Our last day in the park was our sunrise hike to the iconic Towers. We awoke at 3:30 am to make it to the top before sunrise. In the dining hall of the campsite we found some other groups getting coffee before turning their headlamps on and trekking up the mountain. My headlamp unfortunately was dead so I had to use our solar blowup camping lantern tied to my chest. In my mind I was sure I looked like Iron Man. It was completely black when we started. We could only see small bouncing lights in front of us as we passed some groups on the way up. At one point we had a guy behind us and we think he was scared to go in front of us because every time we stopped, he would stop and wait for us to continue going first – weird though that he never spoke a word. Maybe he was a ghost.
After about 45 min we had made it above the tree line and were now facing a long stretch of boulder scrambles in the pre-dawn darkness. We were following this French couple that seemed to know where they were going. We could see other people’s headlamps way up the mountain from us, so we all just kept climbing up, hoping we were on the actual trail. It was just starting to become a little lighter when we finally found the trail again. Now we were only a short way from the Towers. You have to just keep looking for the randomly placed trail markers until you ascend to the see them off in the distance looming over you. You round the corner to take your first look at this pristine mountain lake that sits at the base of the Towers. People were already spread around just waiting and hoping for the clouds to clear and the sunrise to hit the tops of the towers any minute now.
Unfortunately for all of us there that morning, the clouds lingered. So we found a spot and met some other Americans as we waited. The local fox was about, probably on his usual daily routine of begging for food and searching for crumbs. He came and went sniffing around and you could tell that he was pretty used to people.
At a certain point, you could tell the sun had already come up behind us but it was being blocked by clouds to the east. The chatter amongst the crowd was growing as people were getting impatient and started climbing some of the rocks on the lake to take pictures. It was excitement met with disappointment knowing you had to go because you still had a lot of hiking ahead of you and you weren’t going to be able to see the Towers. They never did fully come out but these were some of my best shots:
Staying as long as we could, the sun did peek through a couple of times. Even though we didn’t get to see the full towers it their entirety, it is still amazing and awe-inspiring to be in the presence of these granite towers on the top of a mountain. And of course…it was just another reason to come back here someday!
At some point on the trail going back down the mountain, because it was now light out, we were able to see how utterly OFF TRAIL we had been when we going over the steep rock scramble. The actual trail was much easier and made way more sense. We were cracking up looking over at this giant boulders we had been scaling for no reason.
Below on the left is a picture looking down what we had climbed up – the trail curves off to the right through the tree line, as you can see in the picture on the bottom right. But just went STRAIGHT up in the dark, just seeing that people’s headlamps were way up top so we figure it was the way to go. I’m sure we weren’t the first people to make this mistake in the dark.
We made it back to Chileno campsite a little before the lunch hour and we still had to take down our tent and hike back down to the welcome center. One of the campsite workers came over to our tent as we were packing up telling us we needed to leave so others could have our spot. She was nice about it and we packed up pretty quick. Now we could just chill for a bit at the tables outside the dining hall for lunch. We could see the towers somewhat from the campsite and it looked a little cloudy still. Saying goodbye after lunch, we set off back down the windy pass.
This day was especially tiring because we essentially did TWO difficult hikes in one. From Chileno campsite, up to the Towers and back, was 7 miles. That’s a full day in itself, not to mention one of the steeper parts of the O circuit! But we also got to do that part with very light packs, as we had left our whole campsite still pitched down in the valley. Post-lunch, we had to strap on the full, heavier packs and do another 3.5 miles back up through the windy pass and then down to base Central…even though our legs had decided they were already done for the day when we sat down for lunch! Toughed it out though, as our bus ride out of the park and back to reality awaited us at the bottom.
The rest of our way back down was filled with a lot of reflection about our last 12 days there and how it was better than we could have imagined. We were pretty tired and it was a good nine miles or more that day. We made it to the Central refugio near the welcome center and bus pick-up, and still had an hour or so to spare. Time for a well deserved meal and beer! So hungry, tired, and slap happy, we ordered a bunch of food that consisted almost entirely of straight carbs with varying cheese. Demolished it all though….and then, ZONKED OUT on the bus ride, hour and a half back to Puerto Natales .
Pictures tell the whole story (also, you can see on the beer label how the towers look without cloud covering):
The next morning, back at our Airbnb and with wifi, we began to dig through what had happened in the world while we were hiking the O circuit in Torres del Paine National Park.
March 3rd – March 15th, 2020
If you think about that timeline, the coronavirus had just entered New York and Seattle. Italy hadn’t gotten bad yet. And the virus had not entered South America yet. It was around the times of the toilet paper panic in the US…
Argentina had already shut their borders. All the national parks were closing. Torres del Paine closed 2 days after we left – we barely got to complete out entire trek. We met many people who were just arriving in town to go start their trek only to find out they couldn’t. Hotels and hostels were closing left and right. Airbnb hosts didn’t want us because we were American and anyone from America or Europe was considered a risk. We tried to tell many hosts that we had been in South America for 70 days so there was no way we had COVID19 but the answers were still no. Our current host Maria was so gracious and understood our unfolding dilemma and told us we could stay as long as we wanted with her.
The kindness of strangers that we experienced in South America is something that I really can not overstate. Having had this brief but rewarding experience, I wonder about the perspective of US citizens that there was so much fear (even pre-pandemic) to travel to South American countries…sadly in recent years, our country has really developed a fear of the unknown.
It was the email from the US Embassy in Santiago, Chile that made our final decision. The email stated that if you are a US citizen, you should book flights home immediately before commercial flights were no longer available and Chile’s borders close. We called our parents and told them we were coming home in 3 days. Of course we were totally crushed, not only because this amazing trip we had only just started was cut short, but additionally shocked by how exponentially WORSE this epidemic had grown while we were off the grid.
It was a lot to take in on March 16th – Gabrielle actually got nauseous from reading the news that day.
Three days left in Puerto Natales until we took a bus to Punta Arenas to board a flight to Santiago to Atlanta to St. Louis. We decided to make the best of things and we enjoyed some final shopping for treasures and keepsakes, delicious Chilean food, wandered the streets, and gazed at the mountains across the bay to the West and North.
While there were still no confirmed coronavirus cases in this region of Chile, the influence of the media/pandemic had already hit this little town at the Southern end of the world. Places were closing with signs about COVID19. The small grocery stores were starting to look bare with long lines outside. Mask wearing was becoming more and more prevalent. Many stores had signs in their front windows that read “Sin Desinfectante.” It’s Spanish for “no sanitizer.”
Trekking the O circuit in Torres del Paine – 80 miles over the course of 12 days – was an iconic end to an unforgettable and phenomenal backpacking trip, albeit shorter than originally expected. We felt welcomed and safe at all of the homes that opened their doors to us in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. While we certainly saw the signs of poverty and injustice in many places, we also observed so much good will and small joys, as well as evidence of people EVERYWHERE trying to stand up and fight for change to make a better society and a better world.
…Which I guess is a theme we can all relate to no matter where we are. And it’s been made even more vivid by the realities that this year has brought – realities that have often been there all along, but are finally coming more into focus now that things have happened that made people see.
Not if but WHEN it is safe to travel there again in the future, David and I look forward to exploring new places in that amazing continent that sits to our South, and will surely return to some of our most treasured places.