Torres Trip Report
My wife and I spent a few days at Torres in March and in preparing for this trip I learned a lot from the trip reports in Trip Advisor so I thought I would write one for others. One posting in particular that was helpful was tripadvisor.com/ShowTopic-g670171-i12474-k41…
Based on what we read (and the experiences of some friends) we decided not to stay at the Refugios. There were too many negative comments about the living conditions and sharing the space with strangers. And it sounded like you had to operate on the Refugio’s schedule for meals. We wanted privacy and the flexibility of eating when we wanted. But hotels can be expensive, especially inside the park.
Just outside the south entrance of the park in the Rio Serrano area is a cluster of hotels where the prices are cheaper. Better yet, the Hosteria Lago Tyndall had cabins with full kitchens for much less than the hotel rate. Although you don’t get maid service, you can still get laundry done and it had Wi-Fi (and you are welcome to use the computer in the lobby of their hotel). So we tried that and it worked out well for us. The quality of the cabins were not all that great and we were glad we had our silk sleeping pouches for the scratchy sheets. But it was clean and private with plenty of hot water. And the kitchenette had everything we needed.
We flew into Punta Arenas, rented a car, and went grocery shopping at the Unimarc (this is the big, full service supermarket chain in Chile). There are seven Unimarcs in PA but the biggest one is on the north side of town on your left as you take the main street to the airport. We stocked up on fruit, veggies, dairy, bread, pasta and sundries and headed north to Torres on Ruta 9 (we also bought pre-cooked sausages that we could just re-heat and lunch meat. What we forgot to buy was a small bottle of cooking oil and paper towels).
Its about 200km (125 miles) to Puerto Natales and it took us about 3 hours. We ate lunch there and gassed up for the final 70km to the south entrance of Torres. But the roads are so bad it was slow going, it took over an hour. We had Toyota Yaris (a small car) but a 4x4 would not have helped. It was just so bumpy and rutted that unless you wanted give yourself a headache you had to go slow. Critical note: absolutely stop in Puerto Natales for gas, it is the closest gas station to Torres. While I have heard that you can get emergency liters of gas in Torres, its $12 a gallon.
We checked in at Hosteria Tyndall, unloaded our stuff and then stopped in at the south Ranger Station. They gave us advice on the hikes we wanted to do, weather forecasts, sunrise and sunset times, etc. They spoke English and were very helpful. The deal on admissions is that they have a 5 day pass and a 3 day pass. But if you are staying outside the park like we were, you can only buy a three day pass. Ah well…
Before the trip we had bought “Torres Del Paine Trekking Map” a topo map at 1:80000 by Zagier and had marked it with the hikes we were interested in. This is an excellent map, well worth the money. And it is widely available in shops in Chile, even the airport in Santiago. Anyway, the Rangers were noticeably impressed that we had this map. If you are going to Torres, get this map and use it for your planning.
Because we were already into the afternoon at this point we opted for one of the shortest hikes: Mirador Cuernos (The Lookout of the Horns) on the south shore of Lago Nordenskjold. The Rangers told us to drive along the east side of the Rio Paine, which turns into Lago Pehoe, and follow that to Refugio Pudeto where we would turn left. This is also the departure point for the catamaran that crosses Lago Pehoe to Refugio Paine Grande.
They said it was about a 20 minute drive but it was more like 30 to 40 minutes because the road up to the east side of the lake is very hilly with lots of blind curves and drop offs. The guard rails do not extend the full length of most curves and did not look all that convincing. Between not wanting to drive into the drink or hit some unsuspecting hikers in a blind curve, we drove pretty slowly. Plus the road was so rutted it made it impossible to drive too fast. My advice is to take it easy driving in the Park. And use your headlights, even in daytime.
We got to Pudeto and did the 1km hike to the falls, Salto Grande. Pretty cool! Then we hiked about an hour north up the trail to Lago Nordenskjol for our first “up close” look at the mountains. It was stunning! Unfortunately the wind was simply howling through us. We were dressed pretty well but it was unceasing and you burn a lot of calories just trying to stay upright. Yes, it was strong enough to knock us over. We later learned from the Rangers that the average wind speed that day was around 45km an hour with gusts twice that. Yikes! Also, this part of the park suffered some severe fire damage and one of the Rangers regretted that we were not seeing the great beauty of the region. Fair enough, but the fire damaged landscape was also captivating in its own way.
On our drive back south to Rio Serrano, about ten minutes from Pudeto, we passed Camp Lago Pehoe on our left and across the road from it was a small general store and restaurant. The store sold drinks and snacks, some basic tourist goodies and so forth. I mention that because post after post I read in TA said there were “no stores in Torres”. Turns out most of the hotels have little shops where you can at least get a cold Coke and a bag of chips. No, its not a Unimarc, but…
The next morning we got up at 6AM, made a hot breakfast and headed into the park before 7AM so we could catch the sunrise. This time we headed north along the Rio Grey, which takes you to the west side of Lago Pehoe to Hosteria Lago Grey. Unlike the road we took yesterday (on the east side of Lago Pehoe) this was flat and without curves. So while it was still bumpy, we made much better time despite covering about the same amount of distance.
Just beyond Hosteria Lago Grey is the Guardia Lago Grey Ranger Station and two trail heads, one for Mount Ferrier and the other for the Glacier Grey lookout. Ferrier is one of the harder hikes in the park, it has a half mile elevation in about 3.5 miles of hiking and the terrain can be a little daunting. It is also not on the W or the Circuit, the two most popular multi-day hikes in the park. As a result, few people do it. Because we would probably be the only people out there, the Rangers at the Rio Serrano station told us we should register at Guardia Lago Grey, which we did. The Ranger there was very friendly and said we had a tough hike ahead of us but we would not regret it. She was clearly excited for us.
So off we went. And it was a tough hike. The weather was a bit windy and there was some rain. But it was very scenic and the rapid change of altitude meant a varied landscape and vegetation. And when we crested, the view of Paine Grande and the Cuernos was spectacular. Also, the Rangers were right, we had the whole mountain to ourselves - we saw not a single other hiker all day. But the wind on the summit was unbelievable! We stayed away from the edge of the mountain because it was too dangerous. After we got our pictures and hung out for a bit, we descended a hundred meters back into the woods for cover and had lunch and then hiked back down to the Ranger station where we checked in again. It was about 2PM.
Then we did the short hike out to the Lago Grey lookout to see the Gray Glacier. It takes about 30 minutes and this is where you board the boat for the Lago Grey Glacier excursion. We had opted not to do this because it takes 4 hrs (departures at 7AM and 2PM) and is not cheap ($40 per adult). Two years ago we had done something similar at the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina and it included a hike on the glacier itself. And that glacier is much larger than Gray Glacier. It seemed like this would have been a little anti-climatic to just take a boat out the ice sheet for a few hours so we opted for another day of hiking instead.
Anyway, the little hike we did take to Lago Grey to see the glacier was disappointing, you really cant see much, you are too far away. My wife and I agreed this was the one thing we did at Torres that was a waste of time. Note though, that we were at the lookout at the south end of Lago Grey. There are other miradors (lookouts) on the east bank of the lake that are much closer to the glacier. If you do the full W hike, you will hit these lookouts and I bet they are have a much better view of the glacier.
The third day we headed north from Rio Serrano, took the eastern road up along Rio Paine, went past Pudeto and headed east along Lago Nordenskjold until we hit the Ranger station at the east entrance. Then we made a left turn and drove to Hosteria Los Torres, the hotel at the trailhead for the hike to Mirador Torres, one of the legs in the 3 day W hike. The whole drive took close to an hour. Be careful driving the stretch from Pudeto to the Ranger Station, this area is very busy with herds of guanacos. They are skittish animals, a bit like llamas with camel necks. They will graze by the side of the road and at the sound of traffic they run off. But more than once a guanaco panicked and turned back onto the road into the path of a moving car! Fortunately no one was hurt in these encounters, but please be alert when driving in this part of the park.
Anyway, we hiked in two hours from the trailhead to the Refugio at Camp / Refugio Chileno, bought a cold Coke and then hiked on another hour to the Torres Campgrounds. From there it is rather steep ascent up the last leg of the trail to Mirador Torres and that took another hour. It was a sunny day with no wind at all. The hike itself is very beautiful and if there had been no “lookout” at the end I would have been fine with that. But what a lookout it was! Our only problem was that we were a little nervous about the weather – after two straight days of strong winds and a bit of rain we packed too much clothing for this hike – we should have listened to the Ranger’s weather forecast.
We started hiking back around 2PM, bought another Coke at Camp Chileno and were back in our car by 6PM and back to our hotel by 8PM (we stopped to take sunset pix, get tomorrow’s weather from the Rangers, get pix of the guanacos, etc.). I mention buying the Coke Camp / Refugio Chileno because I love Coke. And I certainly could use the caffeine. You can buy drinks like this at the Refugios, but not the pure campgrounds.
We had been undecided about what to do on day four but so many other hikers recommended the Rio Frances hike to us that we decided to do that. Its neat because you hike up the valley between Paine Grande and the Cuernos. If you are doing the W hike you can hike west from Camp Chileno along Lago Nordenskjold to Camp Italiano (7hrs) where you spend the night and then head north towards the mirador near Camp Britanico the next day.
Since we were not staying at the refugios, we had to take the alternate route starting at Camp / Refugio Paine Grande at the north end of Lago Pehoe and hike east two hours to Camp Italiano. The trick is that the only way to reach Refugio Paine Grande is take the catamaran from Refugio Pudeto. I had read conflicting posts in TA about the timing of the ferry and it turns out that is because the schedule changes during the season. I will post the schedule separately elsewhere for people to refer to but on our stay the first boat of the day departed Pudeto at 9:30AM, landing at Refugio Paine Grande at 10AM.
It was another sunny day without wind and we had packed much lighter. We were on the trail by 10:30AM and reached Camp Italiano by 12:30PM. For whatever reason my wife and I really got in the groove and made very good time on this leg. We had lunch and hung at the camp for a bit fixing things (read: band aids for blisters) and were back on the trail by 1:30PM. About an hour on towards Camp Britanico we realized we were going to run out of time: the last ferry back to Pudeto is at 6:30PM and we had at least a 3 hour hike back. And we were starting to fatigue, there was no way we would be able to go at the pace we had set in the morning.
So we turned around and headed back without reaching the mirador. It was disappointing but the hike itself was spectacular, we did get into the mountains themselves. I would highly recommend this hike. As it was, we got back to Refugio Paine Grande around 6PM and were all set for the catamaran at 6:30PM. We were back on the dock by 7PM and were back to Rio Serrano by 7:45PM.
This was the only time that we wished we had stayed at a Refugio. If we had taken the late evening catamaran the day before and spent the night at Refugio Paine Grandes, we could have gotten up early and been on the trail by 8AM, giving us plenty of time to reach Camp Britanico and get back without having to worry about catching the last boat of the day. This option was not available as Refugio Paine Grandes had been closed due to the fire and had actually only re-opened the day before our hike!
One thing I have not mentioned yet is that when you exit the park at the south end you cross a bridge over the Rio Serrano and then you go 50 meters and there is a road to the right that leads to the hotels (if you continue straight, you are heading back to Puerto Natales). The road to the hotels climbs pretty quickly and then descends the other side to the valley where the hotels are along the Serrano. Anyway, on this access road there is a lookout and from it you get a great view of the entire park. We stopped here first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening for some nice sunrise/sunset photos.
On our final day we drove back to Punta Arenas but did not want to go back via the southern route because it was so bumpy. Because our three day pass was now expired we asked the Rangers at the Southern entrance if we could transit through the park and exit from the eastern entrance and head back via Cerro Castillo on Ruta 9. They were very nice about it and said yes. But they also said they would radio ahead to the Rangers there to expect us in about an hour. In other words, don’t take advantage of this to spend the day in the park. We were fine with that and about an hour later we exited the park as the Rangers at the eastern entrance waved us on through. I thought that was a nice gesture on their part, they could have said no.
It was an hour to Natales where we gassed up and had a great lunch at Afrigonia and bought pastries at El Hausito. Three hours later we were back at the Ilaia Hotel in Arenas. Okay, to summarize and offer a few suggestions.
1. Get hiking or trekking poles. I would say 90% of the hikers we saw used poles of some sort. This was my first experience using them and they made a big difference. They took a load of my joints on the down hill, they made the uphills easier because I could put my upper body into it, and on the uneven terrain it provided some stability. I had a few near tumbles and the poles helped me keep my balance. All in all, I was not nearly as fatigued after these hikes as I usually am and I was really grateful for that.
2. Get the weather report at the Ranger stations and go accordingly. For the cold, rainy, ultra windy days we were prepared with tights, nylon cargo slacks, and rain gear that doubled as a windbreak. Yes the weather was bad, but it did not stop us from enjoying the hikes. The one day we forget to get the weather report we regretted it because we were overdressed.
3. Get the Zagier topo map of the park.
4. Pack a lot of food and water for your hikes. I know that sounds obvious but while the water in the park is potable, you may not be near a clean water source when you most need it so don’t take this for granted (we made this mistake once). As for food, we brought a half dozen meals ready to eat (MRE) with us. These prep-packed food rations are an excellent source of calories, just add a bit of water to the heating element and you have a hot meal. This was great on the really cold days. Finally, we took our empty Unimarc grocery bags on our hikes as they make excellent garbage bags. Torres is a “pack it in, pack it out” kind of place.
4. Drive carefully in the park and be aware of the guanacos.