Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

The jaw dropping Torres del Paine National Park

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The view from the base of the towers (‘torres’) in Torres del Paine

I awoke in Cerro Castillo the next day to minimal wind (perfect timing!) so set off early into the park. Some horses from a nearby estancia accompanied me on my way.

I also crossed paths with a couple of Andean foxes, a condor swirling above my in the sky and this skunk (only managed to catch this glimpse of it on camera as it scuttled off, but I was quite excited as it’s the first place I’ve ever seen them in ‘the wild’!).

As I neared the entrance of the park, I saw the famous Patagonian sheep ‘en masse’ for the first time. I’m pretty sure these ones belonged to the family of Nestor (who had taken me horse riding the previous day).

Entering the park (which I learned is pronounced ‘PIE-nay’, not ‘pain’), there was a lot of low-lying cloud. In some ways I hoped the wind would pick up to blow it all away, but not just yet as I had a good few kilometres still to ride into the direction of the prevailing winds (NW) before reaching my campsite. Still the ‘Paine massif’ – an eastern spur of the Andres – appeared dramatically in front of me, rising up out of the Patagonian steppe.

Cloud obscures the famous views of the torres (towers) whilst guanacos keep an eye on me as I ride past. The guanaco on ‘watch out’ makes a sound like a laughing donkey as you approach to alert the rest of the group (collective term for guanaco anybody??!). It gets quite annoying after a while!

Looking out across Lago Sarmiento

I reached a junction in the road where I was supposed to turn right but it was blocked off with signs for a diversion. The road beyond looked like it had recently been laid. It had just turned to the new year so I doubted that there would be any work going on today. I took the cyclist’s prerogative and decided to go round the barriers and ride it anyway to avoid a longer detour. The road wound round some low-lying hills to reveal new views of the torres.

Calafate berries growing by the side of the road – it’s said that once you eat these you will return to Patagonia. No objections here!

I sat and watched the torres across milky Laguna Amarga (‘Bitter’ Laguna), as the clouds gradually burnt off.

There are quite a few tour groups jumping down out of minibuses as they hustle round the main viewpoints. I feel glad to have the freedom to ride round the park and to take as much time as I like to sit and watch the clouds move on.

I pass another estancia positioned just in the shadow of the torres.

I arrive at my campsite in ‘Torres Central’ which I’d booked a few weeks in advance as the whole place is infamous for selling out (although looking around me, I see it would be fine just to rock up and pay on the day). The campsites and refugios on the main trekking routes are extremely expensive. The whole set up is very commercial as the company who owns the sites has the monopoly. The camping facilities are at least good and clean (hot showers even!!!), and there’s lots of shelter behind trees and bushes in the campsite, which is in a nice spot right next to the river.

For cyclists, there are ways to go through the park surreptitiously without paying, but I preferred having the shelter provided here knowing how extreme the weather can sometimes get. It also pays for the important work to protect and maintain the park. For my second night I have a bed in the refugio as the campsite was (supposedly) fully booked when I tried to reserve a spot. It has a bar and one of the most comfortable bunk beds I’ve ever slept in – not what I expected in somewhere supposedly remote and rustic! At least you don’t feel like you don’t feel like you’re being completely ripped off.

For now I pitch my tent. The wind is starting to get up again so I weigh my guy lines down with rocks. These campsites are also in regular use so apparently mice can be a problem. I definitely don’t want them gnawing holes in my tent or panniers so I hang all my food from a branch. Shortly after I took this pic I remembered to tuck the ground sheet under the fly in case it rained again.

The sky is now clear and blue. Sadly it’s too late to walk all the way up to the base of the towers, which would be in clear view today, so I compromise on a shorter climb up to Campo Chileno for a beer before the sun starts to go down. It gives me my first vista back out over the valley and lakes below.

Layers of ancient rock are revealed as the river cuts its way through the valley

Looking down over Lago Nordenskjöld

Someone had left a pair of walking shoes along the trail – I was very tempted given the grips and soles of my own (and only pair of) cycle/touring shoes are really wearing out now. But they are way too big.

The view up the valley towards Campo Chileno – the tiny figures of people walking along the path gives you an idea of the scale of these mountains

Enjoying a local beer beside the river, beneath the torres.

Trek to the ‘Base de las Torres’ Mirador

It rains all through the night and I’m happy to see in the morning that my new ground sheet has done it’s job, and the inside of my tent is bone dry. Result! I head off back up the same path, to reach the mirador at the ‘Base of the Towers’. The bumph says the trek should be 9 hours up and down. Its 20km with 1000m or so of climbing, some of it on boulders. I hope my shoes are up to it!

The weather is decidedly worse today as I set off, and this is all I can see of the mountain top

I retrace my steps up to Camp Chileno and as I reach this second refugio, the clouds gradually start to lift and the sky brightens up. The next section is through some woods. It’s nice and cool for climbing and sheltered from the wind. As usual I get wet feet quickly because of the holes in the bottom of my shoes where the cycling cleats go, but my woollen socks soon warm up again.

There are some huge waterfalls along the trail

The last kilometre is a steep climb over rocks and boulders. It starts off with a beautiful section alongside a stream (which is basically the path). More wet feet, but it’s really pretty with lots of small flowers growing alongside the water.

The final section is out in the open and back in the wind. These huge boulders have all been eroded and made their way down the mountainside – that’s some force of nature at work! The path is at least clearly signed as you pick your way over the rocks.

Finally, you round a corner and are confronted with the iconic granite teeth – the South, Central and North Torres del Paine (Blue Towers) – towering above the milky green tarn beneath. It really is an incredible moment. I find a rock to use as shelter from the wind whilst I eat my sandwiches. It has its advantages as it gradually blows away most of the remaining cloud.

Overall the whole trek took me 6 hours of walking and an hour of ogling at the view. The way down took quite a bit longer as I had to continually wait to pass large tour groups coming up slowly in the other direction. As a solo walker, I was always the one who had to wait – it would behave been nice to get a thank you every once in a while! Still, I was extremely grateful that I’d had my peaceful time at the top before all the hordes arrived.

When I returned to the campsite, the wind was a lot stronger, and I saw that quite a few tents had come a cropper, now collapsed or blown across the campsite. I put rocks on top of a couple to stop them from being lost completely (or damaging someone else’s tent in their wake). Thankfully mine was still standing strong and the earlier sunshine and wind had dried it own completely, nice and ready to be packed up after a day well spent.

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