Have you seen the spectacular, untouched landscapes of movies such as Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007) and, more recently, Wild (2014, Jean-Marc Vallée)? Do you imagine the emotion of the hero as he hikes along magnificent snow capped mountains and silent forests, as relentless as the sun in the desert (and the wind in Patagonia)? That emotion, that feeling of remoteness, is precious. It is precious mainly because places stunning enough to get you feel it are rare.Luckily, such places exist. Somewhere in Southern Chile, in a place called Torres del Paine National Park, you can feel the winds of freedom in your hair, sleep in a tent under the shadow of huge trees and hike along 138km/83mi of pristine valleys, forests and ice fields.
Let me introduce you to the famous Paine Circuit (also called “O”, due to its shape on the map) with EcoCamp Patagonia! Get ready for hike of a lifetime in one of the most striking trekking routes in the world. Yes, you need to be in good physical condition. Yes, you need to accept the risk of extreme weathers. But don’t worry: with no altitude issues (the trek is under 1500m/4921ft) and the option to stay three of the eight nights in a comfy dome, the trek is a great compromise between adventure and rest! So, dear reader, get ready to read about the ultimate challenge in the 8th wonder of the world… even more exciting when it starts on New Year’s Eve!
DAY 1 – The journey starts: Wednesday 31st of December. The trip from Santiago to EcoCamp was said to be long. Let’s admit it: eight hours of travel is indeed a long trip. However, after we reached Punta Arenas, my fear of becoming bored disappeared even though I knew we had still 373km/232mi (about five hours) to go before seeing EcoCamp. The van made its way through enormous flat lands, with almost no human life in the horizon and only the pampa as far as our eyes could see. We were in Patagonia! After three hours we broke our journey in Puerto Natales, where we were introduced to the friendly EcoCamp office staff and to our guide, Roberto Carlos. Roberto is a local guide with a great passion for Patagonian fauna, flora and culture. I immediately knew we would learn a lot thanks to him!
After we completed the necessary paperwork, we were taken to “Aldea”, a nearby restaurant where we enjoyed delicious Chilean food. It was the perfect opportunity to get to know the four adventurers that had crossed the world to hike the Paine Circuit by my side! Jonathan Waugh (Great Britain) and Hilde Suude (Norway) seemed well-prepared for the adventure, as they had already hiked in remote mountains of Ecuador, China and Siberia. Their travel stories left me speechless! Marty Papazian and Marina Benedict (USA) had left the studios of Los Angeles to take a well-deserved Patagonian break. They are both actors, who would forget about movies and TV shows for nine days of hike in the end of the world.
We got back in the van to head north again. En route, we stopped for a short yet welcome surprise: the Milodon’s Cave (La Cueva del Milodon)! This 200m cave once housed a creature called Milodon, which inhabited the area 10,000 years ago. What an astonishing geological formation!
After two hours of driving, we finally entered Torres del Paine. The sun was shining on the giant mountain range, and as we stopped at the Sarmiento Lookout we could not believe the beauty of the place. The famous towers overlooked the biggest lake in the national park (Sarmiento Lake) and dozens of guanacos and ñandus (rhear) gave us a warm welcome as we reached EcoCamp Patagonia. We were finally there!
After settling in our cozy domes at the foot of the towers, we met Roberto in the Community Domes to review the itinerary for the next few days. We raised questions and got to know the National Park’s map over a tasty Pisco Sour, before the music led us outside. All the travelers were gathered in the terrace for New Year’s Eve and we got to know people from around the world with a common spirit of adventure.
A delicious buffet allowed us to taste great Patagonian fusion food washed down with a full bodied organic Chilean wine. Soon before midnight, we mixed with the EcoCamp staff and all started the countdown to New Year 2015. 3, 2, 1…Happy New Year! We hugged and blessed each other in English and Spanish. We could have danced for hours to the sound of the cheerful Latin music. But despite the beauty of the moment, time was flying. I gazed at the star-filled sky from my Standard dome. We would wake up at 7.00am on the next day – and hike 32km/19mi.
DAY 2 – Dickson: As we gathered in the community domes for a delectable breakfast, we all realized it would be a long day. We would walk 32km – about 10 hours – from EcoCamp to the Dickson refuge, a place famous for its glaciers and remoteness. No doubt the setting would be pretty different! The weather was uncertain but after all, didn’t Roberto say there are four seasons a day in Patagonia? We stretched for a few minutes, laced up our shoes and strapped on our backpacks. Let’s go!
We made our first steps in the shady Ceron woods where elegant woodpeckers gave us a warm welcome. We did not wait long before experiencing the local wildlife! We found puma tracks on the trail: no doubt the feline was not far. The trail was rather flat and easy, a gentle yet beautiful start in landscapes rich in trees and white flowers. We could have lain for hours in the marguerite fields that made the place look like paradise! Here and there we could observe the Paine River, the biggest river in the National Park as we continued on to its source: Dickson. We also saw the magic blueness of Laguna Azul (blue lagoon) in the distance!
We reached the Ceron campsite after about 4 hours and took a first break. That was a nice warm up! This tiny, quiet campsite was the last step before heading north and reaching the back part of the Mountain range. The trail became hillier as we reached Laguna Cebolla (“Onion Lagoon”) – a small and peaceful lagoon – and we started to hike the steepest part of the day. However, the hard part did not last long and the view from the top was definitely rewarding. We were facing the Paine Lake and could distinguish tomorrow’s highlight: the Perros glacier. It was a nice spot for a group picture!
We walked downhill for a few kilometers. New mountains started to appear in our left side, always seeming to surpass each other in beauty. We could see the impressive Cerro Cabeza del Indio, a rock formation so dramatic it was almost intimidating! More surprisingly, the famous towers appeared again…from the back side. We had reached the other side of the national park. Millions of flowers were covering the ground. The sun was shining again. We enjoyed our Box Lunch at the edge of the Paine Lake. It would be paradise, if only the mosquitos were not there to bite us!
Despite the insects, we hiked with strength and happiness. (Who could complain with such scenery?) Our feet were tired, but we kept walking and started whistling to gain strength. 25km, 28km, 30km…we were almost there. Let’s admit it: the last couple of kilometers seemed long. We reached the top of one hill, and then another. Finally Dickson appeared! This impressive, massive glacier gives life to the pristine Dickson Lake. The Dickson campsite seemed to sparkle at the edge of the lake. That was wild!
We reached the campsite after nine hours’ hiking. None of us forgot to stretch after such an intense day. We were warmly welcome in Dickson. We had a refreshing cocktail and lots of food to eat. We were far away from the civilization, but had what we needed: good food, a wide tent and a hot shower. Servando, the friendly EcoCamp representative at Dickson, cooked a delicious salmon for us which we enjoyed in a spacious restaurant tent. Listening to the sweet melody of Patagonian music, we got to talk about the day’s highlights. We had done it and it was fun! Roberto briefed us for the next day. Outside, only silence. I closed my eyes in peace. It was good to be here, with such amazing people.
DAY 3 – Perros Glacier: Roberto promised us we would have time to rest and he was right: we indeed had a long night’s sleep under the stars. A strong sunshine woke us up. I already knew Patagonia for its strong winds and changing weather, but I had no idea it could be so hot. I followed Jonathan as he wanted to see the beach down below the camp, a spot which would have tempted us to go for a swim if it had not been a glacier lake!
After enjoying a hearty breakfast in the “restaurant tent” and preparing our box lunch, we quietly started the hike to Perros. We were leaving a glacier and were heading to another one. We went uphill for a while to get to an impressive lookout from which we could admire the Dickson area. We had an unobstructed view of the dense forest we would enter, to the Perros glacier and beyond. We made our way through a lush green forest, mesmerized by the silence of the place. I took a deep breath to inhale the revitalizing pure air. We were so far from the craziness of the city!
The hike was rather easy, which was good after the 32 kilometers of the day before. We could hear the roar of the nearby Perros River. We walked above the unrelenting mountain stream as we crossed a bridge in the heart of the forest. We were getting closer to the glacier! A refreshing breeze gave us the energy to brave the final hill. The breeze suddenly turned into a violent wind and a cloud of dust descended on us. We could feel the power of the glacier, which was right in front of us! We would have stayed longer if the wind had not been so strong, but what a feeling!
We reached Los Perros campsite after 15 minutes. It may have been the most relaxing campsite I had ever experienced. The tents laid in the shadow of tall lenga trees, near a small river, in the fascinating stillness of the forest. Roberto led us to a dome tent where we would spend the evening. We gathered for a coffee and as we chatted I realized how much we were revealing ourselves.
The circuit already seemed to be a friend-making machine! The purest simplicity of the place charmed us. We were introduced to the porters; amazing (and tough) people who carry some of our weight on the trail. They walk all day long to make sure we can hike more cozily. We all felt deep respect for their physical prowess! I could hear the trees’ leaves trembling in the cold breeze. Tomorrow we would reach the immensity of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
DAY 4 – Glacier Grey: 8am. We savored a hot breakfast to warm us up. Today we would cross the highest point of the circuit: John Gardner Path, at 1300 m.a.s.l/4265 feet. We would go uphill for about 600 meters, and downhill for 800 meters. Roberto quickly reviewed our equipment. With an area of 12,363 km2 (4,773 sq mi), the Southern Ice Field is a monster of ice with its own climate. Roberto warned us: even in summer, the weather can turn extreme. We would need gloves and a good jacket to protect us from a possible rainstorm. We might have to brave strong winds. But no doubt we would enjoy the adventure!
Roberto led the troop through the muddy forest trail. Dark clouds seemed to be threatening us. Soon the trail became rockier and as we were hiking along a noisy river the vegetation melted into a desolate mountain landscape. We were moving forward slowly but surely, getting closer to the John Gardner Path we could see in the distance. The temperature was dropping down as we conquered the mountain. The Amistad glacier suddenly appeared in our right side, a picture perfect mountain glacier! We hiked in a thin rain, which was way less terrible than the storm we were expecting…We were about to reach the top! After a few steps in the snow, I heard the group shout in unison “Hooray!”. What a spectacular landscape!
A 3-hour climb had brought us to the John Gardner Path, an incredible lookout from which we could admire the Southern Ice Field. Grey Glacier extended as far as our eyes could see. We were speechless at what we encountered. We had still five hours to hike along the glacier, and the cold rain did not allow us to stay much time at the lookout. We began the steep ascent and reached a dark forest that protected us from the bad weather.
Here and there we could observe the ice field between the trees. I was happy to have my sticks: the trail was abrupt, and quite tiring for the knees after an hour. The delicious glacier water from the mountain’s watercourses gave us the energy to cross the forest. Then the trail turned into something less exhausting. We reached El Paso campsite right in time for lunch!
Our bodies asked for more and we were happy to continue walking while overlooking the ice field stretching between the mountains in our left side. At some parts, we had to cross wild rivers, using steep ladders above the rock. That was adventure! We were getting closer to the magnificent Grey Lake, as the sun was starting to shine again. We passed on the longest suspension bridge in the National Park, a vertiginous infrastructure in the heart of an unspoilt wilderness.
Our odyssey through the forest ended as we saw the first tents of Grey refuge. We had completed what most hikers consider to be the most difficult day of the circuit! We opted for a refreshing Chilean beer in the refuge, where we happily gathered for the evening. We could not believe how beautiful the day had been yet. We had witnessed magic, enormous, surprising nature and still had five days to go.
DAY 5 – Grey Lake: The day was spectacularly beautiful and we did not hesitate a second before walking to the Grey lookout, 20 minutes away from the refuge. There we could admire the “face” of Grey glacier, and the setting was so fantastic that knowing the glacier was diminishing every year made me feel quite down. We had no right to lose such a natural marvel!
We walked through the forest and met dozens of fellow hikers doing the famous W Trek. Indeed, we had returned to the more well-known side of the mountain range. Even though it was slightly more crowded, nothing could interfere with the beauty of the setting. We hiked along the peaceful greyness of Grey lake and the electric blueness of some lonely icebergs. We admired a few lookouts on the ice field and some beautiful peaks, such as the Ferrier Mountain.
The wind suddenly got up. The trees were shaking. The sky began to get darker and darker. As we reached the beautiful Laguna de los Patos – en enchanting tiny lagoon – we lost sight of Grey Lake. A storm was arising in the sky. We made our way through a small silent valley with strange rock formations. From there we could see Punta Bariloche, one of the peaks of Paine Grande, the highest mountain in the national park. Los Cuernos, famous and impressive mountains of Torres del Paine, appeared in the distance. We reached Paine Grande refuge in the afternoon, and could not believe the beauty of its setting.
We were at the edge of the Pehoe Lake, whose bright blueness seemed to be shining. Its water rippled in the blowing wind, creating a landscape of impressiveness and power. We sat down in the refuge’s comfy dining room. It was a big and modern refuge, with a large restroom and dormitories for those wanting an upgrade. We talked about our experiences with Jonathan and he told us of some adventures of his from his trips around the world.
Jonathan has been trekking on some of the highest peaks in the world, such as the Elbrus (highest mountain in Europe), the Kamchatka (Far East of Russia), the Everest Base Camp (Nepal), the Cotopaxi (Ecuador) and the Mustagh Atah (China). He confided he loved the Lake District in England – the place he came from – but that Patagonia was his favorite place on Earth. I felt even more blessed to be part of the circuit. Was he tired? No. The circuit was far more accessible than the places where he had been trekking.
I could feel the tiredness in my legs, but sat back and realized how good we were, all of us. I was now sure we would complete the circuit without any problem. The only thing that intimidated me was the wind, which was blowing up stronger and stronger. I hoped it would not be too strong for the next day in French Valley. I lay in my quaking tent. The movement quickly lulled me. Striking power of Mother Nature!
DAY 6 – French Valley: The night was pretty agitated; we all knew we would have to hike against the wind. Today we were heading to French Valley, a dramatic valley snaking between Paine Grande and Los Cuernos. The common trail from our refuge to Los Cuernos refuge had a distance of 22km/13mi; however a detour to the famous British lookout would be 28km/17mi. A slightly longer distance, for a steeper and more impressive trip. Roberto insisted: reaching the British Lookout only depended on our physical condition. Our legs were a bit tired, and the wind was strong. Would we reach the mountain cirque?
We departed in the early morning, leaving the campsite that seemed to have been shaken like a bottle in the sea. For about 8km/4mi, we walked in relatively flat lands, admiring the magic of the Pehoe Lake and passing dead trees that once were part of a dense forest. Here we witnessed the desolation of the 2011 fire, caused by human carelessness. We also enjoyed a unique view of Los Cuernos from the Skottsberg Lake. The landscapes reminded us of Middle Earth!
We entered French Valley as we passed a suspension bridge over the French river. We were shadowed by the mountain and it looked like we were entering another world. The atmosphere changed and the trail became steeper. We took a short break at El Italiano campsite before starting the ascent: we were all optimistic for the day!
We hiked on the rock all the way up. In our left side, we were offered a breathtakingly steep landscape on the French River, whose torrent was roaring in the valley. We advanced through the lush green of the forest, with the constant view on the giant Paine Grande. Its highest peak – the highest peak of the national park with 3050m/10,000feet – was covered with clouds. That mountain was a monster of rock! Enormous glaciers were covering the whole mountain. We reached the Paine Grande lookout after about an hour and a half, as a raging wind gave us a wild welcome. We were speechless with the mightiness of the landscape. We could see an impressive range of blue lakes down below, such as the Pehoe and the Nordenskjold lakes. The forest was endless. Paine Grande seemed to be roaring. And really, it was roaring! We heard the loud, terrifying sound of avalanches. We saw tons of snow falling off the mountain. What a spectacular, unforgettable moment!
“Are you alright to go there?” Roberto said. “OK, let’s go!” replied the group. It was impossible not to continue. We all wanted to experience the British Lookout. On the way up, we met fellow travelers we had met earlier. They were coming back from the British lookout, and seeing the emotion in their eyes, it was no doubt worth the hike! We crossed the forest for about an hour, in the thunder of the nearby French river. The trees protected us from the winds. In our right side, we could see massive, incredible peaks such as Cerro Hoja and the Cerro Espada. Had we reached another planet?
We braved the wind to conquer a last steep hill. An ultimate effort and we finally reached the British lookout! The extreme Patagonian weather was here. It was a cocktail of wind, rain and snow. We climbed on a rock to observe the landscape. That was such a giant mountain cirque! We could not count the peaks, with names as exotic as Cerro Catedral, Cerro Fortaleza and Cerro Cabeza del Indio which we had seen from the other side when we were in Dickson. We enjoyed our box lunch, taking advantage of a rock to protect us from the cold.
The way down was as impressive as the way up; it offered other perspectives on the dramatic scenery. We made our way to Los Cuernos refuge on the edge of the Nordenskjold Lake and its penetrating blueness. We were hiking at the foot of Los Cuernos (The Horns), enormous granite peaks. We walked on the beach and the melody of the waves relaxed us. In and there we could see waterfalls coming off Los Cuernos. We would sleep in the shadow of the peaks, in our comfy red tents. We had a refreshing drink and a warm dinner at the refuge which was crowded with courageous hikers who, like us, were having the adventure of a lifetime. We all agreed: the hike to French Valley may have been the highlight of the circuit so far!
DAY 7 – Los Cuernos: A heavy rainfall descended on us during the night. We took off our shoes to enter the refuge and had a hot coffee to start the day off right. That was a deluge outside and we could barely see Los Cuernos. However, we all knew we would have to experience the rain after so many days in the sunshine! We started the relatively easy hike from Los Cuernos refuge to EcoCamp Patagonia, which we were looking forward to seeing again.
The rain and wind were converting the Nordenksjold Lake into a sea. We were hiking along the beautiful lake when the torrential rain finally stopped. The storm was behind us! A new mountain appeared: the Almirante Nierto Mountain, a colossal 2640m/8661ft rock titan with a few glaciers on it. Behind us, Los Cuernos were beautifully covered by rain, which gave birth to an unexpected Patagonian landscape.
A few nice lookouts punctuated the hilly trail. We never lost sight of the Nordenskjold lake. We crossed a few suspension bridges before reaching the steppe. EcoCamp was shining in the distance: after five nights in the wild, our domes were going to be a paradise! We still had an hour to before gathering in the community domes for a well-deserved Pisco Sour.
We all hugged when we arrived at EcoCamp! The sun was shining behind the towers. The smiling waiters offered us a delicious dinner. The food was melting in my mouth: we were hungry, but I did not expect such gourmet food! We were briefed for the next day with a glass of organic wine in the hand. My standard dome was warm, and I could not stop smiling as I was staring at the moon from my bed. This place was the incarnation of peace!
DAY 8 – The base of the Towers: We left EcoCamp at 9:30am. A plentiful buffet breakfast could not have been better to encourage us. I was ready for the last day hike with Marty, Marina, Hilde and Jonathan. We were all relaxed: the circuit had been a complete training, and our legs were to meet the mountains again. We knew, however, that the challenge was the biggest one. We had been hiking for 116km/72mi, and had still 22km/13mi to go…in one day.
We climbed the first hill that offered us a nice view on the Nordenskjold lake we had been trekking along the day before. From there we could admire the immensity of the pampa; I guess we could see until Argentina, without actually knowing it. We entered the Ascencio Valley after an hour, and were all impressed by the lookout. We could see the Ascencio river quietly snaking through the mountain. A vast lenga forest covered the valley.
We reached El Chileno campsite – an important meeting place for the hikers who wish to gather for a snack – and kept hiking in a silent forest, along the Ascencio river that we crossed on a wooden bridge. I stopped for a while to listen to the silence: it was a beautiful, mystic silence. The forest was crowded with trees that seemed to be whispering to us. The magic of the place reminded me of the Perros forest.
We finally started the final ascension to the towers’ lookout. We had to carefully put one foot in front of the other, as the trail was rocky and potentially slippery. Roberto guided us well through the rocks; he knew we were tired, but was quite surprised of how quick we were moving. We kept greeting the hikers we had met on the way. I was surprised of the diversity of people from around the world. This trail, which is the most famous in the national park, fascinated the whole planet.
My legs were heavy, but the summit of the towers we could see from the trail kept encouraging me. We were moving forward energetically. I heard Hilde and Jonathan’s shout: they had arrived first. A magnificent lagoon appeared, and the towers were pointing at the sky in a postcard-perfect landscape. “Wow”! I had no words to describe this. To top it all, the weather was fine. Roberto explained us the fascinating yet complex geology of the place. Planet Earth will never stop surprising us. For all of us, it was one of the most incredible places we had seen. We took our time and had lunch in front of the towers. We would never forget it.
We came back happy. We had done our last steps of the circuit, had seen some of the most impressive marvels on Earth, and were about to spend a great night at EcoCamp. The luscious dinner itself would not content us: we needed to party. We needed to be together, as an old group of friends which has shared something unbelievable. We congratulated each other and, as the night was falling, we kept having fun in the EcoBar. Tomorrow we will have to say goodbye to a marvelous place and to marvelous people. But who wanted to think about tomorrow?
DAY 9 – Adios Torres del Paine!: I stretched in front of the Reception dome. There was a lukewarm wind blowing across the land. It was as if the mountains were saying goodbye. “So, we’re doing it again?” I said to the group. We laughed. We could do it another time just to get to know each other better, and to experience the beauty of Torres del Paine again. But we had to leave.
Marty and Marine were going to take part in a kayak adventure that looked amazing. Hilde and Jonathan were heading to Argentina. I was going home. We finally joined the Paine Circuit Alumni Club, after having taken around 175,000 steps and burnt at least 7000 calories! We hugged Roberto Carlos, who had been such a valuable person during the trek. Under a burning Patagonian sunshine, we promised to each other we would meet again. Adios, amigos…The van’s door slammed. See you soon Patagonia!