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We caught the bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales, a six hour trip which included a border crossing into Chile where I had to sacrifice some Bariloche lavender in order to save the chocolate purchased as gifts for my flatmates.
Puerto Natales is a small town off Ultima Esperanza Sound which exists as a jumping off point for trips into Torres del Paine, a mere 145kms away. Apart from some novelty rubbish bins (see picture), an excellent restaurant serving Patagonian lamb and passable locally brewed beer (Baguales), the town did not have much to entertain the tourist. Luckily therefore we scored a room in our hostel that had pay tv. We were able to watch bad movies and the Australian Open while Dave recovered from a cold and a sore back, and I waited anxiously for the arrival of the tent pole (which never made it).
After 6 days of just hanging out, many calls to DHL and a change of hotels (which no longer had pay tv) we hired a tent and set off to do the ‘W’ walk in the Torres del Paine.
We set off from Las Torres where the bus dropped us to walk to Refugio Chileno. This walk took roughly 2.5 hours, and was not too difficult, apart from the standard uphill bit at the beggining and the end. On reaching Refugio Chileno, we bagged one of the few remaining camping spots in the tiny camping area that did not have tree roots in it, and then set off to walk to the viewpoint of the Towers.
It took us about 2 hours to get to the view point. I was glad we weren’t carrying our packs, as the last bit of the walk required uphill rock scrambling that seems to be obligatory for any viewpoint in Patagonia.
Dave found a spot on a rock from which to look at the Towers, and have a bit of a rest. After taking photos, and eavesdropping on the stupid questions asked by Americans to their guide, we set back. That night, after a feast cooked by Dave of cheesy tuna pasta, we hung out in the hut for a bit to get out of the wind, and scored a free soup each from the guys running the hut as they cleaned up the kitchen. We must have looked hungry!
The next day was a steep walk for the first 30 minutes or so, and then a pleasant meander above other paths below, overlooking a couple of lakes. This went on for about 2 hours, then it got a bit tougher, the worst bit being a creek crossing (one of the few without a bridge), where they had a wire to help follow the stepping stones across, but this was placed at probably the widest and strongest current (the creek was fed by glaciers) part of the creek. Dave found a better spot to cross further down, which I nearly made it across unassisted. All up, the walk from camp to camp on Day 2 took us about 5 hours.
We camped that night at Los Cuernos, a refugio below the ‘Horns’ of Torres del Paine. For the next day we had a decision to make. We could either head for Camp Italiano (2 hours walk away), dump packs and head up the middle of the W, to see the Towers from the other side, or skip the middle bit, effectively making the hike a U, and head straight to Refugio Paine Grande (formerly Pudeto), 2 hours ‘easy’ walk from Camp Italiano.
We decided to skip the middle bit, reasoning that we had seen the towers already, and knowing that it was a very tough uphill walk to the viewpoint anyway - and we did not need to make things any tougher.
The easy walk was not that much easier than the so called medium tracks, we were hoping for no hills, which was unrealistic given the part of the world we were in. Along the way we could see on our left mountains towering above, which had glaciers sitting on top of them, and waterfalls falling along the side of the mountain, and on our right a lake of an indescrible bluey green.
We reached camp about 5pm, and scored a spot to ourselves (though when we awoke the next day we saw that a late arriver had pitched his one man tent a metre from ours. He must have arrived in around 11pm). We had just finished eating dinner, which was ruined by a dodgy can of tuna of pet food quality, purchased from the refugion shop, when a massive gust blew up and covered us and our cups of El Gato red wine in fine black dust and bits of bark (this may have improved the taste of the wine). It was an extremely windy spot, we saw tents with whole sides blown in. Due to it not being a particularly pleasant place to sleep the night, we decided to walk to Lago Grey and back the next day, and then catch the 6.30pm ferry out.
After our breakfast on the fourth day of instant porridge with sugar, powdered milk and dried fruits (very yummy, I did not get sick of it at all the whole hike) we set off for Lago Grey. Again we were able to leave our packs behind at the refugio, making it much easier to do the 21km return trip. The walk involved going through some lovely green foresty bits, and then up on the ridge alongside the lake Grey, where occasionally we could see floating icebergs, or the boat going to the face of the glacier. At the first viewpoint of the glacier, (which was furtherest from the glacier) the force of the wind made it quite an effort to keep walking, (though easier going back!) and it was pretty cold, coming straight off the glacier. Eventually, after 3 hours of walking with the occasional rest, we made it to the viewpoint directly opposite the glacier.
Maybe it was because we had seen so many glaciers of late, or the icy, gale force winds, but we did not hang around for too long, and headed back.
We made it back to the lodge with a good 1.5 hours to spare before the ferry left. We spent this downing a well earned Austral beer, in the dining room overlooking the lake. We then caught the ferry across Lago Pehoe (half an hour) and then the bus back to Puerto Natales, arriving in town about 10.30pm.
We had one last day chilling out at Puerto Natales, and then caught the bus out to Punta Arenas. We walked around Punta Arenas for a couple of hours, which had a lovely square commerating Magellan for discovering the Straights where they could export wool from the bottom of Chile to Europe and North America. The square was surrounded by massive old houses, built by the merchants rich from exporting wool. Fortunes for the town went down hill when the Panama Canal opened, meaning that ships could skip going around the bottom of South America and cut through the middle.
After wondering around town for a bit, buying some chocolate (as Punta Arenas was supposed to be the Chilean equivalent to Bariloche, but the chocolate was more of a fudge consistency, too sweet and therefore of very inferior quality compared to Bariloche) and sitting on the beach of the straights of Magellan while building construction went on behind us.
We flew back up to Santiago, flying over the small islands which make up the east coast of the bottom of South America, and we were lucky to be on the left side of the plane to get a great view.
As a bit of an anti-climax, our last day of the trip was spent hanging out in our four star airport hotel, getting reunited with the tent pole and watching tv.
Then, at 11.05pm on the 24th of January we flew out on Lan back home to reality, work, and home. Appropriately, we arrived back at Sydney on Australia Day, and two ladies dressed in gold t-shirts and waving flags greeted us after passport control, with ‘Happy Australia Day’.
More photos can be seen here.