Alongside the road we sit and wait patiently for the bus to be repaired. Just fifteen minutes ago we left Puerto Natales for Torres del Paine National Park. Our backpacks are filled with food for about two weeks survival; there is loads of stuff to buy in the shops of. The bus broke down and for a while it looks like today we are not going to get anywhere - it is today's last bus. But after an hours work we are able to continue our journey and at seven - after a four hour drive - we arrive at the Guardería of Laguna Amarga. There is much wind. Next to the water we put up our tent, on swampy grounds.


El Circuito

foxWe intend to trek the “Circuito Torres del Paine”, a distance of 86 kilometer, plus two side-tracks from the southside to the heart if the mountainrange, of another 18 (to the Torres) and 10 kilometers (to the Cuernos). The trek is best made against the hands of the clock, because the toughest parts will be at the end. This path in the best known national park of Patagonia, at about one hundred kilometer north of Puerto Natales in southern Chile, encircles the Paine mountainrange that is part of the Andes, The backbone of South America. A couple of steep summits reach a height of over 3000 meter. Paine sticks its head out from the otherwise very flat and bare steppe-lands to the east. To the west one can find the extensive continental ice (Hielo Continental Sur) from which three significant glaciers discharge into the park.

The next morning at nine we start the hike. We see quite a few foxes roaming the flat land. To our left we get a glimpse of the Torres, the needles that gave the park its name, a wonderful sight. Then we follow the path to the left of the Rio Paine and after a five-hour walk we arrive at Camp Seron. The wind is blowing with great force, it is cold and the place looks pretty deserted. We have lunch on one of the Laguna Amargapicknick tables. Three more hours to go to Camp Coiron. On the way we pass a small lake with the shape of a horse-shoe, with christal-clear water in green-turquoise colours. Over the steep slopes on the southside of Lago Paine we climb up, when at the same time the strond wind is trying hard to blow us down. As soon as we loose sight of the lake, we look down upon the dirty and dilapidated refugio (refuge) of Lago Paine – also called Camp Coiron. A ‘camp’ or ‘campo’ is often just a small field more or less suitable for putting up a tent; there are no facilities and most of the time your tent is the only one. It has been a long day. We put up our tent next to those of two Brasilians and two Austrians. It is teeming with mosquitos and even our repellent does not keep them from biting us.

Glaciers and ice-mountains

It is just a three hour walk to Lago Dickson. From up the mountain we have a great view of the environment: the milky lake – Lago Dickson – with the drifting ice-mountains, Dickson glacier and the refugio. We climb down towards the flat piece of land below us and hang around the refugio for an hour or two, we drink warm tea, eat some bread and just enjoy the pleasant warmth of the cozy hut. But camping at Lago Dickson is not for free, so we decide to pick another spot. The path continues higher camping in the woodsand higher into the woods, while we lave the Rio de los Perros behind us. It is getting late. Despite the fact that we have made it into the thickest of woods with sky-high trees, we decide to put up the tent in this unsuitable place. Due to the strong winds, the trees are being smashed into one another with great violence and deafening noise, there is creaking the whole night through. We hope no tree will fall down on top of our tent - but all those branches and trees lying in the forest-floor tell us a lot... Enough reason to experience a frightful night.

Four hours walk to Campo los Perros. The weather is fine. We pass some rivers by way of tree-trunksafter the climb of huge rocks we see a little lake, with a tiny glacier and some small drifting ice-blocks. I try to take pictures but the wind is so fierce that I can hardly stand up. Upon arrival the the camp noone is there, but by the veneing there are about ten tents. We eat spaghetti and have a chat with the other hikers, while it has started to rain softly.

El Paso and the continental ice

The next morning it is raining cats and dogs, still we decide to do the Paso (pass) today. We leave at ten for the first two kilometers through the Pantano, a swampy arear where we are constantly up to our ankles in the mud, that is when we take care because otherwise we would surely be in there up to our knees! This is the first challenge of today's walk; a day full of challenges. And all this in the pouring rain.

guanacosChallenge number two consists of a “bridge” of wobbly tree-trunks over a thundering river. Number three: the steep climb up over rocks to the Paso at a height of 1240 meter. The wind is blowing me off my feet and I can hardly stand up straight or walk forward. Every now and then I just have to sit down to prevend myself from simply being blown away. And this rain is endless, just like the cold, our hands feel frozen. After the pass a great view – despite the rain and lowhanging clouds – of Grey glacier: an endless white sea of ice.

It is time for the last and toughest challenge. Number four. The descent to the deep edge of the glacier. This is going to take us two and half hours. Along the steep, almost vertical wall of mud we hold on tight to crooked-grown trees to prevend us from sliding down all the way and making a painful landing. Down in Camp el Paso we realise how soaking wet we have become. Thanks to our non-goretex equipment… We put up the tent under the most inconvenient circumstances imaginable, while it is still pouring. Sitting up in the tent we examine the dammage: my friend's things are all thoroughly wet, his rain-cover turns out to be comletely useless, while my things are still pretty dry. Cooking outside will not be possible today, so we eat some bread and tuna inside. This camp, where we are alone, lies at a height of about 400 meter, which means that after the pass we have descended at least 840 meter. And we are happy to have conquered the pass today, as the next day we hear it was closed to trekkers soon after we left due to fierce rain and snow storms.View from Torres

It is still raining when we wake up. We start to follow the path alongside the vast Glaciar Grey, ascending and decending the almost vertical slopes. The weather is getting slightly better, which increases the chance of having spectacular views of the glacier and the surrounding tops. Again we have some streams to cross, coming down from the top of Paine Grande high above us. But suddenly it starts to snow!

After five hours of struggling along we arrive at the refugio and camping Grey, right on the spot where the glacier discharges into the lake, Lago Grey. In the lake numerous icebergs are floating, a lovely sight. We set up the tent and dry our stuff by the fire in a small hut. Lago Grey is a wonderful place to just hang around and relax. That is why we bathe in the sun - that is now shining - the whole afternoon and stare ate the lake and the icebergs.

Los Cuernos del Paine

When the sun sun is shining still the next morning, we decide to enjoy being at the lake for a while longer and only start hiking at one o'clock. The first couple of kilometers we walk along Lago Grey. Then the path starts climbing up, over the mountains, on the way to the next lake: Lago Pehoé. The views of Lago Pehoé are magnificent, the colour of the water a deep blue-green. At about six we reach the Refugio of Lago Pehoé, where we prepare a late lunch klaarmaken: bread, cheese and tea.

After lunch we stand up for the last two hours to Campo Italiano, where we finally arrive at nine. Summers in Patagonia have such long days, until midnight it is quite light outside, which enables you to walk thoughout the day. But even the short nights are never really dark; by the bright light of the moon one is sure to find ones way too.

Campo Italiano is a big disappointment… where we expect to find peace and quiet - as we are used to by now - we find a crowded camp, filled with nature-unfriendly tyoe of people: there is garbage lying about everywhere, everyone makes his own fire and leaves behind a great mess. A dark place surrounded by a dense forest.

Paso de los CuernosWe leave our tent with the luggage behind in the camp (I even forget to take my moneybelt - oops!). From Campo Italiano it's a two hour walk through marshland to Campo Británico. The path leads to the heart of the Paine mountains, where we can observe the Cuernos del Paine from up close: a group of high, sharp peaks of granite with a layer of black sediment. The walk is truely beautiful and the sun is shining all day. Another 45 minutes walking brings us to the mirador with the best views of the Cuernos (which means horns). In the west the snowy peaks of Cerro Paine. Every now and then an avalanche thunders down from the mountains, a fantastic sight. Back at Campo Italiano we put down the tent, pack our things and leave at abouyt six in the evening for another walk of two hours. The walking is lovely in the early evenings, with the sun still high up in the sky. We follow the Paso de los Cuernos with bright blue Lago Nordenskjöld on our right. On the field at the refugio of Paso de los Cuernos we find a wonderful place to put up the tent, with views of the large lake. Here we are finally able to have a hot shower, the first shower since the beginning of our trekking!

We take our time and the next day we only start walking at half past one, continuing our way on the Paso de los Cuernos. It's a warm day, not a cloud in the sky, a bright sun. The is no shade at all, just a couple of ow bushes on both sides of the path. It's an easy walk; the terrain gets flatter and flatter. Then the path bends towards te north and we arrive at Camp Las Torres: an expensive hostería, a refugio and a camping. We look for a nice and secluded spot for our tent and once again we can make use of hot showers. In the evening we have a drink with a couple of other hikers that we have met before at Campo los Perros.

Finally, las Torres

On our last hiking day we finally get to see the famous Torres (towers) from up close. We start the climb to a height of 880 meter at eight in the morning. We expect to need at leats fout hours to reach the mirador, but we take just 2 hours and 45 minutes. We must be in very good condition by now! The last part of the incredibly steep climb goes over giant rocks, of which we can only hope they will not suddenly roll downwards…

TorresJust a few more steps and the the Torres slowly start growning out of the head of my fellow hiker in front of me. First a small tip, and then bit by bit the three granite needle rocks come in sight: bare, steep and unusually impressive. The middle Torre has a height of 2800 meter. Below the Torres lie glaciers. Even lower one can see a vertical wall of rock and at the foot of it all a lake in which small waterfalls discharge. Here rises the Rio Ascensio, that runs its way along the pathe we have just taken. Clouds embrace the tops of the granite needles, which gives an extra dimension to the whole picture; beneath a cloudless sky these imposing rocks might not have seemed so high as they do now.

Like two mountain goats we run back down over the rocks… a complete disaster for the knees! Having arrived back at our tent it starts to rain and we hear that the minibus to Laguna Amarga has juts left. We decide to break down the tent and to walk the seven kilometer to Laguna Amarga. From there a bus will leave for Puerto Natales at seven. Luckily half way we find a ride and we are well on time at the busstop. Add to this that the bus is one hour late. At the Guardería a couple of guanacos are grazing – we had not yet seen these characteristic animals hyet during our trekking. Also there is a fox walking around. And one of the trekkers that are waiting for the bus says he has seen two pumas! An Italian climber telles em about his succesful climb to the summit of one of the Torres. I ask him a lot of (stupid) questions and he answers me with pride and patience.

The bustrip takes just two hours this time, and by ten o'clock in the evening we are back in Puerto Natales. We look for a room and then we go straight for that well deserved pizza!