I lie on my bed. There is still commotion outside my door. Though, inside the four-bunk room, it’s mostly silent. The others are asleep, but some occasional snoring punctuates the quiet. It isn’t too bad, and I have earplugs, just in case. The refugios are hostel-like accommodations in Patagonia National Park in Chile’s Aysen Region.
Fantastico Sur owns and operates four Refugios:
- Refugio Torre Central
- Refugio Torre Norte
- Refugio El Chileno
- Los Cuernos
A serpentine trail known as the W-Circuit connects the rustic lodgings. Each refugio has its own personality. The one common denominator is that they function as the respite for travelers making the trek. The W-Circuit is so named because of the shape it transcribes around the base of Paine Grande, the area’s dominant mountain peak.
Leaving the Hotel Los Torres, I arrive in the shadows of Los Cuernos “The Horns” on the first night. A pair of multicolored spires dominate the vertical view. The refugio here has a series of individual cabins situated on the lower slopes. Each cabin has two beds and a very efficient wood stove, which is warm and toasty.
Dinner in the common area gives me a chance to exchange details of the day’s hike with the other trekkers. Dinner starts with crudités, salami, and cheese, and the mandatory Pisco Sours. Pisco is the native colorless or yellowish-to-amber-colored brandy produced by distilling grape wine into high-proof spirits and is considered the national drink of Chile (See FWT Issue #3).
Hot soup and hearty meats and potatoes fill my belly. The gathering moves from the dining table to a warm blazing fireplace, continuing conversation with newfound friends. As I get drowsy, I remember one last stop I must make.
The unique feature here, besides the cabins, is the wood-heated open-air hot tub. An after-dinner dip eases my sore muscles. I gaze at the stars through the rising mist. That night, I sleep comfortably in the woodstove-heated cabin. The stove runs all night without additional stoking. The soft orange glow gives this remote bedroom the cozy feel of one’s home.
I am up at dawn capturing photos of the fleeting alpenglow on the peaks of Los Cuernos. The refugio staff packs my brown bag lunch. The sandwich of choice is salmon, chicken, or vegetarian (cucumbers, tomatoes, and dressing). A piece of fruit and chips balance out the offering with the feeling of being back in elementary school.
Meandering around the base of the Paine Massif, all along I’m treated to views of lakes and glaciers, and of course, waterfalls. Constant streams dripping off the glacial slopes provide abundant, clear, clean water for drinking. But more than that, I’m drinking in the view, a landscape punctuated by iridescent blue-green lakes of glacier milk, a suspension of fine silt in the water. Although this area was devastated by a massive forest fire in 2012, the resulting forest of burned trees creates an otherworldly scene of monochromatic, straggly saplings struggling to regain a foothold.
At the end of the 10-11 miles, the next refugio is a welcome sight indeed, spanning the distance between each lodge.
This refugio and the remaining ones lack the cabins. Here, each bunk is supplied with fresh linen and a substantial quilt. This amenity makes it a welcome relief from backpacking a sleeping bag. This one particularly frosty evening, an additional quilt is brought to me, just for the asking. By morning, however, I kick off the extra blanket.
Every refugio has camping facilities if you would rather stay outdoors.
I complete the nearly 50-mile W-circuit, visiting the other refugios in turn. I return to the starting point by boarding the Grey II, a ferry boat that crosses Lake Grey. We stop to touch the icebergs as Captain Arturo maneuvers the ship with deft precision. A highlight of this excursion is…Pisco Sours – this time chilled with glacier ice scooped from the lake.
The trek is oft-noted for its gale-force windy conditions, where you can lean into the wind and not fall flat. While I’m here, there’s a continued lull in this wind phenomenon, presumably due to climate change.
There are side hikes available to the higher elevations. Miradors, as they are called; a short jaunt from Italian Camp, the Valle del Francés. Vistas that look out over the glaciers or to the base of Torres Del Paine, a geologic uprising of three towers. The three instantly recognizable granite peaks extend up to 2,500 meters above sea level.
Getting here is no easy feat. It takes 24 hours on a commercial airline out of New York, another 2 hours south on a puddle jumper from Santiago to Puerto Natales (only another hour and a half farther by air, and I would be in Antarctica). Finally, after five hours in a van headed back north, I’m in the middle of nowhere at the ends of the earth. The view of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field from the plane confirms that for me. I could see no roads, no habitation – just endless shades of gray and the white of the glaciers, including the Dickson, the Grey, and the Tyndall, set against a startlingly blue sky.
Patagonia is another world, but the refugios make the trek more familiar and comfortable.
All three meals are included in the trip, as are the fees for the guides.
If you go…
My tour was arranged Fantastico Sur
US Departure to Santiago, Chile: LAN Airlines
RT airfare from NY: Approximately $1,000
Spend a night in Puerto Varas
Transfer from Santiago, Chile to Puerto Natales, Chile can be arranged through Fantastico Sur on LAN Airlines
Fantastico Sur Programs
Option 1: SELF – GUIDED Program (Without Guide), Without Meals
Option 2: SELF – GUIDED Program (Without Guide), MEALS Included
Option 3: GUIDED Program, MEALS Included
Total length of the circuit: 5 days / 4 nights.
Total Distance: 71 Km.
The National Park and the Fantástico Sur’s Lodges don’t have cellphone or Internet connectivity.
They work properly all over the Torres del Paine National Park.