Torres del Paine
Chile's most popular tourist destinationstart
How hiking the 'W' trek in Chilean Patagonia changed this writer's life
World Heritage-listed Torres del Paine (“Towers of Paine”) National Park is found in Chilean Patagonia. It has a network of well-maintained and sign-posted trails with excellent refugios (wood huts). It’s the country’s most popular tourist destination for good reason. Most people hike either the four to five-day ‘W’ trek – around the three peaks of Torres del Paine, Paine Grande, Los Cuernos – or the longer ‘circuit’ which takes 7-9 days.
- Trail length: 36mi
- Climb: 2,200ft
The Beautiful South
Though I wouldn’t realize it till several years later, trekking in Torres del Paine National Park changed my life. Friends accustomed to me turning up to social gatherings nowadays wearing incongruous outdoor clothing (it’s more comfortable!), wouldn’t recognize the city boy who turned up to walk the ‘W’ trek in jeans, sneakers and a brown leather (okay, it was pleather) jacket.
I was raised by outdoorsy parents who took me up hills whenever possible. But in my 20s I’d become a city dweller, much more excited about bars and bands than backpacks and bear hunts. I’d have laughed at you if you’d suggested an activity involving hiking boots (now I own about five pairs). However, my job had become boring and a relationship ended, so it was the perfect time to go traveling, and nowhere seemed as exciting as South America.
A friend had been with me for the first few weeks, but now I was alone, in El Calafate, Argentine Patagonia, a long way from home with about 20 words of Espanyol. I had no real plan.
I joined some other travelers for dinner and conversation soon turned to where everyone was headed next. I realized I had no answer, but when two pretty girls, Elizabeth and Anna, from the US and UK respectively, said they were going to be trekking Torres del Paine, I quickly decided. “Oh really? That’s where I’m heading too! What a coincidence.”
I didn’t know where it was, so back in the hostel I looked it up in my guidebook. There was an extraordinary photo. Massive pillars of granite rock reaching up to pierce the blue skies. They looked so fresh, clean and otherworldly. There was snow too, and striking blue lakes. It looked like no place I’d ever been. Even an outdoor skeptic such as me was wowed.
At 6am, after approximately one hour’s sleep and with a nagging red-wine hangover, I found myself at a bus station with a ticket to Chile’s Puerto Natales in my hand. I remember long dusty and bumpy roads, then waking on another bus to glorious sunshine, in a sort of paradise. There were lakes, woods and snow-splattered mountains. All the colors were incredibly vivid. Even when I’d fully sobered up, it didn’t feel real.
The girls spoke much better Spanish than me so I lazily let them take care of the organization. In fact all I really knew was that we were going walking “for a few days” and that I was probably ill equipped for it. “We’re not going to the cinema you know, Damian,” one of them joked, eyeing what I (wrongly) thought was my stylish jeans, trainers and brown pleather jacket combo.
Nevertheless the first day hiking in Patagonia started enjoyably. We’d only just met of course, so there was plenty of talk as we walked. I was in truth more concerned in appearing witty and interesting to my appealing new companions than I was with the scenery. Though there was less chatter as the gradient picked up, turning into a full-on uphill slog. For a couple of hours. Just as I was about to question what the point of all this hiking was and where the nearest bar was, we turned a corner to be presented with an amazing view.
It was the Towers of Paine themselves – an amphitheater encircling those three clean, granite fingers reaching up through a coat of snow toward the sky. They looked neither natural nor man-made. Below was a lake covered in snow. I’d never seen anything like it. Though a few years later I would see them from other side on the film poster for The Motorcycle Diaries.
Beyond hiking in Chilean Patagonia
I continued to travel up Chile with Elizabeth and Anna for several more days. They were great companions and we had more good laughs and memorable times. Looking back now though, our time trekking Torres del Paine was the highlight. I had followed some pretty girls there and fallen in love. Fallen in love with a landscape – and wild landscapes in general – rather than a lady.
I changed countries, from Chile to New Zealand, and I had changed too. Instead of heading to the cities to drink and dance, I was instinctively heading to national parks to hike and camp. That continued in Australia (check out the time I had on the Overland Trek ) and throughout several more years of travel.
I’m a journalist by trade and before I went traveling I wrote about sports. Now I write about the great outdoors – travel, trekking and running, ideally all in wild and lumpy places. And I only just realized, when I was asked to write this story in fact, that trekking Torres del Paine was the turning point. It changed my life. Even if it wasn’t the allure of mountains that lured me there initially.
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