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Ten Days in Torres del Paine: Global Test Photo Essay

We discovered why Torres del Paine, Chile is the poster child for Patagonia's wilderness playground.

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by Kristin Tennessen and Danny Milks | 2011-03-08 00:00:00-07

Editor's Note: click here to see all the articles (and a brief synopsis of each) in this excellent series.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 1


Sapphire Dyneema Gridstop and a flash of bright yellow. The sight was so familiar to me, yet so unexpected. I elbowed Danny in the ribs. “Look, that guy has my same backpack!” I whispered and surreptitiously pointed three rows ahead.

As we funneled off the modern bus and lined up at immigration, I made sure to navigate towards the owner of this pack, as he was certain to be an interesting guy. We were 20 kilometers outside of Puerto Natales, crossing into Chile from Argentina, on our way to Torres del Paine National Park. Danny and I had been traveling for almost 3 months in Latin America and had yet to see the GoLite brand.

“I love your backpack!” I said to this tall, smiling stranger. He introduced himself as Steve, and we soon learned that he had finished thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail a few months earlier. As we helped our new friend eat the bananas and oranges that customs’ officials wanted to confiscate from his GoLite Pinnacle, we exchanged hiking tales and talked gear. He was on his way to Torres del Paine as well.

After two busy days of preparation, the three of us took the ferry across Lago Pehoé to begin our trek in the park. Steve was doing the classic “W” hike, as he only had four or five free days. Danny and I brought enough supplies for 10 days, and were planning to hike the “Q” route. After our last fresh meal for a while - avocado and tomato sandwiches - we said goodbye to Steve and promised we’d meet again.

Photo Essay

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 2
Refugio Paine Grande. Kristin’s pack, Steve’s pack, Danny’s pack (left). Danny and Steve posing in front of a field of rental tents and Paine Grande (right).

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 3
The first day we hiked up the Valle del Frances, from Refugio Paine Grande to Campamento Británico. Midway up the valley we stopped here, beneath Paine Grande, to have a leisurely lunch break while listening for glacier movement and watching for mini avalanches.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 4
Whereas most backpackers stop at the lower Campamento Italiano, which is usually overcrowded and heavily impacted, we hiked a bit further up to Campamento Británico. This was our view from camp of Aleta de Tiburon (Shark’s Fin), at the end of Valle del Frances (Frenchman’s Valley).

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 5
Rather than descend back down Valle del Frances, we decided to hike further to see if we could traverse across a high pass. Behind Danny, and slightly hidden by clouds, are Cota 2000 and Catedral Peaks.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 6
We found one set of tracks in the snow that stopped before the pass. Near the top we realized that late spring conditions would prohibit us from continuing further. We weren’t prepared to circumnavigate the glacier in the saddle, as the snow obfuscated the edges. Kristin is shown here hiking underneath Fortaleza (Fortress).

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 7
We returned down Valley del Frances and enjoyed the mellow hiking on this well-defined trail along Lago Nordenskjold.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 8
Leaving the open views of the lake behind, we turned into Valle Ascensio. The trail continued to gain elevation up to Campamento Torres.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 9
The next day, we awoke at 4:30am and hiked 45 minutes to this point, where we watched the first rays of the sun splash red hues onto the Torres del Paine.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 10
We spent a day hiking up Valle Ascensio and into Valle del Silencio, coming to a dead-end underneath the imposing Fortaleza and Escudo (Spanish for “fortress” and “shield”).

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 11
Returning down Valle Ascensio, we followed the meandering trail along the Rio Paine. It took us to the backside of the range where we found a milder, greener landscape and fewer backpackers.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 12
After a week without precipitation, a rarity in Patagonia, this is probably the driest the trail ever gets.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 13
As we climbed higher towards John Gardner Pass, the trail disappeared under snow pack. We were able to navigate without any problems, thanks to the relatively clear weather. Our feet were wet after several hours of hiking on the snow in trail runners without gaiters. We were able to easily dry off and warm up at the next camp.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 14
After we hiked up and over the pass, we stopped in unison, awe-struck. Before us was the vast glowing beauty of Glacier Grey, a teeny, tiny tip of the Patagonian Ice Field. It was the most stunning vista we’d ever experienced.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 15
We descended from Glacier Grey to Refugio Torre Grande to complete the hiking loop. After picking up our small cache of food and fuel from the refugio, we continued hiking south. We crossed the Rio Grey, then hiked northwest to this point, where we admired the roar of the Rio Pingo Waterfall.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 16
Our final trek led us to the origins of Rio Pingo, where we enjoyed the solitude and understated power of Pingo Glacier.

The Global Test: Ten Days in Torres del Paine, Chile - 17
We packed up camp early on our last day and walked to Park Headquarters. While waiting for the bus back to Puerto Natales, we stretched out our worn bodies in the soft grass and enjoyed the warm sunshine.


"Ten Days in Torres del Paine: Global Test Photo Essay," by Kristin Tennessen and Danny Milks. (ISSN 1537-0364)., 2011-03-08 00:00:00-07.


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Ten Days in Torres del Paine: Global Test Photo Essay
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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Ten Days in Torres del Paine: Global Test Photo Essay on 03/08/2011 14:26:10 MST Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Ten Days in Torres del Paine: Global Test Photo Essay

Philip Werner
(earlylite) - F - MLife

Locale: New England
Fantastic Pictures on 03/08/2011 17:19:11 MST Print View

Looks like a great place to visit. Any tips about getting there on a budget?

Erik Danielsen
(er1kksen) - F

Locale: The Western Door
Re: Fantastic Pictures on 03/08/2011 20:21:49 MST Print View

Getting there on a budget: fly down to Miami and from there fly to Bogota, Colombia. If you book in time you can put these flights together for under $300. Spend the next couple weeks taking the absolute cheapest buses from Colombia through Ecuador and Peru to Chile, and down to Patagonia, while eating cheap fried chicken and rice and corn from street vendors. Sleep on the buses to avoid paying for accomodations. It will be uncomfortable at times but you could probably do it with a budget of $200. That's $500 to get you from New England to Patagonia. Figure about the same getting back. Add $500 to cover your time in Patagonia and whatever else you might do, perhaps.

So in theory with a bit more than a month and about $1500, you could do it. Note that it would not all necessarily be fun or comfortable. Nonetheless, I've managed to do something similar, and the important thing is that it worked, eh?

-Erik (dreaming of blowing a thousand dollars to spend a month or so lounging in the colombian amazon...)

Warren Greer
(WarrenGreer) - F

Locale: SoCal
Nice "test" on 03/08/2011 23:17:18 MST Print View

Great story. Really enjoyed hearing about your hiking in trail runners in the snow and how they were comfortable. And the pictures, wow. Reminds me of just getting out and how important it is. You two or doing some great work together. Keep it coming!

Buzz Burrell
(BBolder) - F
Re: Re: Fantastic Pictures on 03/09/2011 12:28:09 MST Print View

Great Comment!

American's really get hung up on the money thing; think that w/o $10k and a month they can't go anywhere.

Getting there is the whole deal (I fly using Award Miles; can't handle LD buses). Once there, can do anything you want for less cost than staying home watching TV.

My son and I hiked the entire Circuito plus up a little past the W's in 4 days. Bus to get there plus food probably totaled $30. A couple years later a friend and I ran the Circuito in one day. Drank a liter tetrapak of "El Gato Negro" when we were done, so doing that bumped the cost of doing the entire loop to maybe five bucks. Plus the bus.

Lou Darveniza
(Darveniza) - MLife
THANKS GREAT PICTURES on 03/10/2011 04:38:46 MST Print View

We recently did the 10 day circuit in Dec/Jan. Your pictures are fabulous & we are envious - not as hard as we expected despite age & our full camping kit. The locals are not used seeing a couple of old Aussies in this mode.

Lou & Marion D

Emmett Lyman
(ejl10) - F

Locale: Mid Atlantic
Thanks! on 03/10/2011 05:37:43 MST Print View

Thanks for posting theses photos. My camera was stolen at a hostel in Puerto Natales after my 2009 circuit hike, and I was devastated. It's so nice to see these reminders of the gorgeous vistas throughout the park. Also, I can't believe your luck with the weather! I never got a really clean view of the Torres due to cloud cover. It was still worth the morning hike up, though!

Fred eric
(Fre49) - MLife

Locale: France, vallée de la Loire
torres on 03/11/2011 12:16:21 MST Print View

we did it in april may, because we wanted to avoid the peak season.
anyway even if the area is gorgeous and we were alone with the circuit being closed we really hated the "being held by the hand " impression we had.
the year before we were in Greenland, and nowhere yet we encountered so much freedom, maybe thats why we were disappointed in Patagonia

Ryan Teale
(monstertruck) - F

Locale: Almost Yosemite
Ten Days in Torres del Paine: Global Test Photo Essay on 03/11/2011 15:31:41 MST Print View

Enjoyed seeing your photos from Patagonia!

I did a very similar trip to yours in 2006. It was my first backpacking trip that lasted more than 3 nights. I did 4 days and 3 nights around Fitzroy including a "Mini Epic" camped near the outlet of Lago De Los Tres in an intense storm culminating in an awesome rainbow arcing out over Lago Sucia.

I also did the Circuit with day trips to Valle del Silencio and the Valle Frances. Glad to see you guys exploring Valle Del Silencio! I've got a box of slides from the trip that I still need to get scanned! Great Memories!


Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Ten Days in Torres del Paine: Global Test Photo Essay on 03/12/2011 20:55:08 MST Print View

Jeez...this could be the 2012 BPL calender all by itself. I especially liked the Torres del Paine photo, but that opinion was questioned as I saw more of your photos. Amazing photos that make me think that Zion National Park is just...OK, as strange as that sounds.


Danny Milks
(dannymilks) - MLife

Locale: Sierras
Budget Travel to Patagonia on 03/15/2011 11:10:33 MDT Print View

Philip - Travel IN South America is cheap, but travel TO South America is of course more expensive.

Flights to Lima, Peru are the cheapest (a few hundred bucks from Miami, DC, etc) and fairly central for adventure addicts. From Lima you can take a 8-hour bus to Hauraz or easily fly to Cusco, La Paz, Santiago, or Buenos Aires. You can sometimes find cheap flights to the latter two locations, which put you much closer to Patagonia. I have been able to find roundtrip flights from San Francisco to Santiago for around $1000.

As I write this, the current visa requirements for US citizens are:
Colombia, Ecuador, Peru - no visa fee, free stay up to 90 days
Bolivia - $140 visa fee, apply at border crossing with proper documentation, required at all border crossings, 90 out of 180 days for next five years
Chile - $140 visa fee charged only at flights arriving in Santiago (apply at airport)and valid of life of your passport, otherwise no visa is needed.
Argentina - $140 visa fee charged only at flights arriving in Buenos Aires (apply at airport)and valid of life of your passport, otherwise no visa is needed.

We found a flight for $180 (roundtrip) from Santiago to Punto Arenas, which is a few hours bus ride from Puerto Natales, the nearest big city to Torres del Paine. Los Glaciares/Fitz Roy is another bus ride of several more hours, on the Argentine side of the Andes.

Los Glaciares is free to enter at El Chalten, the town below Fitz Roy, and free to camp in the park.

As of 2010, Torres del Paine costs 14,000 pesos ($28) for the bus from Puerto Natales, plus 15,000 pesos ($30) entrance. A boat ride to the most common trailhead is 11,000 pesos($22) and camping is 4,000 pesos ($8) per person.

So, as you can see, hiking in TdP is much more expensive than Fitz Roy.

To avoid some of these costs, you can hitch-hike to the park (free!) and enter after 5pm, when the park toll booth closes (free!), camp at "unimproved" sites (free!) and don't take the boat across the lake (free!).

Hostels are about $10-12/person/night in all of the town and cities listed above. Buses are very good quality, comfortable, and rather cheap in Argentina (Chile is slightly more expensive).

OK, hope this info helps give you an idea of costs. You can find more info on the parks and our travels in Latin America on my travel blog.

Edited by dannymilks on 03/15/2011 11:11:45 MDT.

Danny Milks
(dannymilks) - MLife

Locale: Sierras
Many Thanks on 03/15/2011 11:21:21 MDT Print View

I just wanted to say thank you to everybody for the positive comments. We really appreciate Addie and the BPL staff for all the hard work they put into these articles. We are happy to read your comments of support.

Warren - Glad you enjoyed it - there are more photo essays on the way.

Lou - After traveling for 18 months already, I can say that Aussies and Kiwis are the worlds backpackers, and am not surprised that such an attitude is still in your blood!

Emmet - Sorry to hear about your loss. We were extremely careful and didn't have anything stolen, but we certainly lost a few things along the way (a flip-flop here, and belt there). I'm glad these photos could bring back some of the highlights of your trip.

Fred - yes, TdP is very developed, probably the second busiest backpacking site in South America (behind Machu Pichu, of course). I think that it why we preferred the ruggedness and isolation of northern Los Glaciares (El Chalten/Fitz Roy). We have not yet been to Greenland yet, but some places in Siberia make us feel like we really were the only people in existence).

Ryan - The beauty of the park really was astounding. We certainly got lucky with the weather, though we did see our fair share of wind, rain, sleet, and snow.

Tom - Wow! Thanks.

Edited by dannymilks on 03/15/2011 11:24:10 MDT.