Puerto Natales, Chile: Hiking Torres del Paine…sort of [Day 65]

Day 65 | Tuesday, December 27, 2016

We are starting our morning bright and early as we want to catch breakfast at the hotel before we leave for the bus station around 6:45am for our 7:30am bus to Torres del Paine National Park. This morning we will be riding with Buses María José. From what we saw at the bus terminal on Christmas day there are several bus companies that run between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park (see the list at the bottom of the post).

Arriving with the requested 15 minutes to spare we are waiting for our bus to pull into the terminal parking lot. We are surrounded by a crowd of other hikers toting packs that are easily half their size heading to Torres del Paine National Park to conquer the many treks within the park. 

The bus pulls into the parking lot just a few short minutes before it is supposed to depart again. We load onto the bus with the other eager hikers and Steve has his pack stowed in the cargo hold below.

About an hour and a half later the bus pulls into the entrance of the park near Laguna Amarga. Every last passenger has to pile off the bus to stand in line to pay their entrance fee to the park. At this point the bus driver is refusing to give anyone their belongings that are stowed in the cargo hold. We will get them after we pay our park entrance. 

As we are standing in line bus after bus keeps arriving at the park, full of eager passengers that pile out and join the ever growing line that we are standing in to pay the entrance fee to get into the park. In an attempt to expedite things there are park employees coming by handing out Corporacion Nacional Forestal Control y Declaracion de Ingreso Individual forms that each person must fill out before entering the park. This is all great and good but you have to have a pen to complete the form which only some were wise enough to bring, I am not among that crowd. Also, it is a carbonless copy paper so you have to press hard enough and be writing on a solid surface so that the information transfers to the second page. There really aren’t any good writing surfaces around except for the few signs with the rules of the park on them. Instead of asking someone else in line if I can borrow their pen I simply wait until we finally make it to the entrance of the park office to worry about filling out our forms.

It is a chaotic madhouse of overly eager hikers in here. They are absolutely violating fire code (if they have such a thing in Chile) and have too many people crammed into this small space. In theory there are 4 steps to this process: 1) Complete the Corporacion Nacional Forestal Control y Declaracion de Ingreso Individual forms. 2) Pay the entrance fee either by cash or credit card. You are supposed to line up by payment type. 3) Show proof of your paid entrance/permit to the rangers and get it stamped. 4) Watch a park rules video. 

Instead of orderly lines at each of the 4 stations you have a mob of people milling around attempting to complete each of the 4 stations ahead of everyone else in the room. Some stanchions with ropes, belts, or chains between them would go a long way to making things less confusing and more efficient in this space. There is a park employee at the entrance attempting to answer people’s questions and bring some order to the mob but it is a quiet whisper in a deafening roar of chaos. Per the park employee’s advice we split up and I completed our forms and Steve gets in “line” to pay. After a decent wait we realize that Steve has gotten in the wrong “line” so we change to what we think is the correct line to pay with credit card. Standing there we start to realize that people in the cash line keep cutting to the front of the line we are standing in. Finally after a ridiculously long wait we finally make it to the counter to pay for our entrance. At this point the office is starting to empty. We then move to the line to get our entrance ticket stamped by the ranger. At this point we could slip out and not watch the video. A moment too long of hesitation and we are trapped and must watch the video. As we are standing in the room waiting to watch the video Steve looks out the window to make sure our bus is still there. Just a brief moment later we watch a different bus pull away and a guy in the room with us waiting to watch the video go chasing after it to retrieve his belongings. Sadly the bus never stopped for him but a courteous driver had the guy jump in the back of their truck and drove after the bus and they managed to get his belongings. He made it back before the video started and had time to recount his experience. Finally after watching the video (which is repeat of the rules on theCorporacion Nacional Forestal Control y Declaracion de Ingreso Individual forms and the signs posted outside the office) and then having a park employee repeat what was said in the video word for word we are finally released to find that our bus had left with our belongings. 

No I am not kidding! They wouldn’t give us our belongings when we got off the bus but yet they have no way of tracking if everyone who was on the bus has–had a chance to retrieve their belongings and they took off with our pack and left us stranded. We stood there completely stunned, dumbfounded, cursing the chaos we had just been subjected to, and without a clue as what to do next. Finally we wandered back to the park office to attempt to get some help. They informed us that the bus would be back at 2:00pm. Staring at them slack-jawed and in disbelief that our one full day in Torres del Paine to hike to the base of the torres was simply going to be thrown away we turned and headed back outside. We wandered and looked about grasping at straws hoping to come up with some idea to retrieve our belongings and not waste our day waiting for a bus driver to return at 2:00pm. All of a sudden we were approached by a lady. She explained that her belongings had been hijacked too. She ushered us back into the park office to see if we could get some resolution. Come to find out she used to work at the park. Has been to the park as a hiker and to teach trainings countless times. Her explanation of the situation, “Welcome to Patagonia. This happens all the time.” After some back and forth it is determined that the rangers have “attempted” to contact the bus driver by radio but hadn’t had any luck. The bus would be returning at 2:00pm. The lady trying to help us advised that we not waste the day and just do the hike without our stuff. The hitch to this is that our hats, sunscreen, water, food, jackets, all of our supplies are in our pack on that bus. We felt it wasn’t the best thing to head out without any supplies so we wandered back into the park office to wait for the bus out of the sun. The park employees weren’t too excited to see us and obviously weren’t keen on us spending the next few hours hanging out in the office so they “encouraged” us to go hike the Lago Sarmiento trail which would take about 2 hours. Taking the hint we headed out on the trail.

As we walked we tried to put the events of the morning behind us but as the torres (three granite peaks of the Paine mountain range) loomed on the horizon to our right it was hard to forget that we weren’t hiking to the view point at the base of them as we had planned. We encountered very few people (maybe 4) on the trail which was a pleasant relief from the chaos of the park office. We had multiple encounters with guanacos (similar to llamas) young and old. The best encounter was when we heard thundering foot steps running toward us and we looked over to see one guanaco chasing another nipping at its heals as it got close. It was rather a comical exchange and I would have loved to known what triggered it. Did the one guanaco steal or offend the others girl, perhaps it ate a favorite treat the other had hidden away or maybe it besmirched the others reputation? We will never know.

As we walked we saw small herds of guanacos grazing, guanacos laying in the grass resting, and even babies skittishly observing us. As we continued along the trail Monte Almirante Nieto cropped up out of the sweeping grasslands. 

In all honesty I have to admit there is a part of me that is hoping since we are in a much less crowded and quieter part of the park we might have a rare puma sighting. I know that the likely hood is very slim as it is a nocturnal hunter but the trail we are on hugs along a border of the park with private property separated by a fence. The fence is mostly for humans but obviously runs interference for the pumas as we keep seeing dismembered guanaco carcasses scattered about along the fence line. This is an active kill zone. 

Uncertain of how much further the trail continued on or even what we were heading towards as I started not to feel so well we turned around and headed back to the park office. We retraced our steps and arrived back at the park office around 1:30pm. As we are quickly learning is the norm in Chile, the bus arrived back at the park office just a few minutes later (1:30pm, 2:00pm close enough right?). After a brief exchange with, and feigned ignorance from, the bus driver Steve was able to retrieve his pack from the bowels of the bus cargo hold.

Finally with pack in hand we set about determining what and where the shuttle was that we could take from the park office area to the start of the trail to the base of the torres. We finally identified the shuttle bus, paid the driver and were on our way. With the last bus returning to town departing the park at 7:45pm and knowing that they play fast and loose with the bus schedule we knew we didn’t have time to complete the 8 to 9 hour hike but we can at least experience part of it.

Let me pause for a moment here and say that I am a very achievement driven person. I make lists, take great pleasure in checking things off lists, set goals, and pride myself on accomplishing the goals I set. So, it does not sit well with me to start a hike that I know I am not going to finish. It doesn’t sit well with me that the hike we had set out to complete today will go unfinished, that we won’t have our moment at the viewpoint at the base of the torres relishing in their magnificence and capturing photographs of them in all their glory. I am trying very hard not to let this cloud my attitude. 

Finally after departing from the shuttle, wandering around and attempting to get guidance on where to find the trailhead to no avail, finally taking off on our own along the road, walking for 15 or 20 minutes along the road (following a couple that exudes confidence that they know where they are going and hoping that we are headed to the same place) we have found the trailhead.

Keeping a brisk pace so as to complete as much of the trail as we can and to keep up with the couple that obviously knows where they are going we begin to navigate toward Base de las Torres. Along the way we encounter a crystal clear mountain stream which we cross via a suspension bridge, rugged terrain broken up with bright lagoons, uneven loose rock paths, wildly high winds, and snow capped mountains. After just a couple of short hours on the trail and reaching a bend in the trail where we can just start to catch glimpses of the torres we turn around and head back to catch the shuttle. A bitter pill to swallow but a day that I will long remember.

Fortunately, the day ended very differently from the way it began and we were able to catch the shuttle back to the park office and the bus back to town without issue.

We returned to our hotel dropped off our stuff and headed out to cap the night with dinner out.

Buses that run between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park:

Av. España 1455, Oficina 11,
Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile
+56 (61) 241 2011


Baquedano 668, Puerto Natales
Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile
+56 (61) 2 410 784

Buses JB
Av. España 1455, Oficina 10,
Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile
+56 (61) 241 2824 or +56 (61) 241 0272

Maria Jose
Av. España 1455, Oficina 8,
Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile
+56 (61) 241 0951

Buses Juan Ojeda
Av. España 1455, Oficina 7,
Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile
+56 (98) 943 7808 or +56 (98) 914 2584

Buses Gomez
Av. España 1455, Oficina 6,
Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile
+56 (61) 241 5700 or +56 (61) 241 1971

Buses Magallanes
Av. España 1455, Oficina 3,
Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile
+56 (61) 241 0101

Other Helpful Torres del Paine Links:

Map of Park

Schedules, Fees and Information for the 2016 – 2017 Season

Official website Torres del Paine National Park



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