OYOP: Patagonia Part One – El Calafate and the W Trail
We flew from Mendoza to El Calafate, Argentina to begin our nearly two weeks in the Patagonia region. Patagonia is the southernmost part of South America and includes towns in both Chile and Argentina. We were to spend nearly two weeks in Patagonia on both the Chilean and Argentinian sides.
During our long day of traveling, we were pleasantly surprised that two friends we’d made at the failed thermal bath attempt in Mendoza, James and Dave, were on the last leg of the flight in the seats in front of us. For a few hours, we shared information we’d picked up about Patagonia and discovered we would be meeting again as we would all start the W Trail in Torres del Paine on the same day.
We arrived at 7:00pm in El Calafate where we checked into Hostal Glaciars Pioneros and learned that the hostel had put us in separate 4-bed dorm rooms. James had a room with one loud snorer and a girl who threw up on the floor in the middle of the night. I had a room with one loud snorer and girls who turned on the lights to party at 3:00am. Needless to say, I already missed the luxury hotel in Mendoza. We quickly settled in and rushed to buy bus tickets to see the Perito Merino glacier the next day. The Perito Merino glacier is the main reason for visiting El Calafate and is about an hour and a half bus ride from town. The bus tickets were the first of our large expenditures in Patagonia, where a backpacker’s budget is quickly and severely blown. We opted out of a tour of the glaciers. A bus will get you there and stick around to bring you back at least 3 1/2 – 4 hours later, plenty of time to explore. The bus tickets were AR$450 at all of the bus companies with an additional AR$10 bus terminal tax. You then pay AR$260 for entrance into the park where the glacier national park. In all, we spent a little less than US$50 per person for the excursion, well worth the price. To give an idea of how this fits into our budget, we budgeted an average of US $100 per day over the course of the year ($50 per person). This includes all transportation, meals, accommodation and excursions. It may sound like a lot, but in many places hotels alone would be more than this budget, which is why saving on accommodation with hostals or hotel points is so important. In Patagonia, we expect to be drastically over budget each day, but we have had days as low as $20 to try and reach only slightly over the $100 average before we leave the South American portion of our trip. We expect we can make up any overages in Southeast Asia, where it is much cheaper to travel than South America.
The next day, we had a half day to explore El Calafate. It is a small, quaint town that reminds one of a small ski town in the Midwest. The shops and hotels are all cabin-like, and the main attraction is a lake at the edge of town, which is worth a short visit just to see the sky blue water. We also stopped by the grocery store to pack a lunch for the day, bought our Ricky Martin tickets, then hopped on the bus to the glacier. Yes, you read that right. Ricky Martin tickets. We found out that we had arrived during El Calafate’s lake festival, the biggest festival of the year, and that Ricky Martin would be playing for $20 per person in a small outdoor theater in the town’s park. I know I just went over the whole budget talk, but who could pass up Ricky Martin in a small town near the end of the earth?
We left for the glacier, and as soon as we arrived, we were so glad we had packed rain jackets, down jackets, rain pants, hats and gloves. It was cold and rainy, and it seemed at first that four hours until we could get back on the bus was going to pass very slowly. That is, until I saw the Perito Merino glacier. It is enormous, like a mountain range of white and neon blue ice in the middle of nowhere. It is several kilometers wide and over 600 meters tall, and it is aweinspiring. It is impossible to take it all in, even with four hours to try, but we walked down different trails to get as close as was allowed, stared from various angles, and then just when I thought I’d seen enough, I heard a loud cracking sound and saw pieces of rock-sized ice fall into the water. A large boulder of ice followed, then an entire chunk of the glacier crumbled, fell, and crashed into the water rumbling like thunder. My jaw dropped, and I wanted to stare for hours more just to see it one more time. Though we left cold and wet, I would have gone in even worse weather just to see this beautiful natural phenomenon.
We took the first bus out the next morning to Puerto Natales, where we crossed the border back into Chile. We travelled here because it is the base point to hike the W Trail. The W Trail is a well-trodden trek in the shape of a W through the Torres del Paine national park. It is typically a 5 days and 4 nights trip. For us, it had been a huge source of stress the last couple of weeks. Once we first played around with the idea of hiking the trail, we realized there wasn’t much time to think it through if we wanted to stay in the refugios, basic hostals on the trail, because they fill up extremely fast and well in advance. Once they fill up, you must camp. We were skeptical about camping in a park that is notorious for its extreme weather conditions. The park is next to the Patagonian ice field, the third largest ice field in the world after Antarctica and Greenland, which is the reason for extreme weather changes at a whim. Without the proper gear and experience, we felt we would be completely ill-prepared for the constant extremes of hurricane strength winds, rain, hail and even snow. We struggled to book the refugios, the sleeping bags, and even the buses just to get to and from Puerto Natales. All while still questioning whether we were in over our heads with the clothes we’d packed for weather that was unpredictable. Still, once we had it all booked, we continued on to the town where we would learn more. We would be hiking most of the W trail from West to East in 4 days and 3 nights, cutting out small portions at the beginning and end and having one longer day of hiking. We decided on this path and time length because of the refugios that were still available for us to book.
As soon as we arrived in Puerto Natales, we headed to the daily free 3:00pm informational talk about the W trail given by Erratic Rock, a gringo equipment rental shop, hostal, restaurant, bar, and information center for the W Trail. The hour and a half talk eased most of our weather and gear worries. We spent the rest of the evening buying food for all breakfasts, lunches, and dinners to carry, and packing our rented hiking bags to feel as prepared as we could for the trip. We ended the night with a pizza at Erratic Rock mingling with other hikers who were about to start the trail, and trying to get a few hours of sleep before we started the trail the next morning.
The first day on the W trail was mostly getting to the start of the trail. We took the 7:30am bus from Puerto Natales, along with a few other busloads of hikers, and we arrived at the park at 10:30am to get our tickets ($28 per person) to access the park. We then got back on the bus and arrived an hour later at the lake where we would take a catamaran at noon ($21 per person) to get to the start of the W. Even though we were in line at 11:30am, the catamaran quickly filled up, and since it is the only boat, we had to wait an hour and a half for it to go to the park and come back to pick up the rest of us. The catamaran ride was the start of the excitement for the trail. The views of the bright teal blue lake water and grandiose black mountains covered in snow were already making all of the stress and preparation seem worth it. We checked into our first refugio ($60 per person for a bed with sleeping bag in a 6-bed dorm room) and started on our first hike in the park. Since it was already 3:00pm when we could start, we hiked only 3 hours the first day to the Lake Grey lookout and back to the refugio. In just 3 hours, we experienced quite a range of weather. It rained. It hailed. It was sunny. It was dark. But it was always windy, only the degree of wind changed. Sometimes the wind felt nice, though strong, and at other times, it would push you to one side of the trail or onto your heels. We even had to kneel for minutes at a time when the wind was too strong to take one step forward. But the views were of the best in the world. The contrasts were striking – jet black rocks covered in bright white snow jutting tall into the sky behind a pool of shimmering blue. We were overjoyed by the beauty but at the same time, relieved to make it back to the refugio and get out of the extreme wind and cold. We shared a hostel dorm room with two pleasant couples from France and California. And with a stroke of luck, the refugio was kind enough to give us meal vouchers for dinner for that night and breakfast and box lunch the next day ($100 in value) that not only saved us from eating salami and cheese sandwiches for every meal, but provided us with a large, warm, delicious dinner amongst the company of many other travelers enjoying a warm evening after a long day in the cold. It was hard to imagine having to go out in that weather for an expected 7 hours of hiking the next day to get to our next refugio, but we got a great, long night’s sleep in preparation.
On day two, we woke up refreshed, had a big breakfast at the refugio and marveled that there was a sunny, clear day with a mild breeze waiting outside. After day one, I was convinced that the wind would be constantly strong and that “good weather” here would be the few minutes of sun in between the hail and rain. Pacha Mama, Mother Earth, proved me wrong. The entire day was magically beautiful. The sky was clear and sunny for all 7 hours of our hike, and this was great luck because we heard that the French Valley that we would pass on day two would be the best views of the trail. It didn’t disappoint. In the French Valley, there is a mirador with majestic views from every angle. Most captivating is that towering over a glacier is a giant black mountain with blinding white snow and sky blue mounds of ice on top. But an equally impressive view at the same mirador was of the most spectacularly blue green lake surrounded by rolling yellow hills. At all other angles are majestic brown peaks and snowy mountains. We stopped at the mirador to take in the views and did not get up again for an hour. The views in this perfect weather were already enough to easily be the most beautiful day in nature of each our lives, but we also had an unexpected bonus. Within the hour we spent in the valley, we saw three impressive avalanches of snow rushing down the mountainside the giant peak and filling the air with loud booming sounds. Expectedly, it was very difficult to leave the valley and continue on with the hike. The rest of the day’s hike was beautiful as well. We passed through meadows, across streams, and along a rocky beach on the lake. In the last 30 minutes of the hike, the wind became so strong that it picked up the lake water and either formed it into towering water tunnels or blew it in sheets over the land spraying the nearby hikers. I was knocked sideways off the path twice by the wind, and we walked quickly at the end to get to our next refugio, Refugio Cuernos ($66 per person for a bed with sleeping bag in a 8-bed dorm room) and out of the wind.
We slept in on the third day because we only had a 4 1/2 hour hike for the day to get to the next and final refugio we would stay in on the trail. We sat outside looking at the mountains as we made our breakfast of bread with dulce de leche and boiled eggs before we started the hike around 10:00am. Pacha Mama was once again on our side. It was clear and sunny, and at times there was no wind at all. It was so silent that when we stopped walking and clanking our trekking poles against the ground, we could only hear running water from streams and birds chirping in the distance. Everything else was completely calm and still. The terrain was much more uphill and downhill than the last two days, which were primarily flat. The ups and downs weren’t too difficult, but we were walking mostly on loose gravel which was exhaustingly slippery. We took several short breaks and a long lunch at nice viewpoints to stretch out the hike and enjoy the weather. We arrived at Refugio Torres Norte ($66 per bed with sheets and covers per person in a 6-bed dorm room) around 3:30pm, took long showers, and spent a relaxing evening at this smaller and less crowded refugio. Our room of 6 beds only had one other person, a lively Chilean tour guide who gave us some insights on growing up in Patagonia.
On day 4, it was cloudy, windy, and cold. There was only one leg of the W trail left to hike, but no matter how far we decided to hike, we would have to walk back to where we began the day to catch the 2:00pm shuttle to the bus station. We decided to take it pretty easy and enjoy the last day in the park instead of roughing it too much in the wind and cold. We hiked for an hour to a river, found a big rock to sit on in the river facing the mountains, and sat and stared. We filled up our water bottles for the last time in the cold, fresh water and watched as other hikers on the first day of their trip passed by experiencing the park and the wind for the first time. After we’d soaked it all in, we walked the hour back to nearby the shuttle stop, and met a couple other hikers who’d just finished the larger 8-day “O” circuit and shared stories of mishaps and good fortune along the trail. A few hours later, we were back in Puerto Natales returning out trekking poles at Erratic Rock, where we stopped to also enjoy a quick beer and pizza. Unexpectedly, we met Matt and Katy from Seattle and the night quickly changed from a quick dinner to a long night with new friends. We finally got back to our hostel around midnight for a few hours of sleep before our bus to Punta Arenas the next morning.
In the end, we were so happy we decided to walk the W trail. We realized we even could have planned less and camped, but the experience we had was perfect for us, and of course, we were happy to have been lucky enough to be able to see the views with clear skies.