Puerto Natales – Chilean Patagonia

The flight from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, the gateway to Chilean Patagonia, was without incident – my favorite kind of flight. LATAM airlines does a fabulous job in accommodating their customers. The in-flight entertainment was served up via an app that you could use on your phone or pad at no cost. It worked so well, some US air carriers might want to pay attention to the quality of service that little LATAM was able to provide. Even the attention to detail with respect to snacks was better than most carriers in the United States.

Getting the rental car in Punta Arenas was uneventful as well. I reserved a Subaru Forester with all-wheel drive. The vehicle offered to me had clearly made the run from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales many, many a time. And while it was still serviceable, I could tell that it had been through some rough driving miles. It felt pretty beat up for the miles showing on the odometer. I mentally prepared myself for rough roads in my future.

We began the drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales using Google Maps that I downloaded to my iPhone at home before departure. In offline mode, you can keep your cell phone in airplane mode with no need for cellular service, or Wi-Fi. You still have all the functionality of Google Maps save for the turn by turn directions feature, which is completely unneeded as you stay on Ruta 9 for 229 KMs – no turns. I downloaded the maps as a precaution, expecting to have poor cell service in the expanse of Antarctic tundra separating Punta Arenas from Puerto Natales, as well as the uninhabited regions between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park.

The scenery on the drive from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales was stark, flat, endless Antarctic tundra without a tree in sight to the horizon – with the occasional reassuring traffic sign reminding you that you’re on “Ruta del Fin del Mundo.” The land was suitable for grazing, because we spotted sheep and goats on the first leg of the drive. The farther north we drove, the more variation we saw in the landscape, eventually the Antarctic tundra evolved a little roll, and we could see off in the great distance some more hillier terrain. With such a flat road, and so few vehicles on it, I was able to make very good time on the drive, getting to the hotel in Puerto Natales in under 2 hours.

Settling in

We arrived at the hotel just before 9 PM local time, hungry from the day’s travels. The hotel itself looked like it was made out of a shipping container. It looked like they spared all possible expenses, and targeted pure functionality. Based on my research, I selected Hotel Boutique El Muelle as it was rated well on all the sites I found it, and the amenities were good for the price. There are plenty of hotels to choose from, but this is not a resort area, nor a destination catering to those seeking high levels of accommodation. It’s the sort of place people use hostels and very inexpensive accommodations for the night or two that they spend on their way to Torres del Paine National Park.

At 9 PM on arrival, it was daylight with plenty of sun in the sky, and we needed a hearty meal as we ate lightly during the traveling part of our day. We got a recommendation for a restaurant at check-in time, and we headed there immediately after tossing our luggage into the room. The meal really hit the spot, and we probably rated the restaurant better than it deserved simply because of how hungry we were. It was well after 11 PM as we walked back to the hotel from the restaurant along the waterfront. There was still plenty of light even though sunset had long come and gone.

Torres Del Paine National Park – Mirador Las Torres

The following day we drove directly to hotel Las Torres, which is the closest parking to the Torres Del Paine trail head leading to the Mirador Las Torres. The drive was much more varied than the previous day’s. The Antarctic tundra had more variation with what passed for trees visible in the distance, and some mountains occasionally came into view. I’m not sure about the local fauna, but the livestock was more varied with alpacas, llamas, some cattle, and lots and lots of sheep.

We got a late start and we didn’t arrive at the parking lot until about noon. in retrospect, we should’ve saved this portion of our Patagonia venture for another day – essentially swapping the days for the leisurely Lago Grey catamaran trip with the Mirador Las Torres hike. As it turned out, this would be a very long day. Grabbing our equipment, we left the SUV at the parking lot, and followed the sparse crowd towards the trail head. The weather was cooperating spectacularly well for the hike, with temperatures in the low 60s, with a blustery wind against a backdrop of blue sky and sunshine.

The hike started as a meandering stroll through flatlands leading to a gravel path that undulated more as it progressed. At the beginning the scenery was interesting because it was all new, but not unique – with three flights, and 4 to 5 hours of driving behind me, I was expecting some pretty cool scenery. The vistas at the beginning of the hike were not inspiring, but we knew to expect a spectacular ending. The hike was advertised as being an 11.2-mile trek over 7-8 hours for the very fit, with 3,000 feet of elevation gain.

Undulating paths gave way to scree, boulder fields, and dry riverbeds. There were some rough parts of the trail. We came across multiple foot bridges to cross the creeks along the way. And we crossed some creeks by following boulder paths where the water levels permitted. The hike was demanding as we didn’t train specifically for this activity. Our typical travel adventures include plenty of discovery walking, where we log somewhere between 10 and 20 miles per day, depending on the day. But this was different for us, and we took rest stops along the way to acknowledge the rigor of the hike.

Finally, after 2 hours of hiking we hit the halfway point at Refugio Chileno. A refugio is like a hostel in the middle of the wilderness. Indoor, bunkbed style accommodations are available for a select few. Camping is possible, and they do sell some provisions. You can even grab a meal if you come at the right time of the day. We stopped at the refugio, had a bite to eat, quenched our thirst with the remainder of the water we were carrying, then refilled our bottles. The 30-minute break was heavenly. Chit-chatting with the folks working at the refugio, we got the sense that the second half of the trek starts pleasantly as a walk through the woods, and ends up at the toughest part of the hike with the ascent to the Mirador.

As we set off from the refugio, we did indeed have a stroll-through-the-woods start to the hike. And as we made our way farther from the refugio, closer to the vista, the trail – where there was one – did get much more rigorous and physically demanding, with more elevation gained. More scree, dry river beds, and boulder fields, but this time with much more elevation gain. At one point, we stopped, took a look at each other, needing to take stock of ourselves and decide whether we were going to do this thing. We decided that we needed to do it, simply because we had come so much of the way, we just had to see the Mirador at the end of the hike.

We could see glimpses of the towers as we made progress through the switchback, but because of the steepness of the climb towards the end, the Mirador was not visible at all. It wasn’t until we worked our way around an enormous boulder, making the switchback that we first saw the full view: The three towers standing majestically overlooking a turquoise, glacier fed lake. As we walked closer to the lake we could simultaneously see the towers and their reflection in the water at the same time. Wow! We ascended to the Mirador by 4:30 PM, and sat just breathless for a few minutes. The scene was inspirational, and so worth every step we took to get there. We arrived to the Mirador so late that the crowds were thin – even void for a few minutes. We had the Mirador practically to ourselves, and we took some very cool photos. We had a very pleasant 20 minutes bathing in the success of it all, and then started the trek back down.

Because the trail – where there was one – was so undulating, it wasn’t downhill all the way back to the parking lot. There was down, and back up, and down, and back up. We descended to the Refugio and realized that it was possible to take a horseback ride to the trailhead. Unfortunately, we had just missed the cut off by an hour or so because we had a late start to the hike. Had we arrived in time, I would have jumped on the opportunity to ride down – price would not have been a consideration.

We managed with some difficulty to climb all the way down to the trailhead, and find our way to the parking lot. We had our share of challenges because of the rigors of the hike, and the trail conditions, but we made it to the SUV by 9 PM – a total of 9 hours elapsed. 7 to 8 hours for the very fit, 9 hours for the rest of us. Not too bad considering we didn’t train for this sort of thing.

Sitting in the SUV as we prepared for the 2-hour drive back to Puerto Natales, we heard a knock on the window from a pair of wayward Connecticut hikers. They explained that they were staying just outside the park, which was 5 more miles of hiking from the parking area. The 2 young dudes were in dire need of a ride, and were happy to find that we spoke English. We agreed to give them a lift, but didn’t realize until halfway to the park entrance that they had a service dog with them, which somehow got into the vehicle without either myself or my wife taking note. We had a pleasant conversation with the Connecticut hikers. As it turned out, they jumped the gun on the W circuit, having set aside several days to do the whole thing. They wanted to get a feel for it and set off to hike it for a short stretch, and instead ended up covering more than half of it in a single day, exhausting themselves in the process. I related well to the exhaustion part.

By 11 PM, I was relaxing at the hotel, sipping on some Pisco, and unwinding from the rigors of the day. We were both surprised to find no fanfare at the midnight hour as New Year’s Day was welcomed relatively quietly in Puerto Natales – the locals were not party animals.

IMG_3282
Feliz año nuevo

Puerto Natales Discovery Walk

We had our discovery walk around Puerto Natales on New Year’s Day. We found a little place to get some coffee and breakfast to get us started as we walked along the waterfront. We hit all of the tourist attractions, and there weren’t many. There were some shops, restaurants, and a park. That aside, we just strolled where our feet led us. We explored all around town as we searched for a particular restaurant recommended to us by a local, through the course of our walk, but it was closed for the holiday. We had lunch instead at a restaurant found through the Tripadvisor app, where we had some very nice local seafood to highlight the day.

Notice all of the houses built out of corrugated aluminum – lightweight, easy to ship, compact because it’s stackable.

Food Scene

Restaurant El Bote

This was the place recommended to us by our hotel upon our late arrival after a full day of multi-modal travel. The food was basic, but good – although I think I was so hungry, anything would have been rated well.

La Burbuja

We happened by this restaurant via Tripadvisor on our New Year’s Day walkabout after we couldn’t find the highly recommended place by the rare English-speaking local we bumped into on our trek.

Provincia Ultima Esperanza

We were on a seafood theme throughout our stay in Puerto Natales. This place was a real find for seafood variety, including cuttlefish.

Torres Del Paine National Park – Lago Grey Catamaran

The second adventure we had in Chilean Patagonia in Torres del Paine National Park was the catamaran trip on Lago Grey. We drove a couple of hours on a slightly different track to get to hotel Lago Grey. It was necessary to park the car and walk a couple hundred yards to get to the hotel. We purchased our tickets, but were quite a bit early to the catamaran ride, so we ended up getting some coffee and enjoying the views from the glassed-in hotel observation lounge. Tree covered hills were visible from the hotel, the mountains and glaciers didn’t come into view until the catamaran was under way.

The most rigorous part of this day was a 1 mile hike across a spit of sand to get to the catamaran boarding area. The weather once again was very cooperative. While cool and a bit foggy early in the morning, the day eventually turned to blue sky and sunny. But it never really warmed up, and as the wind kicked in hard on the lake, it was necessary to put on the winter down jacket and a warm hat. Once the catamaran was underway, it was like a sightseeing tour. The catamaran made multiple stops and either dropped off hikers, picked them up, or both. Eventually we got to the top of the lake which was the purpose of the ride. This was where all they eye candy was on display, this is where most of the pictures were taken, and this is the spot where we saw the small icebergs adrift.

We met an interesting couple of hikers that happened to be sitting at our table in the catamaran, Greg and Heather from Vancouver, British Columbia. They were picked up at one of the stops as we made our way to the top of the lake, as they finished their W circuit over a period of 4 days. They looked in pretty good shape for spending 4 days in the wilderness, completing hikes like the one we did to the Mirador. We offered Greg and Heather a lift back to Puerto Natales to avoid waiting a few hours on their bus ride. This time there was no surprise service dog, I checked. And we had a long chat about travel, future destinations, and the kinds of things that pass the time on a two-hour trip across mostly nondescript lunar landscape.

Comprehensive Map

The map shows all of the places we discovered and the photos taken along the way, there and back. To use the map to its potential, click the rectangle in the top right corner of the map to open it in a new tab. set your browser to full screen mode so that you can see as much of the map as possible. Browse the map sections by selecting or deselecting the check boxes on the left side of the map. A good example in exploring the map would be to select only “Lago Grey Catamaran Sights and Scenery” and “Route to Lago Grey”. Then zoom in as tight as you like to inspect very specific parts of the route, and the photos taken there. I’d love to hear feedback on this use of Google maps to provide the ability to interact with content in this way. Enjoy!

Epilogue

The return trip home consisted of a total of 16 hours of transit time – 14 by air, and 2 by road, with the customary layovers in between. This gave me plenty of time to reflect on the epic nature of our Puerto Natales adventure. The great outdoors of Chilean Patagonia took center stage, but it was not exclusively about that. The question is, should it be the next time. I would love a next time focused on completing the W circuit in Torres del Paine, including preparation and conditioning to a level where we would be confident in our capabilities, and better enjoy the hiking. And while I’m at it – the next time I would definitely schedule a flight from Punta Arenas to King George Island, Antarctica, knocking it off the bucket list. Definitely a next time.

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