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Suhas Pillai

Chile looks pretty weird on a map. North to south it is very long and east to west it's really narrow. In the north is the Atacama desert – the driest desert in the world. Some of the landscapes here, particularly in the Moon Valley, are otherworldly. On the other hand, in the far south, it’s completely wet and forested. Both of these regions are sparsely populated with most of the population concentrated in the Central Region. The Santiago metropolitan area alone accounts for 35-40% of the country’s population. There is a lot to see and do in Chile but the main thing we were here to do was the W Trek in the Torres del Paine national park.

Anusha once showed me a video of someone doing the W Trek in Chilean Patagonia. It was months before we started planning our trip, but this immediately jumped to the top of the list of things I wanted to do in South America. That video had such beautiful scenery – green grass, blue skies, snow-capped peaks, glaciers and turquoise lakes – it was everything we enjoyed about hiking. We were very excited to do it!

However much we wanted to do the trek though, we weren’t sure we could. Getting refugio reservations is notoriously difficult, especially in the busy season. We eventually managed to get the necessary bookings, but not before navigating through several websites and emails and cancellations and rebookings over days before we locked everything down.

 

The W Trek gets its name from the shape it forms on a map. It’s almost 50 miles (80 kms) long across the national park and usually takes 4-5 days to complete. We took our time and did ours in five. 

Chilean Chronicles

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Torres del Paine

Talk to anyone who has visited the national park and they’ll inevitably mention the iconic Torres del Paine (Towers of the Paine). The three towers, after which the park itself is named, are granite rock formations that rise up into the sky in front of Lake Torres. On a clear day, they are truly majestic. We weren't as lucky due to clouds near the top, but it was still a sight to behold.

We did the towers on our first day. Setting out, we knew the day would be tough. We had to cover 11 kms (~7 mi) with a 900 m (~2950 ft) elevation gain to get to the towers, and the same distance back. We were ready with gear and food but didn’t fully foresee how tricky it was going to be. The first three hours of the day were great. Lots of walking and climbing up trails but manageable. The last two hours of hiking before we got to the towers, on the other hand, were particularly challenging. The terrain started to get rougher and there were sections where we had to hike through loose rock. It grew windier as we climbed up and often threatened to rain. The last section took way longer than we expected and we were completely exhausted by the time we got to the top. But the moment we saw the towers, our spirits returned. It was the most impressive view at the end of a hike we’d ever seen (as you can see below). 

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We would have loved to spend longer at the top enjoying the view, but we had to turn around quickly. It had started to drizzle and we wanted to be further below in case it rained. We snapped a few pictures, ate a quick snack and made our way back down. It took another 4-5 hours for us to get back to the campsite. By the time we checked into our tents, our knees and toes were completely knackered and we weren't sure they would survive the remaining four days.

Pristine scenic beauty

What makes the W trek unique is the picturesque and ever-changing landscapes you’re surrounded by as you make your way through it. Each day offers something different.

I particularly enjoyed the second day, which also happened to be the easiest part of the hike. We still had to walk 17 kms (~10 mi) but thankfully there was very little elevation gain. Right as we started the day, we were surrounded by grassy meadows. Every now and then grazing horses would cross the path in front of us, look at us with curiosity and then continue doing their thing. Not knowing if the horses were feral, we were initially wary, but after a while we got used to them and they to us. 

 

There was also the Nordenskjöld Lake. Fed by glacial meltwater, the lake appeared in different hues of blue depending on the time of day and where you viewed it from. The lake kept coming in and out of view throughout the day. All in all, we probably took a million pictures of the lake with the Patagonian firebush flowers added in for a splash of color.

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Glaciers are cool

We crossed countless streams as we continued on our trek. Some of them were small enough to walk through, but many required bridges to cross. There were days when it felt like we crossed a different stream every hour. These streams were also our source of drinking water throughout the trek.  At first we didn’t believe this was safe (“Are you sure we can drink straight from the streams?"). We certainly didn't want to fall sick during our trek. Inevitably, we reached a point when we ran out of the water we had started the day with and had no choice but to refill at the next stream. We just had to do it once to get over the hump, and from then on, we were all-in on these streams as our water filling stations.

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The source of all of these streams is melting glacial ice. This was actually the first time in our lives we were seeing glaciers (and boy, weren’t they breathtaking). Tiny streams flowed down from them as they gradually melted under the sun. Those tiny streams combined downstream to become a little bigger. A few more times of this happening, and it became a gushing river flowing through the valley. It was almost like we were witnessing the birth of a river, and that was so amazing to see!

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All through our five day W Trek experience, we kept running into the same set of people. We’d stop, catch up, chat for a bit, share notes on things to look out for, and then go our separate ways. Though it really wasn’t the case, we felt like we were doing this as part of a big tour group. 

For us, W was probably one of the hardest things we had ever done. But at the same time, it was also insanely beautiful, filled with so many unique sights and experiences. Going to give it a few years, but I’d totally want to do this again, maybe even try the 9 day O trek.

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