Southern Patagonia: Hiking Adventure At “the End of the World”

the iconic Towers in Torres del Paine Park- the Park’s #1 attraction

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Basic Information

Who it is for: people who enjoy hiking and being in  the world of nature (without it being out-and-out wilderness)

When to go: October to April  are the spring and summer months and the weather is usually at its most agreeable then (no guarantees though!). January and February might be the best months of all.

Where to go: While the northern section of Patagonia around Bariloche seems to be popular,  the best hiking trails are in southern Patagonia in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nay)  in Chile and Parque Nacional Los Glaciares across the border in Argentina.

How to get there: If money is not an issue then a flight  from Santiago de Chile to Punta Arenas or if you are in Argentina, from Buenos Aires to El Calafate; if you have a lot of time, then an 1800-km bus ride to the park from Santiago or 2100 km from Buenos Aires!  You could always combine a bus ride to Puerto Montt followed by the four-day Navimag ferry ride to Puerto Natales.  Or you could visit Ushuaia (the southernmost town in the world)  and then make your way back north by boat and/or bus to the two national parks.

What To Bring Along: the essentials- a goretex hardshell, rain pants, backpacking boots, trekking poles, a lightweight tent (mine was the 2 lb Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1) , Thermarest pad (the NeoAir weighs 13 oz), a down sleeping bag (2 1/2 lbs), Butane camp stove (canisters are available in Puerto Natales); a few days worth of food.

It is possible to do Fitz Roy using a room in the village of El Chaltén as your starting point each morning; there are beds available in refugios all around Torres del Paine Park so with reservations you would not need to tent at all.  Fantastico Sur owns and runs a number of the refugios. See here for some info.

lp-trekking-patagonian-andes

A good book to get is the 4th edition  (2009) of Lonely Planet’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes with details on  32 hikes from Araucanía and the Bariloche area down to Tierra del Fuego.  The chapter on Southern Patagonia (pp.160-200) still provides useful information. Unfortunately it is no longer listed on the LP website. Perhaps an update is in the works?

Your public libary may have a copy. [The Toronto public library system has four of the 2009 edition plus a few copies of the earlier editions.]

Read on if you’d like more detail about what you’ll see and other useful information.

Cerro Torre and Monte Fitz Roy behind El Chaltén at the north end of Los Glaciares Park

Patagonia– the very word conjures up remoteness and untouched wilderness. Often the word is followed by the dramatic phrase “the end of the world”.  Like the Yukon at the other end of the Americas, it has attracted its share of people keen to make  new lives for themselves and adventurers open to the unknown. With the advent of cheap air travel, backpackers and Gap-year travellers have also added Patagonia to their to-do lists. What used to be “the trip of a lifetime” has become a great way to spend this year’s three-week vacation!

An advertisement celebrates Patagonia as  “el fin del mundo”

Patagonia makes up the southern part of two South American countries- Argentina and Chile- and stretches over a thousand miles from Valdivia and the Rio Negro area to Cape Horn.  Click here for a map to refresh your elementary school geography!

Running down the length of Patagonia is the southern end of the Andes, with cordilleras no longer as imposing as those in Ecuador or Peru or northern Chile and Argentina (where you find Acancogua, the highest point in South America at 6800+ m)…but still an impressive scene as rock reaches up into sky in the form of iconic towers.

an overcast day view of  Cerro Torre in Parque Los Glaciares 

The area of Patagonia that I chose to focus on for my three-week adventure was the southernmost section.  My reason was simple- this area contains the two most dramatic hiking trails in the entire region.  In particular, I wanted to hike the circuit around the Cordillera Paine  in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (TDP) on the Chilean side and then go over to Argentina and spend a week hiking in the shadows of Fitz Roy in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares .  The following map lays it out nicely-

southern Patagonia’s key towns and hiking areas- click here for interactive map

The first decision had to do with how to get there.  In my case, it was pretty easy. Since the point of my trip was hiking,  I wanted to bypass the big cities of  Santiago de Chile or Buenos Aires. The most straight-forward way was this- a direct flight from Toronto (the YYZ of that Rush song!) to Santiago de Chile and then, after a three-hour wait, a flight to Punta Arenas. From there I would bus up to Puerto Natales, the real gateway town to Parque Torres del Paine and eventually cross the border by bus into  Argentina and on to the north end of Parque Los Glaciares and the tourist village named El Chaltén after passing through El Calafate.  Here are the four villages/towns/cities of the region-

                                   Population          founding year          useful link

El Chalten                      500                  1985                   click here

El Calafate                   6,500                 1927                   click here

Puerto Natales          19,000                 1911                   click here

Punta Arenas          120,000                 1848                   click here

an overcast day by the Rio Electrico behind Cerro Fitz Roy

Many of the travellers I met had included southern Patagonian in their itinerary but hiking was clearly not a primary reason for their travels; rather, they were on their way to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires and were stopping on the way.  Their plans included a day or two in TDP and then a couple of days in El Chaltén walking a trail or two to Fitz Roy. Without tents or more rugged boots or trekking poles or rain pants, they wanted to see what they could. TDP’s refugios help make that possible, as do the hostals of  El Chaltén. I will also admit to not understanding why some were there at all- they were looking  in the wrong place for a party vibe you associate with beaches and cities! Check out this recent thread in Lonely Planet’s  Thorntree Forum for a sample of this.

GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD:

I landed in Punta Arenas at 7 p.m., having left Toronto just before midnight the day before.  With my castellano (a term often used in South America to  refer to the Spanish language)  definitely a work in progress,  I was able to find out about and get a seat on the bus heading to Puerto Natales from downtown Punta Arenas and stoppiing at the airport. (Click here for a map of the route.)

stray dog napping outside the airport at Punta Arenas

The bus  pulled into the airport’s bus platform at about 7:30 and a few of us got on. Left behind was this dog, who would be the first of many stray dogs I would see in the four towns of southern Patagonia that I would visit. (Spoiler alert- I am a 100% softie when it comes to dogs and am typically North American in my reaction to the way that they are treated in other societies. Perhaps in a separate post I’ll share a few of the many dog and cat pix I took!).

I would be spending four days in Punta Arenas at the end of my trip (click here for my post on what to do in South America’s southernmost city)  but for now I contented myself with gazing at the Straits of Magellan and taking bad pix like this one as our bus headed up to Puerto Natales!

heading for Puerto Natales with the Straits of Magellan ahead

In retrospect, I was pretty lucky to be able to catch the bus on such short notice!  If they are arriving late, it is more likely that travellers will have to go into Punta Arenas for the night and continue the journey in the morning.  My destination at the end of the four-hour drive to Puerto Natales was a room at the Erratic Rock which I had pre-arranged via internet a couple of weeks previously.  It proved to be a great place to stay and to get information on all aspects of hiking TDP. I’d highly recommend it if you are a budget traveller. So do these people whose reviews you can read at trip advisor.ca.

the front of the hostal known as The Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales

Amazingly enough, I sat on that bench outside the hostal and facetimed (the Apple version of Skyping) with my wife 11,000 kilometers away and the connection was perfectly clear- definitely a sign of how the world has gotten even smaller with the advent of the internet. During the next three weeks I would find free wifi in all the  places I stayed at- no matter what the price of the room. Wifi was also available in a number of the restaurants.  A half-day into the trip and what was already clear was that the “Patagonia- the end of the world” stuff was a great line for travel brochures (or the titles of blog posts!)  to promote an exotic destination- but was essentially a metaphor that comes from the world of the 1850’s and not of today.

downtown Puerto Natales on a rainy late February day

the shores of Fiordo Ultima Esperanza by Puerto Natales

a vegetarian restuarant in Puerto Natales- check out the menu here!

the church and the central square of Puerto Natales- the view from El Living’s front door

the interior of Puerto Natales' Iglesia Parroquial

the interior of Puerto Natales’ Iglesia Parroquial – walk up to the painting above the altar to see your first view of the Torres del Paine!

The first part of my day in Puerto Natales, a town of some 20,000 on the Channel of Last Hope, was spent exploring the small downtown area. After a lunch at a very good vegetarian restaurant- El Living- I returned to the Erratic Rock having made up my mind to move on that very afternoon. The weather in Puerto Natales was overcast with occasional showers and the forecast for Torres del Paine Park for the next week was more of the same. Checking the weather forecast for Fitz Roy I noticed six days in a row of sun icons on the weather app.  That decided it right there- do Fitz Roy first and then come back and do the TDP Cirucit when it had stopped raining.  Little did I know….

the bus to El Calafate, Argentina

We left Puerto Natales around 4:30 and headed for the border.  It took about 45 minutes for everyone on the bus to get cleared by the various officials and baggage checkers.

the border between Chile and Argentina- some paperwork and baggage checking required!

We eventually got to El Calafate at about 11:15 p.m.  I had booked a room in a nearby hostel while at the Erratic Rock so all I had to do was get there to put this day of rain and bus travel to rest. The cost- $40. for a clean and quiet room with breakfast and free wifi included.

El Calafate hostel- my home for all of  seven hours!

I had arrived at 11:30; by 6:30 a.m. I was leaving, headed back to the bus station and the first bus of the day to the sunshine of Fitz Roy and El Chaltén.  Here is the scene that greeted me at the bus station-

an empty El Calafate bus station at 6:45  on a Saturday morning

The 210 km.  bus ride took about two and a half hours  I sat in the front seat of the almost empty bus and had a great view of the passing scenery, mostly desolate and tree-less scrubland.  But then around 8:45 I was finally reminded of the actual purpose of my visit.  We were moving west towards this at 100 km an hour!

the view from the bus as we sped towards Monte Fitz Roy

By the way –  about that Fitz Roy weather forecast with a solid week of sunshine icons? It turns out that I had made a rather silly mistake. Click here to see the confusion!  Pretty dumb, eh!  It would turn out that the rain I had tried to escape in Puerto Natales by hiking Monte Fitz Roy first would be up there too.  The next post will show you the best of what El Chaltén and Monte Fitz Roy have to offer during four overcast and often rainy days.

The second post dealing with my Patagonia visit can be found here– read all about El Chalten and Monte Fitz Roy and the hiking possibilities in what the Argentines bill as their trekking capital.

Next Post: Argentina’s Hiking Capital – El Chalten and Monte Fitz Roy

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14 Responses to Southern Patagonia: Hiking Adventure At “the End of the World”

  1. Pingback: Puerto Natales – A Quirky Gateway to Torres del Paine | love.antoinette

  2. baddoguy says:

    Hi ramblin’ boy, I am from Thailand and have plan to visit Patagonia. I have about a month fro my trip in South America but no exact plan yet because I would like to make my best chance for the great condition up there in Patagonia. I have to make my plan flexible and your story make me easy to generate idea for my trip.

    But I am not sure whether there is regular transportation in the area between the end of March and the middle of April. Do you have any information about this? I think your visit is in summer month, right?

    • true_north says:

      Baddoguy – you will be visiting right at the end of the tourist season. By the end of April the refugios in Torres del Paine Park are closed. If you’re heading for southern Patagonia be prepared for less than ideal weather – it may be better further north in the Bariloche area where there are also hiking possibilities. (I have never been there so I cannot offer any personal impressions.)

      Transportation should not be an issue. There are regularly scheduled buses connecting various towns and destinations in southern Patagonia.

      My visit was in March; prime time in southern Patagonia is a bit earlier – December and January. Here are the weather averages for southern Patagonia in April – I chose Torres del Paine Park as the location to give you an idea of what to expect –

      http://www.myweather2.com/City-Town/Chile/Torres-Del-Paine-National-Park/climate-profile.aspx?month=4

      A few years ago my wife and I spent a week in Chiang Mai and had a great time. We had entered Thailand from Laos after visiting Luang Prahbang, an enchanting town on the Mekong. Something I would like to do some day is a boat trip down the Mekong!

      I hope your visit to South America is a good one. Make sure not to try to visit too many places in too short a period of time- it is a continent that will require more than a few visits to do properly!

      โชคดีครับ

  3. Andréanne says:

    Hi there, your blog is so useful and such a great inspiration. Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I was wondering if overall you have a real escape experience or if it was kind of crowded with loud tourism? Also was did you have to book campsite for every night ? Did you use any transportation service like fantasticosur or verticepatagonia ? I don’t really understand what service they offer since they do not provide guide.
    Thanks 🙂

    • true_north says:

      Andreanne, I am happy to hear my posts on TDP are useful to you. TDP is a very scenic part of our world, so much so that you will not be the only person there! I did the circuit on my own in late February. There would have been more people had it been December or January. I met a few people along the trail; some I talked to all the way along since we were travelling at the same speed. The section from Dickson to Grey is very empty and you will be happier and safer if you are with someone else. Patagonia is not the place for loud tourism! It is too expensive – maybe the most expensive place to visit in South America – and there are no beaches and wild night life.

      I brought a small tent along and used it every night on the Circuit – six in all. Having a tent gives you freedom but there is a cost – that is, the weight of the tent. I also had a sleeping bag and a air mattress (Thermarest pad) as well as cook gear and four days’ food. I used the refugio restaurants when I could and ate my food when there was nothing else available.

      You may not want to carry so many extra things. In that case, arranging a bed with Fantasicosur or Verticepatagonia is the answer. Unfortunately, it is expensive to get a bed each night and three meals at the refugio. I just checked Fantastico’s web site and it is $125. US for a bed and three meals at Torres Central! You could easily spend $1000. U.S. if you spent a week using the refugios and restaurants in Torres del Paine. Not cheap!

      If you go to Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales they have lots of information on the TDP Circuit. It is even an inexpensive (and not very fancy!) place to stay. I stayed there for two nights before going to TDP and one night after returning from the walk. Take a look at their website. I notice they also do guided trips. If you are not an experienced hiker and have never gone overnight camping, then it makes a lot of sense to have someone who knows the trail guide you. Yes, it will cost some money but it will be safer and you can enjoy the walk each day while the guide worries about tents or rooms and food and all the other things.

      http://www.erraticrock.com/expeditions/

      Your guided trip in TDP will give you the experience to plan a trip of your own in the future; it will also help you figure out what kind of gear you need to buy.

      There are cheaper places to go for a hike in the mountains. I love Peru and the region around Huaraz. See my posts on the Cordillera Blanca or the Cordillera Huayhuash for more information.

      In spite of the tragic events which have just happened in Nepal, I’d say that trekking in the Annapurnas is still one of the great walks in the world.

      I have yet to get to Bolivia but it is on my list of places to visit with my trekkinig poles and hiking boots!

      I hope you find what you’re looking for. At the age of 63 I am past the age of wanting to escape from anything or of finding some deep meaning in my travel; I am just happy to be where I am.

  4. Hi there! I have shared your post about TdP in my blog, but there’s some information I couldn’t find and I hope you can help: when you cross the argentinian-chilean border, you are not allowed to take with you any any natural products, like fruits or vegetables. I know industrialized food is OK, but what about nuts, for example?
    Thanks!

    • true_north says:

      Marcia, I brought some packaged dehydrated food from Toronto and no problems either at Santiago de Chile or at the border crossing into Argentina on my way to El Chalten and Fitz Roy. I think the customs officials are especially looking for fresh vegetables and fruit and meat products. I did not have any of these things. I should mention that I am a vegetarian; when I mentioned this to the Argentinian person at the Chile/Argentina border she just told me to pass through! However, it may be that the Chileans are much more strict than the Argentinians!

      You ask about nuts. My understanding is that if they are packaged it should not be a problem. I would say that to avoid any problems you can buy some food supplies in Puerto Natales. Of course, if you plan to go right to TDP from El Calafate that is not possible. See this Lonely Planet discussion for different views –

      https://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/forums/americas-south-america/topics/re-crossing-argentina-chile-border-with-dry-food

      On another topic, I notice from your post on Toronto in your fantastic blog that you were in my city this summer! I would have been happy to be your host for a day or two had I known. Infelizmente, o meu Português é inexistent! Pero puedo hablar un poco de castellano, gracias a mis visitas a los Andes. Let me know next time!

      • Thanks for the information. I was asked about it and because I didn’t cross the border with any kind of nuts or fresh food (and mostly because I didn’t carry any dehydrated food), I wanted to make sure I was giving the proper answer.
        ahahaha, Portuguese is hard to learn, but similar to Spanish. If you learned castellano, you can learn Portuguese! Actually, I was in Toronto a long time ago, in 1997! I asked a friend of mine who lives there to write a few lines about it, so I could have material about your beautiful city in the blog, which she did. But thank you very much for your offer. If you ever come to Sao Paulo, I’d be glad to meet you and I would sit like a child in a storytime circle to listen to all your stories!
        Abraços e muito obrigada!

  5. ksaph9 says:

    Hello!

    I am heading to Tierra del Fuego in March (so stoked!). Your blog has been a very helpful resource, so thank you! A few follow up questions if you have a minute: what is the best way to go directly from Puerto Natales to TDP park? I’ve read there are busses but haven’t found specific carrier names. How far in advance do you need to book these type of bus tickets? I’ve also read about the ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, but am unclear how to get from Porvenir to the park.

    Thank you again for your insights!

    • true_north says:

      Lucky you, Kathryn! March is when i was down there too. Hopefully the weather will be nice – but be prepared for some wind and rain!

      You will be staying in a hostal or small hotel in Puerto Natales the night before leaving. The reception desk there will be able to direct you to the right place for bus tickets. Check out this web site for info –

      http://www.parquetorresdelpaine.cl/en/buses-regulares

      Buses Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine

      Buses JB Prat 258 – Puerto Natales 61 – 2412824
      Buses Gómez Prat 234 – Puerto Natales 61 – 2415700
      Buses María José Bulnes 386 – Puerto Natales 61 – 2412218

      Since I was there in 2012 a central bus station has been built so now the buses of all the various bus companies leave from that one location. You will want to catch the earliest bus in the morning (7:30 a.m.). Make sure you get your ticket the day before since it is possible that the seats will be sold out (although less likely in March than in prime season). The bus ticket is 150000 Chilean pesos or a bit less than $25. U.S. these days for a return trip. You keep you ticket safe while trekking so you can find the return portion on the return day to Puerto Natales!

      Once you get to the park entrance you will need to buy an entrance fee. These days it is 18000 Chilean pesos or $26. US. (about 700 pesos for 1$ US)

      Then you take a shuttle bus (extra pesos!) that takes you deeper into the park – right to the Hotel Torres or the Refugio Torres Central. That is where your hike begins!

      If you are doing the full circuit, the usual thing to do is to head for Campamento Serron that first day. However, if the weather is really nice, I would say to go up to the Torres del Paine that very day and then either camp at the site below the Towers or camp or stay at the Refugio Chileno.

      You are bound to meet other hikers who will be asking the same questions as you. It will all become clear as you move forward.

      To get out of the park you take that same shuttle bus that dropped you off at the start. It picks up passengers at the Refugio Torres Central and brings then back to the park gate where the bus to Puerto Natales will be waiting for you.

      One last thing – check out this very readable post from another reader for her experience with the Torres del Paine Circuit –

      https://freytures.wordpress.com/2015/12/15/o-trekking-full-circuit-of-torres-del-paine/

      Buen viaje y buena suerte!

  6. Sarah says:

    Hey there! Thanks for sharing all of this with people.

    My partner and I are flying into Pubtas Arenas Dec.29th and leaving January 11th, and I was wondering if you’d be willing to have a call with us to help us make the most out of our trip. Ideally, we’d like to stay a night or two in Puntas Arenas and then do as much hiking and exploring as possible. We’re experienced backpackers (he’s a climbing and mountaineer guide and I’m a wilderness therapist), so we are capable and willing to make hard treks to see the most beautiful landscapes.

    It sounds like you flew into PUQ and then took a bus to TDP/El Cafate. My partner wants to just rent a van and use that as our means of transportation/accommodation, but I’m hesistant due to wanting to cross the border, etc. what would you recommend given your experience?

    • true_north says:

      Sarah, you’ve picked a great place for some scenic hiking though with only a bit more than a week you will be pressed for time!

      I did indeed fly into PA and managed to get a bus that was going to Puerto Natales that very night. The PA-PN bus stops at the airport at around 7 p.m. and by 10:30 I was in P.N. in a room I had pre-booked online. It was at the Erratic Rock, a very humble hostel run by some folks from Oregon but it had a great vibe and the people there were really helpful with info on the circuit. There are many accommodation options in Puerto Natales. Your hostel or hotel will also be where you leave behind your duffle and other stuff you do not need for your hike.

      My suggestion is to forget the rental van idea and – given how you describe yourselves- and go for the TDP Circuit, a six or seven day hike that will give you the best of southern Patagonia hiking. BTW – driving rental vehicles across the border to Argentina is apparently a big hassle and not worth the aggravation given that the reward is the over-hyped El Calafate. Besides, with the time you’ve got you may as well keep the Argentinian side for another trip. The TDP does not really lend itself to van camping.

      Plan on tenting your way around the circuit. At least you will know you have a place to stay each night! Bring as much of your own gear as you can – and food. The refugios you will be tenting near do have beds if you want some luxury but you will be going during prime time so the beds may all be taken – and they ain’t cheap! In fact, Chile in general is as expensive as the US and southern Patagonia a bit more expensive still!

      The TDP hike is not overly difficult and there is certainly no acclimatization problem. I think the high point – the pass – is maybe 1420 meters. This is the tail end of the Andes. The biggest variable is the weather. I had a four nice sunny days and two of rain. You will see other hikers on the trail an there are no grizzlies lurking about! When I could – to keep my own food for emergencies – I ate in the refugio. You’ve still got a few months to read up and plan your hike but as already stated it is pretty straightforward.

      Good luck – and have fun taking pix of your own Torres del Paine walk!

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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