one at that! It has some nice cafes, accommodation and a handful of craft and gear shops. Just enough for a day to get organised before heading into the mountains.
All set, we took an early two hour bus ride into the Torres del Paine National Park. Our eight day trek would take us from Los Torres anticlockwise (obligatory direction) on the ‘O’ or Painey trail.
Below is the itinerary we followed, we will make changes to this for 2024. We now have a clearer idea of what would work better in terms of itinerary and accommodation, one of the benefits of experiencing the route beforehand.
Day 1: Los Torres to Camp Seron
Daily stats: distance 13 kilometres, height gain approx +300m, time 4-5 hours with stops. Accommodation: Tented camp, hot showers and good food in the restaurant building. Notes: An easy day on easy terrain, the camp is situated in a beautiful peaceful location next to the river.
Day 2: Camp Seron to Refuge Dickson
Daily stats: distance 19 kilometres, height gain approx +400m, time 6 hours. Accommodation: Refuge, small dormitories for 3, we had the dorm to ourselves, hot showers, good food. Notes: An easy day on easy terrain, Dickson camp & refuge is situated in the most beautiful location on the shores of Lake Dickson looking up to the Dickson glacier and Argentinian boarder.
Day 3: Refuge Dickson to Camp Los Perros
Daily stats: distance 12 kilometres, height gain +600m, time 4-5 hours. Accommodation: Tented camp, basic facilities but this is a small price to pay for the day to come the following day! Notes: An easy day on easy terrain as we made our way up into the Los Perros valley. Stunning views of lake Los Perros and it’s Glacier. The camp is situated in a beautiful remote location in the Forrest next to a river, lake and glacier Los Perros.
Day 4: Los Perros camp to Refuge Grey via the John Gardner Pass
Daily stats: distance 22 kilometres, height gain +800m, descent -1100m, time 10 hours with stops. Accommodation: Refuge with dormitories for 4 people, hot showers, good bar & food. Notes: Just the most spectacular day, jaw dropping views all day long, not a difficult ascent & the views from the pass are well worth the climb! A long descent with stunning views of the Grey Glacier lead us to a beautiful refuge. This is where the 'O' meets the 'W' so it felt a bit busier all of a sudden, bit of shock to the system after the tranquility of the previous trails.
Day 5: Refuge Grey to Refuge Paine Grande
Daily stats: distance 11 kilometres, height gain +300m, time 4 hours with stops. Accommodation: Refuge with dormitories of 4, 6 & 8. Hot showers, bar area and good food. Notes: An easy day on easy terrain beautiful views looking back to the snout of Glacier Grey & over Lake Grey. This was a wet day for us. Refuge Paine Grande was a busy spot as it also services the W and the day trekkers who take the catamaran over from Pudeto.
Day 6: Refuge Paine Grande to Camp Frances via vallée Frances
Daily stats: distance 7.5 kilometres to the Italian camp, stage 2 up to Britanico 12k round trip. Height gain +850m, stage 3 to Camp Frances 2k. Total time 8 hours with stops. Accommodation: Tented camp & Refuge, we would not stay here again as we didn’t think it was a good set up. Los Cuernos is much better a further 1hr 30mins along the trail, dormitories and private cabins. Notes: Jaw dropping views all day long. The trek up the Vallée Frances to the ‘Lookout Britanico’. This day can be made shorter if necessary, the views from the French lookout are stunning so you could stop there.
Day 7: Camp Frances to Los Torres
Daily stats: distance 15 kilometres, height gain +300m, time 6 hours with stops. Accommodation: Hotel, just lovely! Notes: We thought this day wouldn’t be as special as we were just traversing across from one camp to the other. In reality it was a beautiful day, fabulous views across Lake Pehoe & up towards the Paine Hornes. The weather gave us everything, showers, sun, wind and lots of rainbows!
Day 8: Return to Puerto Natales via bus from Los Torres.
One thing we didn’t do due to weather (rain & poor visibility) was hike up to the base of the Torres. Initially we were going to do this before catching the bus. We did see the Torres on the first day. This day will be added in as day trek to our 2024 itinerary from Hotel Los Torres.
The 'O' is a truly amazing trek, held in different and higher regard than the 'W’ due to accessibility & remote nature of 'O' section from Seron to Grey over the John Gardner Pass. We met some fabulous folks along the way from Australia, Netherlands, USA, UK and Shrilanka… they soon became the ‘O Team’ as we saw them in the trail & then at the accommodation each night. We were sad to say goodbye when we all went our separate ways.
The vistas were unlike anything else I have ever seen. The glaciers are so vast, pristine and not receding! The towers of granite & metamorphic rock rise from nowhere, just jaw dropping. It also feels largely unspoilt in comparison to other trekking areas in the world.
Amazing, we came up close to so many creatures that we had never seen before. Bird life in abundance, from the biggest mighty Andean Condor to the smallest Tree hopper & everything in between. Mammals that are very specific to this area of the world, Guanaco, Mara, Armadillo and of course the Puma which remained elusive but one of the ‘O Team’ did see fresh paw prints in the mud on the day going over the John Garder pass.
It’s not a difficult trek at all in comparison to others that we offer in the Alps. You trek at sea level most of the time so no problem with altitude. The maximum height gain on the longest day at 22k with approx + 800m with a descent of -1100m. Other days were not as difficult as this. The weather can be the main challenge at times, make sure you are prepared with good gear!
The weather is notoriously changeable in Patagonia and you often experience all seasons in one day! We were lucky, we only had one full day of rain on the Refuge Grey to Refuge Paine Grande day. It also rained after we arrived at Camp Los Perros. This quickly passed and by morning we awoke to clear skies. The Patagonian wind is something else, truly exhilarating!
We stayed in a variety of accommodation types; 4* hotel, refuges and camps, all were much better than expected. We overnighted in pre-erected tents at Seron & Los Perros, there is no alternative. They are erected on wooden platforms raised off the ground which makes the experience more comfortable. The tents also have a good thick mattress. You can either rent a sleeping bag or bring your own. The refuges have small dormitories, private rooms are possible in some locations. Hot showers are available in all locations apart from Los Perros. A good 3 couse meal is provided each evening & hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bread, jam, cereal, yogurt, fruit, tea & coffee. Each accommodation provides a picnic lunch which contains a sandwich, trail mix, cereal bar, chocolate and fruit.
From Puerto Natales we headed over the boarder into Argentinian Patagonia which is a must! More about that in our next Blog.
As usual we will plan the 2024 trek to make use of the best available accommodation on each night based on what we discovered on the recce. I will add more photos to our Gallery in due course.
We would love to share this special place with you next year! For further information on our 2024 itinerary see here.