Chile, Destinations, Patagonia, Travel Plans

Paying Respects to Torres del Paine: Planning A Visit After the Fire

March 8, 2012

We were dressed in high-tech mourning clothes, attending a funeral for the landscape, all but a few square inches of our bodies covered in black rain-proof, wind-proof, sun-proof zippers and Velcro, laces and glasses. The acrid smell of disaster burned our nostrils, a reminder of the recent tragedy that swept its fiery way across Chilean Patagonia…

We’re sharing our Torres del Paine tales this coming week, but first, a flashback to set the stage:

In December, a week before leaving Oregon, we watched with alarm and sadness as news appeared on the computer screen: Tweets and BBC stories about a catastrophic forest fire devastating Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. After years of excitement at the prospect of paying a visit to this wild and beautiful National Park at the far southern tip of South America, we then wondered what would be left among the ashes upon arrival in February.

I’d collected a deep impression of Patagonia’s alluring landscapes during research and digital-daydreaming, and we’d set aside the time to visit when blocking out our itinerary. Truthfully, though, I wasn’t completely clear about the layout of the Park, and between rumors of Refugios burning to the ground and complete evacuation of visitors, it was impossible to decipher just what would remain of Torres del Paine and its fabled trekking routes once the smoke cleared.

Stephanie, writer at The Travel Chica, was in the area at the time of the fire. We exchanged a few Tweets about the mayhem as I struggled to grasp an understanding of the fire’s reckless path. Later, she shared her account of those days near the disaster: Tragedy in Torres del Paine: Stories from the Park.

Nearly a month later, during our January travels, Ted and I were grateful to learn that the Park re-opened many trails, tent campgrounds, and Refugios (hotel/lodge/campsite complexes situated along trekking routes).

With luxuriously fast wifi in Calama, Chile, we consulted our resources and mapped out our visit:

Square One: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine Website

Options: Pursue something like’s $1440 guided five-day W trips or make a go of it ourselves? After trekking the Inca Trail with a guided tour and loving the provisions of excellent food, comfortable tents, and light packs, we knew it would be a switch to rough it on our own, but we were convinced we could experience the park independently while saving pennies (fistfuls of Chilean pesos, actually), and earn a few backpacking merit badges along the way. Besides, we’d carried a tent since leaving Oregon; it was time to put it to use.

Planning: We took copious notes from the World Travel for Couples’ Definitive Guide to Hiking Torres del Paine. We read others’ experiences:

I confirmed one last time that my “indoorsy” husband was willing to make a go of several outdoor days and nights, we booked one night’s stay in town before the trek, and then flew south.

Transportation to the Ends of the Earth: Watching the Patagonian wild-lands pass below the airplane on our flight down the continent turned out to be an amazing preview of coming attractions as we made our way toward an overnight stay in Punta Arenas and finally a bus trip on to Puerto Natales.

We arrived on a Saturday in time for the daily 3 O’Clock Talk at Erratic Rock’s Base Camp (which humorously turned out to be a 4 O’Clock Talk due to all important rugby television schedules).

After a flurry of provision shopping and a quick sleep and breakfast at Erratic Rock II, we were on the morning bus, headed a few hours north toward the park…dressed in black and ready to encounter firsthand the profound effects of a negligent backpacker’s errant flames.

A word about Erratic Rock: this Puerto Natales company at the gateway to Torres del Paine receives high praises all year long from every corner of the Patagonia-traveler’s world, so we’re not really saying anything new, but it’s worth noting that this company was founded by two Oregonians, Bill Penhollow and Rustyn Mesdag, and their friendly helpfulness and emphasis on responsible tourism are a testament to their Pacific Northwest roots.

Kudos to them for implementing a highly successful fuel canister recycling project in collaboration with Patagonia Grants, Mountain Safety Research, Outdoor Research, Leave No Trace, 1% Percent for the Planet, and The American Alpine Club. Since 2009, they’ve been making admirable headway at keeping the tens of thousands of fuel canisters used in Patagonia out of the neighboring landfills.

For more on the project: How to Start a Community Recycling Program in Rural Patagonia

This piece is first in a series following our boot tracks in Chilean Patagonia from Puerto Natales to the little known “μ” Track at Torres del Paine National Park, through burned out beech forests, past color-charged lakes, up fantastical mountains, and into snug-as-a-bug sleeping bags in a cute little tent in the woods. Follow us on Twitter (@twoOregonians), like our Facebook page, and stay tuned for more photos and stories from the trail…

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  • Reply Grandma & Grandpa Menzel March 8, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    You Two sure are Brave…going alone in a strange area, of course, good counsel from some friends was comforting to know. Intreresting, though I never heard of that park in Chile. Surprising me how informed you were of these travels.
    God Bless each and every day!

    • Reply twoOregonians March 12, 2012 at 9:24 am

      Thank you, Grandma : ) It’s been a treat to see such beautiful places and meet new friends along the way. The Park was amazing, and we’re so grateful to have gotten the chance to visit. Much love to you and Grandpa!

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica March 9, 2012 at 8:06 am

    I am really looking forward to your posts about hiking Torres del Paine on your own. And I’m glad you enjoyed Erratic Rock so much. A great business and great people!

    • Reply twoOregonians March 12, 2012 at 9:26 am

      They were a class act ; ) And great tacos, too!

  • Reply Kim March 9, 2012 at 10:12 am

    I can’t wait to

    So you guys have been carrying a tent the WHOLE TIME? What do you think??? Are you glad you’ve been carrying it? Would it have been less of a paint to just buy it down there? I’m curious because we’re sort of considering carrying one ourselves…

    • Reply twoOregonians March 12, 2012 at 9:34 am

      Yep, the whole time! ; ) It’s not terribly big – we snatched it up from REI for a good price and we’d used it at home beforehand. It fits into the side netting on my pack when we’re up and mobile, and whenever we bus or fly, everything ends up in a secure black duffel.

      I think it would have been straightforward to rent or buy one on the road, but honestly, since it’s familiar and comfortable (and since “indoorsy” Ted appreciates clean accommodations), I preferred having our own. It’s a little extra bulk and weight, but it’s handy for peace of mind as a mental back up plan.

      The real question is, now that we’re done in the wilds of S.America, will we carry it on with us until New Zealand? Hmmm…. Decisions, decisions.

  • Reply Torres del Paine: The “μ” Trek | twoOregonians March 11, 2012 at 7:58 am

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  • Reply Chilean Patagonia: Five Days on the Trail | twoOregonians March 14, 2012 at 7:06 am

    […] Or rather, fire damage. After the tragic burn of the vast Western end of the park, there are no matches, no smoking, no open flames beyond the […]

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