The best day hike in Torres del Paine

The W Trek is Patagonia’s most famous hiking route, with the granite towers that give the park its name. In full, it’s a 4 or 5 day hike that can be walked without carrying gear or food, between refugios or campsites. It can also be broken up into day hikes from comfortable hotel bases, or incorporated into longer, wilder treks. To make the four-day trip accessible to all hikers, serviced campsites along the route hire out tents and on-site canteens provide nutritious, three-course meals.

The O or Full Circuit is a 7-9 day route that adds a northern section on to the park’s famous W Trek.  Circling the Paine Massif (the towers) and exploring much more of the national park, this 129 km route, delivers on all of the park’s most celebrated sights. The extra distance and absence of refugios on the northern side, meaning you’ll definitely be doing some camping, make it a tougher trail, as you will be carrying your own camping equipment.

Remember, well-meaning guides will talk you into taking the easier hikes, unless you come prepared knowing specifically what you want to do. This time we insisted that we are ready for the challenge. 

We knew we wanted to walk to the base of the towers(the pink route on the map), about 20km and 9 hours to complete. It is the toughest of all day hikes but is also the iconic trail in Torres del Paine National Park. With its landscape of aquamarine glacial lakes, and the skyrocketing granite torres (towers) from which the park takes its name, Torres del Paine has captured the imagination of trekkers from all around the world.

The walk started easily enough with a flat stroll across the open grassland from the Eco Camp,  then we began to hike up a steep ascent next to the Ascencio River until reaching the Paso de los Vientos (Pass of the Winds).

After passing through dense forests at Refugio Chileno, we reached the most challenging point of the trail. This last section, a 1.5km moraine section of loose rock and boulders and 500m elevation,  requires total focus and often using our hands as well.  

Having ascended through this difficult terrain and battled against the winds we arrived at the lookout where we were face to face with the classic, breath-taking view of the Torres del Paine. What the pictures cannot show is the biting Patagonian winds of Torres del Paine, so strong that it will knock you off your feet. We all settled down to our well deserved packed lunch. Our guide Thomas whipped out from his heavy backpack tea bags and hot water for a nice cup of tea. Just what i needed after the long hike.

Trail head, near Hosteria Los Torres[/caption]

The last section, approximately 1.5km and 500m elevation,  is the toughest part, a strenuous scramble over the moraine, often using our hands to climb the huge boulders. 

A steep climb up the valley[/caption]

Taking a breather

This stretch is a wind tunnel. At one point, a gust of Patagonian wind literally stopped me in my tracks. If it wasn’t for the backpack, I would have been blown over.
Didn’t know what moraine is until I got here. Moraines are accumulations of dirt and rocks that have fallen onto the glacier surface or have been pushed along by the glacier as it moves. The dirt and rocks composing moraines can range in size from powdery silt to large rocks and boulders.
Refugio Chileno camp site, and others in the Park, are serviced camp site. Tents and meals are provided, saving trekkers the hassles of carrying own camping equipment.

When we got to Refugio Chileno, we were told Las Torres Lookout was close due to strong winds. I flew half way around the world for this and it was so disappointing. We were so close already! As luck would have it, the trail miraculously reopened just as we were about to turn back.

Here is another section of moraine, this time with bigger rocks and boulders.
The most grueling part of the trail, about 1.5 hours of navigating through rocks and boulders.
Euphoric moment of blue sky, warm sun and chilling Patagonian wind.
We made it!

Downhill is just as tough as the climb, really tough on the knees.
Hundreds of horses galloping across the creek.
Celebrating a hard day’s work in style, courtesy of Tierra Patagonia. Cold beer, cold cut and fruits!

The best day hike in El Chaltén

If you are in El Chaltén, the Laguna Los Tres trail is a must.

The Laguna Los Tres is often compared to the iconic towers’ base lookout hike in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.  Having hiked both trails, they are comparable in the class of world’s best day hike category. The diversity of landscapes and the numerous surprises along the way make it a great hike.

You have two options. One is to start the hike from El Chaltén, leaving the city in the early morning and going uphill for about 4 hours before reaching the  Laguna Los Tres. The second option is to take a transfer to El Pilar (about 17 kilometers north of the town) and to warm up with a gentle walk through a beautiful lenga forest. No doubt about it, the second option is way better – you’ll see more landscapes, and you’ll be less tired.

We took the second option, hired a car to take us to Hostería El Pilar, where we started walking along the Rio Blanco river. Did I mention that we hiked in the dark? Having done a night hike at Mt Yushan in Taiwan, we thought it might be good to catch sunrise on Mt Fitz Roy. We started hiking at 3am and walked in the dark for 2 hours till we got to Poincenot Lookout , then a bit further through Camp Poincenot to Lago Madre e Hijo (the mother and daughter lakes)

Here is the actual route we took (distance is approximate):

Route I: El Pilar to Camp Poinsenot, 2.5 hours, 6km one way
Route G: Camp Poinsenot to Lago Madre y Hija, 1 hour, 3km one way (walked half way only).

We waited at a point (half way between the Mirador Piers Blancas and Camp Poincenot) for the first light and another 15 minutes or so the whole mountain range turned fiery orange. It was terribly cold due to wind chill, a sheltered spot really made a difference.

Mt. FitzRoy is famous for being hidden in clouds. In fact, its former name, Chaltén, means “smoking mountain” so-named because most of the time it was covered in smoke (but really, in clouds).

We should have done more homework (who would have known that the internet at El Calafate would be so slow that it was impossible to google anything) as we could have had an even better view if we had walked a kilometer further to Campamento Poincenot. This stretch of the hike is breathtakingly beautiful. Instead of the steep climb to Lago de los Tres, the guide talked us into walking to Lago Madre e Hijo which was really not that impressive but offers a great view of not just Fitz Roy but the entire range of peaks. The hike was flat and beautiful, passing through lenge forest and streams.

To the left of Mount Fitzroy are Cerro Poincenot, Aguja AG Rafael, Aguja Saint Exupery. The Fitzroy mountain range is on the boarder between Argentina and Chile. El Chaltén, Argentina.

Because we hiked in the night and couldn’t see anything  beyond the little patch of ground where the headlight shone, we didn’t realize how beautiful the whole trail was. On the way back to El Pilar, the mountain range is to our left the whole time, passing Glaciar Piedras Blancas and along Rio Blanco.

Here is a better map so you can see the trails and its relation to the mountain range. 

Two regrets:

  1. I regret not pushing myself to go all the way to Laguna Los Tres (Route D) since we were told  it was very steep and difficult 1.5 hours climb.  Therefore missed the magnificent view of the turquoise water of Laguna de los Tres at the base of Mt Fitz Roy, the closest one can get to Mt Fitz Roy without getting into technical climbing
  2. Should have walked the Camp Poincenot to El Chalten section of the trail, passing Lake Capri. Again, I chickened out worrying about our knees as the guide told us it would be a two hour steep descent.  

Photo credit: Yee Ming Tan (iPhone 7 and iPhone X)

Classic desserts of Argentina

Are you the kind who must have something sweet at the end of a meal? I am definitely not. I like my coffee or tea black without sugar. I am not keen on most fruit juices as they tend to be too sweet. I don’t like anything sweet. No I lie. There is just one thing sweet, sickeningly sweet actually, that I love and it is called Jalur Emas, a classic dessert made of egg yolk and sugar syrup from my home town Kelantan. I think I love it not because of the sweetness but for my love of egg yolk!

I envy my partner P for it is so easy for him to get his daily dose of joy. The mention of ice-cream, dessert or anything sweet, his gentle eyes would flash a glimmer of delight. As his travel companion, I get to explore the wonders of Argentinian desserts.

You cannot miss Dulce de Leche ( “sweet from milk” in English,焦糖牛奶醬) when you come to Buenos Aires. It is everywhere and used in all types of desserts and sweets. It is made of sweetened milk that is heated and becomes caramelized to create this nice sweet caramel milk paste. It is eaten practically at all meal times, including breakfast where it is spread on bread or toast.

Merengue Dulce (蛋白霜夾焦糖牛奶醬)looks like a giant macaron with dulce de leche filling. I cannot imagine how anyone can finish this one in one sitting. Maybe it is possible for someone with a sweet tooth but definitely not for me. I am happy to taste and sample all kinds of desserts but in general I steer clear of sweet things.

When I said gigantic, I am not exaggerating. This is how big the merengue dulce is. How can one eat this elegantly I wonder.

Flan (like a creme caramel 焦糖布丁) and bread pudding are always served with a dollop of dulce de leche.
Argentinians love their meringue (蛋白霜)and you see it popping up all over the place. This meringue is filled with cream butter (basically butter and sugar whipped together). It is so sweet that you are guaranteed a sugar rush. [/caption]

Rogel (夾層蛋糕)is a unique cake made of several layers of light pastry separated by dulce de leche and topped with meringue. The layers of pastry are thin and make for a crumbly cake. The gooey dulce de leche adds a new level of sweetness. Do you now believe me when I say Argentinians are crazy about meringue and dulce de leche?

Mantecol is basically a solid block of peanut butter, served during Christmas and New Year accompanying champagne toasts. For peanut lover, this is heaven! This piece I bought from the local Carrefour supermarket contains peanuts and almond.

Finally, for something that is not too sweet, queso y dulce (乳酪與甜醬). Cheese with dulce de membrillo (quince paste 海棠醬) or dulce de batata (sweet potato paste 地瓜醬). It is a heavenly match of savory and sweet. This is one dessert I can happily tuck into. [/caption

I know I am missing two on my list, chocotorta and alfajor. Hopefully I will get to try it before the end of our trip here.

Updated 2018-01-12

Found some alfajores at a bakery in El Calafate and they have a pink one which turns out to be a local specialty. The pink colour comes from the Calafate berry (looks like blueberry) of which the town is named. So what is alfajores? Two crumbly cookies held together by, you guessed it, dulce de leche. I read that the cookies are made of cornstarch. I couldn’t tell if the ones I bought were made of corn starch as they tasted just like normal crumbly cookies to me. 

Calafate flavoured alfajor