Off the Grid South America

Dear Diary, I Still ❤️ Torres del Paine | Chile

Buff Headwear - Sunrise at Torres del Paine

It’s already been a year, but I’m still thinking about Torres del Paine. The O Circuit is bookmarked as one of my best experiences ever. It’s the kind of memory I summon when things are feeling clouded or complicated or generally grim. I flip through photos of Torres del Paine in search of the one that brings the feeling back, but it seems my lens was always a bit too limited to capture how that place really made me feel. But damn if I don’t try.

There are plenty of routes to the Torres del Paine. You can see them on a day hike. You can ride up on a tired horse or fly overhead on an expensive airplane. Or, you can lace up your hiking boots and carry all your gear on your back see them the rough way. By taking the O Circuit, you’ll get to spend 7 days sleeping in quiet forests and crossing rushing rivers that day trippers miss. You make fast friends with other trekkers and your blisters will get blisters and you’ll swear off of instant oats for a lifetime by the end of it all. Seeing the Torres is just an extension of a bigger journey, and sunrise is much better when you know it’s the last early morning of a few hard days.

If you’re considering the hike yourself, here’s a look at the day-by-day as I experienced it. Hope it gives you a bit of insight into the trek and pushes you forward if you’re just looking for a little nudge to go!

Day 1: So this is what it looks like when you put all the things you need to survive Patagonia into a backpack. Leading up my trip in Torres del Paine, I was a nervous prepper. I became the kind of person that rereads the same information at least 14x seeking new insights, and the kind that measures out food in grams and seals it into ziplock bags to go inside of larger ziplock bags.

Photos of Torres del Paine - Food

In spite of the prep, when it finally came time to leave, I didn’t feel ready at all. I sat laughing/crying in a pile of rented gear and polyester clothing as calls from home kept dropping. The voices meant to reassure me instead made me feel farther away than ever. I had orchestrated my very own beautifully organized, pre-meditated mess. My spontaneous idea evolved into a kind of terrifying reality. But feeling scared is good sometimes, isn’t it?

Gear Rental in Puerto Natales

I arrived at the bus station with four minutes to spare. I scanned everyone’s faces, seeking the nervous ones. Instead, I found day trippers in jeans, guys with impractically large headphones, and girlfriends sleeping on the shoulders of boyfriends that would undoubtedly be carrying the tent for the whole trip.

I managed to nap until we arrived at the park entrance. We unloaded and stood in a Disney-long line. We paid our park entrances and watched a safety video about not taunting pumas and not lighting tuna cans on fire. The trailhead was just beyond the visitor’s center. I said goodbye to a new friend with impossibly beautiful eyelashes as he cut left, and I followed the signs to Serón on the right.

Photos of Torres del Paine - EntranceThe trail was quiet – an easy meander beside grasslands – but full backpacks make even the easiest of inclines a challenge. We continued like this for four hours before getting to camp. I pretended that I remembered how to set up my rented tent until the door wouldn’t stand and I solicited help from my neighbors. I cooked my heaviest food and burned the bottom of the pan. By appearances, I was floundering, but my nerves had started to calm. This was happening.Photos of Torres del Paine - Rental Gear

Day 2: The morning was off to a gloomy start, but it was lovely all the same. The route wandered past still lakes and meadows that appeared to be a hyper-contrasted version of regular meadows. There was one point that morning when I went a full three hours without seeing another soul. In this time, I fluctuated between silently seeking pumas and crashing around like a loud idiot to avoid them.

Photos of Torres del Paine - TrailsAfter several hours of this ritual, I came to Dickson, a campsite that looks like some kind of summer camp oasis. I wanted to stay, but I knew it would make my next day torturous. I passed through it like I’ve passed through so many other places I would have liked to know, but not without sprawling out in the perfectly green grass like a sunbathing cat.Campsites in Torres del Paine - Dickson

Day 3: Left to my own navigation skills, I did the impossible. In spite of well-trodden trails and neon orange signs, I got sort of lost in Torres del Paine. I searched for the trail like a frantic child lost in a mall, apologizing to untrampled bushes as I crunched over them. This was supposed to be the long day of the trek, and getting lost so early wasn’t exactly the greatest start. It wasn’t dark and there was no fog, yet I sought a good excuse harder than I sought the trail. Excuses always help, right? I eventually just admitted defeat and made my way back to the starting point, finding the pocketknife of another hiker fooled by the rogue footpath on the way. Reset. The hike must go on.Torres del Paine Trekking Routes - Forest

Back on the trail and slightly behind schedule, I went head down and started up. It was about one hour through forests and two hours climbing over large rocks before I reached the pass. The place promised to have torrential winds was surprisingly gentle, but the view was epic.  I got my first glimpse of the 270 km² Glacier Gray along with a few other mountain peaks that made me feel tremendously small.

View of the Glacier
Rather than running to shelter from the winds, I sat on the top for a while and looked out. The downhill proves to be much harder than the uphill, but what was there to complain about, really?

Day 4: The walk between Paso and Gray is a notorious one for Circuit trekkers. This is the day when the O Circuit joins with the front side of the park – the W Trek. The trail we had walked for days prior was solitary. Suddenly, it was not. There were lots of recently showered, flip-flop wearing hikers. Daypackers eyed our enormous packs and the trash bags tied outside of them. Knowing park rangers gave us the right of way on bridges. The things we carried that once seemed so necessary suddenly became rentable in refugios and sold in convenience stores. The front side of the Torres del Paine was the first step out of the woods and back into the world, and it felt a bit strange.Fun Things to do in Chile - Torres del Paine Trekking Routes

Day 5: After a night feeling tiny beneath tremendous mountain peaks at Paine Grande, I started walking early. Everyone starts early to ensure plenty of time to set up camp at Italiano and continue into the French Valley.

The forest of trees was silver with the morning sun – so silver you had to touch them to confirm that it wasn’t paint that gave them their color. I made friends at dinner the night before. Circled around gas stoves, we had cooked powdered soups and canned tuna and spaghetti noodles into culinary atrocities.

The O Circuit - Day 2I left early but walked slow. At some point, I spotted a swamp, and not wanting to dampen my trail runners, I went wide. This alternative route proved to be a bad one when I sunk knee deep into mud and lukewarm waters. Mud seeped into the holes of my shoes and my hardly-stuck blister bandaids fell off nearly instantly. I sat down on a rock in a futile attempt to wring out my socks (I only had two pairs packed), and as I did it, a few of the guys from the night before caught up with me. They waved goodbye as I sat on the rock and lost my headstart over wet shoes and socks, but the hike had to go on.

Photos of Torres del Paine - LagunasWe set up our tents and tossed out sleeping bags as though we’d done it each day for our whole lives before. Lightened of our bags, we started a hike into the French Valley, stepping frivolously, almost tripping from lack of weight. The climb to the French Valley was short and steep, but the viewpoints every hour made it easy to keep walking. The first view from Mirador Francés was a glacier and the second from Mirador Británico a panoramic view of peaks and waterfalls. Even though we’d ventured into Torres del Paine for the Torres themselves, the French Valley was proving to be a real darling.Torres del Paine Trekking Routes - Boots

Day 6: Day 6 of the hike was a total slog. It would have been day 7 if I’d booked my campsites a little sooner, but alas, it was day 6 and I was trekking the 26km to Campamiento Torres. I snacked as frequently as possible and applied sunscreen regularly, seeking any excuse to stop. We’d lost our tree cover and were instead hiking gradually upward along an exposed dirt trail. The scenery of the past few days seemed to disappear and now we moved along the side of a hill like the paper cutout of a hiker slides up the mountain in the Cliff Hangers game on the Price is Right.

We were sure we had made it at one point, only to realize we still had an hour incline to go. When we finally did arrive at Torres camp, we emptied our excess food into a big pile. Tasked with making spaghetti and canned tuna appetizing, we got creative. Over gas burners, we cooked 7 full pots of surprisingly distinct dishes and overate for the first time in days.Photos from Torres del Paine - Dinner

Day 7: Day 7 was billed to be the big one; our finish line for the 130+ kilometers we had walked. While the Torres are accessible by a day hike, we had put in the time, and we knew it. We were camping at the base of the Torres so that we could wake up early and be there first. We’d bring our sleeping bags and drink coffee, and boy, if I didn’t feel like we had earned it.

Photos from Torres del Paine - Sleeping BagsWe woke up at 4am and navigated through the dark. I planned for the worst; I’d heard snow and clouds often obscure the view. Why let myself be disappointed? As a dim light rose, I saw that there were no clouds. Not a single one in the whole sky. We would get to see the very place we came so far for in full color.Photos from Torres del Paine - SunriseI had recently learned the words for this type of thinking. “Foreboding joy”, as vulnerability expert, Brené Brown calls it. The idea is that when we are happiest, we rehearse tragedy. We believe that, in doing this, we won’t be so vulnerable to pain when bad arrives. The funny thing is, it rarely works, and it often means sacrificing present happiness. It was on this morning that I remembered to practice gratitude. I was thankful for how far I had come and the blisters I had to prove it. I was thankful that the things I had carried protected me from the weather and that the food I brought sustained me. And ultimately, I was thankful to be where I was. For a moment, the world shrunk to this jagged amphitheater. Time stopped and I was exactly where I was meant to be. For just a moment, I felt this sense of gratitude that I’d spent months seeking. And that was quite a feeling.

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Considering hiking the O-Circuit in Torres del Paine? Here's a look at the day-by-day with photos for insight into the trek and a little nudge to get out there yourself!

Have you completed the O Circuit in Torres del Paine? Which days did you struggle the most?

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