Saturday, March 19, 2016

A Review of and Advice for Hiking the O in Torres del Paine National Park

This post is a review of information I wish I had known before we hiked the O in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. For those who aren’t interested in the hike, it’s probably best to skip this lengthy post. For those who are planning to visit Torres del Paine, I hope it helps, especially the part about the toilets. You can read my other brief post about our trek here.

First and foremost, I would recommend that anyone hiking the full O consider hiking it clockwise. I know that every guidebook and website (except this one!) recommends hiking it counter-clockwise, but I beg to differ. The reasoning I have heard for hiking it counter-clockwise is that you will go through the pass having the easy climb up, and the steep climb down. I actually prefer to go up steep things, rather than down. The prevailing winds also blow from the steep side, so if you climb up the steep side, you will most likely have the wind at your back. Having gone through the pass in a 60mph headwind, I would really recommend doing it the other way. The other reason I would hike it counter-clockwise, assuming you’re starting at Laguna Amarga, is that you will get the crowded part of the trail out of the way first. I would venture to guess that most people taking on the entire O like hiking in solitude and prefer quiet campgrounds to rowdy ones – so why not end your trek with the least-traveled parts of the trail? For us, the first three days of hiking were absolutely lovely while getting onto the W was a bit of a culture shock. Getting that out of the way at the beginning and ending with a serene hike through wildflower meadows would have left a nicer impression as we left the park.

Now onto the meat of the hike - we started our trek at Laguna Amarga and hiked directly to Camping Seron, bypassing Las Torres. This was a really lovely hike. On the bypass route we didn’t see a single person and the trail was only lightly worn. When we reached the junction with the trail from Las Torres, we met someone who was also hiking to Camping Seron. He was the only person we saw on the hike.

Camping Seron is a lovely refugio with a grassy meadow. There is no shortage of places to pitch your tent. There is a small covered cooking area with picnic tables off the back of the bathrooms, but campers are also allowed to cook at any of the outdoor picnic tables spread around the camping area. The bathrooms were the nicest/cleanest we encountered on the O. They had flushing toilets (sometimes toilet paper) and showers (I believe they had hot water, but we didn’t shower there). The campground doesn’t really have a store, but it did look like they were selling sunscreen, wine, and soda in the office. They only accepted Chilean pesos at Seron, cash only. This refugio supposedly has meals, although the chalk board listing prices only had prices for breakfast and bread, so I wouldn’t count on anything else. Overall one of my favorite campgrounds on the O.

Between Seron and Dickson is a ranger station where hikers have to check in. It was a nice place to stop for lunch and had nice composting toilets. The hiking times listed on the park map were off for this section – the section between Seron and the ranger station took longer and the section between the ranger station and Dickson took less time than the map indicated. Elsewhere on the trek the hiking times on the map were fairly accurate for us.

Refugio Dickson was also lovely. The camping sites are along the edge of the trees so you can get a bit of shade and wind protection, but there is absolutely no shortage of flat grassy space. There is a designated outdoor cooking area with picnic tables, and if it is windy there is an indoor cooking space (we didn’t need it). There are flushing bathrooms at Dickson that were well-maintained (cleaned consistently while we were there), and had toilet paper. The showers are heated by a black tank on the roof. I got the first shower of the afternoon and it turned out the roof water was scalding hot (very sunny day), so I basically just took a cold shower. The store at Dickson was one of the most well-stocked of any on the O. Tons of snack food of course, but also a decent selection of things one could eat for dinner. There were no price tags in sight, which is usually bad news for your pocket book. They let us pay for our campsite in USD though which was nice (we didn’t have many Chilean pesos – long story). From the refugio, you can easily climb down to the shore of the lake and walk along the beach – we even saw a few ice bergs. I highly recommend spending the night at Dickson.

We did not spend the night at Los Perros, but we did use the cooking shelter to eat our lunch. The campground is in the woods and all the camping spaces are dirt, which was a bit of a surprise after the grassy space at Seron and Dickson. It looked like there was no shortage of flat space though. This was also our first experience having to use the cooking shelters. At many of these campgrounds they don’t want people cooking outside because of the wind and risk of starting a wildfire. We found that the cooking shelters just get really dirty with crumbs and spilled food. Los Perros also had flushing toilets and showers that looked decent – not quite as clean as Seron and Dickson, but perfectly acceptable. The store also looked decently-stocked, although it was closed while we were there and most of what I could see from the window was Pringles and Red Bull.

We hiked all the way from Dickson to El Paso in one day (hence no overnight at Los Perros). El Paso is a free campground run by the national park. It’s on a steep slope, so there are only a limited number of campsites on a first come, first serve basis. We go there fairly late in the day and there weren’t many sites left, but the park rangers were very helpful showing us where to camp. If I were staying here, I would try not to roll in too late. The people who got there even later than us camped basically right outside the ranger station building, which is totally fine, but I wouldn’t have wanted to arrive later than them! There’s a three-sided cooking shelter at El Paso which gets crowded around dinner time. The bathroom situation at El Paso was my second least favorite of the trek. Basically it was just a squatter outhouse, but with a concrete floor with a bowl-shaped basin and pipe in the bottom, and a bucket of water inside so you could “flush.” The basin was pretty wide and just sort of hard to use. I tried to avoid it as much as I could.

We had a short day hiking from El Paso to Grey, and then spent the night there. Grey is a nice place to spend some leisure time because you can walk out to the mirador to view the glacier and see some sweet sedimentary geology. The campground is mostly an open grassy area with a few trees – no shortage of flat camping spots. At Grey you are required to cook in the cooking shelter, which is about ¼ of the size it needs to be. There was a line to wait to get in to cook. I’d eat early if I was staying there again. The store was pretty extensive and had quite a few dinner-ish options. There were also a couple of outlets in the store where people (including us) were charging phones. They accepted credit cards at Grey, and I would assume USD.

I have mixed feelings about Grey because while I enjoyed the open grassy space and the walk out to the mirador, the bathroom situation was a major pain. There were flushing toilets at the service building for the campground, but they were pretty much closed all day (no explanation) and people were told to use the bathrooms at the refugio (hostel/lodge). At the refugio there were only two private bathrooms, so the line was very long at times. I waited 45 minutes just to pee in the morning. With such a large campground, it wasn’t exactly easy to find a private bush, although in hindsight I wish I had just waited until we’d hiked down the trail a ways rather than standing in line for 45 minutes. The toilets for the campground were open just for a few hours in the evening, and we were told there was hot water for the showers between 6 and 8pm. There were two women’s showers, and the line was ridiculously long, but I waited in it and quite possibly got the last hot shower at 7:59. This was also where we first intersected people hiking the W, which is a very different crowd than those doing the O. To hike the O you need to be pretty well-prepared and experienced, but not so for the W. There were people with toiletries bags that wouldn’t have even fit in my backpack, people putting on makeup, brushing their teeth, and washing their faces in the private bathrooms while 10+ people were waiting in line (rather than brushing teeth outside)…I could go on, but my point is that if you’re a grungy backpacker who just wants a quick shower and turn on the toilet, you’re going to be annoyed.

We did not camp at Paine Grande, but we did stop and use the cooking shelter for lunch. The cooking shelter was pretty dirty, and the sink was clogged. The bathrooms were nice though and they had showers, I assume with hot water. The Store was also fairly extensive, and even had some wilting produce, eggs, and meat products. Prices looked pretty high though. Paine Grande is open and grassy, so there is no shortage of flat placed to put a tent, but it is notoriously windy. While we were there it was pretty bad, and I’m glad we didn’t stay. We heard a story from the day before of a tent being ripped out of the ground and blown up on a hillside.

At Paine Grande we made reservations to stay at Italiano, another free park-run campground. Italiano is in the trees and is all dirt, but there didn’t seem to be a shortage of flat places to put your tent. There is three-sided cooking shelter, but it seemed to be okay to cook just outside of it as well. There were easily 100 people camped there when we were. The bathroom situation at Italiano was absolutely the worst of Torres del Paine National Park. We were told to use the bathrooms down the trail, which were flushing toilets…but they looked like they had literally never been cleaned. Total non-starter. The tricky thing about the location of Italiano (and the number of people camped there) is that on one side of the campground/trail is a raging river, and the other is the steep slope of a mountain. It’s a little hard to find a place to avoid using the bathrooms. I’m not sure if I would have stayed here or not had I know how bad the toilets were – on one hand it was free and we were able to scramble up to some private-ish places, but on the other hand, it was really annoying. When we were leaving Italiano I saw there were composting toilets. I have no idea why they weren’t open, and since we were on our way out I didn’t ask. We bypassed Frances completely, but it is an alternative to Italiano that presumably has a better bathroom situation. Frances is on a steep slope though, so I wouldn’t roll in too late for fear of not having a flat place to sleep.

Los Cuernos is also a mixed bag. It’s a biiig campground, but doesn’t have a lot of flat space. We got there around 4 in the afternoon, and still had a hard time finding a place to put our tent. Our best options were a flat spot right next to the trail and the horse stable or a sloping spot next to the bathrooms. We picked the spot that didn’t smell like horse poop. People who got in later than us had to sleep on some really uneven ground. This is the one refugio where I would definitely recommend making a camping reservation if you plan to stay there. The bathrooms at Los Cuernos were nice, but as far as I could tell only get cleaned once/day. With so many people, they basically got trashed by late in the evening and weren’t cleaned until morning. The showers were fine and had hot water. Cooking was only allowed in the cooking shelter which was tiny – once again I would recommend eating early or just being really, really patient. The store at Los Cuernos was surprisingly sparse. They basically had cookies, candy bars, soda, beer, eggs, tuna, and bread. The eggs were pretty cheap, but I paid about $15 for a beer, soda, and two snickers (after six days on the trail I was happy to pay that). We were running low on lunch food by this point, so the snickers and eggs (we hard boiled them) were our solution. They took credit cards here. Los Cuernos is also a major party scene. It has a bar, and they moved it out onto the deck in the evening, with music. There was basically a dance party going on until late late late. If you’re into partying, stay at Los Cuernos. If you’re into sleeping on a flat piece of ground, don’t.

We bypassed Chileno, but we did hike through it on our way to Torres. Chileno has a ton of campsites, but they are very spread out and some are pretty far away from the refugio. The store looked similar to Los Cuernos, although they did sell both veggie and meat pre-made sandwiches for $8. The restaurant looked decent – it was more of a regular restaurant than the other refugios. They took credit cards at Chileno. The bathrooms were fine, but seemed like the same problem as Los Cuernos – not cleaned often-enough. There was also a long line since everybody hiking through wanted to stop and use the bathrooms.

I was a little scared of what Torres would be like on both the toilet and flat space fronts, but I was pleasantly surprised on both accounts. Torres is hilly, but there are plenty of flat places to put your tent. It wasn’t very full at all. There were two clean flushing toilets with toilet paper. The cooking shelter was also too small, but good enough. There is no store at Torres, as it is another free park-run campground.

We ended our hike at Las Torres Hotel. There’s a little kiosk store at the bus stop that sells hot dogs with the most amazing freshly-baked rolls a hiker to ask for. The store had a few things, but honestly it wasn’t as extensive as some of the other ones. We ordered sandwiches to go from the restaurant at Las Torres Hotel and ate them on the bus on our way back to El Calafate. They were a little pricey but honestly not all that bad for what we got.

Despite some of the more regrettable toilet situations, we had an absolutely amazing time on this hike. I hope this blog posts helps other people planning the trek. Feel free to comment if you have questions that I didn’t answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment