Torres del Paine National Park, located in southern Chilean Patagonia, encompasses a mystical landscape of granite walls and spires, chaotic glaciers, windy lakes, and numerous rivers, cascades, and waterfalls. The trekking route that circumnavigates the park’s centerpiece, the Cordillera del Paine (Blue Mountain Range), is celebrated worldwide.
In addition to paddling the Rio Paine as part of the Torres del Paine Circuit, Amy and I utilized our packrafts to descend 35 miles down the Rio Grey and Rio Sarrano to Fiordo Ultima Esperanza and the Pacific Ocean, creating a 117+ mile world-class packrafting route we nicknamed the "Grande q."
A visit to Torres del Paine National Park typically starts with a three-hour bus ride from Puerto Natalas ($20 USD) and a visit to Porteria Guarderia (the park's main entrance station) where a $38 USD entrance fee and watching an orientation video are required.
Entering Tores del Paine National Park
With over 2 million visitors a year, the 242,242 hectare park is heavily regulated in order to protect its natural character and status as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. We learn the biggest "dos" are staying on maintained trails, camping in designated campgrounds, and cooking in designated cook shelters. The biggest "don't" is having a campfire.
Guanacos (Lama guanicoe)
Amy McCarthy, Las Carretas
We began our adventure at the CONAF Administrative Office on the shores Lago del Toro. From there we follow an old wagon trail that parallels the Rio Grey and leads to the west shore of Lago Pehoe and Refugio Paine Grande. A trek of the Torres del Paine Circuit that includes this 11-mile section is commonly known as the start or finish to the "Q" and provides us the opportunity to experience the windswept Patagonian steppe.
Beech trees killed by wildfire
Two years years ago a careless trekker started a catastrophic fire leaving over 13,880 hectares of the park charred. The result is the loss of important wildlife habitat, a complete fire ban, and even restrictions on where camp stoves may be used.
Torres del Paine has a system of refugios that offer rooms, meals and hot showers. While expensive, it would be possible for fast hikers to complete the entire circuit without carrying food or camping equipment.
Paine Grande Mountain Lodge is accessible directly from a road and bus stop via a ferry ($22 USD). This is a common starting or ending point for trekkers completing the "O" circuit or shorter "W" routes. The refugio also offers camping and free equipment storage and is ideally located for caching a resupply.
Most attempting the 70-mile Circuit or "O" travel in a counter clockwise direction. The main justification being views of the Glaciar Grey while crossing Paso John Gardner.
We choose instead to complete the circuit in a clockwise direction primarily to paddle the Rio Paine. Packrafting the Rio Paine was first done as part of the circuit route in 2008 by Roman and Peggy Dial.
Traveling the circuit clockwise, we still enjoy tremendous views of Glaciar Grey spilling down from Patagonia's Southern Ice Field.
Palomita Orchid (Codonorchis lessonii)
In addition to dramatic landforms of rock and ice, Torres del Paine is home to a diversity of flora and fauna. December is the South American equivalent of June and many plants are in full bloom.
The crux of the circuit is Paso John Gardner. The pass rises steeply from the Glaciar Grey to a high point of 4,000 feet. The pass is steepest on the western side where the prevailing winds come from. We enjoy the benefits of traveling in a clockwise direction including having a tailwind while ascending the steep west side and descending the more gradual slope on the east side.
Zoro Colorado (Lyncalopex culpaeus)
Our second night was spent at Camp Perros where we were visited by a Zoro Colorado. The Patagonia equivalent of a Red Fox, this indigenous canine appeared habituated to human food.
Located near the outlet of majestic Lago Dickson and the start of the Rio Paine, Refugio Dickson has 30 bunks and offers meals.
At the outlet of Lago Dickson we inflate our packrafts and negotiate several Class 3 rapids where the river cuts through an ancient glacial moraine. Soon after the whitewater eases and a swift current (Class 2) combined with a strong katabatic wind propels us quickly down river for 6 miles to Lago Paine.
Partway across Lago Paine an unrelenting crosswind forces us to portage. On the lake's northern shore (river left) we follow a good two-track for a mile to the outlet.
Rio Paine near Campo Seron
From the outlet of Lago Paine a Class 2 section of river flows swiftly for 7 miles before entering a Class 4(6) gorge. Unprepared to navigate serious whitewater we choose to exit the river and return to walking mode. For those prepared to navigate Class 4 whitewater and several mandatory portages (including Cascada Paine), paddling the entire Rio Paine offers an elegant and exciting way to complete the circuit.
From just above the gorge the main circuit trail is easily regained. Soon after we cross a fence and enter private land. Surrounded by Torres del Paine National Park, the southeastern edge of the Cordillera del Paine is an old hacienda and today contains several private enterprises, including Refugio Las Torres and the deluxe 84 room Hosteria Las Torres, that cater to the boom in tourism and recreation .
Assessable by a dirt road and various shuttle services from the main park entrance (Porteria Guarderia), Las Torres is another popular place to start and/or end when trekking either the "O" (Circuit) or the shorter 38-mile "W." The heavily used trail system from there westward to Valle Ascencio, Valle Francés, and Refugio Grande is well maintained, often crowded, and tremendously beautiful.
Offering commanding views of the Torres del Paine, a hike into the Valle Ascencio from Las Torres can be completed in a day. This is likely the most popular hike in Torres del Paine National Park. And for good reason, the vistas are Fantastico!
Near the entrance to the valley is Camp Chileno. Located on private land, the campground also hosts a refugio that offers meals, showers and bunks. If you plan to stay here it's best to arrive early and reserve your spot. Alternatively the Park offers free camping further up the valley at Camp Torres.
Fortunately the weather clears as we ascend Valle Ascencio. On the shore of a small lake at the foot of Glaciar Torres we spend several hours contemplating one of the world's most majestic mountain cathedrals—Torres del Paine.
Amy and I had plans for a high mountaineering traverse that connects Valle Ascencio with Valle Francés. However, complications in obtaining the proper climbing permit compounded by unstable weather and our minimalist equipment results in a change of plans. Alternatively, we follow the popular "W" Route along the shores of Lago Nordenskjöld where we expect a crowded trail with little topographic stimulation.
To our surprise and delight we instead find one of the most beautiful and uncrowded walks of our entire journey. Nestled between the emerald green waters of Lago Nordenskjöld and the imposing southern flank of the Cordillera del Paine the "W" Track winds it way through a fantasyland reminiscent of Middle Earth. An encounter with Tom Bombadil and his wife Goldberry feels possible.
Darwin's Fungus (Cyttaria darwinii)
Named after after Charles Darwin, who explored Patagonia during the legendary Voyage of the Beagle, this orange fungus was staple food for the regions first inhabitants—the Tehuelche.The middle prong of the "W" ascends the Valle Francés past chaotic glaciers, dense lenga forest, and roaring cascades to Camp Britanica. A climbing permit, unfortunately, is required to camp there. As trekkers we are forced instead to spend the night at the free, yet muddy, Camp Italiano.
The final or left prong of the "W" Route is a walk along the eastern shore of Lago Grey to the massive Glaciar Grey. Having already completed this section during our trek to Paso John Gardner we simply pick up our resupply at Paine Grande Mountain Lodge and continue south to the Rio Grey.
Retracing our steps along the "Q" until we reach the banks of the Rio Grey we're soon back in our packrafts. Similar to the Rio Paine, a well-defined channel, a strong current (Class 2), and a downriver katabatic wind provide a rapid and and scenic paddle down to the vicinity of the river's confluence with Rio Serrano.
Several miles above the confluence the river broadens and the current slows. Below the confluence the river turns west and perpendicular to the prevailing northwest winds flowing off the Southern Ice Field. On a rare windless day it maybe possible portage Serrano Falls (Class 4/5?) and pilot a packraft through this section. Patagonia is a windy place, however, and in the name of efficiency we return to walking mode.
Arriving at Serrano Falls in the evening we pitch our HMG UltaMid at a delightful riverside site amongst the grass and lenga trees. Now outside of Torres Del Paine National Park, we are free to camp where we like.
Sunrise on the Rio Serrano
One of the wonders of traveling in Torres del Paine (51˚South) in December is the long austral summer days and short nights that transition slowly.
Our one injury
Our one medical issue involved a small black fly or "midge" that bit Amy while sleeping, resulting in a swollen left eyelid.
A well defined stock trail parallels the Serrano on river left for six miles to the confluence with the Rio Geike.
While we encountered several horses and noted many cow-pies the Serrano Valley remains wild, primarily untrammeled and provides us the opportunity to experience true Patagonia wilderness and solitude.
The one tricky spot when following the stock track along the Rio Serrano is fording the Rio Brush. Foregoing the inconvenience of deploying our packrafts we opt instead to wade and swim the river in our Kokatat Dry Suits.
Being amphibious when exploring Patagonia opens many possibilities and changes how I look at a map. Three essentials are needed: an Alpacka Raft, HMG Porter Pack & Kokatat Dry Suit.
Rio Serrano and the Cordillera del Paine
Below the confluence with the Rio Geike the river turns south aligning with prevailing winds flowing off the ice cap. Combined with a consolidated channel and fast current (Class 2) travel is fast. Having clear weather, the upriver views of Cordillera del Paine are stupendous.
The first I'm aware of to explore the Rio Serrano with packrafts where Konstantin Savenkov, Irina Savenkova, and Eugene Dubrovin from Russia. Their 2013 exploratory packraft trip was partly my inspiration for attempting the Grande q.
Martin Pescador Grande (Ceryle torquata)
As we descend the Rio Serrano near the sea we are greeted by a variety of birds including giant Andean Condors and a Martin Pescad Grande or Ringed Kingfisher.
The packrafting segment of our journey concludes at Hosteria Monte Balmaceda where camping is free and a room costs $160 USD. While we opted to camp, we did purchase a wonderful dinner of fresh fish, salad, and roasted potatoes for $35 USD.
Hosteria Monte Balmaceda is located just across from Glaciar Serrano where the Rio Serrano flows into Fiordo Ultima Esperanza. It is also possible to complete the Grande q in sea kayaks or a Zodiac with commercial outfitters.
The following day we catch a ride on the 21 Mayo III back to Puerto Natalas for $110 USD.
Spending the afternoon on a ferry ride across the beautiful Fiordo Ultima Esperanza provides a relaxing afternoon to reflect on our adventure and experience Patagonia from the sea.
Mid-afternoon the ferry stops at a historic estancia where we feast on chilean barbecued beef, lamb, and chicken.
After a night in Puerto Natalas we returned to the best bed and breakfast in Punta Arenas—La Casa Escondida.
“We live in a time where you can no longer climb the highest peak, or no longer explore blank spots on a map. Adventure is looking at old subjects in a new way. There’s still plenty left to do if you use your imagination.” – Ned Gellette