As I watched my 59-year-old father dart through the crowds of people on the narrow path we were traveling along, all I could do was laugh and murmur “lo siento” - meaning “I’m sorry” in Spanish. He was essentially pushing young travelers out of his way to ensure he was the fastest on the trails of Torres del Paine in Patagonia, Chile. His Tilley hat and cargo pants defined a man of practicality. We were never in any great rush, but for this man, life is a race and there is no other option than winning. I was his 26-year-old daughter, nervous about what I had gotten myself into!
For many Chileans, a basic rite of passage is traveling far south to the National Park Torres del Paine in Patagonia. The three granite torres (towers) are just one element of the iconic scenery in this incredible park. I can try to put into words the beauty of this place, but the pictures must speak for themselves. The flora and fauna are changing constantly, which makes every moment of trekking a new adventure.
For me, Patagonia had simply been a clothing brand I’d seen my father sporting, so it was only while I was living abroad that the idea of travelling there became real. My father and I decided to embark on our adventure to Torres del Paine during my year abroad in Santiago, Chile where I was working on my Spanish while teaching English and French. I moved to Santiago as a form of self-discovery after losing my mum in the previous year. I wanted to challenge myself and do something alone. When I was younger, my family went on many trips, but it was always my mother who took care of the organizing. She planned, and we followed. This time, she wasn’t there to help me plan the trip.
As I broached the subject of traveling to Patagonia with my father, he found every excuse to avoid coming. He mostly blamed it on his fear of leaving behind his beloved dogs. He wanted to come, but he was scared, just like I was, to embark on our first journey without Mum around. With the backing of my whole family - siblings, aunts, and uncles – we finally convinced him to join me in Patagonia.
As I started to research the park, I quickly discovered that it was a bit more complicated than I had originally imagined. Many people talk about Torres del Paine, but finding certain details online to organize the trip proved quite difficult. There are two main companies, Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia, that run the refugios (rustic shelters) and camping sites in the park, and it is vital that you book far in advance since these places get booked up extremely quickly. My dad and I decided to do the classic W Trek, which is aptly named for the shape it makes in the park. I had to book 5 different refugios while making sure that the walking distance between them was not too far.
We flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas, then bused to Puerto Natales, and finally took a bus to the entrance of the Torres del Paine Park. Right away we knew were keener than the majority of the other hikers as when the option to continue in the bus or to walk to the camping site was offered, we (of course!) opted for the latter. We were itching to start trekking, and seeing the giant torres in the distance acted as our motivation for the first day.
Our first day of hiking to reach the first of the W peaks was incredible. It was a fairly challenging terrain, with loose rocks, intense heat, and steep pitches, but what made this really challenging was hiking with my dad. As I ran behind him, hiking as quickly as my legs would take me, I thought we were making this more challenging than it needed to be! However, arriving at the top to find yourself confronted by enormous granite towers contrasted by the turquoise pool at its base was simply spectacular. I sat in in awe of nature’s beauty. In contrast, my dad sat observing the map with a compass, which turned out to be a common theme throughout the trip - me drooling over the stunning scenery and him drooling over the logical beauty of a map and compass. The funniest part about him consulting the map was that there is literally just one basic route to follow, so it is almost impossible to get lost!
Because the trek is so popular, many Chileans will take on the challenge without any idea of what they are getting themselves into. We had many good laughs together when we saw so many young people wearing packs that were the same size or larger than them, with an entire kitchen hanging off the back. The sounds of the pots and pans jangling around was a sure sign that an inexperienced backpacker was around! Those were also the people who often stopped and asked us how much further to a campsite. I will never forget one young Chilean, wearing the notorious giant pack and looking like he would collapse any second, asking me how far to the refugio. It truly pained me to have to tell him he had about 20 km left to go! He must have only been about 2 km into his hike – the poor guy.
The second peak of the W trek is the Valle Frances or the French Valley which is a cirque, meaning it is shaped like a giant theatre and formed by glacial erosion. This was our longest day of hiking and we spoke very little because we hiked over 30 km that day. I discovered that the power of Patagonia is that you could simply spend hours absorbed in your own thoughts surrounded by the ever-changing landscape of what seemed like another world. Often our conversations happened at the end of the day when we would sit and have a beer at the refugio while sharing stories with other travelers.
The last peak of the trip was the Grey Glacier which is part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. This was by far the most spectacular part of the trip for both of us. We came around a bend in the trail we had been hiking along all day and finally got a clear view of the glacier in the distance, which meant that we had almost arrived at our final destination. As we sat at the base of the glacier, I experienced an overpowering feeling of insignificance. The glacier was enormous and we were just two tiny humans beside it. This was one of my favourite moments of the trip because I felt like I could just sit there for hours with my dad; not say a word but truly just enjoy nature together.
Reflecting on our trip to Torres del Paine, I struggle to put into words the importance of these memories. Not only was this one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, but it was also a momentous occasion. For the first time in my life, I really felt like an adult alongside my dad. I had grown up since my mother passing away and I had stepped up and organized this trip for my dad. I felt for the first time that our roles had been slightly reversed. Though I was embarrassed at times when my dad was jumping off giant rocks to avoid the path and pass as many people as possible, I was also proud. He was almost sixty and fitter than the majority of the travelers we passed. He tried exotic food, stayed in hostels, and never stopped pushing himself.
The last night in Patagonia, before flying back to Santiago, we stayed in a nice hotel in Punta Arenas. Over a drink at the bar, we talked about the trip, about growing up and that sudden realization that you are an adult, but you still feel like a kid; a proverbial ‘coming of age’. This trip enriched our relationship, offering a new level of respect and friendship. We found out that we really enjoyed spending long hours together trekking and shared the joy of travelling to a spectacular country. This was the first trip with my dad as an adult and we both recognized a shift.
Contributed by Sarah Thompson
Sarah grew up in Peterborough. After losing her mom to cancer, Sarah traveled to Chile and worked as a teacher for a year. Upon returning to Canada, she began teaching at Lakefield College School, her alma mater.
Further Information about this Trek in Patagonia:
Day 1: Fly to Puenta Arenas from Santiago then bus to Puerto Natales, stay the night in Puerto Natales
Day 2: Bus to the park, arranged through hotel in Puerto Natales, and stay at Camping Las Torres with 1 breakfast, camping equipment provided by the camp site in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
Day 3: Refugio Torre Central, full board (includes breakfast and packed lunch) Hike to Las Torres.
Day 4: Refugio Los Cuernos, full board (includes dinner, breakfast and packed lunch) Hike to Valle Frances.
Day 5: Hosteria Pehoe: on Isla Notros- get here by boat from Paine Grande Lodge (pay for boat ticket here) (eat in Restaurant). Hike to Glacier Grey.
Day 6: Vertice grey shelter, basic bed and full board (dinner and breakfast). Small hike around the site.
Day 7: Bus out of the park and back to Puerto Natales
Check out this short video of The 'W' in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.