Very little of my life has been in planned in advance this year. When I started my nomadic journey 6 months ago, I elected to buy one way tickets to each place I go. I wanted to leave room for spontaneity. When I arrived in South America in October, I had no idea what was in store for me. I knew I’d be in Colombia for a conference for digital nomads and in Peru for a 10-day Meditation Retreat, but had no plans in between or after. When I arrived in Peru, I received a message from my former study abroad professor’s wife stating that they were in Santiago with a group from my alma mater, Lipscomb University.
I’ve always dreamed of going to Chile and didn’t have it on my radar for this trip. After my retreat, I was supposed to head to Southeast Asia for my annual trip with my travel buddies. Well, as life happens, plans changed and our trip was placed on hold. I chose to stay in South America and see what else this beautiful continent had to show me. To my surprise I found a cheap plane ticket on Sky Airlines — a budget airline that travels among Peru, Chile, Argentina, and beyond. I found a one way ticket for $100 from Lima, so before I knew it, I was boarding a plane to Santiago.
I initially had “planned” to be in Chile for 10 days or so—visit with my professors and the students and head to Argentina. I ended up falling in love with Chile and decided not to jet off so soon. Patagonia has been a dream destination of mine for many years—specifically Torres del Paine National Park. I had not considered going this time around because I didn’t have any of the proper gear and thought it would be way too expensive for my current nomad budget.
After talking with the Lipscomb group, I learned that it was in fact possible. And the site director offered to lend me any gear I needed. I was blown away. I began researching and could see that, yes, it was doable!
Could it be possible that my dream destination was happening?
I spent the next 2 days researching the park, accommodations, and getting there. I learned that there are campsites within the park (details listed below) with options to camp on your own, hire a tent, or reserve a bed in a dorm. I also learned that most people book 6 months in advance…Once I have an idea in mind, I get pretty determined to make it happen. I researched all of the campsites and trail paths and found many to be booked. I then moved my dates up and found availability—just 3 days in advance. I found a last minute flight to Punta Arenas from Santiago for $88. And I had all the gear I’d need. I jumped on it quickly and booked!
It was happening. I was going to Torres del Paine.
I felt a tinge of anxiety while booking everything. I hadn’t camped or slept in a tent since I took backpacking in college 12 years ago. And while I’m in decent shape and walk a lot every day, I hadn’t done any strenuous hiking in a while. I immediately began to imagine myself thrown in the woods to fend for myself much like on the reality show Naked and Afraid. I knew that likely wouldn’t be the case, but it was immediately what showed up for me.
And I sensed this trip was going to test me and challenge me in ways I couldn’t fathom. And I believed it would be a game changer. I’ve been traveling solo for 6 months which has increased my level of confidence immensely, and hiking for 4 days with a backpack would only increase it.
While on the flight to Patagonia, I was flooded with inspiration. I began journaling and writing down ideas of what I could create to sustain this world traveling lifestyle I’ve adopted. Since this journey began, I’ve been lost in finding what it is that I want to create—so this was a new turn for me. And I created intentions for my days of hiking.
This journey was going to be a game changer. I could feel it.
I arrived late in the evening to Punta Arenas (about 5 hours from the park). I stayed the night in an Airbnb and got up early the next morning to board a bus to Puerto Natales. From there I switched buses and was on my way to Torres del Paine!
I was consumed with joy when I stepped foot in the park. The landscape was already majestic and awe inspiring. Jagged mountains towered above while rolling green hills and water a shade of blue you have to see with your own eyes filled the space in between. While waiting for the ferry to cross Lake Pehoe, I hiked up the hill to a stunning waterfall.
My heart and soul felt at home in this space.
I boarded the ferry and headed to my first home for the night — Paine Grande campsite. I was escorted to my tent (home for the night) and settled in. At night I could see the most beautiful stars spread across the sky, and hear the calming evening sounds of the water crashing against the shore, wind blowing among the trees, and night creatures chirping all around.
My first night went well. It was cold, but I couldn’t feel it. My tent and sleeping bag were well insulated and cozy. The next morning, I strapped on my pack, checked out, and began my multi day journey of trekking throughout the park. My pack was heavy but not unbearable. It took several adjustments and stops to get it to a comfortable load.
I felt empowered. I was hiking in Patagonia with a pack on my back and heart full of wonder.
There were a lot of people hiking. It was the start of high season—so my vision of Naked and Afraid was not even close to coming true. Throughout my journey I connected with other hikers along the way, and also had many times where it was just me and my thoughts to lead the way.
There is a beauty to traveling on your own. You can stop as many times as you want to rest, eat, take pictures, meditate, etc. And while there were many times when I was missing my travel buddies, I knew this journey was meant to be on my own. It was just as much a spiritual, soul searching journey as it was one of fun and adventure.
As I crossed over into the Frances Valley, my heart skipped a beat. It was beyond stunning. Waterfalls, rocky crashing currents along the river, jagged rocky trails, and sites of mountains and glaciers all around.
I was feeling pretty proud of myself for making it this far. I was close to my camp for the night and could drop my back and head to some of the nearby lookouts. One thing to note when hiking with a heavy pack on a mountain—thoroughly read signs. I came to one of the camps that was at the base of a lookout. I glanced at the sign and saw “Frances”. I missed the part that said lookout and the other part of the sign pointing in the direction of my camp. I followed the path to the lookout thinking it was toward my camp. This was a pretty challenging hike. Lots of slippery rocks and steep inclines. As I was passing people coming down I thought, “I’m so glad I don’t have to trek down this again!” Oh the naïveté. I eventually learned this was not in the direction of my camp. I could’ve left my pack down below.
Some lessons in life are hard in the moment, and laughable after the fact.
Lesson learned. Read all signs in detail. I made it to the top of the lookout and sat on a rock to eat lunch and watch avalanches from the glacier in front. The avalanches sounded like loud thunder. It was so surreal.
After spending a decent amount of time at the top, I descended back to my camp. I made it to camp Frances for the evening. This place is cozy and tucked away in the woods. And the views surrounding are of ice blue water, mountains, and colorful flowers. I could’ve spent a week here.
Day 3 I continued on toward Torres Central. This hike would be at least 13km. I was in for a long day. I met a lovely couple (Kat and Chris from Washington D.C.—check out Chris’ Instagram; he’s very talented) at the start of my hike. I ended up hiking with them for a couple of hours. We came across this beautiful rocky beach and sat for a bit to soak in the atmosphere. We eventually parted ways, and I continued my solo hiking. This day was a lot of walking. I took many more breaks. My pack was feeling heavier even though it had the same amount of stuff. My body was tired. Most of the views along this hike were of Lake Nordenskjöld—a stunning large lake whose color looked almost fake.
I came over a hill and could see my camp in the distance and still had a ways to go. My muscles were so tired. I knew I had a warm tent awaiting me, so I pressed on. I nearly collapsed when I arrived to my camp. I checked in dropped my bags and went to the lodge and got some hot coco. It was much colder at this camp so I savored every sip of my hot drink.
I had plans to get up at 4 the next morning to complete my final hike—Mirador Base Las Torres or “The Towers”. This would be my most challenging hike. I would be climbing a mountain. They recommend allowing 8 hours to complete this hike. I wanted to catch the afternoon shuttle so I needed to get up early to tackle it. It was so cold overnight, and I woke up to the sound of rain tapping on my tent. I did not want to leave my warm cocoon.
I finally got up, packed my bags and dropped them off at the lodge office. I was so grateful for not having a pack on this hike. I left a little before 6 (about an hour later than I wished). I was shocked at how tired my body was—even without a pack. Every step I took up a hill was strenuous and tiring. Did I actually think I could do this? My brain kept trying to reason with me. “You’ve done a lot already this week. There is no shame in turning back.” “Honor your body. It’s okay to not finish.” I had nearly convinced myself to turn around. And then I crossed over this hill and saw the most stunning snow capped mountains in the distance. That was all I needed to see to continue. I began to change my tone and tell myself how strong my body and mind are. I could take it one step at a time. I wasn’t in a race. If I didn’t make it back for the afternoon shuttle, I could take the evening one.
I journeyed on. I passed several friends I had met during the week who encouraged me that I was almost there and it was totally worth it. Each little encouragement I received, kept me going.
I caught up to this Swiss man, Nicholi, whom I had seen in the distance throughout my trek. When I made it to him, we became hiking buddies and said we’d make it to the top together.
You are never alone. Help and support seeks you out when you need it most.
The last stretch of the hike was extremely challenging. Steeps inclines and slippery gravel paths. We finally made it to the top. And to our surprise, we were the only ones up there! We had an entire mountain and lookout to ourselves. It was snowing and the wind was picking up. I soaked in every moment of it.
I had done it. I made it to the top!
I had such a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment. I had changed the conversation in my head from doubt to one of empowerment and encouragement which kept me going. It is a feeling that I have bottled up and will tap into when I am feeling low or doubting myself.
After spending some time at the top, I began the climb down. I passed many tour groups along the way and was so glad we had made it to the top when we did. I kept a good pace going down and managed to make it back to the lodge in time to grab my bag and catch the shuttle.
At the end of the 4 days hiking in Torres del Paine, I had hiked more than 55 miles (120,000 steps). The last 3 days, I had hiked more than half a marathon each day! And on the final day hiking up the mountain, I had finished with 19.19 miles in 7 hours.
The body is an amazing machine. Adrenaline kicks in when you need it and your muscles somehow power through. I am beyond proud of myself for completing this difficult feat. And it goes deeper than having the physical stamina. I am proud for all of the mental work and transformation that has taken place this year to get me to this point.
I found much clarity and inspiration while hiking for 4 days. I listened to no music and would go hours without interacting with anyone. I was present to nature and the beauty around me.
I’ve been to many beautiful places this year, and feel that I am leaving a piece of my soul in Patagonia. The beauty within Patagonia feels like Heaven on earth. And even if I never make it back, this place has forever been stamped in my mind to revisit at anytime.
Helpful Tips for Hiking in Torres del Paine
Getting there. The closest airport to Torres De Paine is Puerto Natales. Flights only run here from Santiago twice a week on Latam. They may be more frequent during high season (December - February). Use Kayak or Hopper to check for options. The other more frequent and cheaper option is to fly into Punta Arenas. You can find regular flights from Santiago and other cities. When you arrive in Punta Arenas, there are several bus companies that travel to Puerto Natales (where you’ll catch another bus to Torres del Paine). Buses run frequently from Punta Arenas and cost about 8,000-9,000 pesos (~$13 USD). I recommend using the Recorrido app to find options. You will need to book your buses separately for Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine. Once you arrive in the park, you will need to show your passport, fill out paperwork, and pay the park entry fee of 20,000 pesos (~$30 USD).
Camping and Lodging Options. There are 3 companies that operate throughout the park—Conaf, Vertice, and Fantastico Sur. The camps are spread throughout the park, and it is common to mix the companies. Conaf is free. So if you have a tent and your own equipment, this is an economical way to hike throughout the park. Vertice and Fantastico both have options for using your own tent (you simply pay for a spot ~$8), renting a tent (bring your own sleeping bag), renting a fully equipped tent (already setup and includes sleeping bag and mat), or renting a bunk in a dorm. I hired a fully equipped tent since I didn’t have equipment with me. It was nice to have it already setup for me. The tents are vary cozy and sleeping bags are well insulated. There are also a few hotels within the park. They are very pricey so if you’re looking for a more luxury way to do Torres del Paine, consider one of those options (Hotel Lago Grey, Explora, Hotel Las Torres, or Hosteria Pehoe).
Trail Options. There are several trail options based on the number of days you want to hike. The W Circuit is the most common. It either begins in Torre Central or Lago Grey. You can also do an express W where you start in Paine Grande and end in Torre Central or vice versa. This was the option I selected. I started in Paine Grande and took the boat across Lake Pehoe from Pudeto to Paine Grande. I spent my first night in Paine Grande and hiked to Frances on day 2. Day 3, I hiked to Torre Central and day 4 completed the Mirador Base Las Torres hike. A lot of people who do the W start in Torre Central and end in either Lago Grey or Paine Grande. I did my route based on campsite availability. Torre Central has the most challenging hike if you opt to do the Mirador Base Las Torres hike. Either way you’ll be starting or ending with a challenging hike. The other option (if you have 6-8 days) is to do the O Circuit. The O Circuit can only be done going counterclockwise.
Eating. You have several options when it comes to food. You can bring your own food and equipment (burner, fuel) and cook at the campsite. Some campsites don’t allow burners so you’ll have to read about each site when booking. If you don’t want to mess with bringing and carrying your own food, you can either purchase meals in advance or buy food from the mini market (Vertice and Fantastico each have them). If you want to prebook your meals, you will add when booking your campsites. Sometimes meals are sold out and lodging may be available, so check all of the various options when booking. You have the option to add only one meal or all 3 depending on availability. Meals will set you back about $55 each day. I did the full board meal option when staying at Camp Frances (run by Fantastico) and only booked dinner at Paine Grande (Vertice). I do not recommend eating the meals with Vertice—at least not at Paine Grande. It was the absolute worst meal I’ve ever had. It brought me back to school lunch days. It was $25 wasted that I’ll never get back. I would’ve been better off buying a cup of ramen in the minimarket. The food at Frances on the other hand was amazing!! This campsite felt like a luxury hotel compared to the other. I had salmon for dinner (fresh from the area), vegetables, and dessert. It was really good. If I were to do it again, I would bring oatmeal and a bowl, and use the hot water at the campsite to make breakfast, and grab a loaf of bread and peanut butter for lunch, and grab something from the minimarket for dinner.
Day Trips. If you are limited on time or wish to not camp in the actual park, you can stay in Puerto Natales and take day trips into the park. You can go through a tour company and hire a guide, or I believe do it on your own. Check with the local tour offices for options.
Important Things to Note
Most campsites book up 6 months in advance. A lot of tour companies will book spots and sell them so it will show sold out on the website. If you are not finding availability, you can call the campsites, email them, or Fantastico has a chat feature on their site. Vertice never got back to me when I contacted them, and I read several reviews stating the same (especially if the email is written in English; so write in Spanish if you want a shot at getting a response).
It is possible to get last minute reservations. I booked my campsites just 3 days in advance of arriving. I lucked out and found spots available. You can also take a chance, show up in Puerto Natales and stop by one of the tour agencies to see if they can get you in. I met several people while hiking who did this. You just have to be willing to gamble.
Prepare for the weather. Weather in Patagonia can change at any moment. I lucked out and had sunshine 3 out of the 4 days. The last day was drizzly, cold and overcast. I recommend layers, a rain jacket, water pants and waterproof hiking shoes. I managed to get by with my Altra Trail Running shoes. They are not waterproof and thankfully they didn’t get wet. Layers are key. It can go from cold to hot to cold at any moment.
Pack light. Whatever you bring, you will carry. Be mindful of what you bring. I wore the same pair of hiking pants 4 days in a row. I knew my clothes would be dirty regardless so I didn’t mind. And it cut down on weight.
The water is drinkable throughout the park. You can get water straight from the source! I always made it a point to top of my bottle whenever I passed a stream or lake. And it’s so refreshing! Straight from the glacier.
If you want to see The Towers at sunrise, you will need to stay at the El Chileno Camp. It is about 2 hours from Central (where I stayed). It is in the mountains and the climate is much colder. The hike to get there is pretty strenuous and worth it for the views. Most people who do the sunrise hike, leave at 2:30-3:00 am to make it to the top in time. You will need a headlamp as the trails are not lit. Next time I go back, I am going to make a point to go at sunrise. It’s beautiful either way though!
Vertice does not provide towels and will charge you ~$8 to rent. I recommend bringing your own or skipping a day in the shower. Fantastico will provide a towel for the full equipped tents. I am not sure if they charge for people who camp on their own or not. The showers are hot though!
Peak season is December through February. If you want to beat crowds or book last minute, I recommend going end of November or beginning of December. It will be warmer in the latter months.
If you want to go to the park and not hike, there are still several ways to experience it. You can take the ferry across Lake Pehoe (~$40 one way), do a glacier ferry ride through Lake Grey ( ~$126), or horseback riding. Check the national park’s website for options.
Torres del Paine is a dream destination that I highly recommend. I hope this provides some helpful resources for you. Feel free to ask questions in the comments so others can see, and I’ll do my best to help.