No trip to Patagonia is complete with a visit to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile… or at least that’s what most people told us. Guidebooks extol the scenery as unparalleled on the entire planet, and thousands upon thousands of travelers flock there every year. Yet in the next breath after people told us we need to see it, they also told us of how full of tourists it is and how expensive it is, with one fellow traveler calling it the “Disneyland of Hiking.”
“Is it really worth going? Would you absolutely recommend it?” we would ask, and almost invariably, although sometimes with hesitation, the response was “yes, absolutely.” So, deciding that we ought to check it out for ourselves, further south and back into Chile we went to see just what that (in)famous park was all about.
To begin with, we crossed from Argentina into Chile at a relatively remote border crossing and had to pour our jerry can of gas into our beetle lest it be confiscated at customs. That wasn’t going to be enough gas to get us through the park though, and as there are absolutely no fuel stations anywhere close to the park we had to make a decent southward detour to Puerto Natales just to fill up our car and jerry can again so we could make it through the next few days. It rained a lot and that night our tent was almost blown away in the wind. So off to a good start.
The next morning we made straight for the park, open minded and optimistic, and this was what greeted us:
This view from the car was after we had payed to get into the park, and that in itself isn’t for the faint of heart. For non-Chileans, entrance is $40 CAD per person. Ouch. For Chileans it’s only about $10, which we totally agree with, as Chileans should be able to access their own natural splendour without it being prohibitively expensive. Luckily, however, Lisa has a Chilean tax number, and with some smiles and a tiny bit of cajoling she got into the park for the local price while Elliott still paid the foreigner price. Off to a good start!
Rather than making reservations a year in advance and paying literal hundreds of dollars to hike the popular multi-day O and W treks, we decided to simply check out the park with the beetle and to do a couple of day hikes. We had already done a few great hikes like the Huemul Circuit and Cerro Castillo, so we didn’t feel the need to pay like crazy to hike on packed trails and sleep at refuges with the masses, and in the end it was a good decision.
The most interesting part of the first short and accessible hike we did was the wind. Patagonia in general and Torres del Paine in specific are known for fierce winds, and even on a “good” wind day it didn’t disappoint. The gusts were so strong at times that it was a bit of a chore to walk forward, making it easy to imagine how it could stop a person dead in their tracks on a heavy wind day. The first 20 minutes of the trail from the parking lot were decently crowded, but after the first small junction the hiker traffic inevitably reduced by about 90% and we had a decent lake view more or less to ourselves. With that done we headed out of the park for the night to find a free place to camp, saw some flamingos on the way, and luckily found a wooden shelter at a roadside turnout that sheltered our tent from the crazy winds that raged all night long.
The next morning as we drove back into the park where we were graced with an absolutely beautiful purple-pink-blue sunrise over the mountains (we can see where the popular clothing brand gets its logo from now), and even might have spotted the park’s namesake torres (towers) peaking through the fog that had shrouded them for the entire previous day. It was a good sign, because that’s exactly where we were headed!
We got to the trail head as reasonably early as we could, but already we were behind several groups, including at least two guided excursions of 10+ people who looked like they may never had hiked before in their lives. Luckily by that point we had gotten into a bit better hiking shape than at the start of our journey, so we powered past them and received compliments (or complaints?) about how we were able to run up the mountain, and we had the trail to ourselves more or less for a good chunk of the way.
And then we got to the first refuge… and just… wow.
Seemingly out of nowhere we came across what was essentially a hotel-restaurant in the middle of the trail with countless rental and private tents in the woods behind, complete with at least a hundred people who were having breakfast and packing their bags and packing up tents and doing just about everything you could imagine. Inside there was beer on tap, burgers, pizza, breakfast, and essentially anything you could have bought had you walked into a hotel off the street… with a healthy markup, of course. This was not what we consider hiking or connecting with nature, so we hurried on as quick as we could but still got stuck behind a guided group of about 15 tired but happy people who weren’t in much of a hurry to get to the top.
We continued to hike on at our usual pace, and we continued to pass people going up and even some coming down who must have started hiking in the wee, dark hours of the morning. After reaching a ranger’s cabin, the trail got considerably steeper and more difficult, and we were skeptical that the friendly 15 and others would make it up at all. As we looked to the clouds and hoped for a break in the weather, we eventually made it to the lake at the base of the famous torres.
No luck! The fog was thick, and while we saw the bottom half or so of the pillars, the rest was shrouded in mist.
While waiting around in the cold for the clouds to clear and bundling up in our rain gear and every scrap of extra clothing we had to keep warm, the most exciting thing of the whole hike was probably a sneaky and extremely tame fox who sneaked up and tried to steal some of our snacks, and almost succeeded too!
After waiting in the cold for a good half our with the other hordes of tourist hikers who slowly trickled in, we decided that while the full view was probably spectacular, it probably wasn’t really worth spending our entire day there with the other hundreds of people hoping for the same glimpse. We de-layered, packed up our things, and headed back down. While most people who hike to the torres make sure to take the classic instagram shot of them standing on a rock above the lake with the torres behind, our last look back was of the masses of people standing and sitting and waiting- something which most well-angled instagram shots leave out!
And then we hiked down, passing probably 150 people on their way up as we did. It was by far the most crowded trail we have ever been on, and with COVID-19 starting to be present in mind at that point it was with a cringe that we either grabbed the same tree or rock for support that the previous 150 people had, or tried to keep our hands to ourselves in sections where loose rocks and gravel made it quite difficult to stay on our feet.
On the way down, near the end of the trail, we crossed paths with a couple of gauchos with horse trains bringing supplies up so the refuges could meet the demands of hungry hikers. Boxes of cornflakes, cases of powerade, and canisters of gas for hot showers. To each their own, but for us that’s not really our idea of getting out into nature and immersing ourselves in natural splendour.
As soon as we got to the parking lot we got in the beetle, hit the road, got straight out of the park, and didn’t look back. We had had enough of Patagonia’s Disneyland for hiking, and while we were glad we went and saw what it was for ourselves, we don’t plan on going back.
For those who might be traveling in South America and wondering whether it’s absolutely essential to go to Torres del Paine, our advice is “probably not,” especially if you don’t love crowds and expensive tourist traps, and especially if you’ve managed to find somewhere else to go hiking and take in the beauty of Patagonia on your own terms.