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Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine Circuit Trek (the wrong way around!)


After a very long bus journey which involved crossing into Argentina and then back into Chile (only stopping in Argentina for one short meal stop) we arrived in Punta Arenas where we were to spend a few days making sure we had everything we need for the trekking. That was our sole intention of being there and all we managed to achieve but it was a nice little town (if quite cold) and served our purposes well. The only thing we didn't get was sleeping bags but these we knew we could rent in Puerto Natales so all was well.

Another bus and another welcome by guest house owners eager to sell us a room and we were in Puerto Natales, the kick off point for the trek. The town again is nice and simple and served our purposes but all our attention was on the forthcoming trek so having organised the sleeping bags and made sure we had enough food supplies (we were told to buy our food in Punta Arenas as Puerto Natales was very expensive but this seems to be out-of-date as the supermarket here was basically the same prices as everywhere else in Chile) and had good nights sleep ready for the big event.

Finally Chile has delivered on its promise. Patagonia really is a beautiful and our first glimpse of the Torres del Paine, from the bus on the way to the start, confirmed the beauty that we were going to surrounded by for the next 8 days.

Given how much time we had spent in Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales getting ready for the trek, we had actually done no planning at all on the route we would take or where we would start/finish. To start with this didn't really cause any problems except for the confusion at the beginning when we had bought our permits and then people started getting on different buses going to different places and we had no idea what we wanted to do. After a rush decision we caught a shuttle bus up to Hotel Las Torres and started our trek from there.

With very limited reading about where to go first we set off on what we thought was an obvious route, first going to see the view point for las Torres themselves, then heading in a clockwise direction to Glaciar Grey and then over the pass and around the back of the mountain range so we would end up pretty much where we started 8 days later. To start with we were seeing and meeting people who were doing the W trek, which is basically our route but stopping at Glacier Grey and not going around the back of the mountains. There were lots of people doing this in both directions and therefore it took a few days to discover that the circuit is generally done in an anti-clockwise direction - in fact we were the only people doing it clockwise. Did it really matter? To us no, not really. It almost certainly made the pass day a bit harder, and possibly the day before too (from Refugio Grey to Campamento Paso) but for the rest I don't think it made any difference.

The joy of trekking is a strange mix of the challenge, the views and the exercise. Because we were trekking and camping for 8 (may be 10) days our packs, particularly Seth's, were much heavier then we have been used to in the past and this proved to be the hardest part of the adventure. A constant source of conversation was managing our food rations and money (we had miss-calculated our cash and had only just enough for the trek, assuming the estimated costs were what we had expected, which they weren't so many free campsites where needed to make sure our money lasted). Our food rations were all about the P's - potato (dried mashed potato), pasta (dried), porridge and peanuts. This is basically what we had to live on. For flavour we added dried soup powders, sweetcorn soup powder and mashed potato being a surprisingly good combination. We also had two tins of tuna for extra fuel for the night before and after the pass. In the end we managed our rations well needing only to buy extra pasta, biscuits and (because we could) toffees, and we came off the mountain with just enough potato for a couple of meals. Perfect.

But the views. What was it like? Beautiful. Stunning. Rewarding. Awe inspiring. I think that about covers it. The glaciers (blue, white, grey), the lakes (turquoise), the icebergs (big and small), the mountains (tree covered and snow topped), the flowers (red, orange, purple, white, yellow...), the rivers (crystal clear and icy cold) all merged and changed and inspired us around the trek. We often tried to decide if it might even be more beautiful then Nepal - I think in the end we agreed it was prettier then Nepal, but not as dramatic, so basically just different and we stopped comparing and just enjoyed instead.

The trekking was good. The paths were well marked and (in most cases) well trodden so easy to follow. There were tough bits including a bit of rock climbing, snow walking, mud paths, streams, climbing up a ladder and down a rope, but there were also easy flat sections and no altitude problems to make things tougher. We had been told before we went on the trek that the times on the map we were given were totally wrong - however we found them to be pretty spot on for our pace, the distances on the other hand where rubbish and this caught us out once when we set off late in the day on a stretch that said it was 11km, 4.5hrs so we thought would be much quicker (assuming the distance rather then the time was right). It turned out the time was right and we were tired and grumpy by the end. I think that the person making the map had basically done a straight line calculation between the two points rather then taking into account ascents/descents/switchbacks etc etc. A potentially dangerous mistake but luckily we quickly learned to ignore distances and everything from there went relatively smoothly.

Advice for other trekkers looking to do the same trip? Think very carefully about what food and money you need to take. If you are renting a tent make sure you put it up before you set off (we heard a number of people who were missing parts or didn't know how to put it up!). Make sure you have the right sleeping bag, it is cold sleeping near a Glacier! Make sure your boots are waterproof - there are lots of streams to walked through and muddy paths carefully trodden. Don't take anything you don't need - you have to carry it and while your bag might not feel too bad when walking around your hotel room, 3 hours into an uphill struggle you will really regret every extra kilo. Soup powders are a great (and light) why to flavour food.

Now the trekking in Patagonia is over and after a couple of days to let our muscles recover we our planning our trip north again. Time for a bit more heat in the sunshine I think!

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