The Attainable Bucket List Adventure: Patagonia
have never felt no more at home or closer to understanding the world and my place in it than in Chilean Patagonia. We made our pilgrimage south in 2013 after a particularly trying season of life for my (then) boyfriend and me. We had moved to Denver from San Diego nine months prior, and it seemed the new house, new life, and new jobs cracked a few doors for wondering who we were and what we were really doing with our lives, both as a couple and individuals.
I was working at Whole Foods as a line cook 40 hours a week to support the notoriously low-pay life of a freelance writer. Shaun’s business was doing well — so well that we almost never saw one another. This was not sort of life either of us wanted. (Spoiler alert: we’re married now.)
Sad, tired, and ready to call it quits, we booked flights and packed bags for the Southern Andes. We’ve always been like this. Things get weird and we’re like, "hey, let’s take on something crazy together." I’ve learned that sometimes an intense physical and psychological challenge is just what I need to shake the dust and stale perspective. Shaun agreed, and conveniently found work filming an endurance race in the Atacama Desert to help offset the cost of getting down there.
It was a coin toss as to whether we’d hike the Torres del Paine circuit or the Fitz Roy Grand Tour (on the Argentine side). Both regions lie between the Magellanic subpolar forests and the Patagonian steppes and are wrought with dense southern beech and conifer forests, raging glacial rivers, innumerable fjords, and the world’s largest ice-fields in the Southern Hemisphere (second to Antarctica, of course).
We chose to hike Torres del Paine because it was longer, harder, and held promise of the 27 square mile Dickson Glacier that took two whole days to hike alongside. I knew next to nothing about the region before visiting, but the pictures I lingered over in Peter Potterfield’s Classic Hikes of the World had a strange, spiritual pull.
And my spirit there I did find. The circuit broke me and healed me in ways I barely have words to describe. You must go. I insist. Even if you’re not at a crossroads in your life, it is impossible not to make the journey and find new and juicy caverns of your heart to explore. I’ve rounded up all the necessary details to get going your own adventure to Patagonia.
READ: Trekking in the Patagonian Andes for trail descriptions, travel tips, and insider advice. We studied the book on the plane and tore out pages 177-192 for the trek itself. Those pages were biblical during the tougher terrain. It's also helpful to pore over the Torres del Paine circuit map.
WHEN TO GO: December through March is considered high season, but you’ll find March the best time to visit with less crowded trails and drier river crossings. That said, the weather in the park is notoriously unpredictable and localized. You may experience high winds, heavy rain, snow, and glaring heat in the same day.
AIRFARE: Setting up a flight tracker on Kayak or Priceline will help you snag a cheap ride to the Straits of Magellan. Patagonia may be situated at the end of the world, but I’ve seen fares more expensive to NYC during the holiday season. From Denver to Punta Arenas, we scored tickets for $980, round trip.
FITNESS: Be honest with yourself about your physical stamina. Anticipate six to eight hour days carrying a massive pack over a variety of terrain and grade. The circuit is demanding but not unreasonable. Try a stand-up desk if you’ve got an office job to get used to being on your feet all day and try walking and/or running for an hour a day the month before.
HEALTH & SAFETY: No bears, mountain cats, or big predators to heed caution for. Even better? No necessary vaccinations, prophylaxis, or anti-malarial precautions. There are a few gnarly spiders in the region, but no mosquitos (!). Make sure you’re up to date on tetanus and take a few probiotics for potential GI distress. Common ailments include blisters, fatigue, and joint strain in the lower extremities.
Hop a plane to Punta Arenas, Chile, the largest city south of the 46th parallel. Lonely Planet designates this transport hub of the Strait of Magellan “a strange combination of the ruddy and the grand,” probably because it’s a relatively sleepy metropolis at the end of the earth, but we felt it made for a pleasant base camp with grocery stores, pharmacies, restaurants, bars, and a few big box backpacking stores for last minute trekking needs. Stay overnight and plan to take the next day’s first bus to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
Puerto Natales is nestled on the windy shore of Last Hope Sound. It’s a backpacker mecca with dozens of homestyle hostels and trekker-focused B&Bs that offer luggage storage for everything you don’t want to carry on the circuit.
Stay at the much popular Erratic Rock to meet a host of other eager trekkers, or opt for something more like Hospedaje de Maria for some local hospitality. Arrange for the 7:30am bus through your host or the local station for your transport to the park. I believe there is a later bus, but if you’d like to make camp before dark at the first refugio, you’ll want to hit the trails no later than noon after the bus unloads and you have an opportunity to register and pay your entrance fee: 18.000 Chilean pesos (about $36 USD).
Depending on the side hikes you make take over the course trip, the total distance of the Torres del Paine circuit is 110-120 kilometers and can be accomplished in anywhere from six to 10 days depending on your clip and the number of rest days you might consider.
You can approach the circuit from either direction. Many trekkers go counterclockwise (as we did) making their first camp at Puesto Serón and finish at Campamento Torres near the namesake Torres towers. Some, though, opt for the clockwise route to get the front-load the trip with the hardest climbs. Either way, the trek is long and challenging.
Camping is allowed only in designated sites. It may be tempting to park it along some of the epic ridges and valleys, but the appropriated refugios help preserve the integrity of the park. Tourists are responsible for causing three notable, destructive fires in 1985, 2005, and 2011.
Even with above average physical fitness, the circuit kicked our butts. I managed to squeeze all of my food, clothes, sleeping bag, water, and the poles to our tent in my 40L bag. And “in” the bag is an exaggeration. I strapped my water bladder to the outside, and jimmied my sleeping bag and pad to the side straps. I wish I had brought a 65L bag. Shaun carried a 70L pack with the same accoutrement plus a camera and the hammock.
We never weighed our packs, but mine had to be close to 50 pounds, and the first 20 kilometers of the hike in the dry, hot sun left me wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into. By day three, we realized how severely we underestimated our caloric needs. A single freeze-dried dinner of 500 calories without ample snacks to supplement meant we went to bed hungry most nights. An old running injury reared its nasty head on day five and I rationed the two aspirin in our first aid kit over the next five days, looking forward to a measly 250mg at the end of a day like a junkie.
By 110 kilometers, I ceased to even have thoughts on the trail. It seemed my brain was protecting my body by shutting down anything not necessary to survival. We were exhausted and euphoric, happy and humbled. The beauty at every turn was unparalleled, despite the struggle the trail invited.
Take every side hike that the book suggests. Most are out-and-back jaunts and you can leave your pack at the trailhead. Our favorite side trip was to Valle del Frances, the awesome valley and grandstand views between the Cuernos del Paine and Cerro Paine Grande.
Things I wish I knew before we left: pack more food than you think you’ll need. Bring one book, not three. Your backpack fly should be a size bigger than the actual backpack. A few refugios on the back side of the park have showers and sell snacks, dry pasta, and beer. Bring spending money. We had enough for two cans of beer on night three and a package of spaghetti on night seven.
Last but not least? A few packing lists. Here’s everything you’ll need, accounting for what we packed and now wish we would have packed.
Personal packing lists are by no means exhaustive. Packing for your own Patagonian adventure and need some extra advice? Hit up Kelsey. [H]
Kelsey Boyte is a freelance writer and the author of Happyolks.com.
She enjoys high-altitude hiking, deep sea fishing, mezcal, and people who don't take themselves too seriously.
You can follow along on Instagram.
Photos © Shaun and Kelsey Boyte