I left Santiago on a flight for Punta Arenas, in Patagonia. Three hours later, I was more than 1,300 miles further south than I had ever been before. On my first night, January 10—winter at home in North America—the sun set just before 11 p.m., and it had been up for hours when I woke up the next day.
I had two ideas about what I might do after getting to Punta Arenas: I could visit Torres del Paine National Park, recommended to me by several people, or I could try to get a “cheap” trip to Antarctica by asking around about that in town. As wild and exciting as the second option sounded, it also sounded unlikely, intimidating, and still too expensive by many hundreds of dollars. When I saw that Punta Arenas was more ghost town than tourist haven, I decided to focus on making Torres del Paine work, beginning by learning where it was, what I could do there, and how to pull off a solo trek—something I had never done before.
For the next four days I made my way closer to the park, and I learned what a visit would mean: a trek as long or as short as I wanted, with the most popular route being the five-day “W” hike. Hearing other trekkers say that time was the only thing stopping them from doing the nine-day full circuit, the “Q” (the “O” here, plus a tail at the bottom), and realizing I didn’t have the same limitation, I resolved to do it—or at least to try. I read up as much as I could and went to an information session offered at my hostel. “Be prepared for everything,” the guide said, “and let all surprises be positive.”
Most critically, I began fixing my biggest problem: I had zero hiking or camping gear. I rented a backpack, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, camping stove, pot, bowl, trekking poles, down jacket, and hat. Realizing I was still missing arguably the most important item, I bit the bullet and bought new hiking boots. And I bought nine days worth of food, or what I estimated I’d eat over nine days of hiking.
I made a friend at the hostel. He, a guy my age from Minneapolis and Wisconsin, was a professional compared to me. Like almost everyone else here setting off for the park, he had actually come to Patagonia intending to do what I was about to do. He was prepared on gear, and he had done similar treks before. We set off together, agreeing that we’d hike together as long as we each wanted.
For me, the day-by-day journey—what happened on day 1, day 2, day 3, etc.—was incredibly compelling, full of narrative arcs driven by the nature around me, the state of my body, and who I spent time with. But for everyone else, reflections on the trip as a whole will do.
The nature was as striking as I heard before I got to the park. The jewel of the park is the namesake towers, the three Torres del Paine (see above, and again below), but they’re not alone in inspiring awe. The entire French Valley is hours of wonder, and Grey Glacier made me gasp out loud when I saw it for the first time. What I could capture in photos is shared at the end of this post.
Being disconnected from the internet and the rest of the world for nine days was shockingly easy and wonderful. About halfway through, I remembered for the first time that emails were coming in and things were happening elsewhere in the world. And of course, the whole time I thought about the people in my life. But I had almost no itch to reconnect until it was time. I loved passing the days in and with whatever and whoever was physically around me, thinking about the rest of the world without being able to interact with it. I’d like to make a habit of this, spending about a week a year immersed in off-the-grid nature from now on.
The trek was hard! The circuit is over 80 miles long, with lots of altitude gain and loss, and I covered it in nine days. There was little technical hiking—only one really tough river to cross, no very difficult rock scrambling—but the physical demand was real and sustained. I was (clearly) unprepared and suffered from hiking in brand-new boots, but I also wasn’t in the best shape possible. I suffered through pain the first two days and then remembered that Advil exists and I had brought some. I made it through the rest of the trek only thanks to painkillers, as my feet, ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders hurt (the latter two because of the weight and poor fit of my rented pack), sometimes all at once.
That said, finishing every day exhausted and ending the trek feeling so much stronger than when I left were exhilarating. Whatever damage I did to my body is transient, and I’m glad I pushed myself to do this.
Unsurprisingly, I met people along the way. Surprisingly, and by total luck, I made a wonderful group of trekking buddies. My friend from the hostel and I met a handful of other people, and we all got along, and for most of the first five days, we had the best group. The six of us—three men and three women; four from the U.S., one from France, and one from Chile—hiked and camped mostly together, with each person going off alone when he or she wanted, or small groups splitting off here and there. I couldn’t have asked for better company, for more interesting, fun, funny, and easygoing trail companions.
I was thoroughly unprepared for Torres del Paine. But luck was on my side, and all of the many surprises were positive.