Patagonia — a word that conjures up images of grandeur and mystery. For hikers, backpackers, and mountaineers, the next thought is bound to be, “How do I get there?”
Torres del Paine, Chile’s foremost national park, offers fantastic hiking for adventurers. Most hikers who want more than short walks in the front country, will opt for the famous “W” route or the longer (and more difficult) Circuit route. Both the “W” and the Circuit explore part of the Paine Massif and hikers will be alongside glaciers, snow-capped mountain peaks, mighty rivers, and icy lakes on their hikes.
Which trails you might choose will be determined by several factors: the length of your stay, your fitness level, your interests—and the weather. The “W” route is so named because it takes hikers into the Torres massif on three different legs—roughly along a “W” shaped course. The “W” route can be completed in part or in its entirety as day hikes, though staying overnight either in campgrounds or in lodges provides more time to soak in the wondrous surroundings. The Circuit route, where far fewer people venture, includes the “W” route and goes into the backcountry as it circles the Paine Massif. This is a backpacking trip. Most of the hiking on both routes is rated as moderate; a few portions are rated strenuous.
Whichever route one plans to follow while in Patagonia, it is advisable to allow extra time and flexibility because the weather in Patagonia can be benign or brutal, or both!
My husband Ralph and I set out for Patagonia in 2009 and 2010 with the goal of completing the Circuit Route.. Sometimes there is so much hype about a place that one finds that the reality is less exciting than expected. In Torres del Paine, we were not disappointed—in fact our expectations were exceeded. How to describe the panoramic views of Grey Glacier from the infamous pass! What can be more exhilarating and memorable than descending into a deep chasm on a series of ladders bolted into the surrounding granite? No one can forget the hikes into the magnificent French and Ascencio valleys.
Americans can feel quite safe traveling to and around in Patagonia. The people are friendly and welcoming. Although most of the Circuit hikers we met were from Europe or South America, we also met several from the U.S. Spanish is useful, but not necessary. Travelers to Patagonia generally go through either Buenos Aires AR or Santiago CH, which are major cities, but even in the small towns you will travel through, you’ll have little problem making yourself understood.
You might compare Patagonia to parts of Alaska—vast, wild, amazing vistas and hiking. Take out the grizzlies, add in the (sometimes) ferocious wind. Torres del Paine belongs on every hiker’s life list!
About Susan Alcorn
Susan Alcorn (aka Backpack45) has had extensive backpacking and long-distance hiking experience. She and Ralph have section-hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail, completed 2,000 miles of pilgrimage trails in Europe (Camino de Santiago routes), and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. Her new book, Patagonia Chronicle: On Foot in Torres del Paine combines journal entries about their experiences in Patagonia and extensive practical information about hiking in Torres del Paine.
Alcorn is also the author of Camino Chronicle: Walking to Santiago and We’re in the Mountains Not Over the Hill: Tales and Tips from Seasoned Women Backpackers. To reach Susan’s website, click here. Her blog, click here.