Torres del Paine Bus Tour, Chile Nov. 25, 2011
Torres del Paine National Park is the most famous hiking destination in southern Patagonia. Chile and Argentina are not particularly cooperative about coordinating tourism as Patrick and others have noted. So all of the cheap transit into Torres del Paine is from Puerto Natales in Chile south of the park. If you use a public bus to get from El Calafate to Puerto Natales you will chew up close to a day in transit each way. They do rent cars in Calafate with stickers allowing border crossings, but if you're doing a one-way hike in Torres del Paine there's no regular transit to get from your end point back to your starting point. So we opted for Chalten Travel's one day bus tour from Calafate, which dropped us off at Pudeto on Nov. 25 and picked us up at Laguna Amarga on Nov. 29 for a combined cost of ~$175US per person.
The map shows roads (mostly unpaved) in yellow, hiking trails in orange with the "W" hike we did in 4 days in red. The bus made several stops with guide explanations. The border crossing into Chile took well over a hour with backpacks going through a security scanner. We were picked up at our hotel in Calafate about 7:30AM and it was probably past noon when we finally got into the park. First stop was to check out some guanacos.
We also saw flightless rheas from the bus but it was not in a safe place to stop. At that first stop we also sighted an Andean condor.
Too bad I didn't have the big camera for this, but the flared wingtips are distinctive so we're sure that what it was. And in retrospect condors are not what we saw at Arpa in 2007, though I suspect they are sometimes in that area.
Next stop was Cascada Rio Paine
We're bundled up because this was the day we experienced the highest Patagonia winds of our trip. We wore more clothing than for ski touring in Antarctica.
Close-up of main section
Terraced effect made me think of this as a mini-Iguazu.
The road parallels the south shore of Lago Nordenskjold and can offer panoramic views of the dramatic mountains north of the lake where we will be hiking closer for the next 4 days. But no luck for seeing them on this bus tour.
Liz graciously agreed to illustrate the Patagonian wind here.
Our final bus stop was for a ~45 minute round trip hike from Pudeto to the shore of Lago Nordenskjold.
We had seen these dense bushes on the Fitzroy hike but they were thicker here.
The Rio Paine flows vigorously for the short distance between Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Pehoe.
With Salto Grande in-between.
We were done about 4:30, but had to wait for the ferry at 6PM. There's a small restaurant not yet open for the summer, but the local caretaker let us inside so we wouldn't have to stay out in the wind. The ferry crosses Lago Pehoe to the Refugio Paine Grande, where we spent the first 2 nights. I'm getting off the ferry here.
It's still blowing at Refugio Paine Grande.
The refugios offer dorm style lodging on bunks with bedding or rented sleeping bags, basic breakfasts and dinners and packed lunches for about $100US per person per day. There are 5 refugios on the 4-5 day "W" trail but just one on the backside part of the Paine Circuit that typically takes 8 days. The refugios also offer cheaper camping and there are 4 additional camp-only sites on the "W" plus 3 more on the backside of the circuit. Given the reputation of Patagonia's weather plus the logistics of bringing/carrying extra gear it was an easy call for us to use the refugios instead of the camps. There are some hotels in the southern part of the park. The hiking is directly accessible from Hosteria Las Torres at the east end of the "W" and the west end of the "W" can be reached by boat from Hosteria Lago Grey. Both of these hotels cost ~$300 per night double occupancy. The middle section of the "W" was the toughest part of the hiking and would be much more so starting and returning to one of the hotels.
After dinner we got a break in the weather. 8,500 foot Punta Bariloche is directly north of us.
Some birds by Lago Pehoe.
Earlier in the day the bus guide had demonstrated in the sand how glaciers scraped much of the mountains down to the granite but left some sedimentary rock on top.
So we finally got to see the real thing here.