Trekking in Patagonia Independently
From Argentina to Chile
Story and images by MaryAnn (Castoria) Gerst
“Yikes, I’m turning 75 this year,” declares favorite Travel with a Challenge author, MaryAnn Gerst! She goes on, “I needed another adventure so my long time hiking buddy, Karen Kemeys, and I decided to create our own Argentina and Chile itinerary and travel to Patagonia to hike the challenging W Track in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.
“Karen and I had hiked Europe’s Tour de Mount Blanc and the New Zealand’s Milford Track together, each documented in Travel with a Challenge articles, (Tour du Mont Blanc and Milford Track), so we were well acquainted with each other’s hiking styles, even though Karen is 9 years younger and hikes faster!”
After landing in Buenos Aires, Argentina we traveled to the village of El Chalten. While there, we did the strenuous hike to Mount Fitz Roy, located in the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, touted to be one of the most scenic hikes in the world. The last half mile is a 1,200-foot ascent with a 40% grade which certainly got the heart rate going! Young and old, everyone wanted to hike to Mount Fitz Roy as the winds were down, the sun was out, and there was a breathtaking view waiting at the top worth every elevated heartbeat! It is not unusual to have winds gusting above 70mph and have the peaks shrouded in clouds, making this hike undoable and unsafe. People often have waited in El Chalten for days to get a clear, non-windy day, but not us!
Still in Argentina, our next stop was the small town of El Calafate where we took a spectacular five-hour boat tour through the tour company “Turismo 21 de Mayo” to see several glaciers in the Los Glaciers National Park, the best one being Glacier Spegazzini. The boat tour was excellent and we got amazingly close to a couple of glaciers. Once again, the weather cooperated as the glaciers showed off their blue ice colors while plunging into turquoise glacial lakes.
Chile’s W Track
The next day, after a five-hour bus ride, we crossed the border into Chile keen to start our hike on the W Track, so called because it is shaped like a W on a map. We would be hiking from refugio to refugio (small huts that provide beds and meals) over a four-day course on a hike of about 45 miles. We opted to plan this trip on our own, saving around US$2,000 per person, rather than taking an organized tour. We enjoyed being on our own time frame to rest and take pictures, feeling quite safe along the well-marked trails.
We carried water, snack food, emergency kit and clothes in our backpacks, weighing around 18 pounds [see MaryAnn’s Backpack Tips below]. Doing our best to keep the pack weight down, we knew we would be wearing the same clothes for multiple days! The day before, we had said “goodbye” to our suitcases, filled with clean clothes at a local hostel. We would stay there on our return.
Checking in at the Torres del Paine National Park entrance, officials verified our reservations which we made six months ahead because they fill quickly. This park receives 250,000 visitors annually but not everyone is there to do a multi-day trek. Our first refugio was only a six-mile hike away. While we were there in January, Chile was experiencing some of the hottest weather on record but we still had with us two base layers, hiking clothes, wind jacket, rain gear, down vest, coat and gloves, and wool hat. We soon had to strip down to bare necessities putting the rest of our clothes in our packs. We ended up carrying more water and applying tons of sunscreen!
Our goal was to hike up to the Paine Towers that afternoon, a famous spot that is a steep five-mile round trip from the refugio. But they closed the trail an hour after we got there. No admittance after 3pm. We both admitted we were glad not to do more hiking in the heat. Instead, we rose at 6am the next morning and started the hike to the towers. It was awe inspiring once we got to the top, but a hard, rocky climb, following red marker dots the last half mile. A couple of times I heard Karen in the lead yelling, “I can’t find the next dot painted on the rocks. I’m lost!” and then a couple of minutes later, “Oh, here it is!” I just tried to keep her pink shirt in view. At the top we were rewarded with the deepest of blue skies, towering peaks and a crystal clear glacial lake.
Next day, we vastly underestimated how long it would take us to get to our next refugio. The scenery was magnificent, delighting us with every curve of the trail. We were greeted with rugged snow-covered peaks and rushing glacial waterfalls and streams, that we crossed over on suspension bridges. We heard the thunderous sounds of glaciers calving into the water while the glaciers pushed their way down steep mountain canyons.
After walking about four hours and thinking our next camp would be right around the bend, we saw a mileage sign saying 11km’s to go. “What!”, we both yelled, “Seven more miles, that can’t be right,” as we trudged on. Walking a few more miles, we started asking hikers coming towards us “How much further”?” “About an hour away,” the first person told us. We walked another 50 minutes and asked again. “About an hour more,” was the cheery response! A half hour later, the same response. It got to be funny and we started asking every person we passed. The response was always the same, “About an hour!” We were trapped in a time warp!
Finally, we struggled into camp about 7:30pm. Luckily, since it was summer, darkness did not fall until around 10pm. We figured we’d hiked around 18 miles, which included our “jaunt” up to the Paine Towers that morning. When we checked in, they asked Karen if we were allergic to anything and she promptly replied, “Yes, snoring!” With a smile they put us in our own private room which was pure heaven!
The weather turned and for the next couple of days we hiked in 60 to 70mph head winds with rain and sleet. Needless to say, we wore every stitch of clothing we brought with us.
We arrived at our last refugio and decided to take a side trip to the famed suspension bridges, noted for their length, height, precariousness and views. “You must do this,” several hikers told us. Arriving at the first bridge, I’m not sure if we were tired or scared but we blurted in unison, “No way am I crossing that rickety old bridge!” We just watched other brave souls venture across!
Back at camp we celebrated our W Track completion and relived our adventure looking at hundreds of pictures we had taken. “Here’s to changing into clean clothes,” we toasted each other with an excellent local Chilean craft beer. We both agreed this was one of our harder hiking adventures compared to Mount Blanc and the Milford Track. We blamed it on the unexpected heat which forced us to carry all that extra clothing weight and water in our backpacks!
Follow Up FactsHiking the “W” Track with a tour group can range from US$2,000 to $5,000 per person. We paid less than US$1,000 by doing it on our own, which included our entrance fee into the park, 4 nights lodging and 3 meals per day. This hike can be easily put together by using this website with great information. Best time to visit is between September and April.
Refugio choices and lifestyle:
We mostly stayed in wood-structure refugios that supplied us with bunk beds and three meals per day because we wanted more amenities and less pack weight. We chose not to sleep in any tents available for rent at each refugio though they were much cheaper price than the bunk rooms sharing with 6 to 8 people. We did spend one night in an 8-person dome at Rifugio Domos. Breakfast and dinner were sit-down meals, consisting of eggs, meat, bread, potatoes and juice, served at long tables in each dining room. Lunch was a picnic bag of assorted “to go” food to eat along the trail. If you decide to use refugios, plan your route and call each refugio directly, making your reservations six months in advance.
Neither Karen nor I speak Spanish, but the people were so friendly and so willing to work with us that we had no problem. If we started to ask a question in English someone standing at the bus station or restaurant would always be able to refer us to one of their friends who spoke a little bit of English. We used sign language a lot and always got what we were looking for. It was pretty amazing that we didn’t need to know the language to do this trip! We both loved the people in this southern part of Argentina and Chile!
MaryAnn’s Backpack Tips
(Estimated weight = 18 pounds/8 kilos)
First line the inside of the pack with a strong plastic bag to keep everything dry.
* Rain gear/pack rain cover
* Clothes layers (base layers, hiking clothes, wind shirt, down vest and coat, change of underwear, extra socks)
* Gloves and hat
* Hiking poles/head lamp
* GPS and map
* Sunscreen/sun glasses/insect repellent
* Wash cloth and personal items
* Water (it is safe to drink out of glacial streams)
* Emergency kit
* Snack food
* Hiking boots and comfy shoes for evening
Based in New Mexico,U.S.A, MaryAnn Gerst is a retired Public Relations professional after a 30-year career in the utility industry. MaryAnn is a member of the Albuquerque MeetUp Hiking Group and enjoys hiking several times each month with her hiking companions. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We recommend more of MaryAnn’s adventurous feature articles in our publication’s Travel Article Library: Colorado’s Pike’s Peak or Bust, A Trekking Tour of Europe’s Mont Blanc, New Zealand’s Milford Track, and Trekking Africa’s Highest Peak, Mt Kilimanjaro.
Also recommended in our Travel Article Library is an article by another regular contributor about exploring Patagonia in more luxurious style with a guide, all ground transport, accommodations and meals.