Patagonian Spring Break
Prior to leaving on our Fellowship, we had planned one big vacation during our time down South. Torres del Paine National Park in the southern part of Patagonia is a pretty big destination for hikers and we knew that we’d have to schedule time in advance to complete a 4-day hike called the W Trek. We scheduled it for about the half-way point of our Fellowship, figuring it’d still be good weather and it would serve as our “Spring Break” for the year. Luckily, the W Trek was also on the bucket list of our friends Tim and Katie and they were going to meet up with us to complete together.
Pre W Trek
Getting down to the southern part of Chile is no joke. While we have Lemmy, he is not really equipped for the 25-30 hour drive from Temuco to Punta Arenas / Puerto Natales. When searching for flights, we found that there are direct flights from Temuco to Punta Arenas a couple times a week, and therefore we got into Punta Arenas two days before Tim and Katie were scheduled to arrive. Punta Arenas is basically a large port town that was vitally important prior to the Panama Canal’s creation (but still pretty important today). It’s also well known for the launching off point to head to Antarctica. Since we had a couple days to explore there, we scheduled a few tours and had some planned sites to see.
On our arrival day, we wanted to take it somewhat easy during the day, and so we visited a brewery of our consistently favorite beer in Chile: Austral. Besides dealing with some logistical items (e.g., Google said it was only open from 10:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. when in reality that meant the brewery was only open for tours starting at 3:30 p.m. – duh), it was great. We met a nice couple on their honeymoon from Michigan and chatted with them. And while Sarah and I are a little over doing brewery tours (after a while, they become really similar), this 2-hour tour was about 30 minutes of seeing the process and then 90 minutes of sitting in a cool taproom and sampling 9 different beers. It was lovely. Austral produces some of the best beers I’ve ever had and their Rhubarb beer is incredible. We then walked around town and grabbed some dinner at La Luna restaurant prior to our first scheduled tour, which was a 3-hour Ghost Tour of downtown Punta Arenas. We did a ghost tour in Charleston, South Carolina last year and really enjoyed it (Sarah especially), and so we thought this would be fun. We arrived to find out that we were the only people scheduled that night, and so we got a private walking tour. I’d describe the tour as a very in-depth historical walking tour, but with some ghost elements sprinkled in – it was really great. By the end of the tour, we were absolutely exhausted (because it was past midnight on a day we got up early to travel).
The next day, we slept in a little since we were exhausted but then went to visit a nearby estancia called Rio de los Ciervos. An estancia is basically an estate that has some activities such as traditional Patagonian lunch, horseback riding, etc. We saw online they were running a promo for lunch, so we checked it out. Like the previous tour, we were the only people there and so we were served a private lunch which included some pre-lunch pisco sours and fried bread with cheese. Once we were seated, we were served one of the best meals I’ve ever had – no kidding. They prepared us the most incredible lamb on top of shrimp risotto. They also had a side salad, but we didn’t touch that as the meal was huge and incredible. Top it off with some wine and dessert and we were very impressed. We spent the rest of the day walking around but then hung around our Airbnb, took some naps, and watched some of the March Madness games on Sarah’s iPad. We weren’t trying to go overboard with activities and we had another tour scheduled early in the morning the next day.
Our final tour prior to the arrival of Tim and Katie was a boat tour down the Magellan Straight to Magdalena and Marta islands. Marta island has a ton of seals that we could see from our boat, but the main draw of the tour was to visit Magdalena Island in which we’d get to walk around inhabited by little penguins. Walking around the penguins was great – they all have their little homes burrowed in the ground but just keep walking around everyone. Overall, it was a good time (especially the penguin walk), but the tour itself was more of a “transportation” tour, so we weren’t overly impressed with the service or experience form our particular guides.
We then went back to check into a larger Airbnb because Tim and Katie were scheduled to arrive in a few hours! They arrived and we went to a great dinner at La Marmita and caught up on life. They had just experienced nearly 30 hours of travel, so needless to say, were pretty wiped out and therefore we did dinner and then went to bed.
The next morning, we took a 3.5 hour bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, the city where our W Trek tour would be departing from. While many people complete the W Trek on their own without guides, we wanted to take much of the guesswork out of the experience and had booked a tour with G Adventures, the same tour group that we did the Inca Trail in Peru with a few years ago, since we enjoyed them so much. The four of us arrived in Puerto Natales to beautiful weather and proceeded to check into our hotel and then walk around the town to kill some time before we had to meet with our tour guides at 6 p.m. that night. The town is somewhat similar to Pucon, in which it’s downtown area is filled with restaurants, tour agencies, outdoor shops, and coffee shops / cafes.
We were all getting pretty excited for the hike. The weather was currently great, we had enjoyed some good pizza, beer, and delicious coffees / hot chocolates, and then it was about time to up with our guides and other fellow trekkers whom we’d be spending much of our time with the next few days. Go Time.
The W Trek
As part of any G Adventures trip, they always schedule an “arrival day” in which you meet your CEO (Chief Experience Officer – dream job, right?) and get the run-down on what will take place the following days. It also gives you the opportunity to size up the rest of the people in the group. We were introduced to Santiago, our G-Adventures CEO who was from Buenos Aires. He had already been traveling around South America with 4 individuals who were completing a larger G Adventures itinerary, in which the W Trek was part of it. So, Santiago, and 4 trekkers had already built a relationship. We were then introduced to Nico, our lead guide who was originally from Valparaiso, who would be overall responsible for getting us all through the W Trek. He didn’t work for G Adventures, but was a local guide that I believe Santiago had worked with in the past. Lastly, we were introduced to Javier, the guide assistant who was originally from Santiago, who was also there to join us over the next 4 days. Then we went around and everyone introduced themselves – there were the 4 trekkers who had previously been exploring South America with Santiago, and then 12 additional (including us). So, in total, 16 tourist hikers and 3 guides.
The rest of the meeting was discussing the next 4 days, signing some waivers we didn’t entirely read, and then receiving dry sacks in which to pack up to 4 kg (8.8 lbs) of gear that would be carried on our behalf (ahh, the perks of a G Adventures trip). Ultimately, you pack overnight supplies in the dry sacks and then what you need for the day in your day pack that you personally carry. After going through the intro meeting, it became clearer that this hike would be different from the Inca Trail hike. On the Inca Trail, you start at Point A and end at Point B and never see any transportation or civilization along the way. However this trek, would be a round-trip hike on Day 1 (and then a bus ride to a campsite), followed by a bus ride / boat tour to a campsite on Day 2, and then another round-trip hike. It wasn’t until Day 3 in which you left a campsite and carried all your stuff (minus the dry sack) to the next site and then didn’t see civilization (e.g., buses) again until Day 4. We were also pleasantly surprised to find out that hot showers would be available in each of the campsites (in theory).
One of the last things stated by Santiago before we were all sent to our rooms to pack and organize things was that if we wanted to bring beer/wine for the first two nights that we could and it’d be cheaper than purchasing at campsites. I would say this got us to instantly like Santiago haha. Since we could keep the beers on a bus or boat, etc. for the first two days, the extra weight wasn’t burdening anyone else kind of thing. The four of us went to dinner later that night and then, of course, the four of us took advantage of this by buying a bottle of wine, two large format beers, and 8 regular beers. We were ready to start the Trek the next morning.
Day 1 – Hiking to/from the base of the Three Towers (Los Torres)
It was about a 2-hour bus ride from Puerto Natales to Torres de Paine National Park. The bus was loaded up with everyone and their respective gear and supplies, including our very important box of beer/wine. It appeared that we were the only people who took Santiago’s advice of bringing beer/wine on the trek haha. Once nearing the park, we were treated to quite a few gorgeous views of the mountains in the distance. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I thought seeing the Torres (three towers) could only be seen after completing the trek, but you can actually see them far in the distance (assuming the weather was clear like it was that day). We also got to see some of the guanacos (llama-like native species) that roam the East side of the park.
Fast forward and we finally get off the bus, are given our sack lunches and are ready to start the trek. We were told that Day 1 would be the longest day of hiking, as we were heading up to the base of the Torres (three towers) and then back down. Putting this day first is a little aggressive because it’s the longest, but also, the guides aren’t really sure everyone’s physical conditions at this point, so fingers crossed. Patagonia’s weather is very unpredictable – and it’s all about packing layers. We were thrilled that this day was really pretty. Each day, people in our group would ask the guides what the weather would be that day based on reports / radar, and they would give a pretty vague response (which got funny by the end) saying that we’d experience “Patagonian weather” today, but then usually hinted weather the reports would say it was to be really windy, rain chance, clouds, etc. Long story short—pack for all conditions. We started off and everyone was layered up, except we realize that one of the guides is wearing shorts (no one else is) and the other just a t-shirt. We were all pretty cold to start, but then about 20-30 minutes in, everyone is just peeling layers as the sun starts to beat down on all of us – so immediately it feels like summer. It wasn’t until long that we started a pretty lengthy incline up and over the Windy Pass. The views were already worth it as we got a great look over a valley and then headed towards the closest campsite to the Torres to take a snack break before encountering a long stretch of “Patagonian Flats” (which was Nico’s way or saying that it would just be continuous ups and downs for a long period of time).
We hiked a while longer and since the weather was still great, Nico hoped that we could take our lunch break at the base of the Torres as opposed to a covered campsite area. We were all onboard for this. We took another snack break about 1 km from the top and Nico informed everyone that the final km was the hardest so we had to mentally prepare for the steep incline that only seemed necessary to earn the rewarding views. We made it to the top and it was glorious. Pictures don’t do landscape justice. We were able to spend a little over an hour at the top, eating our lunches and all pretending to be Instagram influencers – as we snapped so many pictures of the iconic scenery. It was crazy to think that only a half-day into our 4 day trek and we’re knocking off one of the big bucket list items. Again, and I cannot say it enough, but we were so lucky with the weather. There are so many times that people do this hike and the Torres are covered in clouds, or they have to make the include in strong rains/winds. We were lucky.
After lunch, we turned around and made the long trek back down the mountain. Near the end, my knees definitely started to hurt as it as a very long, and gradual decline, but we eventually made it to the bottom and back to where our bus dropped us off. We got onto the bus and drove about 45 minutes to where our campsite was (side note: the bus driver was crazy and was passing vans on dirt roads – we found out after the trek that he wasn’t supposed to be the bus driver and it was a back-up kind of situation thing – even the guides were a bit uncomfortable). On the drive, we saw some guanaco and had a couple viewpoints that showed is the full layout of the mountains in the park. It was a great way to “see” where we were going to go the next couple days.
We got to a campsite and we were the only group there. The refugio prepared a nice dinner for us which included wine and it was most definitely glamping. We had hot showers that night after dinner and the four of us enjoyed a couple Austral Torres del Paine beers to celebrate the day’s hike and play some euchre. We went to bed and even though we were really tired, it was a little difficult to fall sleep because it was so windy, which made it really noisy as well. All in all, a really awesome first day of the hike.
Health App Stats :: 15.7 miles :: 36,871 steps :: 359 flights climbed
Day 2 – Hiking to/from Grey Glacier
We were a little tired on Day 2, given the amount we hiked the previous day and a bit of a sleepless night, but had a large nice breakfast at the refugio and prepared for an easier day. We would load into a van (different from the crazy bus driver) and head towards a pier in which we’d take a 30-minute boat road across a lake. Again, the weather was perfect, so we quickly went up to the top of the boat and enjoyed fantastic views on the water. It was incredibly windy, but that’s the way it goes in Patagonia. The boat took us to our campsite for Day 2, so we actually unloaded our stuff and prepared for a true down and back day hike from the campsite. We were told that this day would be the easiest so that was nice after such a long first day. Day 2 was about hiking to a viewpoint to see the Grey Glacier in the distance. On a cloudy day, you probably won’t be able to see anything, but again, we were lucky and had perfectly clear weather and were able to hike for a couple hours to a great lookout over the glacier. It was really starting to sink in about where we were. Day 1 was so much hiking that you just had to keep walking. Today was more of stop and admire your surroundings kind of day. We stopped a little short of the lookout point to have lunch (since it’d be less windy) and that is where Nico and Javier started to loosen up with the group a bit more. They loved having mate tea during the breaks / lunch and so they started to share that with everyone and tell them about it. It was nice because it felt like this group of strangers was starting to mesh a bit more along with the guides.
We spent about 30 minutes at the lookout point over the glacier before we made our way back down. It took us only about 2 hours to get back to our campsite and then we had a couple hours before dinner. It was great to have some down time and so the four of us enjoyed the beers that we had brought and hung out with Santiago, Nico, and Javier (and another Nico who was in charge of the campsite).
This campsite could apparently hold up to 400 people, but it seemed like it had no more than about 100. The campsite was absolutely gorgeous with views of the mountains and lake in the distance. It was really awesome. Since dinner was a little later, we got to shower before dinner and then we went into the refugio for a cafeteria style meal. After dinner, we prepped with the guys for Day 3, and then headed upstairs in the refugio to a bar to grab a couple more drinks. At this point, we were making some friends with the other tourists and so we got to know some of them a little better. Also, Nico, Javier, and Santiago then joined us as well to hang out for a while – it was great getting to know the guides and learn about their past and how long they had been working in the park, etc. We found out that this was going to be Santiago’s last tour actually, as he had been doing it for 13 years – pretty crazy. Also, Sarah and I were able to talk about the Foundation with the guides and explain to them about why we’re here. They were all really interested and Javier even mentioned that he’s never had tourists living in Chile on his trip. Therefore, he said he was only going to speak Chilean Spanish to us from now on… not great haha.
Day 2 was another great day – the boat was awesome, the view of the glacier was really cool, and it was nice to have a less strenuous hike to recover after Day 1. We slept far better this night as it wasn’t as windy or loud outside.
Health App Stats :: 10.3 miles :: 23,041 steps :: 113 flights climbed
Day 3 – Hiking through the French Valley and around Los Cuernos
It was a gorgeous sunrise over the campsite during breakfast with exploding colors of red and pink. We had another large breakfast prior to getting ready for our Day 3 hike which we were told would be more similar to Day 1 – so we were expecting a lot of hard work. This was the first time that we went straight from the campsite to start the hike (since Day 1 and 2 we got into vehicles first) and I liked that. The plan for the day was to hike through the French Valley to a 360-degree lookout point and then around Los Cuernos to our final campsite. This was probably my favorite “hiking” day as the views were really unique on the way to the 360-degree lookout. We encountered mainly “Patagonian Flats” for the first two hours. We went through an area of the park that encountered a forest fire in 2011 – that was apparently started by a tourist lighting their toilet paper on fire – not smart. However, it provided a really eerie look throughout the park because the trees were petrified. We were constantly near the water and once again, the weather was great. This trail had many points in time where the path was clear so you didn’t have to always look down at where to step (whereas the first two days had a lot of that).
After a couple hours, the trail changed to some steeper incline. Maybe it was because we already had been hiking for two days, but I thought this portion of incline was the hardest part of the 4-day hike. We made a couple stops to fill up water (oh yah, forgot to mention that on this trek, you have the opportunity to fill up water in many streams without purification – which is really awesome. One, it’s super fresh, but two, you can keep your pack lighter without having to carry a full day’s worth of water. We made our way to the lookout and it was a tremendous view with different landscapes on each point you looked. We were looking at one of the mountains that had a lot of snow on the top and it was crazy to hear what sounded like thunder when the glacier on the top was cracking or when a small avalanche would happen. We spent about an hour at the top to each lunch and enjoy the views.
From there, we had to backtrack a little but then worked our way around Los Cuernos towards our campsite. It was at this point in time that I put myself more towards the back of the group, ensuring I wasn’t hiking right behind or in front of anyone and really just took in the peacefulness of the park and the hike. The trail was not that difficult from here to the campsite, so I just enjoyed myself. When you hike in a tight line of 19 people – everyone is talking to each other and it’s a little difficult to feel like you’re out in the middle of nowhere, but I got that feeling on this day. We then hiked down towards the water and stopped on a beach to skip rocks before the final 30 minutes to our last campsite. This campsite was smaller than the last and felt a little more “on top” of each other, but some more great views. Unfortunately, the showers that were supposed to be hot, were freezing cold, but alas, I had to remember that showers, no matter the temperature, were more than I expected for the trail. We once again had a little time before dinner and the group was meshing more and more so many of us went into the refugio for drinks and just chatting and learning more about each other. We then had a great dinner and then went back to the bar to play some Jenga and get ready for the final day. It was crazy that we had already completed three days and that tomorrow we would finish the W Trek.
Health App Stats :: 12.6 miles :: 29,539 steps :: 192 flights climbed
Day 4 – Completing the W Trek
Similar to Day 3, we started our hike right from the campsite. This ended up being the easiest day as we leisurely worked our way through more Patagonian Flats. Weather was good on our trail, but we could see in the distance that rain was in other parts of the park – that worked out well for us since we had a really nice rainbow to admire for most of the hiking day. It did sprinkle a bit during lunch, but most people didn’t even pull out their rain jackets. Similar to other days, there were some suspension bridges to hike across and we had some especially cool ones on this day. All in all, today was more of the same – breathtaking views, great weather, and some good ole exercise. We finished the trek early in the afternoon to the place we were first dropped off for Day 1. Once again, we realized how lucky we were when we looked up and saw that the Torres were completely covered in clouds. Had this day been our first day, the view would have been pretty bad. Weather makes a huge difference on these treks.
We got back into the van and went back to the hotel in Puerto Natales. G Adventures had told everyone not to book travel until the next day in case of any delays, etc. so everyone was going to be in town for one more night. The guides recommended that we do a barbeque at the hotel and that them and the van driver would cook for everyone. It was awesome. The four of us grabbed wine/beers and brought them back to the hotel and it was time to relax and think back on the trek with all the new friends we had made. The guides were letting loose as well and the drinks were flowing. It turned into a dance party at the hotel which then migrated to a bar. We attempted to bring beers to the bar (which they obviously didn’t allow), so we just drank them outside on the patio. Sarah and I spent most of our time out there talking with Santiago and Javier (and Pato, the van driver, who was a riot) – which was cool because we felt a little connection with them given that we’re living in Chile. We spoke mostly English, but then they would joke to each other in Spanish and we could still understand them relatively well. The night was a lot of fun and we realized how lucky we were the last previous days. While the night could have turned more aggressive from a drinking perspective, we called it a night as we had another early tour the next day.
Health App Stats :: 10.9 miles :: 24,844 steps :: 147 flights climbed
- Obviously, the weather in Patagonia is unpredictable but we were really lucky to have a ton of great days. They say you want to travel in January/February for the best chance of good weather, but it was fantastic at the end of March for us.
- Overall, we felt that the Inca Trail hike was more difficult than this one. For one, you’re at a higher elevation so that plays a factor, but also the campsites and accommodations were less glamourous on the Inca Trail. There is just something about a hot shower that can invigorate you between hiking days.
- All the hikers in our group were solid. There were not any stragglers that we had to alter plans for (and happy to report we weren’t the stragglers either haha). At the end, Nico said that he couldn’t remember the last time that we had a group in which everyone made it to all the lookouts on the trek – he was very impressed with the group.
- If you’re contemplating doing the trek solo vs. with a guide/group – that’s honestly a personal preference. Obviously, the guided group costs more, but in my opinion, it lets you enjoy it more and worry less about the logistics. Given our limited time, we needed to ensure everything was taken care of and that we could finish the trek in a certain amount of time, so we went that route. If you have more time, willing to carry some tents and additional gear, and really enjoy the routing and mapping of the trek, then it is definitely do-able on your own.
- The Torres (Three Towers) get most of the attention in the park, but some of the other hikes were more beautiful from start to finish – we’d really recommend taking in the full scenery of the W Trek. If we come back, I think Sarah and I would be really interested in doing the complete O Trek. Hopefully we’ll be back at some point in our lifetimes!
Post W Trek
Given limited time after the trek before Tim and Katie were scheduled to fly out, we had booked another tour to accomplish another bucket list item. There was a full-day tour that left from Puerto Natales and brought you over to El Calafate in Argentina and then into Los Glaciers National Park to visit Perito Moreno – an absolutely massive glacier that would remind any Game of Thrones fan of “the Wall”. Similar to the penguin tour, this was primarily a “transportation” tour because we spent from 7 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. getting from Puerto Natales to Perito Moreno – making stops at airports, border crossings, and the town of El Calafate to pick up a bi-lingual tour guide. This day, similar to many on the hike was another absolutely gorgeous day, with very limited wind and clouds. So much that the tour guide basically told us that this weather (in which you’re able to see Torres del Paine off in the distance from the Argentina side) only happens about 20 days a year! Once we got to the park, we spent about an hour on the boardwalks overlooking the glacier. The views were spectacular. Typically, you always see glaciers from far in the distance, or the glacier is pretty small, but not the case for this – it was breathtaking. After walking around, we had the opportunity to take a 1-hour boat tour that would get you closer to the glacier and give you a sense of just how tall it was. This was awesome, as everyone packed outside to enjoy the perfect weather. Given the sun was beating down on the glacier, there was some activity of pieces breaking off. However, it was about half-way through the boat trip, when three massive pieces broke off, which was really unique to see. Overall, the Perito Moreno glacier did not disappoint. We boarded the bus at 4 p.m. and made it back to Puerto Natales around 10 p.m. in which we grabbed a late pizza dinner and then went to bed.
The next day, we took an early bus back to Punta Arenas to complete our final full day with Tim and Katie and knock out some of the tourist sites that they didn’t get to experience when Sarah and I were solo. We actually went back to the estancia for the fantastic lunch – which was just as good the second time around. And then Tim and I golfed at Magallanes Golf Club, which is the second-most southern golf course in the world. It was a really cool experience as we dealt with some really aggressive winds throughout the round. Sarah and Katie bounced around town visiting some local sites and then we all met up later for drinks and dinner. It was finally at dinner that I think everything caught up with me and I felt I could barely form sentences as I was so tired from the last few days. The trip was finally winding down.
Tim and Katie left early the next day and Sarah and I didn’t fly out until the next day so we used this day to catch-up on emails and other work-related items. We saw most of what Punta Arenas had to offer and we were content with finding some good spots with WIFI, etc. We hung out at the Airbnb, wrote some blog posts, and then went to a nearby dinner before turning in for our flight the next day.
Overall, an incredible Spring Break.
PS – we did a lot of hyperlinking on this blog post because we know that Torres del Paine National Park and the W Trek is a pretty big destination, therefore for anyone planning a trip down here – we thought this could serve as some recommendations from our experience.