January 26, 2003

Chile flagWe arose early today, so that we could have breakfast before boarding the 7 am bus to Torres del Paine. We did the final packing and put our other bags in the storage room. As usual the day was overcast, but we stuck to our schedule and headed for the park. Our bus picked us up shortly after 7 am and took us on a grand tour of Puerto Natales, stopping at various hostels to pick up passengers. Finally it went down to the port, where we saw our first Black-necked Swans, and took the road north.

The road passed through estancia country, with fields containing sheep or cows and the occasional minefield. Eventually the fences ended and we were in open country. There were a few guanacos here and quite a lot of rheas. Finally, about 9:30 am, we got to the park entrance at Laguna Amarga. This was our first good view of the Torres (Towers) del Paine themselves, and they were almost completely visible, with just their tops in the cloud.

Everyone on the bus had to get off and pay their 8000 pesos to enter the park. Some got back onto the bus to go further down the road into the park, but we boarded a waiting minibus which would take us to Hosteria Las Torres for 1500 pesos each. The minibus was very crowded, but the aisle seats had little foldout seats in their armrests, which allowed people to sit in the aisle. The first thing the minibus did was to cross an old metal-frame bridge that appeared to date from early in the 20th century. It crept across with only about five centimetres of clearance on either side, and everybody cheered when the crossing was completed without a scrape!

The trip was only a short one, and soon we were deposited at the Campamento Las Torres. The trees in the campground here were filled with Austral Parakeets, which we hadn’t seen before. We found it strange to see parrots in this kind of environment.

Finally the time had come to shoulder our packs; it was about 10:45 when we started on the trail. Our plan was to go up to the base of the Torres first, before starting on the circuit. So we started out on the trail, which led through the grounds of the Hosteria and out over the Río Ascensio onto open steppes. Soon the trail turned to climb steeply up a treeless slope, and we had to stop and rest frequently. Luckily the weather was slightly overcast, so it wasn’t too hot. But neither of us were used to carrying such heavy packs, either, so our progress was slow.

Eventually we passed over the shoulder of the slope, and the trail started to sidehill gently down towards the river. From here the trail passed through coigüe forest, which kept the sun off us. Before long we reached the Refugio El Chileno, which is a fairly large hostel with a campground behind it. The picnic site in front of it was windy, so we went around back and ate our crackers and salami there instead. As we looked up at the mountains, a condor flew past the peaks.

As we were returning to the main trail to continue up the valley, a large group of army trainees in camouflage clothing came trotting up the trail. They were on some kind of training exercise. We decided to wait until they passed us, which only took a few minutes.

From El Chileno the trail undulated up and down as it climbed up the Valle Ascensio. It took us about an hour and a half to reach the Campamento Torres, down from the base of the Torres, and during that time the weather was becoming more cloudy and threatening rain. The campground was quite full but we managed to find a fairly level stop to set up the tent. By this time it was actually raining, so we covered up our packs and retreated to the tent.

The rain came down quite heavily for several hours, so we lay in the tent talking and playing cards and dozing. By about 8 pm the rain had stopped so we went out to make dinner. The streams were all silty from the rain, but they were the only available water supply so we used their water. And the stove was being cranky, whether from bad gas or something else we couldn’t tell.

After dinner we walked a bit further up the valley trail, to a place where we could see the Torres. The lighting was quite good so we hurried back to get a camera, so we could photograph them with their new snow. Who knows if we will ever see them again in good weather? But it was getting dark, so we returned to the tent. Tomorrow we have to decide whether to go for the whole circuit or to just do the “W”, which is the more scenic southern half of it.

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