Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Porvenir, Puerto Natales, Torres del Paine

It was a challenge to not see the world through Antarctica-tinted glasses. I had to frequently remind myself that the scenery around Ushuaia was still quite spectacular. Gradually I began to see spiky mountains, choppy lakes and the wide Beagle Channel with appreciative eyes again.

We had five more nights here, we had a lot more nights between Antarctica and our next major planned activity. This is a result of me leaving plenty of buffer time in case we booked a last-minute Antarctic journey that departed at a later date. There are worse places to spend some spare days.

One day we hiked through Ushuaia’s shantytown outskirts to a magnificent wooded valley through which threaded a rather full river. At one point the path turned steeply upwards until we eventually had to turn around at a frozen-over lake at the edge of a small glacier.

Another day saw us hiking through a forest, past a river dammed by beavers and then – inevitably – upwards. This time the lake at the end was emerald green. The star attraction near Ushuaia is the Tierra del Fuego national park. Expensive to get to, expensive to enter but it rewards you with a lovely walk along the coast and an even lovelier walk along a large lake to the border with Chile. Everywhere you look there are mountains.

5AM coach journeys sometimes reward your early start with a spectacular sunrise and the journey to Rio Grande was no exception. Ushuaia is the southernmost city in the world and so today we would start travelling ever north. In Rio Grande we transferred to a coach for Punta Arenas in Chile. One border and one ferry later we arrived into this city of 160,000 people.

There is no Ushuaia-like scenery around Punta Arenas. In fact, unless you like seascapes, there really isn’t much to look at here apart from grand buildings constructed towards the beginning of the last century. These buildings reflect the wealth generated here by agriculture and a short-lived gold rush which attracted a sizeable Croatian population.
One of these buildings is still privately owned but – due to its historic value – the owners have opened the ground floor and the basement free for the public. Inside the rooms are perfectly preserved and there are exhibits on the native tribes which once inhabited this part of the world.

In this Punta Arenas building Shackleton planned the rescue of his men from Elephant Island
In this Punta Arenas building Shackleton planned the rescue of his men from Elephant Island

Chile is considerably more expensive than Argentina, but it is much cheaper to withdraw cash from an ATM. Public transport also seems reasonable and so we took the opportunity to cross back to Tierra del Fuego island, remaining on the Chilean side to visit a town called Porvenir where a mysterious people called the Selknam once lived.

We returned to Punta Arenas to catch a bus to Puerto Natales. On reflection Punta Arenas is more interesting than I first gave it credit for. The city centre is generously interspersed with buildings of historic value, each with a plaque describing the fascinating events that occurred within (almost all of which involved those early Antarctica explorers).

Whereas Punta Arenas’s interest lies in its buildings, tourists flock to Puerto Natales to hike in the nearby mountains. More specifically, they’re mainly here to do the W trek. The talk in our hostel? W trek. The number one subject in travel agencies? W trek. The granola sold in supermarkets and outdoor gear sold everywhere? All for W trekkers.

So what is the W trek? It’s a 5-day hike in the Torres del Paine (Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche) national park with refuges at each point of the ‘W’. At the Erratic Rock hostel there’s a daily 3pm talk on what equipment you should bring, what the trail is like, what to expect at the lodges etc. There was a lot of build-up to this walk and, one long coach journey and a catamaran later, we were at last on our way.

Near Refugio Grey, the Grey glacier and the Patagonian Ice Field in the distance
Near Refugio Grey, the Grey glacier and the Patagonian Ice Field in the distance

Day 1. This is an easy day, 6hrs of gentle uphill through a canyon and then up along a ridge with a glacial lake far below. There are so many people on this trek, but we often find ourselves alone. Soon a glacier appears and beyond that the edge of the Patagonian Ice Sheet. The proximity of all this ice and snow does not seem to effect the temperature. It’s warm, dry and sunny – not the wet, muddy mess we were expecting. 

Refugio Grey is comfortable, as is our 4-bed dorm. For the huge expense of doing this trek we get a tasty 3-course meal as part of the package. We felt we’d earned it today as we had decided to push on past the refuge to two suspension bridge which both hang terrifyingly high above deep chasms.

Day 2. Perhaps the easiest day began with a final close-up look at the glacier before returning to where the catamaran dropped us off yesterday. The Paine Grande refuge is as luxurious as Grey, but also comes with a bar that offers a breathtaking view of the mountains – one of the best bar views I’ve ever seen. This doesn’t feel like extreme hiking…but that’s OK! Two hours beyond the refuge is a spot that has even better views of the landscape – totally worth the extra effort.

Walking towards the Britanรญco mirador
Walking towards the Britanรญco mirador

Day 3. Early start as we had a long way to go today. An easy start, although extremely windy with gusts lifting water from the lakes. We crossed a rickety suspension bridge (one person at a time) over a raging river, dumped most of our equipment at a campsite then walked lightly up a path that gained several hundred metres in altitude and ended at a stupendous viewpoint amidst the mountains. Glaciers shed ice in thunderous avalanches and clouds obscured the view one minute then were swept away by that powerful wind the next. That night we stayed in a pre-pitched tent at Frances campground. It was not comfortable.

Day 4. We had a whole lot more hiking to do today. It started off well, the path following a cerulean lake and the base of the mountains. After an hour of this it turned away from the lake and it became a rather dull two-hour slog until we joined the main route to Chileno refuge. This route was shared with day hikers and was incredibly busy. It also took us steeply upwards so that, by the time we arrived at the refuge, we were exhausted. Nevertheless, after depositing our bags and resting for an hour we pressed onwards and upwards through a beautiful forest and then scrambling up a very steep, rocky incline until we arrived at the jutting pinnacles of the Torres del Paine. It was a magnificent view which we enjoyed for 30 mins before returning to the cosy refuge.

Day 5. A very slow descent today, back to civilisation. The peaks were at our backs, as was a mighty, gusty gale which at times threatened to push us over the ledge and down into a raging river far below. Crowds and crowds of hikers passed us in al out a continuous line for the two hours it took for us to reach the first car park. We hiked on another hour and back to the entrance of the park.

After that 90km hike we’re now back in Puerto Natales, showered and waiting for tomorrow’s ferry to Puerto Montt.

The famous Torres del Paine
The famous Torres del Paine

W tips:

– Ensure that everything is in waterproof bags and that your rucksack can withstand extremely high winds.

– Wear sun cream, even when it’s cloudy.

– You can top up your water in the streams, all of which are perfectly clean.

– Food can be bought at the refuges but it’s very expensive. Either bring your own or buy the food package (which is good and plentiful) in advance.

– This trek would be more interesting if done in four days, staying at Chileno refuge, then Frances (in a dorm!) and ending at Grey before walking back past Paine lodge to the administrative centre.

– Bring two sets of clothes; one for walking in, the other for the evenings. When you get to where the day hikers go you will be surprised at how pleasant humans can smell.


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