Date of Trip: January 2011
When I bought my backpack the trip became real. At 54 I was going to hike Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile. And I was going solo. I hadn’t had a backpack for twenty years, maybe more. Buying it was rejuvenating. Carrying it was even better.
As I checked in at the airport, passed through security and waited at my gate, I could feel people looking at me. “She has white hair.” “How old is she?” “What’s with the backpack?” I could feel these questions and, from some, I could sense envy. I had the freedom to travel my way while others felt social or partner pressure to travel a certain way.
I travel solo almost all the time however, until this trip, my travels had been restricted to North America, Europe, Australia and Cuba. A trip to Chile was venturing out. It didn’t feel too much of a stretch but there were many logistical issues that were difficult to figure out from where I live in Canada. I knew that there would be a lot of winging it on the ground.
Here I’ll share some basic information that will make it easier when you make the trek to and through Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
How to get there.
Since I was traveling all the way from Canada to Chile I figured that I may as well see as much of the country as I could so I flew into Santiago. After spending 10 days exploring the city and taking a side trip to Valparaiso and the sea, I headed south towards to the northern part of Patagonia by bus.
There are a number of bus options in Chile. Given that the trip would be about 12 hours, I took the overnight full cama bus. This is a double-decker bus with a seat that stretches out to a full bed – luxurious by bus standards. They give you food as well but don’t get excited. It wasn’t great and I would recommend that you pack your own snacks. We headed south to Puerto Montt where the Navimag ferry departs for Puerto Natales.
Taking the Navimag through the Chilean Fiords.
The Navimag is a cargo and passenger ferry that travels through the stunning fiords of Chile. It accommodates 150+ passengers, of which about 25% were solo. There were plenty of people to hang out with and I made a number of friends including Noemie, a thirty-something from France. We decided to hike the park together.
It should be noted that the Navimag is not a luxury cruise ship. It equates to a backpacker’s hostel on the water. It takes three nights to travel to Puerto Natales and there are a number of accommodation options. You can choose anything from a single cabin to a bunk in a hallway. I chose a four-person cabin and ended up sharing with a couple from England and one elderly gentleman from France. The food was merely tolerable, but the whole experience was wonderful.
Planning your time in Torres del Paine.
The Navimag arrives in Puerto Natales from which you’ll take the one hour trip to reach Torres del Paine. This is the last place you’ll see anything that amounts to a store until you return. Before heading to the park, I would recommend that you:
– Attend the free seminar at Erratic Rock Base Camp (right beside their hostel). They provide all the information you need to understand how to hike the park.
-Check the weather for the days you’ll be in the park. Plan your route in the park based on the weather report. You can hike the full circuit which will take a good hiker about a week; you can hike what is called the W; hike parts of the W; take a bus tour that doesn’t involve hiking and/or take a bus and ferry to the Grey Glacier which also doesn’t involve any hiking.
– Gather your supplies as there are few options for buying food in the park.
– Get the money you’ll need for the park. The amount will depend on where you’re staying. You need to budget for the park’s entry fee, any ferries you want to take, accommodation and food.
– Book accommodation in the park if you haven’t already. Accommodation in the park is very limited. If you want to stay in a refugio (simple hotel) during high season (January / February), it is advisable to book before you arrive in Puerto Natales. Camping space is readily available at all times of year. There is also one resort. Rent any equipment you may need such as tents, sleeping bags, hiking poles…
Having met Noemie on the ship, we decided to camp together so I canceled my reservations at the refugios and rented camping equipment. I also rented poles on the recommendation of the fellow at Erratic Rock and I now consider them a hiking essential.
Ah the people you’ll meet
Traveling solo is rarely a lonely experience. I spent eight days with Noemie and the two of us met other hikers as we trekked the park. There was Steve from Seattle who brewed me up a cup of Starbucks while waiting for a bus, Joe from Chicago who was doing the full circuit on a tight budget and was on his sixth day of porridge and the many people from the Navimag that we met here and there on the trails.
Traveling solo, hiking solo in Patagonia, at any age, is a great experience.
For more, visit my blog http://solotravelerblog.com.