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Are you seeking a place where you can get off the grid and revel at nature’s kaleidoscope of colors while inhaling crisp air? Look no further than Chilean Patagonia. Patagonia also has an Argentinian side, which I’ll cover in a separate post.
Patagonia epitomizes variety – diversity in topography, weather, and vegetation lends to the adventure. In 2013, National Geographic ranked Torres del Paine in Chilean Patagonia as #5 of 100 places in its “World’s Most Wild and Beautiful Places” list.
After raving about the jaw-dropping landscape that I experienced while trekking in Nepal and sharing that I’d like to find a similar place closer to home, a friend recommended hiking in Patagonia. Patagonia’s expansive views and sense of serenity took me back to the feelings I had when in Nepal.
Enjoy Patagonia’s kaleidoscope of colors
While I’m not usually a morning person, I enjoyed sipping tea while watching the sunrise illuminate the clouds and Cuernos del Paine peaks, bathing them in pink and then golden light.
As the clouds parted, it was mesmerizing to watch Lake Pehoe’s sparkling turquoise shimmer. Glacial silt suspended in the water causes this milky luminescent color.
Enjoy the ever-changing landscape and weather while hiking to Grey Glacier
Hiking to Grey Glacier, we delighted in the vibrant red flowers lining the trail and swaying in the breeze.
What we didn’t delight in were the strong winds that caught us off-guard while we were taking pictures at the Grey Glacier viewpoint. Fighting to stand upright and clutching tightly to hats and cameras, we quickly scrambled down to escape the tenacious winds.
Winds in Patagonia are no joke, up to 100 mph at times. Our guide shared that he was lifted in the air and hurled 30 feet by winds at the Towers earlier in the year, despite weighing 200 pounds – Yikes! Fortunately, after being knocked unconscious for ten minutes, he suffered no permanent damage.
At the end of the hike, a short boat ride skirts the glacier. While sipping a glass of whiskey (aka rocket fuel to me) with glacial ice, you’re treated to a close-up view of the glacier’s magnificent blue hues contrasting starkly against the surrounding lake and mountain.
Brave a rickety suspension bridge en-route to French Valley
Hiking to French Valley you wind through lush greenery while gazing across a deep blue lake at the Cuernos Paine in the distance.
I enjoyed the hike immensely until we arrived at a rickety suspension bridge. Being deathly afraid of heights and suspect of bridges (especially ones that state “Only Two People at a Time on the Bridge”), I was not keen to cross it.
While I appreciated the beauty and sound of the rushing glacial water, I had zero desire to find myself immersed in it. After convincing myself that my clumsy nature would not result in my demise (did I mention one of my nicknames is “Honey Oopsie” and I manage to trip on flat side walks), I crossed the bridge. My racing heart brought back memories of some similar Nepalese bridges, which I loathed equally.
Fortunately, you are rewarded with incredible panoramas of mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, lakes and alpine valleys. After traversing some steep boulders, we perched ourselves on rocks overlooking the glacier, listening and watching for avalanches at a safe distance. Anticipating where the next thunderous boom and snow plumes would come from was a fun lunchtime activity.
After relaxing for a bit, we carefully made our way back down the rocks, using our trekking poles for balance, saying goodbye to the majestic views.
Discovering my husband is part mountain goat on the Towers (Cordillera Paine) hike
How do you approach grueling hills when hiking? I’m typically huffing and puffing, willing myself to put one foot in front of another.
During a break after a steady ascent, one of the guides who’d been ahead of me mentioned “your husband just ran by.” Assuming he had mixed up the English words for run and walk, I interpreted this to mean Jason had just passed him. Nope, Jason did, in fact, run by; this convinced me that Jason is part mountain goat.
Unbeknownst to me prior to this trip, I learned Jason prefers to end his pain and suffering as quickly as possible and run hills. While I was meandering along the path, exchanging travel stories with others, he was sprinting up the final ascent.
Significantly outpacing all the guides, he somehow managed to miss the main trail and subjected himself to a more complicated rock scramble, hence the mountain goat reference.
Despite this, he still managed to get to the Towers before the crowds and winds arrived. Consequently, he was able to capture one of my favorite pictures of the trip – a reflection shot of the Towers in the lake. Pictures of the Towers are one of the quintessential Patagonia shots.
Logistical tips for Chilean Patagonia
Although many of the 100,000 annual visitors explore Torres del Paine as campers, we preferred to end our long hiking days with a hot shower, followed by amazing food and wine and a comfortable bed.
TIP: To experience the famous “W” trek without camping, opt for three one-day-hikes from your home base.
- Grey Glacier – 8 miles (12 km), 4-6 hours walking. Easy to moderate hike with a boat ride at the end.
- French Valley – 10 miles (16 km), 6-7 hours walking. Easy to moderate hike.
- Towers (Cordillera Paine) – 8 miles (12km), 6 hours walking. Challenging with a lot of uphill and a rock scramble at the end. Assuming it’s not windy, you can get a beautiful picture of the Towers reflected in the lake.
My favorite hike was the Towers, followed by French Valley and then Grey Glacier.
To undertake the full “W” trail takes 5 days (60km) and the Full Circuit is 8 days (120km).
What clothing should you bring to Patagonia?
Patagonian landscapes are gorgeous and ever changing. It’s not uncommon to have all four seasons in a day – we had sun, rain, snow and heavy winds all within an hour.
These crazy weather patterns are due to the fact that there are no other major landmasses at the same latitude. Only Tasmania, New Zealand’s South Island and Patagonia are located below 40°.
Given the weather and temperature variations, waterproof layers are key. To maximize comfort and flexibility during your visit, I recommend the following for every hike.
TIP: My Chilean Patagonia hiking essentials
- A fleece lined beanie to block the wind
- Quick dry base layers (short and long sleeve)
- A fleece
- Waterproof rain jacket with a hood that will stay on in high winds
- Quick dry hiking pants
- Waterproof pants ( I prefer ones with a full side zip for easy removal)
- Hiking socks/liners
- Waterproof boots
- Waterproof/windproof gloves (NorthFace Apex are awesome!)
- Backpack + waterproof cover
- Trekking poles
- Water bottle/Camelback
Since we paid for the rest of our trip (Argentinian Patagonia, Mendoza and Iguazu Falls) with airline and hotel points, we splurged and stayed at Explora Patagonia. Explora is the only luxury hotel located within Torres Del Paine Park.
Their pricing is all inclusive and covers:
- Transfers to/from Punta Arenas or El Calafate
- Room & Food (great options for vegetarians), including Chilean wine! Scrumptious packed lunches are provided for all the day hikes.
- Any of the 50 explorations you choose (half or full-day guided hikes or horseback rides) – trekking poles are provided. The guides are fantastic and incredibly knowledgeable. And, we loved having direct transfers via boat or car to the start of the chosen hike.
TIP: I recommend booking a Cordillera Paine room for the best view of the Cuernos del Paine. They also offer rooms with views of the Salto Chico waterfall or Exploradores suites.
We loved room 23 and the fact that we could photograph sunrise from our room if we chose. Thoughtful design elements such as pass-through windows above the sink and at the end of the tub allow you to enjoy the incredible views no matter where you are in the room.
The heated towel rack was also great to dry any damp clothes overnight. Refillable bottles are also provided to minimize environmental impact.
TIP: If you are an American Express card member who has Fine Resorts Benefits, you can request a free room upgrade and also get a $100 credit that can be used for the Ona Spa. I highly recommend booking a treatment and enjoying the indoor pool, sauna, and/or open air Jacuzzis overlooking the Paine River before/after.
Additional tips to aid with planning your Chilean Patagonia visit:
- Best time to visit: November – early March (summer in the southern Hemisphere). We preferred late November, before the crazy crowds in January/February.
- Getting there: Fly to Santiago, Chile (SCL) and then connect to Punta Arenas, Chile (PUQ) via LAN (One World Partner). Rent a car or take a bus for the 4-5 hour journey to Torres del Paine.
- Lodging & food in Punta Arenas: Ilaia Hotel – beautiful sitting room on the top floor. Eat at La Marmita – plenty of vegetarian selections.
- Currency: Chilean Peso. 1 USD = 680 Chilean Pesos as of January 2019
- Trip Insurance: Highly recommended. Given that frequent airline or countrywide strikes and/or volcanic eruptions can impact travel, it’s best to protect yourself. Ensure you read the fine print to gain clarity on what your policy covers as some exclude these types of events. When we visited, ash from a recent volcanic eruption had shut down many airports.