Today we have a guest post from August Jaenke. August is an expat entrepreneur who opened his own English school in Santiago in 2011, appropriately called August English. The institute specializes in offering affordable and flexible English classes to Chileans, although he has recently branched out into offering budget Spanish classes for gringos in Chile. He occasionally needs teachers and always welcomes new students. You can reach him directly by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like me, August occasionally loves getting out of Santiago into the dramatic Chilean countryside. His most recent adventure was to the incredible Torres del Paine in the south of Chile. Read on for some insider’s tips on how to make the most of a journey to this incredible spot, and check out his mind-blowing photographs…
Torres del Paine
Every Chile traveller goes there. On the South American backpacker circuit, it is a place of legend. Torres del Paine: land of creeping glaciers, towering peaks, and howling wind. But Patagonia has loads of national parks — what makes this one so special?
Before going into detail, one caveat: I highly recommend going to Torres del Paine and spending at least eight days on the circuit trail. However, there are some legitimate criticisms of the park, so it’s best that you go prepared and with proper expectations.
- The good: Several buses a day make getting to the park easy and relatively cheap. Many other national parks in Patagonia can only be accessed via 4-wheel drive and multiple days of travel.
- The okay: Easy access means that anyone and everyone go to Torres del Paine. Usually, this isn’t a problem because people will naturally spread out according to the hike they decide to go on. However…
- The bad: The park really only has one major hike, “the W” (in which the hike is shaped like the letter ‘W’). The Circuit, or “O” is the “W” plus three more days completing a loop around the northern side of the park. The “L” or “I” are simple out and back variations on the “W.” As a result, park visitors are corralled along one major trail, making an enormous national park seem like a stroll down main street in your home town as you see people you recognize and know from the days before.
- The good: Primordial rock fingers reach up towards the heavens while crystalline blue ice carpets the serene valley below. Just add some Mistral while seated on a rock overlooking the whole thing, and the picture is complete.
- The okay: The challenge of extreme landscapes is that you must be in extremely good condition to enjoy them. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to go hiking in Torres del Paine, but you’ve got to be in good shape.
- The bad: When you’ve got challenging (but rewarding) hiking on the southern tip of the world, the tourist season becomes frighteningly short. The only months you can (pretty much) be guaranteed to have access to the complete circuit are January and February. March and December are “probably,” while other months are a cold crap shoot.
- The good: You can do almost all hikes without having to carry a tent, either renting or staying in shelters. It’s nigh on impossible to get lost, and boats and vans shuttle hikers between various camping areas to avoid strenuous exertion. And when you arrive, you can often order a hot meal after a hot shower. This makes Torres del Paine an ideal destination for hikers of all ages and abilities.
- The okay: Do I really need to say it? You’re in a national park, surrounded by some of the world’s most epic pristine wilderness. Go without a hot shower and a bed. Appreciate the primordial landscape without your modern conveniences. It’s good for you.
- The bad: It’s almost possible to complete the entire circuit of the park without carrying anything other than a change of clothes and a pack lunch. There’s no problem with making a national treasure accessible to people of all ages and skills, but when you put effort into getting ready for and completing a multi-day trek, you appreciate it more. The purpose of hiking the Appalachian trail isn’t to go from Georgia to Maine; a four hour flight can accomplish that. It’s to test yourself mentally and physically as you experience both pain and ecstasy. Patagonia is the same way—if you want beautiful scenery, take some photos from the warmth of your bus, or better yet, watch a documentary.
- The good: Stunning peaks. Dramatic gorges. Glacial lakes and tumbling streams. Thick forests and desolate passes. Big rocks and little rocks and just-right-sized rocks. The sheer variety of landscapes and images makes it feel like you’re walking through a dozen national parks instead of just one.
- The okay: There is no downside to variety.
- The bad: Okay, I guess if you really liked turquoise lakes for example, and now you’re following a river through the forest, you could be like: “Aww, man. I really miss those blue-green lakes. Now we just have canyons and waterfalls.”
- The good: Huemuls (South American deer), fox, guanacos, and many more animals make this park their home.
- The okay: Nobody can find the animals.
- The bad: Mice also make this park their home, and they are all too happy to hang out in the assigned camping areas gorging themselves on trail mix every night. If you’re not careful, they’ll even modify your tent with some mice-sized entrances.
- The downright ugly: The mice don’t exercise caution when riding their motorcycles—not a one was wearing a helmet. I’ll have to remember to bring some ping pong balls next time I go.
- The good: It’s always different. One day sun. The same day rain. The same day cloudy. The same day snowy, then windy. It’s like nature is giving you the opportunity to see the same scenery with different mood lighting every fifteen minutes.
- The okay: Hot, then cold, then hot, then cold. It’s like nature’s version of menopause.
- The bad: Unpredictable weather means it’s possible for your entire trip to be plagued by bad conditions. If you’re trying to do the circuit, this can be extra problematic since it can close the pass and force you to backtrack for multiple days.