Puerto Natales & the Torres del Paine
At first glance, Puerto Natales lacks some of the polish of El Calafate. It's a windy port town, and as the main gateway to the Torres del Paine, filled with hikers and travellers. In many places in the world, I'm one of the only people on a bus or plane with a rucksack instead of a suitcase... Here, as in Argentine Patagonia, it's the suitcase carriers who are few in number, with most people carrying gear-laden backpacks and being clad in major outdoor clothing brands.
The hostels all over town provide plenty of beds for late arrivals back from trekking. I spent a night here, giving me time to prepare for the hike.
Torres del Paine
Advantages of walking the circuit clockwise
Most trekkers do the circuit anti-clockwise, starting at Hotel Las Torres, doing the backside first and finishing with the "W". I chose to go clockwise, for a few reasons.
- The climb up Paso John Gardner is steeper on the south-west side than on the east. I prefer steep ascents and shallower descents wherever possible - easier on the knees, and less taxing mentally.
- The appearance of Glacier Grey is better when you start from the low end and walk up. The best viewpoints for it are mostly a few metres off the path, so I don't think this is a good reason to go anti-clockwise, as is often stated.
- Starting with the Mirador las Torres means that you can potentially have two opportunities to visit, once at the start and once at the end of the trip, just in case fog has spoiled the view the first time.
- If you arrive on the afternoon bus, it's quicker to hike up to Chileno or, better, Campamento Torres, than it is to reach Seron.
- Last, but most importantly, from my experience, hikers going anti-clockwise were often to be found in a spread out snake of a line, all starting from one campsite at a similar time and going to the same next one. I'm sure some gregarious types like this kind of thing, but it's not for me. I was glad to rarely pass or be passed by anyone going the same direction, and pleased not to always be camping with the same group of people. And it was interesting to exchange a few words with some of the trekkers going in the other direction as we passed, something that would have been less common, and less helpful, had we all been going one way.
On the counter side, I do feel that the views on the northern section would have been better heading west, towards the mountains, rather than east into the valley. Still, I'm very glad to have chosen a slightly out-of-the-ordinary approach.
Things Lonely Planet was wrong about
- There's no restriction on solo walkers going over the John Gardner Pass. Nobody questioned nor checked, and I saw solo trekkers going in both directions.
- Campamento Seron isn't free. But it only cost 4000 CH$.
- Campamento Britanico doesn't really exist... Camp at Italiano and do the trip to the Mirador with a day-sack as a half-day excursion. (But do do it, especially for the incredible views of Glacier Frances on your west.)
Things to ignore in the National Park rules
- The "closing times" for the trails are not checked at all. Rangers don't care what time you start a trail.
- You don't need to display your trail pass. In fact, after having entered, nobody checked any documents again.
- It's not a problem to walk alone, any more than it is elsewhere. If you're used to walking solo in other parts of the world, you'll not have a problem here. Lots of people do it.
However, you should most definitely follow the rules about not starting fires and about taking your rubbish out with you. And judging by the supervision, and the number of people there, you'd be well advised not to camp anywhere except on the authorised campsites either.