Details and photos on http://travelfrreak.blogspot.com/2019/03/exploring-chilean-patagonia-w-trek-in.html
Patagonia around El Calafate (1)
This blog covers the below part of our Patagonian itinerary. We spent 4 days in the national park of Torres Del Paine (TDP) in Chile, doing the W trek and it was amazing. It was quite a touch and strenuous trek, but the views there were mind-blowing and totally worth it.
Day 4-7: 4 days W trek / TDP sightseeing --- Day 4: Drive rental car to Refuge Centro Torres; trek to Base de Las Torres and back; stay overnight at Refuge Centro Torres --- Day 5: Drive to Pudeto; 9 am catamaran to Paine Grande; trek in Frances Valley to Mirador Britanico and back; stay overnight in Refuge Paine Grande --- Day 6: Trek up to Glacier Grey; ferry to Hotel Lago Grey; stay overnight at Hotel Lago Grey --- Day 7: Drive around TDP to explore other spots and return to Puerto Natales; stay at Hotel Aqua Terra Day 8: Bus transfer from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas (3 hours); stay at Hotel Great Western Finis Terrace Day 9: Bus from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia (12 hours); stay at Hotel Canal Beagle
The whole national park of TDP is centred around the W trek which is extremely popular among tourists. There are three main valleys where people trek. The first is to the Base del Torres. Second is in Frances valley. And third is along Lago Grey. There are other trails too across the park though W remains the most popular one. All along the trails and in the park, there are huge lakes in brilliant green and blue hues, lined with very high snow covered peaks rising much higher than the small hills and Patagonian landscape around. These peaks have a very interesting history, of being formed of igneous and sedimentary rocks which give it its different colours. And all around, the views are magnificent.
The park is very well maintained and convenient, with a comfortable setup for tourists to visit. There are shuttle buses within the park to make it easier for people to move from one place to another. Also there are loads of refuges at the base of most treks for people to stay. In addition, there are multiple ferries which run across the lakes to connect these places. The park is very popular with tourists and so the administration tries to control the number of people visiting it. They have hiked up the prices artificially higher within the park, with even the refuges with bunk beds charging $200 per night per person! But it hasn't been able to discourage visitors, with thousands visiting every year still.
The W trek is quite strenuous, with up to 11 hours of trekking per day (all the times are based on 2 mph speed, which is quite do-able). Given not all of us were that fit, we researched and found that its possible to do only parts of the trek too if you want, as each day you would go up and come back to the same base location. So it was very easy to do only part of the trek if anyone was too tired. We did a slightly modified version of the W trek given we were not able to book accommodation at all the base camps (even though we had looked to book it all 7 months in advance!). So what you will read of below may not be exactly the same you find on other sites, but its definitely an easier option.
Day 4 - Trek to Base de Las Torres; stay at Refuge Torres Central
We got up early and left from Puerto Natales for TDP before the tourist buses got to the park entrance, to avoid the crowds. The drive was about two hours and through the usual Patagonian landscape. There were also loads of purple flowers on the sides which was true of most of the Chilean side of Patagonia. There were also loads of cows and guanacos grazing everywhere on the sides of the road. One guanaco even ran on the road and we had to avoid it.
The weather was not too bad that day but we could see dark angry clouds where the park was supposed to be. We also saw a couple of rainbows on the way which were pretty. Today was a very windy day though and we finally got to see what the famous Patagonia wind is all about. There was so much wind on the road, that we felt that our car will fly off!
We drove towards the Lago Amarga entrance to the park which is located right next to a small lake. There we paid the entrance fee and then drove to our first refuge at Torres Central. After checking-in we quickly started walking on the trek.
About the trek
The first day's trek was about 23.5 kms one way, with a total ascent of 1300 metres though the net height gained during the day was only 750 metres. So there was quite a lot of up and down on the way. The walk was fun and had great and varied views all the way, though it did get a bit taxing by the end of the day. The weather was awesome that day, it was sunny for the most part, quite warm at times with very less wind and no rain throughout. I really enjoyed the trek today, which could also be because it was the first day and we weren't as tired yet ????.
There were almost multiple phases of landscapes on the trek. The first part was mostly about going up the mountain where we got panoramic views of the lake and vastlands beyond. We saw some very interesting shapes of the clouds in this area, some of them were shaped like UFOs. Then we crossed a windy pass area where we walked on the edge of the mountain for a bit. It was extremely windy there and we were followed all the way by a gurgling river in the valley. On the other side of this valley, we saw lot of sedimentary formations showing up as lava layers in the mountain. Once we got past this, we got to the first refuge on the trek which has a beautiful location next to the stream in the valley. You can even ride horses all the way up to here, to avoid walking. We filled water in our bottles from the streams multiple times on the way, which was much tastier than the water we were getting from the taps ????.
The last part of the trek goes through ups and downs till the next refuge and then you have a 1.5 hour trek walking through bare stones on the mountains. The views on this part of the trek were impressive, but this was also the toughest part of the trek. Once past this, you reach the end of the journey, where you can see the blue green lake at the base of the three mountain peaks - the 3 towers, Las Torres. It was a stunning view on the top and a good place to sit and enjoy the serenity there. Though it was extremely cold and windy on the top and after a quick photo and water break we left soon for the trail back.
The walk back was a bit easier but still long. It felt great to have done the trek and it wasn't as tough as I thought it would be initially. The good weather definitely helped. On the whole, there were lots of people on the trek but not that much that it feels like a crowd. There were some horse shit smell half the way though which smelled a bit. We also noticed that on the trek, the trees in the middle had very smooth barks, unlike the rest of it. As people who walked on the trek would touch the tree and pass it, making it much smoother. It was very interesting to see this all the way.
About the refuge Central Torres The Central Torres refuge was quite simple, with bunk beds in each rooms and some common areas to chill. The toilets were not the best or the cleanest though. There was no free wifi and there were no electric plugpoints in the refuge either. At $180 per person, it felt a bit overpriced given the facilities they had. But after seeing the next refuge, this felt definitely worth it ????.
Food was included in the price, with dinner and breakfast served in the common cafeteria, and packed lunch provided for the trek. The food in the cafeteria was tasty and served well. There were also nice areas outside to chill and relax, with views of the mountains and lakes around, but given how tired we were after the trek, we did not use the facilities much. Once back from the trek, we would eat dinner in the first round and quickly get to bed as it would be an early morning again the next day.
Day 5 - Drive to Pudeto and ferry; trek to Frances Valley up to Mirador Britanico; stay at Refuge Paine Grande
Today we were trekking up the Frances valley (some of us including me part of the way, up to Mirador Brittanico) and we had to drive to another refuge to reduce the walking we had to do during the day. So after breakfast and taking our packed lunch from the refuge, we drove up to Pudeto and then took a catamaran across lake Pehoe to get to our refuge for the second night, Refuge Paine Grande.
The drive through the park was picturesque, with green rolling hills, guanacos and views of green and blue sparkling lakes next to the high peaks. The road was quite bumpy though. We drove through many places with lot of dried out trees next to the lakes. But never understood if they were dried or just seasonal trees. We parked our car at Pudeto and took the catamaran from there.
We passed by loads of very small islands all along the huge Lake Pehoe. We stood on the top of the catamaran for a bit and got fascinating views of the main peaks of the park and the valleys which make up the W trek. Though it was extremely windy on the catamaran, with water from the lake splashing on the people standing on top. And we could not stay on top as much as we wanted to.
About the trek
Once we got out at the refuge which is located right next to the lake, we left our luggage there and started on the long trek of the day. The trek for the day was about 11 hours but I decided to go only till the first lookout point at Mirador Brittanico. So I covered about 22kms of the trek, in about 8 hours, with a total ascent of 900 metres. The start of the trek has panoramic view of the Lake Pehoe behind, which looked green in the sunlight.
Then we passed along lake Skottsburg which looked dark blue in the light, lined with dried out trees all along it. It also had water blowing along it when the winds were too high and we were able to capture a few photos of it! At times there was so much wind on the trail that it was tough to stand still at one place. After this lake, we crossed a few smaller lakes on the way. The path was mostly narrow on this trail and there were less tourists than the previous day. Also there were lot of small irritating insects on the path. We also crossed a few wooden bridges on the streams most of which had a maximum limit of 1-2 person at a time!
We then got to the Italiano lodge in about 2.5 hours (7.5 kms) after which you start climbing steeply along one of the peaks. Then you can get views of the Frances glacier and the fast flowing river on the bottom. At the Brittanico viewpoint on the top, we got majestic views of the glacier on one side, dramatic mountains on another side and a faraway view of Lake Pehoe behind. The lake looked even greener from this far. The viewpoint felt like a bowl and clouds were coming into it soon. It got very very cold and windy at the top by this time and even started raining. So we again had to hurry back quickly.
The trek back felt very long and difficult, as it was extremely windy and we ran into quite a bit of rain while coming down, all the way till the Italiano camp. After that it got a lot sunnier and brighter though. Overall today's trail was more narrow and rocky most of the way. There were also less tourists than the previous one. And I found the views less impressive too. My favourite was still the first day to Base de Las Torres.
About the Refuge Paine Grande
The refuge was located right next to Lake Pehoe with breathtaking views right outside. We got bunk beds, and the rooms were clean. The price included breakfast, packed lunch and dinner. The cafeteria and food was fine but nothing great to write home about. There were nice places to sit outside in the sun. And the common areas comfortable to hang around. with a fire burning every evening. There was a lot of wind at night which disturbed our sleep at night with the windows making a lot of noise but I guess that is to be expected given its Patagonia! As expected there was no free wifi and you had to pay for it.
The toilets in the refuge though were definitely below par. And they did not have towels or bathing soaps in the toilets either. Though all this wasn't the worst of it all. The service at the refuge was even worse than the toilets. None of the receptionists or the cafeteria workers smiled, even while answering questions. They were almost rude a lot of times and it wasn't a great experience. And I definitely think this refuge was very overpriced at $150 per person. So not a great experience at all.
Day 6 - Trek to Glacier Grey; ferry to Hotel Lago Grey
About the trek
Our day started much later today than other days as we started trekking only around 9 am. It was about a 4 hour trek up to Refugio Grey, for about 11 kms till where you can get a view of the Grey glacier. And then we were taking a ferry back to our hotel across Lago Grey. The trek today was the easiest of all the days, with a total ascent of only about 450 metres over the 4 hours. It almost felt like child's play after the last few days ????.
The trail from the refuge first goes towards Lago Patos and then you reach Lago Grey. This is a huge lake extending for more than 15 kms and most of the trek now is along the lake. There are load of viewpoints along the trail which give panoramic views of the lake from different vantage points. The lake had snow covered peaks on the other side. And loads of deep blue icebergs floating on it, coming from the Gracier Gray which feeds the water in this lake.
Again the trail today was quite narrow and there were not many people around. On the sides was the usual stream and river flowing plus a few patches on the way were covered with flowers. The day was cloudy for most part of the trek, though it was warm and windy alternately. There were also loads of flies everywhere which were a bit irritating as they kept sticking to the jacket!
Once we reached Refuge Gray near the end, we walked to a nearby viewpoint where you can get a nice view of the Glacier. And can see loads of dead ice floating on the side. The glacier was huge and you could see it till far when the weather was better. But the edge wasn't as high as the Perito Moreno we had seen earlier. Some of my group also trekked to two bridges ahead of the refuge which gave even closer views of the glacier, though I didn't make it till there.
We then took the 2 pm ferry from the refuge. It lands at the beach near the Bigfoot camping ground and it was an effort getting there as the weather had turned and the winds got very strong and heavy by then. The ferry then took us closer to the glacier but it had got very rainy by that time. So it wasn't as fun to stand outside and enjoy the glacier views. The glacier is actually split into three because of 3 small islands on the lake. And the icebergs there were very pretty there.
The boat ride was about 2 hours total and it dropped us on a black pebble beach from where we walked to our Hotel Lago Gray. We first stopped at the cafetaria to get hot food given how much we had been out in the windy and rainy weather. And then we walked 1 km more to get to our hotel, the Lago Grey.
About Hotel Lago Grey
The hotel felt like paradise to us after the two refuges we had stayed in the last two nights. It was almost like a luxury hotel where people who did not want to trek but still enjoy a relaxed experience would come and stay in. It also costed about $200 per night but at least it was better value for money than the refuges we stayed in! The rooms were huge, all with views of the lake and the glacier behind. There was free wifi and we almost felt like we had come back to civilisation after days of being in the wilderness (i.e. no data ????).
The rooms had a nice decor, individual bathrooms, heating and everything else that a normal hotel has ????. The dining area also had great views of the glacier and we had a nice evening getting back in touch with the world outside while enjoying views of the glacier till late. It was still windy and rainy that day though, so we couldn't go out much.
Day 7 - Drive around TDP; stay at Aqua Terra hotel
We had a late breakfast today as we were just happy about finally being back in civilisation, and with no need to wake up very early. We enjoyed the view outside of the glacier from the window and then spent most of the day driving around the park. We first drove next to Paine lake and river which looked absolutely stunning in the sun - blue green in colour with the snow covered peaks in front.
I spent some time next to the lake, around Camp Pehoe. I walked down to the lake and sat there for some time on the rocks, finding a less windy place to be. There were a few interesting birds to watch there too. Then we drove to Salto Grande waterfall where the water flows from the higher lake Nordenskjol to the Paine lake. We walked up to the viewpoint and it was crazy windy there.
And then we started driving back to Puerto Natales. We drove a long time next to Lake Toro which was outside the park and quite mesmerising. It appeared green and had huge bare peaks on the other side. On the way we ran into patches of rain and then sunny times all the way back. The roads were mostly ok though some patches had gravel. We also noticed a small airport on the way, so it looks like there is a way of reaching here by plane too, though it might be through a chartered flight only.
About the Hotel Aqua Terra
Once In Puerto Natales we checked in to a small hotel, the Aqua Terra. The hotel was a boutique hotel and quiet cute. We tried looking for laundry around but as it was christmas, none of the places were open that day. Thankfully the hotel offered to do it for us! We had a quick dinner at the Pizzeria La Guanaca which offered great food and was nearby. And didn't really explore the town today.
Day 8 - Bus to Punta Arenas; stay at Hotel Great Western Finis Terrace
It was Christmas today and it looked like the whole city was shut. There were no people on the road and the cabs also charged double the fare. Even at the bus station, there was only one bus company plying buses. We booked a bus to Punta Arenas and were on a 3 hour ride though the typical Patagonian landscape. And very quickly we were in Punta Arenas.
The town of Punta Arenas seemed like an industrial place while coming in. But then we saw some very pretty and huge buildings closer to the city centre. It actually felt like the prettiest of all the towns we had been to till now, El Calafate and Puerto Natales. We walked around a bit to get to a restaurant open on Christmas day but there were very few options. We finally had lunch at a gastro pub called Fusiones which had quite bad food and service.
While walking around, a friend of mine also ran into a Hindu temple and a square with Tagore, Gandhi and Mother Teresa's statue! In the middle of a small town in Chile! That was really something. There wasn't much to do around here though today. There were trips to a Penguin Island nearby but given it was christmas, they were not running tours today. And so we had another quiet evening.
About the Hotel Great Western
We spent most of the day relaxing in the hotel itself, at the Great Western Finis Terrace. It was 2 mins walking from the bus stop. The top floor of the hotel had a fancy restaurant which had a nice view of the town, with its small houses, colourful roofs, church spires and sea on one side and the hills on another. The view seemed quite charming in the morning especially with the sun rising in the background.
Day 9 - Bus to Ushuaia; stay at Hotel Canal Beagle
Today was a very simple day for us. We had a 12 hour bus ride all the way from Punta Arenas in Chile to Ushuaia, the southernmost town on the continent, in Argentina. We took one of the Bus Sur buses which we have booked beforehand and were in the bus from 8-8.
The drive was the typical Patagonia drive, with grasslands on both sides, fences, and sheep and cows. On this drive, we also saw some ostriches in the farms. And as we drove from the mainland to the island of Tierra del Fuego, a lot of the drive was next to the sea. To get to the island, we had to get onto a huge ferry along with the bus and were lucky to spot some dolphins jumping on the sides of the ferry.
The island had a lot more gravel road and was less developed. Again we had to go through Chile and Argentina visa check at the San Sebastien checkpoint. And keep driving forever.... The last one hour of the drive was through mountains and had lakes, so that was a change in scenery, and felt a bit more interesting. The whole journey was a bit tiring though.
Ushuaia is almost at the edge of the South American continent and is the southernmost city in the world. It is the location from which ships leave for Antarctica tours and hence important on the tourist map. It is a huge place surrounded by snow covered mountains and the sea coming in through a channel.
We walked a bit along the high street and the waterfront as we really need to unfreeze our legs after the long bus journey. Both places felt quite lively and touristy. The high street had loads of designer shops which felt surprising. I am guessing a lot of the cruises here bring in rich tourists who like to shop. And the waterfront had great views of the mountains, the docked boats and cruise ships. There was a cool breeze following and the walk felt very refreshing.
About the Hotel Canal Beagle
Our hotel, the Canal Beagle where we were staying for two nights (after a long time) was located very centrally and quite convenient. It was quite average and nothing much to write home about. We went to Maria Lola for dinner and it was quite a fine dining place though with tasty sea food.
Argentinian cities of Ushuaia and Buenos Aires (3)