Eight hours. Sixteen miles. Thirty-two-thousand steps. Countless breathtaking views.
That’s what we walked away with after completing the trek to Base Las Torres, arguably the most famous viewpoint in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park. We knew it would be a long and demanding trail when we set out, but we hadn’t a clue the variety of landscapes we’d see or how accomplished we’d feel when we finally reached the top.
After a big breakfast at our hostel in Puerto Natales, the city closest to Torres del Paine, we made the 1.5-hour drive into the park. It’s a calm, scenic route past many estancias (“ranches”), some of which have been converted into guest houses or welcome hungry visitors, who watch skilled chefs cook entire lambs. The plains are grassy and rocky, with patches of foliage blowing in the wind. Eventually, the jagged, snow-capped peaks become visible in the distance. It’s best to take the turns slow – guanacos, a relative of the camel, love to wander into the roadway.
Once inside the park, we parked in the lot near Hotel Las Torres and followed signs toward Refugio Chileno and Base Las Torres.
Warmed up from the gentle walk to the trail, we started heading up the mountain. The incline was gradual but relentless, and we – along with the many others on the trail – were huffing and puffing in no time. After a 1.5-mile climb, the trail flattened out. Around every bend, we were met with sweeping views of the pampas (“plains”), the lakes, the valley and the rushing river.
The next section of the hike took us up, then down, then up again – which seems to be a common characteristic of Patagonia’s trails. It can be disheartening to descend when you know you’ll climb nearly 2,500 feet in all, but that’s Patagonia for you – it tests you and pushes you to your limit, then rewards you in magical ways.
Halfway through the hike, we reached Refugio Chileno, the closest refugio to the base of Las Torres. We paid a small fee to use the bathrooms, then went inside to eat lunch and buy cold drinks. As we set off again for Las Torres, we felt a drizzle and put on our rain gear, just to be safe. Patagonia is notorious for rapid changes in weather – it’s been said you can experience all four seasons in just one day.
Just past the refugio, the landscape of the trail changed suddenly. We found ourselves trekking through a vibrant canopy of Lengas, beech trees native to the Andes that can withstand the fierce winds America’s southernmost end is known for. We wound up and down, over streams and bridges, and through many switchbacks before we reached what we anticipated to be the most difficult portion of the hike – the boulder scramble.
At this point, our legs were starting to ache, making it difficult to lift them up and over the rocks, which varied in size and were sometimes slippery. We grabbed onto trees and climbed for about 30 minutes, taking frequent breaks to catch our breath and allow other groups on the busy trail to pass by. Just when we thought we were nearing the top, the trees opened up and we caught sight of the last leg of the hike – a climb that included a combination of boulders and dusty gravel. Above us in the distance, we could see hikers on a trail, the size of ants. We sucked it up and kept climbing.
About 4.5 hours in, we reached the top. The moment you first see Base Las Torres is one you’ll remember for a lifetime. The translucent blue-green water, the gleaming-white glacier and the iconic, jagged peaks are almost too much to register at once. When we arrived, the clouds were just starting to cover the tips – we considered ourselves lucky that the peaks were not fully engulfed in fog, as they often are. After a few pictures, we sat down on a smooth rock to take it all in.