As I noted yesterday, many of my posts describe hiking adventures, which makes perfect sense given my preference for travel on my own two feet. But there’s a certain kind of walk that I love even more than others: the circuit trek.
Two of my favorite circuit treks have been the Tour du Mont Blanc in France, Switzerland, and Italy, and the Paine Circuit in Chilean Patagonia. Yesterday I told you about the TMB, so now it’s time for a virtual trek around the “O.”
The Paine Circuit
The Paine Circuit hike in Chilean Patagonian is considered one of the world’s greatest treks. The whole circuit takes about 8-10 days to complete, and each day brings a new landscape and challenge among the crazy granite spires that ring Torres del Paine National Park. Only about 2% of all visitors to the park do the full circuit (the “O”), which includes the more popular “W” route as well as the back side of the Cordillera del Paine.
To begin, travelers fly into Punta Arenas, a windswept town near the bottom of the continent.
From there, it’s a 250 km drive to Puerto Natales, the closest city to the national park, and another 150 km to get into the park.
If possible, splurge and stay at the unique Eco-Camp to start; facilities include geodesic domed tents with “skylights,” a shared shower and bathroom building, and a main cluster of rooms that includes a small bar, meeting rooms, and a dining area.
From this point on, there is often no land vehicle traffic, and on occasion, pack horses are also unable to ford certain rivers, thus leaving trekkers no option but to carry all their belongings for the coming days (another reason to get a good warm sleep at Eco-Camp).
The first day’s walk ascends past the Chileno refugio to a pass and then climbs even more steeply up to the Mirador Las Torres, an ideal place from which to view the trio of famous rock towers – that is, if you’ve managed to make this climb on a day that is not foggy, misty, or cloudy. (Unfortunately, we encountered all three of these plagues and had no view whatsoever.) Today’s trail is steep both ways. There is no picking your poison; your quads and calves will scream going up, and your knees will complain bitterly on the way down.
Depending on which camps you choose to use on the circuit, the next day can be a shorter, easier day. In only about 4-5 hours, you can reach Campamento Serón along a tranquil trail filled with flowers and streams. There are no bunk facilities here, so everyone pitches a tent where he can. There is one toilet and one shower, and the camp is beautifully situated in a valley of margaritas (daisies) with snow-capped mountains all around.
The extra afternoon time at Serón is worth it because the next day covers about 12 miles, crossing a pass after the first hour, then rising and falling all day long until a final flat leg along the shore of a river. There can be some seriously swampy ground to traverse, so cross your fingers for a dry day. The pass is quite cold, even in summer, as is the exposed contouring route that descends.
Camp tonight is on the shores of Lake Dickson with its glacier tongues and icy water; here, most people are in tents, but there are a few bunks and FOUR glorious showers (2 men’s, 2 women’s) inside a newer hut if you can talk your way into using them.
Although the following day’s hike is not long, it culminates in the most awful camp on the circuit. The hike is only 5 hours or so and heads steadily but gradually uphill most of the way. A glacial river along the route is beautiful, and the heavy forest along much of the route makes for a sun-dappled day on springy earth. As you approach Campamento Los Perros, the terrain changes to a rocky shoreline and some scree slopes that afford a great panorama of Los Perros Glacier, a very high mountain peak, and the John Gardner (more correctly called Los Perros) pass you will cross tomorrow. Los Perros camp is notoriously muddy, devoid of sanitary bathroom facilities (one horrid toilet), and is often plagued by gnats and mosquitoes. This is all terribly unfair because tomorrow is the big day on the circuit.
Best to get an early start and pack well, for today the weather may throw everything it’s got at you, and you will reach for every piece of clothing and gear in your pack. The first three hours are an immediate ascent through a forest and very muddy swamp. There have been times the swamp is almost chest-deep so, again, make a wish for no precipitation. The ascent to Los Perros pass is intense but exhilarating. Often, the pass is deep in snow and windy beyond imagination, but the sight of the Grey Glacier spread out 2000 feet below is absolutely breathtaking and worth the battering.
The hike after this incredible pass just gets better and better. First, you drop down along a very exposed segment – glacier to the right, rock walls to the left, and wind all around – before entering a more forested area with constant ups and downs, including some very steep, high steps that are precarious and dizzying enough to warrant a rail. Soon, the first of several river crossing/ladder segments presents itself. After inching backward down a ladder into a ravine and then fording a river the best you can (read: count on getting at least your boots soaked), a makeshift pipe ladder (2 or 3 lashed together) is your escape out of the ravine. Feeling good about yourself and all that adventure, you will be either thrilled or chagrined to find you have to repeat the ladders and another river crossing a little later.
Relieved those are finished, you’ve still got hours to go to Campamento Grey, but at least there will be no more tests of mental fortitude. The trail spills out into a sunny meadow and there is a lodge with heavenly showers and toilets if you choose to pay for them.
A pretty and manageable walk to the Refugio Paine Grande on Lake Pehoe awaits. Near the end, there are eerie forests of burnt trees and red underbrush, and the contrast with the aqua color of the glacial lake in the background is stunning.
Paine Grande is a huge camp, which makes sense because you are now on the “W,” the much more popular route in the park. While you are on the “O,” you encounter a relatively small number of people. We were told the following: for every 15,000 people who visit Torres del Paine National Park, about 3000 will hike the W, and only several hundred will do the complete circuit. Crowded or not, it is worth spending some time here as the campground offers spectacular views of the Cuernos, the curved mountaintops that are emblematic of Chilean Patagonia.
From Paine Grande, either a day hike or the beginning of the last leg leads to Campamento Italiano, the French Valley, and on over some steep, slick rocks to Campamento Británico. This is not an easy walk; the boulders are large and irregular, and seem to go on forever. To complete the loop, the final section of the trek covers the last upstroke of the “W” and leads back to Las Torres, where you get another chance to see those three magnificent stone spires.
All told, the Paine Circuit does a full circumnavigation of the Cordillera del Paine and totals about 110 km. Most hikers travel counterclockwise (as described here), and most start somewhere on the “W.” (See map below) On the “W” and in a few spots on the “O” there are refugios with food and (sometimes questionable) toilet and shower facilities if you want to use them, but on the far back side of the Cordillera, you will need a tent. I adore a tent myself and did not stay in the refugios (although I did happily use the shower facilities in a few places!) Happy Camping!
(For a more detailed description of the longest and toughest day on the hike, see Going to (and from) the Dogs.)