Chile: Torres del Paine

We left behind El Calafate in Argentina and headed off to Chile for the Big Kahuna of Patagonia: Torres del Paine ( Pronunciation: Tor-rays del pine-ay) National Park. It’s a lonely drive, mostly populated by sheep. And this dude, who creeped us out. 

We spent the night holed up in an abandoned police station, the only building for miles in either direction. Occasionally we’d look across the landscape to see we were being closely observed by the locals. 

Rheas aren’t quite as common as guancos, but are occasionally spotted shepherding their big babies across the landscape.
The land gradually changed from the flat grasslands to vertical slopes. Welcome to Patagonia!

The border crossing between Argentina and Chile at Paso Rio Don Guillermo was one of our least painful border crossings to date: very straight forward and orderly. This border is a virtual superhighway of REI-clad tourists outfitted in fancy hiking boots and goretex shuttling between the two regional hiking meccas. As usual, the Chileans did a through search of camper: no perishable food is allowed by either country and it’s a tricky process to use up all foodstuffs before arrival. We’d stocked up on canned goods as we’d heard that there were no major stores between the border and the park. Which turned out to be true: we cleaned out the tiny minimart at Cerro Castillo before pointing the rig north to the mountains.

We entered the park and spent our day doing a hike and picnic around Laguna Azul, in the remote northeastern corner of the park. December is springtime and the area is rife with fluffy baby guanacos tumbling and playing on the slopes.

This pair of males was having a wild dual that included tussling, biting, and leaping.

Hiking around Laguna Azul – spectacular!

We also squeezed in a bit of sightseeing at Cascada Rio Paine before checking in at the main ticket booth, paying our entrance fees, and heading down to the parking lot at the Pudeto Cafeteria.

Pudeto Cafeteria is a hopping place, mostly because the boat leaves from this location several times a day to drop off trekkers that are attempting the famed W and O hikes at the base of the mountains.

And that was pretty much the last blue sky we saw in Torres del Paine. It rained and rained and rained for a solid two days.

The rain obscured the peaks and the parking lot became mired in ankle-deep mud. The kids played a rousing game of soccer with a Brazilian boy and three Israeli kids. They came back sopping wet and grinning from ear to ear. Chris and I despaired of ever drying out their clothes and set about plugging a leak that appeared overnight in the corner of the camper.

The sun poked its head out for an hour and Ben and I rushed up on a hike to a nearby viewpoint at Salto Grande Cascada.

It was short-lived, however, and we decided that we needed to cut our losses and keep heading south. Simply put, rain is our Achilles heel on this trip. We quickly go stir crazy in the camper and have trouble drying the sodden masses of wet gear that accompany every exterior foray. We regretfully scrapped plans for hiking and another night spent in a campground farther south in the park.

Andean condor.

My parents stayed at a fancy lodge in the park and had a fantastic week of hiking and horseback riding. They spotted three pumas..hopefully testament to the species recovery efforts undertaken by park personnel. The pictures below were taken by my father.

Ten points if you can spot the cat hiding in the grass!
The puma circled the pond, carefully peeking through the grass at a family of ducks obliviously paddling in the water.
This picture definitely qualifies as an action shot: a wild leap, a quick snatch, and it’s duck for dinner.
The aptly named Big Hairy Armadillo.

We headed south to Puerto Natales, a nice little town perched on the edge of a windswept bay. The wind buffeted the camper in enormous gusts that had us questioning the sturdiness of our canvas poptop. We adjusted the angle of the car to face the wind and hoped for the best.

Torres del Paine was gorgeous – and we only got a sneak peek. We’ll be back, for sure, but I’ll be petitioning hard to spend at least a night at the posh hotel before braving the wild winds and rains of Patagonia. 🙂


RECOMMENDATIONS

Torres del Paine National Park: This is arguably Chile’s most famous park and it has the prices and the crowds to prove it. That said, it is undeniably WORTH IT. Spectacular scenery, crazy guanacos, and wild weather. I might have loved Parques Patagonia and Pumalin a teeny tiny bit more than TdP but that’s only because we had three days of torrential rain at the Torres and we missed out on a lot of great activities that I was dearly looking forward to. As such, it’s worth it to pack a few extra days into your trip in the event that you experience a few soggy blow-outs similar to ours. My parents stayed 5 days and were able to work around the fickle weather to their great satisfaction. We had plans to take the boat over and hike a section of the famed W trekking route but bailed due to the rain. We will definitely return.

We enjoyed hiking around Laguna Azul (uncrowded and great views of the Torres) and the trail down to Salto Grande Cascada.

Costs (as of Dec ’18): Adult Foreign CLP $21000 (USD $30), Child Foreign CLP $6000 (USD $9)

Campsites and Hotels in TdP National Park

Camp
There are 4 locations where RVs and trucks are allowed to camp. We were told that the established campgrounds within the park were dreadfully expensive, especially as they charge per person, not by vehicle. We opted instead for the free parking lot outside of Pudeto Cafeteria which was low on charm and facilities but just fine for a few days, especially if you were going to leave your vehicle and hike the W. We had planned to spend our third night at the formal Rio Serano Campsite but ended up bagging that plan due to lousy weather. Serano Campground costs: $CLP 10,000/p (USD $15/person).

Hotel
My parents stayed at the Hotel Las Torres (one of the few lodges within the park) and loved every minute: excellent guides/activities, good food, and a warm place to tuck yourself in at night. It sounded lovely and I’m quite sure we would have braved the wet weather for longer had we been able to have a dry place for recuperation. Next time we’ll be better prepared.

Groceries
There is exactly 1 place to stock up on groceries coming from El Calafate and TdP. Buy all your non-perishables in Calafate but remember that you’ll have to give up all fresh goods (veggies, meats, dairy, etc) at the border. Sometimes they’ll even take spices and dried fruits/beans/rice. It’s best to declare that you have perishables and let them search through it all – some of the inspectors are sticklers for the rules and you don’t want to unintentionally omit anything. Consequently, the mandatory stop for fresh groceries is the very limited mininmart in Cerro Castillo called El Pioniero. (it’s right after the Chilean border crossing at the main roundabout).

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