Into the mountains
Updated: Apr 24, 2020
Reaching the Torres Del Paine National Park had been a source of both excitement and trepidation for me. The park is renowned for its beauty and its popularity increases yearly. With this fame comes red tape and regulations, to do the famous multiday treks in the park reservations or bookings are necessary months in advance. Being on a long distance bicycle trip makes planning of this nature very difficult. Speaking to other travellers in Puerto Natales it seemed impossible to get a straight answer, everyone had a different story or experience. Some people had been turned away at the gate for having no reservations, whilst others were seemingly able to just waltz in. After much debate we formed a plan of action. Deciding to carry food for one week and aiming to sneak into the park in the early hours before it officially opened. Then with no record of us entering the park we aimed to explore at our leisure, perhaps getting in a day hike or two if possible.
Leaving town our bikes felt especially heavy loaded with food, nonetheless it was great to be moving again and headed towards such a fabled destination. For some hours we battled the usual headwinds before eventually peeling off the main road onto a smaller ripio road bound for the park. From here on out our excitement continued to build, the mountains that we had seen in the distance for some days were now surrounding us. The long straight roads we had cycled for weeks begun to morph into a twisting and undulating rollercoaster. Short steep climbs made us work for the loose and dusty descents that followed. Then at the top of one such climb whilst we paused to rest, the clouds in the distance parted, “I think thats the Torres” I suggested. We squinted into the wind and driving rain, and sure enough on the horizon you could see the iconic peaks.
That night we camped at a beautiful spot by a waterfall, managing to eat dinner together before the rain fell. A small storm blew through at night meaning a restless night, but fortunately morning saw the sun showing itself and drying everything off before moving on. For us progress was slow this day, we were constantly stopping to marvel at the views or to take photos. The road was dry and occasionally speeding vehicles would fire up great clouds of dust when passing. Cresting the top of a particularly steep climb we spied the perfect lunch spot and wasted no time in taking full advantage of it. We feasted with a dramatic view over the park and had a sun soaked siesta. The remainder of the day was spent edging closer towards the entrance, as we got nearer the vistas only became more dramatic. The views climaxed at Mirador Grey, a stunning panorama over the Torres range that included they Grey glacier. After a long and especially wind blasted climb we spent some time regrouping at the summit despite the ridiculous winds that had other tourists falling over and running for cover.
Then begun a desperate search for a campsite that was both hidden from prying eyes and sheltered from wind. Eventually settling on a little clearing tucked in the undergrowth beside the road. An early night was necessary as we set our alarms for 4am. All too soon the alarm sounded and I arose bleary eyed and cold. We packed away camp and set up the bicycles in silence, I longed to be back in my warm sleeping bag. As I pushed my bike back up to the road and started pedalling uphill the wind was howling against me. However, rounding the first bend all difficulties evaporated. The colour of the sky, the jagged snowcapped peaks and deep blue lake. It was the most stunning sight I’ve ever been blessed to witness. I was speechless and stood for several minutes staring at the scene before me. As we pushed on and rolled down the mountain into the park everything felt surreal and dreamlike. I pinched myself to ensure it was reality.
In the early morning the meandering gravel road through the park was ours alone. At every turn there were spectacular new vistas and angles. In stark contrast to the routes across the pampa, the road was always changing elevation or direction, any steep climbs were rewarded with thrilling descents. We stopped to brew up some Mate (a popular South American herbal drink rich in caffeine) in a secluded spot. Whilst relaxing there was a sudden and thunderous crashing sound, all turning in the same direction there was a huge avalanche spilling off the side of Cerro Paine Grande. Masses of snow tumbled down the chutes and slopes, with the cloud lingering in the air for minutes after, we marvelled at the power of nature. After exploring the park and enjoying the route for the remainder of the day we begun to look for somewhere to camp in the park. Slipping away from the road we rushed into some bushes and followed a small track for a while before coming across a small grassy clearing with a view of the Torres. We set up camp whilst making plans for a day hike in the morning.
After some asking around we managed to find a place to stash our bikes for the day and set off with light daypacks up into the mountains on a small hiking trail. It was a refreshing change to be walking, with no heavy load and fitness in good form from weeks of battling the wind, we flew up the trail passing many others. The sun was blazing and the air was perfectly still, we couldn’t believe our luck. Some people plan their trips to the park for months, only to get rain and cloud for days, and here we were blessed with bluebird clear skies. Spring had truly sprung and there were flowers in bloom all over, every so often we passed a mountain stream, drinking straight from the snowmelt.
Above the treeline the trail steepened before eventually spilling out into a vast natural amphitheatre. A crystal blue lake fed by the melting snow rested in the centre of the valley, with the majestic granite spires of the Torres flanking us on all sides. Although there were many people here, by climbing over a few boulders we were able to find a secluded spot with nobody in sight. I lazed about gawping at the peaks from different angles and taking photos, three Andean condors soared around, effortlessly riding thermals way above the summits. Five hours here flew by like five minutes, I could have easily stayed for longer marvelling at these legendary peaks. However we had to head back down and make it to our campsite. We all enjoyed bounding down the descent at a running pace for much of the way. Back at our campsite we lounged about watching the sunset behind the Torres, capping off a fantastic day.
I was reluctant to leave Torres Del Paine, but our route out of the park took in some amazing final views of the peaks, and followed some wide valleys full of Patagonian wildlife. Seeing foxes, herds of guanacos, Andean condors and wild horses all it the same line of sight was quite surreal. The Cascade del Paine was a spectacular torrent of water crashing down into Rio Paine, we rested there a while. I was approached by a couple of Americans curious about our trips and the bikes. They quickly offered up some brownies, chocolates and juice, suddenly before we knew it the whole busload of them were offering up their snacks. We had hit the motherland and all enjoyed the sugar feast! Later, on the road whilst taking a last look back at park we were also given a load of snickers bars from a supportive Chilean family. Fuelled by this sugar rush and some rare tailwinds we flew on for the remainder of the day.
In the evening we rolled into the border town of Cerro Castillo. Whilst Julian and myself waited for Emma to roll into town we enjoyed a cold beer from the store. A German couple in a camper rolled by and gave us their stash of vegetables and sausages as they were about to cross into Argentina and couldn’t take this fresh food with them; more free food, what luck. Over and big dinner we toasted our unbelievable past few days and the great luck we’d enjoyed in the national park, all agreeing that these past few days had probably been the best of our trips thus far.