Patagonia Paine Circuit
Patagonia Paine Circuit after several days of a heavy social scene in Buenos Aires BA, I took an afternoon on a set of couches high above the common area of my hostel to remind myself what I wanted to do while I traveled.
The problem was, what was meant to be a great byproduct of travelling (the social), was taking over. I had planned to stay in BA for two weeks to learn Spanish and tango, but instead, after a week, I had only managed a couple of hours of each. There’s always the option to stay at an apartment or a quieter hostel, but I could still find myself getting distracted. Then, when I spent some time to read into my next destination, Patagonia, I noticed that it was coming to the end of the dry season. My mind forward-wound a week and I realised I could also be missing out on a final weather window. I booked a flight to El Calafate to leave a couple of days later, A certain sense of relief.
Whilst my time in El Calafate and El Chalten justifies a blog post later, I felt like the 8 days I spent in Torres Del Paine deserves to be described first and foremost. The 8 days were spent hiking and camping along a route called the Full Circuit in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The scenery was simply unbelievable and by practically winning the lottery in terms of good weather, the photos I took were able to capture much of it too.
What is the Torres del Paine National Park?
Torres del Paine National Park is situated close to a town called Puerto Natales in the Chilean Patagonia region. The park is around 2,500 sq km in size and includes mountains, glaciers, lakes, forests and rivers – all within hiking distance of each other. In the winter, the park is covered by thick snow and in the summer, it’s perfect for trekking.
The park was ravaged by fire in 2011 with some saying that around 200 sq km of land had burned, changing the landscape that I saw compared to those little over a year ago.
Most of the hikers in the park are on one of two treks. The W or the Q (or Full Circuit) the letters are used because the routes on a map somewhat resemble the letters. With both treks, you move from camp or refugio (hotel) carrying your gear along a route and seeing the amazing views along the way.
The W trek is certainly the more popular of the two treks – 95% of hikers are there for that one. It’s the one that’s mentioned as number 5 in the top 10 things to do in Lonely Planet’s South America on a Shoe String guide book. With that in mind, it’s no wonder the back side of the Full Circuit is considered much more of a wilderness trek.
Given the difference in the number of days and the facilities on the back side of the mountains being more basic, it’s no wonder that you need to carry noticeably more kit on the Full Circuit and carry that kit double the distance. By kit, we’re talking food and equipment. It all equates to carry a pack with around 15-20kg for the W trek and 20-25kg for the Full Circuit. Of course, the kit gets lighter as the days go by (eating the food you’re carrying).
In terms of distance, you cover around 60km in the W trek and 120km on the Full Circuit. Therefore, fitness is said to play a big part of people’s decision whether to trek the W or the Full Circuit.
To Guide or not to Guide
There’s nothing stopping you from taking all the gear you need and doing it alone, but there’s also the option to go with local guides too, there’s often strong opinions to be had on this. I spoke to other travellers on my way through Brazil and Argentina and made my own decision before I got down to Puerto Natales.
Either way, I strongly suggest visiting the Erratic Rock Base Camp (not the hostel next door), who each day at 3pm, give a talk about the routes through the park and finish up with a quick Q&A. Even if you decide to go with a guide, it’s great background to learn about the park, the names of the stopovers and the general logistics of both the W and the Full Circuit. With plenty of trekkers new in town attending the talk, it’s also great place to meet other trekkers to either team up with or to exchange ideas/tips. The Erratic Rock Base Camp is part bar and part equipment hire, so straight after the talk you can hire any equipment you need.
The factors to consider when doing a guided hike or not are listed in the table below. I think each of them can nudge your decision in either direction, depending on how strongly you feel about each.
– Do I want to do the hike on a minimum budget?
If you need to do this as cheaply as possible, you probably don’t want to pay for the expertise of a guide, Most likely the deal breaker for most travelers.
– How much do I enjoy the planning and map reading aspect of hiking?
If you don’t have (or want to spend) the time on the logistics, with a guide you won’t have to worry at all. They know the park well enough that asking questions like how far is the next river to fill my bottle?, what time should we leave the camp tomorrow morning? or what’s the longest we can hold out on this rain before we need to push onto the next site? are answered pretty accurately.
– Do I want to spend most of my time on my own during the trek?
If you’re looking to be in isolation whilst you’re in the park, then you probably don’t want a guide. Bear in mind though, that with an average of 6 hours of trekking per day for several days, you need to be sure if you want to do it on your own. Once you hit camp, there are plenty of people to socialize with and with people moving along similar (if not identical routes) you’ll probably see the same familiar faces at camp either way. If you’d like to join a group of people, guides typically have a minimum number of people doing a trek. So if you prefer to guarantee others, joining a hike is the best bet.
– How much equipment do I already have vs how much do I need to hire?
Whilst there’s a cost associated with having a guide, most people neglect the costs involved in hiring equipment that might come free or cheap with a guided trek. Group kit such as tents, stoves, gas, cutlery and first aid kits typically come included. If you have none of it, it may swallow up much of the cost difference.
– Have I ever camped before?
If you haven’t camped overnight before, you should consider whether you’ll be able to adapt quick enough yourself or if there’ll be others to help you up the learning curve. How to pitch a secure tent, how not to start a fire with your stove and how to deal with some serious Patagonian weather are all skills you’ll need for the time on the trek.
– How strong and fit am I?
Doing the hike with more people (which is more likely with a guided hike) means sharing kit – typically stoves, food, first aid kits and tents (if you’re a couple). Sharing kit means less weight per person. If you’re not fit or strong, you may need to rely on a group. Injuries plays a major part too – with blisters or turned ankles taking out even the most able hikers – the ability to share weight with a group is a useful backup.
– How much detail and background do I want to learn about the park?
The guides really are experts. If you like bombarding a guide with questions about the landscape, history, wildlife and weather in order to learn more about the environment you’re hiking in you’re likely to want a guide. Whilst you can read plenty of what you could see or know in the park, a guide with the knowledge at the time is magnitudes deeper.
– How keen am I to see the best views of the park at the best times?
The guides know the best spots for photos and the sunrise/sunset times. Typically, these guides are even hired by professional photographers coming to the park to simply beeline the best spots. If great photos with few people are important to you, you should consider a guide.
– Am I trekking the W or the Full Circuit?
Much of the points discussed above cluster around either W or the Full Circuit. The W is better trodden, better facilities and shorter and the Full Circuit is more remote, more basic facilities and longer. W tends towards doing it alone and Full Circuit tends towards having a guide.