The trail to Refugio Chileno climbs the side of the snow-capped Almirante Nieto and enters Valle Ascencio at Paso de los Vientos, or the Windy Pass. As soon as you round the corner into the valley, you have to brace yourself against the powerful gusts that, if blowing in the right (or wrong) direction, could knock you off the exposed mountainside and into the thundering river below. After a long day of work, I started the hike with John, an American in the park to help with trail maintenance, as the sun was setting on Saturday. I was eager to get out of the office and into the park, if even for a few hours.
The climb up the side of Almirante Nieto was tough on my calves, especially since John is 6’8’’ and takes half the mountain in a stride. But once we entered the river valley, we saw the Torres del Paine, the trio of towers that gave the park its name, in the V formed in the distance by the valley walls. They served as an excellent reason to keep walking forward.
We reached Refugio Chileno around 9 p.m., about an hour and a half after we started. The hiker hostel sits on the opposite side of the river from the trail approaching it. It’s a wooden building with a windowed dining room, bathrooms with showers and about six bedrooms packed with 2- to 3-story bunk beds.
We took off our boots on the stone front porch and padded inside to meet Christian Morales, who was already there, two visitors from Germany and the refugio staff.
After a dinner of garlic rice, lamb and fried potato wedges, Pato, the refugio’s manager, taught us some Chilean slang. Patagonia has more regionalisms than I’ve ever heard before and the slang changes fast, which might explain why people can be so tough to understand. Rest assured, I can now say “Que rica cola” (“What a nice ass!”) and “Ella es como quieres” (“She’s hot!!!”) like a pro.
Refugio Chileno has a good feel to it. I think it might be my favorite of Fantástico Sur’s hiker hostels because it seems the most comfortable and laid back. At night, gas lamps mounted on the walls cast a warm glow about the dining room and a wood-burning stove heats it against the wind howling outside. The staff usually plays music over an old CD player and is quick to share bits of their culture or invite you to a game of chess (which, by the way, I lost tragically. To quote my opponent, Freddy, as he points to the pieces he’s taken: “I have a cemetery over here!”)
I slept a few hours in one of the bunks and arose for toast and eggs the next morning. Then, I hiked out of the valley and into the office for another day of work.