Chile - Patagonia - W-Trek : The Beginning

I've been wanting to go Patagonia for so long after I saw pictures of El Calafate rugged peaks in one of my friend's instagram. Also, just the fact that it is so far and relatively less travelled intrigued me. Perfect opportunity to check off South America and Chile from my bucket list. Ideally I would have wanted to combine a few other countries like Argentina or Brazil in this trip. But with COVID restrictions, Visa wait times and potential uncertainty, I choose just to relax in a single country. Chile doesn't require Visa for Indian Passport with a Valid Visa from US, Canada, Schengen and few other. 

The entire trip planning to the finish of the trip has been a whole movie with lot of suspense (read - stress) on whether it is going to happen or not due to hurdles. I went with 2 of my friends who are a couple. Sharing the planning, logistics and the stress definitely made it easier. There were times where I was going to give up and chill in San Francisco for the year end break.

We have been talking about this since November but weren't seriously researching until I came back from my India trip in Nov 2021. I was reading about the visa restrictions but did not realize Chile requires a Mobility Pass until my friend told me about it. I immediately applied for it the same day. My friends applied for it as well on the next day. The application portal was looking different for me and my friends and thats where all the suspense started. My friends created their account before me but applied after me. They got their pass approved in a week.  We have been watching the flight prices go up but could not book because of the uncertainty. We read in TripAdvisor, it took more than a month for few people. I finally got mine after 10 days. We have decided to make the trip whatever the ticket prices be, because TIME IS MONEY.

My friend has been tracking the camping/hostel accommodations required for the 5-day W-Trek. The Torres Del Paine national park requires accommodations to be booked in advance for the days spent on the trek. The reservations for places in the park are handled by different companies with different reservation systems. We have to manually find availability in multiple systems and make sure our route in the trek and the days we want to travel all fall together. We were able to book our accommodations like we wanted. Except for one of the days we decided to book separately. I booked minutes after my friends and I did not find availability in the same location. The next available location is like a 3 hour trek away after a 10 hour trek on the same day. After some grief, I made peace with it because it is what it is. Just being about to find any accommodation was supposedly good thing. Usually they are all sold out 6 months in advance if not for COVID. The park website wasn't allowing single bed reservations in their website due to COVID. You pay for the capacity of the room which is 6, regardless of up-to 6 people stay or not. Not sure if they stick to the rules, but I contacted after a few days and luckily was able to upgrade with a fare difference, from camping to a hostel bed in the same location as my friends.

As much as I love flying and trying new products on lie-flat Business using points, it was difficult to find availability during the holidays and the fixed schedule with the park reservations. I decided to go a day early than my friends because its a day off anyway. I booked a pricey USD 660 one-way Delta Economy from San Francisco (SFO) to Punta Arenas (PUQ) via Atlanta (ATL), Santiago (SCL). I managed to get a Delta Platinum Medallion status which free upgraded me to lie-flat business class from SFO to ATL and Comfort+ from ATL to SCL. Not bad at all. The last leg from SCL to PUQ was on LATAM metal and not eligible for upgrade. I can ride it, its only 3-ish hours. Everything going well. Until my flight got cancelled the day before! The ATL-SCL leg got cancelled. They put me on a SFO - JFK - SCL - PUQ route for the next day of my original schedule. I was pretty annoyed about losing a day, flying through JFK because its just a long route and also the the JFK - SCL is on LATAM metal which means I cannot get any upgrades. I was in long chats with the airline and they put me back on same date as original but the JFK route. At this point, being able to go Chile is winning over everything else.

My friends found their mobility pass was showing some incorrect information. I checked mine and the same issue but different from theirs. There is no time to contact or make fixes and mess it up more. We said we will ignore it like we never knew it :D but I was stressed about it the whole time until I passed through immigration in Chile.

I waited until the evening before the flight to pack up my Kelty Redwing 44 backpack I bought for an Europe urban backpacking trip years ago. After I made the first attempt at packing, it was so heavy to lift at home that I realized I cannot carry it on my back as is for 5 days of walking with elevation gain over 80 kms. I started removing items leaving space only for essentials. What did it contain?

  • Water Pack and Snacks - bars, chocolates, nuts, crepes etc
  • 2 pair of clothes (dry-fit t-shirts and dry-fit water repellant trekking pants) for the trek and 1 pair of clothes for changing in the hostels during the nights.
  • 2 pairs of base layers both shirt and pant.
  • 3 pairs of socks, 2 pairs of gloves, scarf, small microfiber towel, cap, sandals, foldable day pack, toiletries and hair brush.
  • Laptop, Cables and Chargers
  • My go-to Eddie Bauer super lightweight down jacket serving me for 7 years and the newly bought REI raincoat which would also act as windbreaker. The indecisive me took it until exiting home to airport, to decide between using the Costco Kirkland Soft Shell ($20), REI Jacket ($200), Arc'teryx ($330) in the trip.

It took me until past mid night to finish the packing and clean up the house. Thanks to Delta Platinum, I got the free-upgrade to lie-flat from SFO to JFK. So I've time to sleep and relax in the flight. Right before I was about to sleep at 2am, I wanted to fill the last form required for entry in Chile. Thats when I realized the COVID test I took was not RT-PCR but LAMP. I have to start to airport in 3 hours. Ughh!! I was researching to see my options for COVID test before the flight but no luck. RT-PCR tests take longer, its peak travel time and also holidays. Back to Delta long Chats. They were not able to put me on next day same flight because their system is not showing availability, while their website is but for USD 50 more. I made calls to Amex and got my ticket cancelled for free because of the IRROPS. I made a new purchase for the next day. Amex allows free cancellation with-in 24 hours even if the flight is with-in 24 hours. This policy is better than directly booking with airlines. I spent until 6 am trying to find an appointment for RT-PCR test with same day results. Most places don't have availability. Where available, it is ridiculously expensive. At last, I found a location near the airport, which accepts insurance as well and returns results in 12 hours. Yay! Got the test done in afternoon and result by the night and also the Delta lie-flat upgrade notification for SFO to JFK leg. The original plan to go a day early helped. Otherwise the remaining trip plan would have been a wreck.

I cannot sleep well the night before early morning flights due to fear of not waking up on time. The anxiety and stress of everything going on added to it. I scheduled my Uber ride the night before so I don't have to worry about finding a driver early morning. On the day of flight, I was wearing my Apple Watch (which I broke during the trip), Costco Kirkland Softshell (yeah I couldn't decide between that and the REI - so I carried both 🙈) and the newly bought Arc'teryx Aerios FL Mid GTX Hiking boots. I reached the airport an hour and 15 minutes before. Its not ideal but I don't have check-in bags and its a domestic flight. I held up the Delta Sky Priority line for a bit because the agent could not validate my eligibility to travel without visa and needed help to fix it. TSA Pre line was a breeze. I ate light breakfast at Delta Sky Lounge.  Made it to JFK and relaxed for a bit in the Delta Sky Lounge again. I made an attempt to write the Year End annual perf feedback for my peers that will close in a week but was in no mood for it. Time to fly first time on LATAM metal to SCL. Technically I should be eligible for a free preferred seat selection with my Delta Platinum status. But LATAM system won't allow it since its booked by Delta and Delta won't allow it since it is operated by LATAM - wtf. And then LATAM won't assign until at the gate at JFK. No luck on the bulk head or extra leg room row. Since this is a last minute booking, there was no time to choose meal. They offered me a vegan pasta ordered by someone but not board.

Meanwhile, my friends were in similar boat, their COVID test did not arrive but they took their first domestic leg and have to connect to Santiago. So I wasn't sure what I was gonna do if they won't be able to come... but they got the results finally.

There were 60 counters to check on-arrival documents at Chile - Mobility Pass, PCR Test, Pre-registration form. Got in the line for on-arrival PCR test which was free but slow moving. Then the immigration line took forever. The immigration officer is probably working all night and slow as a sloth but friendly. Headed to the domestic check-in section for my PUQ connection. The girl at the check-in doesn't speak English but we managed to communicate using Google Translate. Security line was long but quick. I did not get a chance to go to the lounge but my friends told me they don't allow inside while you are waiting for PCR test result. I've some more rants about the domestic flight but I'll spare the details.

Made it to PUQ. It is a small airport. I waited for 30 minutes to get a Uber because I did not want to deal with haggling or getting scammed by local taxi. I remember reading in TripAdvisor about taxi drivers don't scam in this part of the world because its so far out from the rest of world to be there just to scam you. I tried Didi as well and gave up. Got in a local taxi for flat 10000 CLP and reached Haiken Hostel in 20 minutes. Small town, homely hostel and beautiful view from my room. I am supposed to quarantine until I get the PCR result. So I could not go out to check the town. The guy at the hostel helped me order pizza. My friends boarded their flight from SCL to PUQ via Puerto Montt (PMT) and everything was going to be on track, until their flight made a U-turn shortly after going to runway at PMT. The suspense continued for a few hours until it was a technical problem that was fixed remotely and they arrived only a few hours late but the same day at-least. We split a pizza after uniting and spent time down sizing our already minimalist backpacks. I got my on-arrival PCR test report by night and now I am all set to go next morning.

The 7am bus starts at a depot 10-min walk from the hostel. We had a 2.5 hr uneventful and not particularly scenic ride to Puerto Natales, operated by Bus Sur. The number of times I kept forgetting things in the trip is uncountable. It all started with me forgetting my laptop in a tote bag in the bus which I recollected immediately when people were picking up their bags from cargo. After a 10-min walk through the small town, we were at El Patagonico where we left our luggage like laptop and the stuff from downsizing. We went around near by for shopping food and hiking poles. We bought Dulce, Creame Cheese, Tortilla, bread etc at Unimarc. We ended up renting hiking poles from our hostel. Went to a restaurant recommended by our hostel front desk for lunch. We were so hungry and really wanted to eat real and good food because won't be having any for next 5 days. We should have specified we are vegetarian. The place barely had any options. And the serving took forever. We ended up canceling some of the order. The waiting guy was terrible - we asked for water and he brought 1 glass when there are 3 sitting at the table - what?

Got our final packs ready for the trek and we are on the bus operated by Jose Maria headed to Torres Del Paine national park.

More to come in upcoming blog posts. I wrote 3 hours and realized this is just the beginning of the trip and retitled this post! - 😭💀


  1. haha took very less time to read though ;)
    Thank you for sharing your experience , it felt really amazing while I was reading.
    Please share all the experiences throughout your journey while visiting US states and 23 countries with beautiful pictures :)