In the winter of 2011/12, I spent several months traveling in northern South America only going as far south as the Lake District of Chile. I also went to Easter island. In the mid-90s, I went to Patagonia and hiked in Torres del Paine National Park, Tierra del Fuego and Fitzroy. I hope to give an idea of some of the various hiking possibilities in the continent. Whereas December to March is the best time to be in Patagonia (probably the only time to be there), this is the rainy season in the north of South America and definitely not the prime time to trek and hike (June to September are but also much busier). It rains virtually every day usually in the afternoon. They do not have 4 seasons like us and do not use the words winter and summer but refer to the seasons as the rain and dry seasons. Many high altitude hikes are not even available at this time of the year. I did not go over 4760 meters and only hiked. Hikes with a * are ones I didn´t do but are included as they are great walks.
Ciudad Perdida* – `The Lost City`. This is one of the largest pre-Colombian cities discovered in the Americas. It was built between the 11th and 14th centuries by the Tayrona people. The Spaniards wiped out the Tayrona and their settlements disappeared under the vegetation. It was accidentally discovered by grave robbers. It is at an altitude between 950 and 1300 m about 40 km SE of Santa Marta, Colombia. There are around 150 stone terraces that once served as platforms for houses connected by many stair ways. The trip is mostly about the 6 day hike through the jungle, the scenery is memorable but the ruins not so great. It is a stiff hike and is available by tour only (Turcol out of Santa Marta). It takes 3 days uphill to reach the site, one day at the site and 2 days back down. The hikes are tiring due to the heat, usual mud, several creeks to cross (may be waist deep) and the prodigious number of mosquitoes.
Salento and the Valle de Cocora. 6 hours southwest of Medellin is the tranquil town of Salento (pop. 7,000) set in gentle rolling hills carpeted in thick forest. The main attraction here is the Valle de Cocora, a broad, green valley framed by rugged peaks. The hills are covered with wax palms, strange 60 metre palms trees towering above the cloud forest. Take one of the many available jeeps from the side of the square up to the Valle. The road forks and I took the left fork walking along the road. There are no signs and you eventually take a track that appears to go through private land. This dirt road turns right climbing up the side of a ridge (there was a fresh landslide across the road when I took it). Still climbing, it eventually goes through a gate and reaches a great lookout with some benches. Continue on the trail to the park buildings and signs that show the way down. There are several switchbacks down to a big creek with many water falls and rapids which you cross a few times on bridges. Eventually you hit a very eroded trail (really used mostly by cattle) that is incredibly muddy. The mud can be avoided as the trail is very braided. The trail eventually circles back down the valley past a fish hatchery to rejoin the road at the fork. The hostel I stayed in provided gum boots to deal with all the mud.
Gocta Falls. This at 771 m is the 16th highest waterfall in the world. It is accessed by tour out of Chachapoyas in northern Peru. It has two drops, the first of 237 m and a second of 520 m. After a great 5 km hike to the bottom of the falls, one gets completely soaked in the huge spray as there is a lot of water in the falls. The surrounding scenery was magnificent with limestone cliffs on the steep mountain sides.
Santa Cruz Trek – NP Huascaran. This is a guided trek with a tour company called Galixia out of Huaraz in the Cordillera Blanca north of Lima. The tour came with a guide (really only a cook), and a burro wrangler who was incredible. With 4 burros, he packed up and took everything apart every day and routinely beat us to the destination. Day 1. Incredible drive from Huaraz past huge granite wall with many high waterfalls, 2 turquoise alpine lakes at 3800 m, past Huascaran (highest peak in Peru at 6750 m), a high pass into the Atlantic watershed at 4500 m, and then down to the town of Viliquerca – alt. 3700 m. We only had to carry rain gear and lunch. Tent and pad plus all food provided. Walked downhill past fields of potato, apple and alfalfa, then up through a small no road access community to camp at 3800 m. Day 2. 15 km day uphill to Punta Union, the continental divide pass at 4750m, then past an alpine lake and spectacular mountains that all looked like the Matterhorn with pure white glaciers and fresh snow. We camped alongside a rushing river at 4200m. Day 3. 12 km. Went to a mirador with views of Nev. Alpanayo and Nev. Quitaraju, both over 6000m, then down to a broad, wet, flat valley with cows and horses grazing. To the left was the Paramount pictures mountain. We walked past 2 big lakes, and then down to a campsite at 3800 m. The valley had very sheer granite walls with many waterfalls and fewer views of the high peaks. Many cows and sheep graze around the trail. Day 4. Short 2 hour hike down narrow valley with great rushing creek to Cashapampa then a 2 hour drive back to Huaraz. Many people do the hike the opposite way. It can be done unguided but it was so cheap that working out the logistics of vehicles, camping gear and food would not be worth the savings.
Laguna 69* Also in the Cordillera Blanca, this good day hike has great mountain and waterfall views with at a marvellous azure blue lake. Starting at 3900 m, the lake is at 4600 m, all elevations that will induce at least a headache if coming from low elevations. Several companies in Huaraz offer tours.
Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail. One of the seven modern wonders of the world, Machu Picchu is probably the most important archaeological site in the western hemisphere, and a Unesco World Heritage Site since1983. It is on everyone`s bucket list and can be visited many ways including bus or train (the fastest, easiest and cheapest), or by several trekking routes. The Inca Trail, a 47 km walk following the original Inca route (80% original stone pavers) is the hardest and most expensive way ($500+ depending on the company), and is as much part of the experience as the actual ruins. 500 permits are given per day for the Inca Trail (200 for tourists and 300 for the guides and porters) and need to be booked weeks in advance especially in the busy dry season from May to September. It can only be done guided and there are many excellent companies doing the trip. The trail is closed for all of February. Starting at km 82 on the rail line (elevation 2380m), the trail follows the Urubambe River briefly before starting the climbing. Passing 3 Inca ruins, you camp at 3300m, in a steep walled valley. On day 2, it is a stiff climb over Dead Woman`s Pass, at 4200m, the highest part of the trail, a descent to 3600m, another ascent to 4000m and then a descent to 3600m again to camp. Day 3 saw another ascent to 4000m and then a steep knee destroying descent to 3000m to Wuiñay Wuayna with its tremendous ruin often dubbed little Machu Piccu. There are 50 terraces each supported by 5-8 foot stone walls, 14 fountains, many houses, and intricate stone work on the upper ruins. The route goes through incredibly steep terrain and narrow valleys. The food was copious and almost gourmet in quality and it is easy to gain weight despite all the exercise. You have the option of hiring an extra porter to carry up to 9 kg of your gear. Day 4 starts at 3:45 to eat and hurry up and wait for the control point which opens at 5:30. It is had an hours walk to the Sun Gate high above MP, to wait in the usual cloud and mist to see the first views of the ruins. After walking down, we a guided tour around the huge site with its many houses, temples, immaculate stone work, and terraces, eventually taking the bus down to Aqua Calientes to stay the night in a hotel. I paid for an extra fifth day at the ruins. Up at 6:30 I spent some peaceful time and then climbed Waynu Picchu, the mountain behind MP. It was straight up and I took 35 minutes. MP was in the cloud which opened and then repetitively disappeared over the hour I was there. The view was stunning. it is possible to descend down the backside to visit the great caverns with ruins which necessitates a long hike back up to regain the trail. It is worthwhile to revisit the entire site marvelling at how the stone was so intricately carved and polished to form the seamless joints (nobody has been able to answer the question of how this was done). After seeing the Inca bridge and the trail that crosses an entire cliff face, I returned to Aqua Calientes on the bus, and then the train and a bus back to Cusco for a long, exhausting but spectacular day.
Archaeological Ruins Around Cuzco. Take a bus to Pisac and get off at Tambomachay and walk back the 8 km along the road to visit 3 more ruins along the way. The buses leave from Av. Tullumayo, south of Av Garcilaso in Cusco. Tambomachay is a very nice ceremonial bath still channeling clear spring water. Puapukara, the next ruin just a few hundred metres down the road on the left, commands a great view and was probably used as a hunting fort or guard station and stopping point for travelers. Continue on down the road through a small village with bas-relief designs on the front of their houses and cut across a long corner in the road passing evidence of many other Inca buildings in the field. The third ruin, Qéngo, consists of a large limestone rock riddled with niches, steps, and carvings. Just down the road is the best of the four ruins, Saqsaywamin, the site of the greatest and one of the last battles between the Spanish and Inca in 1536. Even though only 20% of the original ruin remains (the rest was dismantled and used to build houses in Cusco), what is left is incredible with a long zigzag wall composed of huge polygonal stone blocks, some up to 120 tons fit together in the perfect Inca style. The wall is actually supposed to represent the teeth of a puma with Saqsaywamin as the head and the Cusco the body. Take the Inca road (steep stone staircase) down which leads into town (not the car road on the other side of the large Christ statue).
Colca Canyon. One of the main reasons to come to Arequipa is to go to Colca Canyon, supposedly the world`s deepest canyon at 3191 m (measured from the top of the mountains but not from the canyon rim). I took a guided tour with Colca Trek – there are over 100 tour companies offering all variety of trips from bus tours with stops only at the viewpoints to walks along the canyon sleeping overnight in local towns to our trip which went down and then up the same trail. Mules carried our gear. On the 6 hour bus ride there, we stopped at some spectacular eroded volcanic columns above a river, the vicuña protected area (saw several vicuña which are wild and many domesticated llamas and alpacas), the town of Chivay for a buffet lunch, and hiked between 2 overlooks (Cruz del Condor) seeing several condor. The upper wide valley has spectacular pre-Inca terracing and the fields are a patchwork of different crops all surrounded by dry rock walls. The canyon soon deepened. We slept overnight in a very nice hotel at Cabanaconde (pop 7300) and then descended 1100m down to an oasis at the bottom of the canyon and stayed in tents that night. The river was an incredible torrent and the canyon spectacular – green up to the top with eroded yellow scars reminiscent of the canyon of the Yellowstone. The next AM we were up early to climb back up to the top and drive back to Arequipa stopping at several viewpoints and a hot spring on the way. This canyon is hard to compare to the Grand Canyon – its height is measured from the top of the mountains, is certainly as steep but without the cliffs of the GC, and the GC is deeper from the rim. In retrospect, I would not do the trip with this company as it was very expensive and we saw less of the canyon. Many companies offer trips where you descend into the canyon farther upstream, stay overnight in a village, walk down canyon to the oasis and then climb out of the canyon to the rim and the town.
Hikes around Tupiza. Tupiza, in the very south of Bolivia is surrounded by a surreal landscape of canyons with eroded fins, arches, hoodoos and multicoloured hillsides. Many of these hikes are offered as horse rides and jeep tours but I think would be better appreciated by walking.
National Parque Conguillo. Melipuerco is the town on the south edge of NP Conguillio, renowned for its large stands of monkey puzzle trees or araucaria. Having seen this very unusual tree before in Ronnings Garden on N Vancouver Island (he was a Norwegian who homesteaded there in 1910 and planted a fabulous garden with plants from all over the world), I was keen to see it in its natural habitat and in great numbers. Its name comes from the fact that it is covered with very spiny leaves preventing anything from climbing it. I did not have a car so as the distance was quite far it was necessary to go with a tour company so for $80 I hired a driver and guide (quite unnecessary as the trailheads are well-marked and the trails easy). The big volcanoes here are Sierra Nevada and Lliama (3125m) and we drove for many kilometers past lava flows from its large eruptions in the 1850’s, 1927 and 1957 (it last erupted in 2009). The first trek was from near Lake Captren, 4 km to the Mother, the 1800 year old, 50 m tall, and 3 m diameter Araucaria Madre tree, the largest in the park. We then hiked from the trailhead on the south end of Lake Conguillio, 10 kms up the Sierra Nevada Trail to 2 lookouts with many monkey puzzle trees and great views of Conguillio Lake. It is possible to climb all the local volcanoes.
Volcan Villarica. Pucon (pop 17,000), is touted as the adventure capital of Chile and sits on the shore of the large Lake Villarrica. It is very European looking with a full range of hotels (many high-end), restaurants and tour companies. The highlight is Volcan Villarrica (2847 m), visible from all over town with its constantly smoking summit and oscillating red glow at night. It last erupted in 1986 and its caldera is open making it active but with a low likelihood of erupting. The only reasonable way to climb it (along with hundreds of others – 16,000 climb it each year) is guided with a tour company who outfits you with rigid boots, crampons, a full heavy nylon suit, ice axe, and helmet. Taking a ski lift part of the way up, the climb was relatively easy on snow and ice on a glacier and then volcanic rock to the top. The crater was narrow and deep and molten magna spectacularly shot up every few minutes. Pucon and everything below the ski lift were obscured by a dense carpet of cloud with all the surrounding volcanoes sticking up through it. The company provides a nylon bib to slide down the snow. The remaining few kilometers down was on knee saving scree.
National Parque Huerquehue. 35 km NW of Pucon, the 7km Los Lagos trail switchbacks through a dense mature lenga forest to monkey puzzle trees surrounding a cluster of pristine lakes. The monkey puzzle trees are very unusual looking – straight, limbless trunks with a small umbrella-shaped crown of spiny branches at the top sticking above all the other trees. It is possible to backpack across the park from the lakes to Termas de San Sebastian, hot springs on the other side of the park.
It is a 5 1/2 hour flight to Easter Island or Rapa Nui (it is called the Navel of the World by its inhabitants and Isla de Pascua by Chileans). Discovered by the Dutch in 1722 on Easter Sunday and visited by Cook in 1774, it has the most astonishing story of ecological collapse on earth. Triangular shaped with volcanoes on the 3 points (3 million, 2 million and 200,000 years old), its underwater area is 50x the 166 square km that is above water. There are at least 20 more small cones, the largest of which was the site of the quarry. It is the area of land furthest from any other land on earth – 2100 km from Pitcairn Island, 3700 km from Chile and 4000 from Tahiti. There are flights only available with LAN from Tahiti, Santiago and Lima.
1Settled in 400 AD by Polynesians, it developed an incredible culture with 25,000 inhabitants best known for erecting huge volcanic rock statues (moai erected on stone platforms called ahu) revering their rulers. Once they had cut down every tree on the island to roll the moai from the quarry to all over the island, their culture collapsed and the 5 tribes went to war with each other finally reducing the population to less than 2500. They started erecting moai in the 10th century and almost all were toppled in the civil war by the 17th. Most people live in Hanga Roa on the SW shore with 4400 people. At 27 degrees south, the climate is subtropical with a few brief rains. There are at least 890 moai, over ⅔ still in the quarry. With an average weight of 9.5 tons, the largest still in the quarry is over 100 tons. They all, except for size, are virtually identical and are made from the same type of volcanic rock with a yellowish tint and a red volcanic rock top knot.
Although not known for its hiking, I discovered that Easter Island has some of the best hiking anywhere.
1. Terevaca. It is a long walk to climb the high point on the island, Terevaca, at 507m (youngest north volcano). From town follow the shore north past several moai, other statues, an old village site, and the museum and hit the road that follows the ocean heading north. On the way there are 2 caves that are all old lava tubes. At an ahu with several fallen moai and very nice stone work, the road curves east passing another large lava tube with a collapsed roof containing many banana trees to Ahu Aktivi with7 standing moai, the only ones to face the west shore. These were erected by Thor Heyerdahl in 1960. The trail to the top starts near these moai and follows an old wide track with a very gradual ascent taking about an hour.. There is no crater, simply a long ridge in the howling wind. One could go back the same way or you can follow two tire tracks in the long grass heading east. It is a gorgeous walk down through many stands of big eucalyptus trees, a small creek, and many wild horses. The tracks eventually becomes a road and at divisions take the more prominent track. The road hits the paved highway where it is easy to hitchhike back to town.
2. North west coast. From town start exactly as for the above hike eventually following the road. At the ahu with the fallen moai, leave the road and follow the coast along the cliffs. Occasionally there is a rudimentary hiker made trail but there is only one way to go. One passes many ahu several with crypts filled with bones and many stone lookout platforms. It took 8 hours walking along the cliff through long grass and a lot of small lava stones eventually encountering a trail with goes through a farm and many cattle. At the end, you reach Anakena, a gorgeous beach on the NE corner of the island for a welcome swim (white sand surrounded by palm trees and with 8 standing moai). It is an easy hitch hike back to town.
3. Maunga Pu A Kaiki. This is the 400 m tall volcano on the SE corner of the island. A good way to do this hike is to go to Ahu Tongariki, the site with the 15 standing moai for sunrise (almost everyone does this and there is always a big crowd). Walk in front of the moai, hit the road and after it curves north, strike off anywhere walking to the east. Wade through some low bush and climb the steep hillside. It is then a nice fairly gradual walk through the grass and many cattle directly to the top of the volcano. On the top there is a small crater filled with many eucalyptus trees. Walk around the crater for great views of the SE corner of the island. Come down to the south-west ending on the very high cliff and walk counterclockwise along the cliff around the entire SE end of the island. Eventually you will reach the road again and you can road walk back to the 15 moai. As I had hitchhiked out for sunset, I continued along the road until it started to curve south and then followed a minimal trail that led directly to Rana Raruka, the main quarry for the moai. The quarry is one of the two areas on Easter Island that requires an entrance fee and is normally reached by a dirt road that heads north from the main paved road. I entered the quarry from the SE (definitely not the normal entrance), and did all the trails through the quarry including going into the crater with a reedy lake where many of the moai were also quarried. I then paid my entrance fee coming from inside the quarry (the clerk was kind of surprised but did not get upset). I then hitchhiked back to town.
4. Rano Kao. This is the 410 m volcano on the SW corner of the island, the site of Orongo. Follow the road south out-of-town until you reach the Sendero (trail) to Orongo lined by white-painted rocks that climbs up to the dirt road that you cross to reach the edge of the crater. It is a huge perfectly round crater with a flat bottom and interspersed ponds. The south edge has a big gap where it is being eroded by the ocean. One could walk completely around the crater but it looks a little dodgy where the crater is eroded (you would also access Orongo the wrong way and could get into trouble – I do not think anyone does this). Orongo is the site of a village used only for a few weeks of the year and is the only site on the island with religious significance. There are about 40 round houses built of slab rock on a tiny point on the edge of the crater and many bas-relief petroglyphs. The site was used to celebrate the bird man cult which replaced ancestral worship in the 15th century. The competition to be leader involved swimming to Motu Nui and trying to be the first to get a sooty tern egg. The last competition happened in 1867. Just outside the Orongo entrance gate and parking lot, climb over the fence and walk west through the low bush to the edge of the cliff. It is a gorgeous walk down the edge of the cliff following an intermittent hiker made trail. I was able to follow the water all the way back to my hostel. You walk past a cattle trough, cross a small creek and go through 3 fences, two of which are the boundaries of a large hotel (there are not any NO TRESPASSING signs). One walks along cliffs with spectacular lava formations, caves and crashing surf. Cross another fence just past a private house and then you reach a restaurant and the dock where all the containers are unloaded. On the way follow a stairway down the cliff to a cave with a few bird man paintings.
Ilha Grande. Pick up the free map of this large island 150 km south of Rio de Janeiro at the tourist info centre at the end of the dock. It shows all the trails on the island with distances, times, difficulty and access. All the trails are through Atlantic rainforest.
1. Parrots Beak. At 982 m this is the second highest point on the island. Walk on a road for 25 minutes from the centre of town to the trailhead marked with a large sign. The trail is easy to follow – at a few creek crossings it resumes directly across the creek. At the top the heavily used trail dead ends at the base of the cliff. Instead follow around to the left under the cliff on a much less obvious trail and access a short scramble that allow access to the top. The views from the top are of the entire east end of the island. Try to go early as cloud often comes in the afternoon and it is cooler. It took me 2 ½ hours up and 1 ½ hours down. The map states that this trail is dangerous and that a guide is necessary but there are no problems.
2. Aqueduct, old prison and waterfalls. Take the trail at the north end of town to reach a 140 m stone aqueduct built in 1893 to bring water down to Lazareto, the beautiful waterfall called Feiticeira, the Feiticeira Beach, the ruins at Lazareto (originally a cholera quarantine site and then a prison in the 1940´s), and then back to Abraao. The howler monkeys were incredibly loud for about 15 minutes around 9:30 in the morning. This was an easy three-hour hike.
3. Lopes Mendes beach*. This is an easy hike from the south end of town that takes 2 ½ hours to access a beach rated as one of the best in Brazil. It is the most popular hike on the island and passes two other beaches on the way.
4. Circumnavigation of the entire island. It looks like it is possible to do this over 3-4 days camping on beaches along the way. There is a gap in the trail where the map states that one needs authorization to go along 2 beaches through a biological reserve.
Hikes around Rio de Janeiro.
1. Ipanema and Copacabana Beaches, and Sugar Loaf. This is an urban walk along the two famous beaches of Rio with crashing surf (can walk on the sand near the water or on the sidewalk). It is not possible to walk on the water between the two beaches. There is a fort there that you can enter for a fee. At the end of Copacabana, turn left on , do through the tunnel, turn right to go through a shopping mall and then walk the side streets to the cable car that goes up Sugar Loaf. This 396 m quartz and feldspar monolith sits right on the water at the west entrance to the harbour of Rio. One transfers cars at an intermediary stop. There is a short walk down that gives great 360 degree views. The trailhead for Sugarloaf is located at the end of the paved Pista Claudio Coutinho, a scenic walkway that originates from praia Vermelha in Urca and hugs the lower slopes of the mountain. Squeeze past the tiny lighthouse to reach a narrow, slippery path that ascends the 45 degree slope. Past the halfway point there is a 20 m rock climbing segment.
2. Tijuca National Park. This is the only National Park in Brazil inside a city and is one of the largest urban parks in the world. Most of the trees were cut down for coffee plantations in the 1800´s but now is all mature second-growth Atlantic rainforest. There are 3 trails all most easily accessed by car. The area was completely deforested and used primarily to grow coffee until 1861 when 40,000 trees were replanted over a 10 year period.
a. Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer statue. This is now one of the seven wonders of the modern world and is an instantly recognizable icon for Rio and Brazil. Made of reinforced concrete, it is 130 feet tall including the 31 foot base, its outstretched arms are 96 feet wide and it weighs 635 tons. It is the largest Art Deco statue of Christ and the 5th largest of Christ in the world. It can be seen from all over Rio and is lit up at night. The good easy to follow trail starts at the NE corner of Parque Lage just north of the large lake, Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas in Leblon and Ipanema neighborhoods. Try to start early when it is cooler (Rio is a hot, humid place), before the cloud rolls in in the afternoon and to give you time to do some of the other trails in the park. There is a guard station at the trailhead which has good free English maps of the entire park and the trail. The trail is very steep in a few places and at one point scrambles up a very slippery rock equipped with a necessary chain. At the rail tracks, I followed them for good views down to the right. Don´t go up to the rail station itself but follow the road just before the station. Pay an 18 Real entrance fee to the top which also pays for the short van ride down to the main road, Estrada das Paineiras. Surrounding the statue are many terraces with spectacular views of every neighborhood in Rio so this is even better than Sugar Loaf to get orientated to the city. It was a long hike down the road through the neighborhoods of Cosmo Velho and Laranjeiras and taking 2+ hours to get to the metro station at Largo Machado in Flamengo.
b. Pico do Tijuca. At 1022m this is an easy trail taking 1 hour to the top. Near the top is a staircase of 117 steps carved out of the rock with deteriorated chains for assistance. The trail starts near the park visitor centre at 685 m which is accessed from Alto da Boa Vista on Cascatinha Road.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chili
This 181,000 hectare park, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, is full of amazing landscapes. Soaring vertically more than 2000m above the surrounding Patagonia steppe, the granite pillars of the Towers of Paine are one of the most spectacular sites on earth. Weather can be wild and unpredictable, with cold, sudden rainstorms (March and April rainiest), and big wind. 150,000 visitors come every year, of which 60% are foreign tourists from all over the world. Fires, set by tourists have burned down large portions of the park in 1985, 2005 and 2011.
The park is 112kms north of Puerto Natales (pop 20,000), the only close town with regular buses to the park. A popular method of access to Puerto Natales is on a boat, the Navimag which leaves Pluerto Montt in western Chili and takes four days. 200kms south of Puerto Natales is Puerto Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, the only close airport.
Mountains. The Paine massif is on the east side of the Grey Glacier, rising dramatically 2000m. Glacial erosion is mainly responsible for the sculpturing of the massif in the last tens of thousands of years. The Torres del Paine are 3,050 meters above sea level, with their overlying sedimentary rock layer completely eroded away, leaving behind the more resistant granite rising as several yellow towers. The Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine) have central bands of exposed granite and chocolate, dark tops forming a strong contrast.
Three valleys separate the spectacular granite spires and mountains of the massif and trails ascend these forming the three-day hikes of the W trip: The Ascencio Valley (most easterly valley) is the normal route to reach the Torres del Paine lookout (Mirador Las Torres).
The French Valley (Valle Frances), the central valley, ascends into the center of the massif and has a spectacular towers at its head and along both sides. Lago Grey fills the western most valley with Glacier Grey at the north end of the lake.
Glaciers. The Southern Patagonian Ice Field mantles a great portion of the park taking up the entire western side of the park. The glaciers that extend down from the main ice field include the Pingo, Tyndall, Geikie, and the largest Grey (it is divided into two arms by an island of rock called a Nunatak. 15 km long, the eastern arm is 1.2 km wide and the western arm is about 3.6 km wide).
Lakes. The lakes include Grey, Pehoé, Nordenskjold, and Sarmiento and extend across the south side of the massif. The lakes are all vividly colored, most due to rock flour suspended in their waters. The lakes of the park drain into the Serrano River which empties into Última Esperanza Sound.
Flora. Torres del Paine National Park is adorned with beautiful vegetation, including an evergreen which produces vivid red flowers, of striking shape and colors, 7 documented species of orchids, 85 non-native plant species with 75 of European origin and 31 considered invasive. The park contains four vegetation zones: Patagonian steppe, Pre-Andean shrubland, Magellanic subpolar forests and Andean Desert above the tree line. All are resistant to harsh winds and weather conditions that are typical of the Patagonian region.
Fauna. Guanacos are common along with foxes and pumas, birds like the Andean Condor, Buzzard-eagle, Rufous-tailed Hawk, Cinereous Harrier, Chimango Caracara, Magellanic Horned Owl, Austral Pygmy-owl, Chilean Flamingo, Rhea, swans, Magellanic Woodpecker, goose and ibis.
Accommodation. Many refugios providing shelter and basic services. Reservations are necessary in peak hiking season, if planning on staying in the refugios. If you stay inside, dinner is served and there are hot showers, optional breakfasts and picnic lunches. Camping is only allowed at specified campsites and wood fires are prohibited throughout the park. One can rent a tent and sleeping bag and sleep on the grounds outside the refugio with optional cold showers, or one can pitch one’s own tent and cook with your own camp stove.
Hiking. Views are breathtaking and trails of good quality. Hikers can opt for a day trip to see the towers, walk the popular “W” route in about five days, or trek the full circle in 8 to 9 days.
Climate. Visiting the park is recommended between late December and late February, during the southern summer. Not only is the weather more hospitable, but daylight hours are very long given the extreme southern latitude. Outside of this the weather becomes too extreme for the majority of the public, and daylight dwindles to only a few hours a day.
Hiking. Most everyone comes here to hike. The trails are good and route finding easy. With the hefty 18,000 peso, or $40 USD entrance fee, plus the expensive bus ride there it is really only worth it if you are doing a multi day trek. If you go to the park, get your money’s worth and hike the “W” for 4-5 days or do the big circuit.
Catch the bus from Puerto Natales leaving at 7.30 AM or 14.30 PM (JBA has the cheapest rates) arriving 2 hours later at the Visitors Centre/Administration at Laguna Amarga. Pay the entrance fee of about US$40. One can start at either the west or the east end of the W. The described route starts at the east end where you camp for two nights, and day hike to the towers on day 1. This allows you to carry day packs on the hardest and the most popular hike in the park. From the entrance station at Laguna Amarga, there are shuttles available to get to Las Torres, the beginning of the hike up to the main towers.
1. W Circuit: It is easier to think of this trip not as a true W but rather three valleys running north/south into the mountain massif with two horizontal sections connecting the three. Arrive the day before and stay at Las Torres for two nights (Refugio Las Torres Norte, Refugio Las Torres Central, Las Torres Servicio Camp Site, Eco Camp or Hosteria Las Torres).
Day 1. Get an early start to see the best light. Las Torres to Campamento Torres (9 kilometers, 3.5 hours): The first 2.5 km is a steep ascent, then the trail becomes much more moderate. With heavy packs, it’s probably closer to 4 or 4.5 hours up, but much faster descending.
Campamento Torres to Mirador Torres (45 minutes – 1 hour): a steep rocky ascent. The Mirador is at the base of a beautiful milky green tarn and the views of the three towers. The highest mountain of the group is Paine Grande at 2,884 m (9,462 ft). Return to Las Torres for the night.
Day 2. Hike west along the north side of Lago Nordenskjold to Los Cuernos (11 kms, 4.5-5 hours) to sleep at one of Refugio Cuernos, Cabanas Cuernos or Campsite Cuernos. Alternatively if camping, one could continue to Campsite Italiano right at the base of the French Valley.
Day 3. From Los Cuernos, hike to Campsite Italiano (5.5 kms, 2.5 hours) at the bottom of the French Valley and then ascend to Mirador Britanico (7.5 km one way) at the end of the trail (Campsite Britanico). The French Valley has at its head, a cirque formed by impressive cliffs. The colossal walls of Cerro Cota (2000m) and Cerro Catedral punctuate the western side of the Valley. To the north stands the granite arête called the Shark’s Fin. To the east, from north to south, are the Fortress, The Sword, The Blade, the Mummer, North Horn, and Main Horn. Descend to Campsite Italiano for the night.
Day 4. Hike west to Paine Grande on the NW corner of Lago Pehoe (7.5 kms, 2.5 hours) with potential accommodation at Refugio Paine Grande, Paine Grand Domes, or Paine Grande Servicio Camp Site. Continue north along the east side of Lago Grey to the viewpoint for the Grey Glacier (11 kms, 3.5 hours). Accommodation is one half hour before the viewpoint at Refugio Grey, Grey Servicio Camp Site or Campamento las Guardas. The 15 km long Grey Glacier is the largest in the park and is divided into two arms by an island of rock called a Nunatak. The eastern arm is 1.2 km wide and the western arm is about 3.6 km wide.
Day 5. Return on the same trail to Paine Grande, take the Catamaran across Lago Pehoe to Pudeto (Refugio Pudeto) and catch the bus back to Puerto Natales.
2. Circuit. Doing the Circuit gives you bragging rights over all of the mere mortals who do the ‘W,’ but it also provides solitude and some stellar views that you can’t get on the more popular of the two routes. The Circuit is composed of the ‘W,’ plus the backside between Refugio Lago Grey and Refugio Los Torres. There are no refugios along this stretch and camping is basic. You’ll need foul-weather camping and trekking gear, as mud (sometimes knee-deep), snow and wind are inevitable. While the popularity of the ‘W’ means you’ll see lots of people along the way, that’s not the case along the backside. Trekking alone is inadvisable (and restricted by Conaf). The Circuit is closed during winter.
Day 1. Refugio Lago Grey to Campamento Paso takes four hours from Campamento Guardas to Paso, about two hours going the opposite way. Hiking west to east means ascending the pass rather than slipping downhill.
Day 2. From Campamento Paso to Camping Los Perros takes approximately four hours. This route has plenty of mud and sometimes snow. Don’t be confused by what appears to be a campsite right after crossing the pass. Keep going until you see a shack. Camping Los Perros to Dickson is around 4½ hours to hike. It’s relatively easy but a windy stretch.
Day 3. Camping Dickson to Seron takes six hours. As the trail wraps around Lago Paine, winds can get fierce and the trails vague; stay along the trail furthest away from lake. It’s possible to break trek at Campamento Coirón, although it is currently recovering from the fire in 2005.
Day 4. Camping Seron to Laguna Amarga: four to five hours. You can end the trek with a chill-out night and a decent meal at one of the accommodation choices at Las Torres.
3. Descending the Serrano River. Once you have finished your visit to Torres del Paine National Park, it is possible to return to Puerto Natales by an uncommon route. The best and much more fun and exciting alternative is to descend the Serrano River in a sea kayak or raft over 2 days/1 night. The start of the paddle has views of Chacabuco cordillera and the Balmaceda Mountain. At the Serrano Waterfall (a beautiful cascade), there is a 200 meter portage carrying the kayaks around the waterfall. Continue down the river to camp at the Pekin Guerrero’s Estancia with views of the Tyndal Glacier. From the ranch, it is a morning walk to the Geike Glacier, a spectacular high altitude lake full of ice. Back in the kayaks, continue down to Puerto Toro where two national parks abut each other. A little trek gives views of the Serrano Glacier. Board the ferry to cross the Última Esperanza Fjord. If the weather allows, there are spectacular views of the Paine massif.
Tierra del Fuego
Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire, is an island divided between Chile and Argentina at the southern tip of South America. Ushuaia, on the south coast of the island overlooking the Beagle Channel, is the base for all the best hiking on the island. It bills itself as la Ciudad del Fin del Mundo – the City at the End of World. Indeed, there is nothing below this windswept place but 650 miles of treacherous southern seas and the icy continent of Antarctica.
Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego, 7.5 miles/12 km west of Ushuaia, in the southern-most tip of South America. Rich in forest, lakes and jagged mountains, it is a beautiful but tough landscape, tormented by unpredictable weather.
1. Laguna Esmeralda. This full day hike starts at the Altos del Valle ski resort and ascends to the beautiful lake called Laguna Esmeralda. If you are up for a true trekking challenge, you could continue past the lake, up to the point the vegetation ends, and the Glacier Albino begins.
2. Sendero de Lucas Bridges. This is an excellent trek that runs between the two great estancia in Tierra del Fuego, The Haverton and the Via Monte Estancias. You can stay at the estancias at the start and end of you trek, while you camp during your actual journey.
3. Andorra Valley and Laguna del Caminante. This three-day trek shows you the highlights of the Tierra del Fuego mountain range and is packed with awesome views of Beagle Chanell and the famous Darwin Range. Easy to moderate hiking takes you to beautiful places on this overview hike. Camping at night.
4. Bahia Lapataia. A 3 hour, 9.6 km coastal walk between two beautiful bays on the southern shore of the Land of Fire, one of the remotest regions on earth. This hike has no elevation change to follow the Senda Costera – Coastal Path – from Bahia (bay) Ensenada to Bahia Lapataia, with beautiful views over the Beagle Channel. Entrance fee charged November through March. The main road, Ruta 3, runs through the National Park. Minibuses or tour company transports run regularly between the Park and Ushuaia in the summer. You won’t have to worry about getting back to your car at the end of the hike.
Trailhead: From the Park entrance gate, continue on the main road for about 2.5 km to the crossroads, just past the terminus of the tourist railway, Ferrocarril Austral Fueguino. From the crossroads on the Park road, head down the unpaved road for about 1 mile/1.6 km. This will take you to the shore of Bahia Ensenada, and a view of rocky Isla Redonda. The trail hugs the shoreline, alternating between forest and beach. The trail is defined and marked with red blazes, but there are no signs and it can be hard to follow. After about 2 miles/3.2 km, you emerge at a beach directly opposite the end of Lapataia peninsula, and with excellent views across the channel to Isla Navarino. A smaller cove, then a short climb, is followed by a longer stretch through forest – a total of around 1.7 miles/2.7 km. The trail emerges at a pebble beach. Walk along the beach for 5 minutes or so, look for a path heading back into the forest. Come to another beach, where you cross a hillside to the final beach on the Coastal Path. Now veer right (north) and climb through the forest. You will reach the Park road, and the end of the hike, in about 0.6 mile/1 km. From the road, you should be able to flag down a minibus back to Ushuaia.
But why not do some more exploring? Instead, turn left (west) along the road for about 1 mile/1.6 km, where it divides. Right takes you north to Lago Roca and a trail along the lakeshore; left to Laguna Verde and the head of the bay, where there are a number of short trails. Particularly recommended is the Paseo de Mirador, a short walk to a beautiful lookout over Bahia Lapataia.
To complement any trip on the Chilean side of Patagonia there is “Los Glaciares National Park” in Argentina. Los Glaciares is one of the most scenically impressive national parks in South America. This vast reserve protects around 2300 square miles of the Patagonian Andes, including over 40 major glaciers. The northern section of the park is dominated by the incredible, world-famous form of the Fitzroy Massif, with its sheer, 6000-foot rise from the glaciers at its base.
There are numerous spectacular mountains rising above the immense Lago Viedma, including Fitzroy 3405m (11,072 ), and Cerro Torre 3128m (10,280 ). The latter is such a steep and difficult granite needle that its summit was not climbed until 1974. The southern section is one of the world s glacier wonderlands (40 percent of the park is covered by glaciers). About a dozen glaciers flow east to feed two huge lakes, Lago Viedma and Lago Argentino, and there are another 190 glaciers not connected to the park s giant South Patagonis Icefield.
Fitz Roy is at the northern tip of gorgeous Parque Nacional Los Glaciers, itself part of Hielo Sur, the largest icecap not in a polar region. The history of these impossible spires adds a special flavour. It’s named after Cpt. Fitzroy, skipper of Charles Darwin’s Beagle. And Fitz Roy is one of the most famously difficult mountaineering destinations in the world.
The jagged mountains of Paine are surreal — but Fitzroy is even more stunning. Hikes here are slightly easier than Paine and more suitable to all levels of ability and experience. It’s easier to hike independently in Fitz Roy, there is no need to filter water, no risk of altitude sickness, Argentina is less expensive than Chile, and most hikers like El Calafate better than Puerto Natales. The biggest concern for hikers is wind. It can blow steady from November to April. Fitz Roy is colder than Paine as the huge Hielo Sur ice sheet diminishes the maritime influence. At El Chalten the February low maximum 5C (41F) plus wind chill and a high maximum of 22C (72F). If you are not there in February, it will be colder again. Plan for horrible weather: rain, sleet, hail, snow. Hypothermia is a slight risk. You need a strong tent & good tie-downs to survive the wind & weather plus a stove as fires are prohibited. Most hike independently here and few are guided. November to April are the best months. January & early February first-come, first-served campsites are crowded, but not as much as Paine. The days are long in Patagonia during their summer — it is light until at least 10PM. Unfortunately the only hiking allowed in Parque Nacional Los Glaciers is around Fitzroy.
Head for the bustling tourist town of El Calafate, Argentina. Many hikers fly or bus there from Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Some hikers fly to Chile first to hike Paine, then bus to El Calafate. It is normally easy to cross the Chile – Argentina border. From El Calafate you need schedule a full extra day to visit must see Moreno Glacier. From El Calafate you can bus (4.5hrs) to the trailhead town of El Chaltén, entering the national park (free entrance) en route. No reservation, trekking fee or permit is required. It is easy to day hike out of a hostel or hotel in El Calafate. This is particularly advisable if the weather is too dreadful for tenting. You can start hiking directly from El Chaltén, which has grocery stores for last-minute purchases. Accommodation & restaurants are surprisingly good in tiny El Chalten. It is no hardship to relax there, waiting for the winds to drop. There is even a free campground on the edge of town.
Argentina, since a 2002 currency crisis, has been very good value if you are holding foreign currency. It is far cheaper than Chile.
The welcome and information provided the national park visitor centre (Parque Nacional Los Glaciers) in El Chaltén is terrific. It’s the best park office in South America. No one is too stressed about hiking Fitz Roy, however, as not much can go wrong — except the weather.
1. Around Fitzroy trek is 38km (23.6mi) plus sidetrips. Recommend 4-5 days, 3-4 nights minimum. Instead of hiking directly into the park, start by hiring a ride up Route 23 and get dropped off at the trail head and hike to Refugio Troncos (NW of Laguna Piedras Blancas) to first camp, where you can day hike to the Cerro Electrico Lookout, but some have limited success due to the difficulty of the trail and bad weather conditions. From Refugio Troncos travel down the trail and take the very short side trip to Laguna Piedras Blancas, before camping at Campamento Poincenot and take in a front stage view of Mount Fitzroy. It’s worth getting up before dawn to climb to Lagos de los Tres or just get up to watch the sun color Mount Fitzroy at sunrise. Come back for a breakfast/lunch and head down the trail to Laguna Sucia. The private walk along the river bank is a contrast to the more heavily traveled path to Lagos de los Tres. Few venture down it and its wonderful view from Laguna Sucia. Hike to Campamento De Agostini along Laguna Madre and Laguna Hija. These lakes make a great backdrop for your last close up views of Mount Fitzroy and can make for a refreshing swim. Once past the lakes, you’ll snake through a yellow wildflower laden forest before getting to views of Cerro Torre. Once again get up for the sunrise, as it’s the best view of Cerro Torre and then head back to El Chalten.
The standard route has you tent at Agostini, Poincenot & Refugio Los Troncos (which sells snacks & meals). An extra day is helpful in case you need to wait on weather or to add some sidetrips. Extreme hikers could (carefully) consider the Ice-cap Circuit variation described in The Andes, A Trekking Guide
2. Laguna de los Tres. 8 hours (mostly easy) round trip from the town. There are outstanding views of the Fitz Roy range along the way. The trail ends at the cobalt-blue Laguna de los Tres, at the base of Cerro Fitz Roy. The last 1.5 kilometers of this hike are very steep and exposed, and as a result some hikers choose to overnight at the nearby Campamento Poincenot prior to climbing the last, difficult stretch, though it’s absolutely possible to do the whole trek form town. A 500-meter, well-marked additional trail winds around to the left of Laguna de los Tres and leads to a spectacular, cliffside overview of Laguna Sucia, some 200 meters below Laguna de los Tres. A good alternative route is to start at Hosteria El Pilar and hike back to El Cheltan, stopping at Laguna de los Tres mid-way.
3. Laguna Torre. 6 hours easy round trip that leads to a lake at the base of the dramatic Cerro Torre, which, although only 3100 meters tall, was not summited until 1975, a generation after all the 8000-meter+ Himalayan peaks had been conquered. Cerro Torre’s near vertical walls and a permanent, unstable ice veneer at its summit defeated all earlier attempts. Backpackers can combine the Laguna de los Tres and Laguna Torre treks using connecting side-trails that create a loop. There is an optional side continuation to Dagostini that leads closer to the glacier near Laguna Torre.
4. The Condor Mirador and Eagle Miradors are easy climbs (two hours at most combined) behind the National Park office. Great views of the town, and the Fitzroy range and of course Condors.
Beside hiking you can do a boat trip combined with a glacier trek on the Lago Viedma and the adjacent Glacier Viedma.
In the centre of town you can also pay to go horse riding with a gaucho guide along some of the major walking trails.