Chile Part One: Puerto Natales and Torres Del Paine (W Trek Day 1)

Friday 7 February – Saturday 8 February 2020

It took us around 5-6 hours by bus to journey from El Calafate, in Argentina, to Puerto Natales, in Chile. Our journey took us through a small building that constituted the Chilean border, where we had to disembark and go through border control. This involved putting our hand baggage through security scanners but apparently we didn’t need to do the same with our big bags which stayed on the bus – maybe border control were going through these while we queued but if they did then I couldn’t tell.

As we got our passports stamped, we were presented with a small, white piece of paper – almost like a receipt – with our details on. No one told us, but this was actually quite an important piece of paper. We were often asked for it when checking into places and we needed it when it came to leaving Chile. Thankfully I held on to mine because my receipts usually end up in the bin.

We were dropped off at the main bus station in Puerto Natales. It was only a 15 minute walk or so to our hostel but, since we had our bags, My Friend grabbed a taxi – and who was I to argue. Today’s hostel was called Vinnhaus, which we’d booked the day before. The pictures we’d seen on Hostelword made it look more like a vintage, boutique hotel than a hostel and that is exactly what we found when we arrived. While that is what made us book it in the first place, that is why this ended up being one of my least favourite hostels on our trip. If we’d booked a private room and treated it as a hotel, then it probably would have been great, but, as it was, we were in a basic eight-bed dorm room that was stuck on the front of the building. It didn’t quite feel like it belonged and there was no common area to hang out in and no communal hostel-vibe. Instead it felt more like they were trying to figure out what to do with some extra space.

Still, the place was nice and so were the staff. We’d arrived before check-in so we dumped our bags and went for a wander. We ended up at a chocolatiers called Patagonia Dulce. Obviously, it was the theme that attracted us but what we actually needed was some proper lunch. I went for a beef sandwich, which was actually very nice. Obviously, I had to have something chocolatey whilst I was there so I kept it company with a hot chocolate and cream. This was good but not quite sweet enough for my taste so I ended up preferring the chocolatiers’ beef to the chocolatier’s chocolate.

Now that we were fed, we had to crack on with what we were really here to do: the W Trek in the nearby Torres del Paine National Park. Neither of us had much hiking experience (let alone any multi-day hiking experience), so we knew that spending five days doing the W Trek was ambitious but we wanted to see Torres del Paine and the trek was the best way of doing that. Well the 8-9 day O Trek was actually the best way of doing it but we had to draw the line somewhere.

Our first order of business was to head over to Erratic Rock, which holds daily free talks at 3pm to prepare W and O trekkers-to-be. The talk was held by a member of staff who had done the trek himself on more than one occasion. It gave us a good idea of what to expect and made me feel somewhat better because he was giving the talk from the perspective of doing it full-trekking style, which involved carrying tents and sleeping bags and cooking food, whereas we were doing it all-inclusive style, with the majority of our nights being spent in refugios (basically hostels crossed with log cabins) which would provide us with three meals a day and pre-made beds. Surely even we could manage that.

Erratic Rock also sells bus tickets to the national park (which we bought here as we needed to make sure we had space on the limited buses) and provides rental gear. I’m not sure it is the cheapest in town – of course we hadn’t really done the research we planned to do on this – but since they’d given us the free talk, we thought we’d get our gear from them. We got ourselves some walking polls and waterproof jackets and headed back to Vinnhaus to sort out our stuff.

We quickly realised that our bags weren’t quite right. Our daypacks were on the small side and not particularly supportive but our main bags were way too big for us to bring with us. We found a place down the road from Vinnhaus called Backpackers Arkya, which rented out equipment so we popped over. They didn’t have much in the way of bags of the size we wanted but we were able to grab a couple that would do.

Now we just needed some food for our trip. While we’d paid for our meals to be provided, we wanted some snacks and stuff for lunch on our first day so we found a supermarket. The queues were long but we really wanted sweets.

Once we were as ready as we’d ever be for the next morning, we went off in search for dinner. My Friend had found a decent review for a place called La Picada De Carlitos. It looked almost like a canteen from the outside which isn’t the first thing I’d go for but we went for it and I ended up having some delicious beef. I also treated myself to a Pisco Sour. It was here that I discovered that Chilean Pisco Sours are sweeter than those I had been introduced to in Peru. As much as I do like the more sour Peruvian version, I did find that I liked the sweeter one too. How lucky I am to live in a world where I get both varieties. 

After that, we headed back to Vinnhaus – we needed to be well rested for the next day. Buses to Torres del Paine left the main bus station at 7am and, if we didn’t get on one, the next wouldn’t be leaving until the afternoon. Hence we’d pre-bought our bus tickets. Thankfully Vinnhaus anticipated early leavers and so the (complimentary) breakfast service started early so we could get some (tasty) nourishment before we started our day. We left our big bags in storage at the hostel and marched ourselves over to the bus station with our smaller rented ones. The town was quiet as we walked through the streets but the bus station was decidedly less so. Thankfully, we found our bus easily enough and climbed aboard.

Trek Day One

Even though Puerto Natales was the closest departure point, there was still a 2-hour or so journey between us and the park. The bright side of this meant that we had a chance for some more sleep. We eventually arrived at the entrance and climbed off our bus to use the facilities (while we could) and – more importantly – buy our entry tickets, which cost around CLP 25,000 (about £25), and fill in a form that would set out what dates we would be in the park. I felt reassured that there would be some kind of record of when we were meant to be there in case we didn’t resurface on our planned exit date.

We managed to get through the entrance hut quite quickly, ahead of some of the crowds, but I was still surprised to get back on the bus to find not many other people on there. We sat there for a while but still people did not appear. I was beginning to think we had missed something. Some people were leaving the bus here to get a minibus to start their trek east-to-west (while we were going west-to-east) but that seemed to be the minority. Then I remembered we’d been told that there was a video for us to watch. I’m not sure what we missed but we survived the trek so it can’t have been that fundamental.

Eventually, the rest of our bus returned and we continued on into the park. Our destination was Pudeto, where we would catch a catamaran to take us across Lake Pehoe to Refugio Paine Grande where we would start our trek. We’d missed the first boat that left at 9am but on track to catch the next one that left at 11am. We knew it would be busy and there wouldn’t be another boat leaving for another few hours so we had to make sure we were on board. We got off the boat as quickly as possible, grabbed our bags and headed on over to the dock. We managed to get there ahead of most the people on our bus and so had no trouble getting onto the boat.

I don’t think anyone in our group got left behind and this is where we realised we had made a bit of an error. As the boat picks up so many passengers with big bags, all bags have to be piled up at the front of the boat. That means, if you are first on, your bag is going right at the back and right at the bottom of the pile. That’s exactly where ours ended up but that didn’t bother us too much. The important thing was that we were on board.

The ferry ride took about 30 minutes and cost around CLP 20,000 (which seemed ridiculous in comparison to the entry fee price). We spent most of the ride inside but I did take a little wander onto the upper deck to check out the views. I was glad I did because the views from the boat were actually some of the nicest we came across in the park. My Friend regretted not moving from her seat inside.

By the time we arrived at Paine Grande, it was lunchtime. Between the park entrance and the ferry, we’d made a new friend – a fellow hiker who was taking on the trek solo – and the three of us managed to grab a picnic table outside the refugio and crack open our packed lunches. Although we weren’t staying in that refugio until the next night, we were able to make the most of the facilities and used the bathroom and refilled our water bottles. As we’d learnt at the Erratic Rock talk, the water in the park is actually drinkable but we were still a little sceptical. I had brought a LifeStraw bottle with me which had a filter already in it. I was pretty paranoid during my trip so usually filled it up with bottled water instead of tap water but it was very handy for my time in the park (apart from the fact it kept leaking if it wasn’t up straight) as it made me less nervous about drinking from the streams.

We’d heard the weather in the park could be very temperamental – with it being possible to experience four seasons in one day. The weather was currently set to “summer”, with the sky clear and the sun out so we also made sure we were covered in suncream. Now we just needed to sort out our walking polls. We hadn’t tested these out in the rental shop (mistake) but after some fiddling I managed to sort mine out. My Friend, however, was not so lucky. One of hers worked fine but the other would not stay in place. Whenever we opened it out, it collapsed back in again when any pressure was applied. Our new friend – who was more experienced in all things hiking – gave it a go but even he was no more successful.

We’d now reached the time where we had to start our hike. Day One would take us from Paine Grande to Refugio Grey – by Lago Grey and Glacier Grey – a distance of 11km, which would take an estimated 3.5 hours. It did not take us 3.5 hours but more like 4-5 hours (although I didn’t keep a note).

Pretty quickly after we set off, the enormity of what we were embarking on started to hit home. Ahead of us we had five days of walking and if it was as hot as this everyday then it would be even more of a struggle than we’d thought.

Very quickly we had to pull over and I zipped off the bottom of my zip-off trousers. I’ve never been one for zip-off trousers before but given the changeable weather I thought they seemed sensible. I’d also bought some hiking leggings which I thought looked a bit nicer – normal leggings probably would have been just fine (and I saw several people wearing them on the trails) – but I actually ended up living in my zip-offs. They were so, so handy and I loved them.

The trail between Paine Grande and Grey wasn’t too physically challenging. There was a particularly steep bit that involved a bit of a climb down but we took it slowly and it didn’t go on for too long. What got to us the most that day was the heat. We’d gotten away with bringing minimal – since our food and accommodation were taken care of – but our bags were still weighing heavy on us, particularly in the sun.

The landscape wasn’t quite what we expected – as we’d come to learn, there was a huge fire in the park in 2011 which had destroyed a huge area. That meant that today, instead of walking amongst lush green trees, we were walking through a charred forest.

It might sound ridiculous to say now, to anyone who has seen pictures of the beautiful landscape of Torres del Paine but, at the time, we often found ourselves underwhelmed. During our trek we did come across several viewpoints where we could see lakes, mountains and glaciers but we were there for five days and there was a lot of space in between those viewpoints where we’d just find ourselves scrambling over loose rocky ground or walking along dusty tracks.

That first day, we came across a couple of viewpoints where we had particularly good views of the lake and the glacier. It wasn’t really fair to Glacier Grey – which was exactly the kind of glacier I wanted to see, not the snow-capped mountain kind like Glacier Martial but the huge block of ice kind – but after we’d seen the Perito Moreno Glacier, even this seemed less of a wonder.

It was only really in hindsight, when we were reminiscing after we’d finished the W Trek (spoiler, we made it across the finish line) and going through our photos that we truly realised, wow, that was actually pretty amazing.

I have to admit, the best site I saw on Day One was the sight of Refugio Grey looming into view. We’d been told by a work colleague who had done the W Trek not long before that the refugios along the trail weren’t great, so as happy as we were to see the place, we approached with some trepidation. Happily, our colleague turned out to be very wrong. The refugios were actually some of the nicer places we stayed on our trip (and that’s not because everywhere we stayed was trash, we’d found some nice places).

Refugio Grey – in my opinion – was the nicest refugio along the W Trek. We were in a six bed dorm, there was a wood burner in the corridor, hot showers, the common area consisted of a restaurant and bar area and some sofas and the place seemed relatively new. We were directed to communal tables for dinner, where we were brought our pre-paid meal. It was a nice evening, the only thing was what we were going to do once we had finished eating. I’d decided against bringing a book or even cards. This was a mistake as I was now at a bit of a lose end – particularly as My Friend headed off for a nap during the evening – but, considering we had another day of walking ahead, getting an early night was not the worst idea so after sitting up for a short while that’s what I did.

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