Nov 11 Friday – Hike: Frances to Britanico to Los Cuernos

Alli’s journal:

Kyu’s ponderings:

Tetsu’s jibber jabber:

I woke up super early at Frances, not sure why, maybe it was in anticipation of the long day ahead. But either way, I used the time to do a video walk, starting at our tents and doing the slow trek all the way down to the minimart and domes. It wasn’t perfect and it would have been nice to do it again, but with no time for a second take, I headed back up to see what the others were up to.

On the 10 minutes walk back up I ran into Raf or Rafael (from Antwerp Belgium) for the third time and finally got a selfie. I had first seen him at Paine Grande on our day of arrival and he was enjoying a book while taking a load off at the benches out front. I saw him again the second time we hit Paine (after two days at Grey). And as luck would have it, bumped into him this third time at Frances. He had come to Chile with friends, and while his friends were doing the “O” trail, he decided to do things a little differently.  We chatted about fun things to do in Belgium and he recommended Bruges, a city with a medieval’esque vibe.  He also suggested south Belgium for nature hikes.

Once back at the tents, I saw that everyone was just about ready to head out. We decided to go to the checkin booth area and grab a short break at the picnic table as we psyched ourselves for the big hike coming.

There we met Boudin (left) from northern France and Paul (right) from Paris. Awesome to see users of the beloved MSR Whisperlite international (This is a blog site about camping stoves, after all). They were motorcycling all through Latin America, spanning several months. For this part of their trip they left their bikes at Puerto Natales to come into Torres del Paine, and planned to continue on for several more months, biking through Chile and Argentina.

They were also doing the “W” trek from West to East, and had gone to the second suspension bridge past Refugio Grey. Being adventurous, they’d even gone off trail and bushwacked down to the glacier. The photos they had taken must be amazing.

The main person working the checkin booth while we were there was Philipe.  I didn’t catch a selfie with him, but he was incredibly helpful and friendly, something we experienced often during our time in the park.

We would later run into him again, literally. Philippe apparently runs up to Britanico every morning. Which…to me….sounds absolutely insane.

Alli and Kyu headed down to the minimart for a bit to grab our lunches (we had pre-ordered them), and there, they met with another wonderful staff person, who’s nickname is apparently “Little Chicken”. She kindly gave an extra apple to Alli.

With all of that out of the way, we started to head out, going back up to Italiano. Unlike other folks who drop off their gear at Italiano, we left the majority of our gear at Frances, next to the checkin booth, knowing that we would pass Frances on our way down to Los Cuernos.

It was pretty quick getting to Italiano. Approaching from the East, as you break through the trees, you’re rewarded with a spectacular view of the mountains. In the photo below, you can see Camp Italiano, off to the left.

Though we didn’t need to drop off gear, we headed to the camp just to check it out. Nicely laid out, and the trust in people just leaving their gear there was a sight to see. Not something you often see, even deep in Stanislaus California. After this quick peek, we headed on up the center line trail.

There are three milestone points on this center line of the “W” trek.

  • Mirador del Frances (3km’ish from Camp Italiano)
  • Mirador Valle del Frances (3+km from Mirador del Frances)
  • Britanico (A touch over 2km from Mirador Valle del Frances)

The google sat map below shows approximate distances between key spots.

It’s all uphill of course. The trail to the first mirador is mostly dirt paths through forested areas. There’s some “ravine” like dips that you have to traverse, but otherwise the trail is fairly easy.

There were some interesting makeshift “overpass” efforts to help get over some stream beds that were drying up but still a little wet.

The first mirador, Mirador del Frances, is spectacular in its own right, and many a hiker don’t go beyond this point. You’re periodically subjected to these incredibly thunderous sounds, reverberating throughout the atmosphere. Every time these deep roars shook the air, we’d look up and see clouds of snow up high, the after effects of an avalanche.

We took a pretty long break at this first mirador.

The next leg, to Mirador Valle del Frances starts to get a little technical, but still nothing strenuous.

it does start to feel steeper, and the effort gets your body temp up.

Most of this leg is still trails through trees. But once you hit Valle del Frances, You break through to a wide open area, with the river flowing downhill on your left, and a brilliant view of the forested valley floor. Here you can see about 80% of the grand peaks surrounding this crater-like valley. With the pleasing sounds of the river (or large stream?), plenty of rocks to sit on, and a cool and comfortable breeze, this was an awesome area to hang in.

From Valle del Frances, you can actually see Britianico off in the distance. It’s a little hard to tell in the photo above, but it’s really just a tiny rock in the distance jutting above the trees.

The last couple of kilometers (maybe a touch over a mile and a half) to the Britanico is very rocky, very technical. Anyone can do it, but you do have to pay attention to where you step.

Once at the last bit to Britanico, you quickly realize that it’s just a miniature peak pushing up through the trees. There isn’t a lot of space here, and you get maybe three or four areas of relatively flat rock. Kyu and I grabbed a light lunch here while marveling at the spectacular views of the color variations throughout the peaks.

There’s no photo that can do justice to the stark differences in colors. Almost s if these were completely different rock formations, stuck together like tetris.

The photo below sort of shows just how stark the color contrasts are between the peaks.

Just spectacular.

Looking back down from Britanico, you can see another open area, covered with dead tree trunks. This area isn’t on the trail, so you’d have to bushwhack to get there. It’s smaller than Valle del Frances, but also seems to be next to the riverbank. In the photo below, you can see that open area, and further beyond, you can see Valle del Frances.

After this, we headed back down the trail, taking breaks at both Valle del Frances and del Frances.

After that, I knew we had a bit of a hike back, so we booked it back to Frances, took a short break, grabbed some drinks, repacked, and then hoofed it to Los Cuernos. 

Overall the trail from Frances to Los Cuernos is fairly flat. Once past the shoreline, the trail does go up for a while, and then has a drop down steep enough to call for a 4-point switchback heading down.

Oh, and by the way, a little humorous sidenote: Don’t be fooled by the “2.5km to Los Cuernos” sign you’ll see at Frances. It’s definitely a lot longer. More like 4km. Especially when you include the switchbacks you traverse along the way. You can see on the map below how much closer Italiano to France is than France to Los Cuernos.

But, at least when going West to East, it’s a wonderful and relaxing hike.

In fact, this leg might very well be my favorite hike.

Very early on, I saw a guacano on the trail, a kind of deer that is, I think, indigenous to the region. The guacano didn’t seem afraid of me, but it didn’t quite let me get as close as I wanted. Still, pretty close. Maybe about 5 feet in front. It continue to walk ahead of me for a little, but then i accidentally kicked some rocks which made the guacano jump forward and off the trail. I felt pretty lucky to have seen it.

The trail goes along the Lago Nordenskjöld shoreline, and it even bumps into the beach at two different locations. I had to stop both times and take a little video of the peaceful sounds of the waters lapping against the beach. It was serene.

The rocks on each of these two beaches were surprisingly different, given that there’s just 10 minutes of hiking between them.

Almost solely because of how great this particular trail from Frances to Los Cuernos is, I’d probably recommend doing the “W” trek West to East. It really is a wonderfully relaxing and beautiful hike, without any real strenuous uphills or highly technical bits. I guess a second reason could be to season your legs on the trail before getting to Chilleno for the brutal hike to Three Towers. More on that later. 

The latter part of the trail winds through trees, some streams, and high brush.

Very soon, you get the first signs of Los Cuernos when colored tents start catching your eye.

The sharp point of the main buildings’ rooftop corner peaks over the bushes and quickly becomes prominent as you get closer to the building.

And then, after a few steps up to a deck, you’ve reached your destination.

Los Cuernos, in addition to the large central building, also has some wonderful small cottages with bunk beds. They look a lot like tiny homes that have been popping up all over the States in recent years. If you try to reserve these cottages from the US, the costs can hit an eye-popping $750-800 per night. But, if you call Vertice directly or book onsite (which is always risky, of course), the price is about $200 a night. A huge difference.

That said, given the awesome facilities, bathroom buildings, dining area and restobar, the rented tents are a fine accommodation.

At Frances, we only had two tents, so Alli and I shared a tent, and we were planning on rotating who among the three of us gets the solo tent each night. But Kyu, ever concerned about being a burden in a shared tent, worked with Alli to ask at each successive site if any spare tents were available, and at every site, including Los Cuernos, he was able to get another tent, so we all went solo thereafter.

I forgot to take photos of the entrance upon our arrival, but I went back in the evening to grab a few shots.

Here’s the front entrance:

As soon as you walk through the main entrance, when you look immediately left, you can see the checkin counter and minimart.

First order of business was to take a shower. By the time I was ready to shower it was just about 9pm, so it was pretty cold, but a cold shower is better than nothing.

Funnily enough, the top of the wall separating the men’s and women’s showers is completely open, allowing me to hear everything happening on the other side.

And here I got my first exposure to a large Malaysian group that I would get to meet early the next day, and the day after that as well. They were a loud, happy, and talkative bunch, clearly very wealthy. I couldn’t help but think about the movie Crazy Rich Asians while listening to their loud banter over the shower wall and later on, in conversations with them around the tents and on the trail.

And yet, there was something strangely comforting about the energy and sheer level of boisterous fun they seemed to be having every time I bumped into them. This large group of women travel together all over the world.

After showering, I headed over to the restobar. On the way, I walked by the kitchen and took a peek. Wow. The kitchen was hard core, and the staff were clearly serving up some amazing meals.

The dining area is well laid out and the dinner looked delish. We didn’t reserve the dinner, but luckily, the kitchen was open for some other food.

The bar area is one side of the building, separated from the main restaurant section. We had pre-ordered next day lunches, so for dinner, Alli and Kyu decided to grab some finger food from the bar.

Alli had ordered a salmon pizza, which was amazing.  We wolfed it down, and wanted another but the kitchen closed. Booo. 

I didn’t get a photo of it, but if you ever find yourself at Los Cuernos, definitely order the salmon pizza. It’s awesome after a long day of hiking.

And what would an evening in Torres del Paine be without an Austral Calafate ale? On draft, no less!

We were also introduced to something called Piscola, a mix of Coke and Mistrado. Later on, we’d also get introduced to Pisco Sours, and in Torres del Paine, it’s made with glacier water.

In the photo of the restobar below, you can see the back wall where there is a map for folks to stick postits with their name on it.

I imagine it gets replaced every year, but of course we had to add ours as well. It was fun getting our names “immortalized” as guests of Los Cuernos.

I think Kyu is in there somewhere.

And again, as with most nights, I found some of the porters and guides out front and they were kind enough to let me hang for a bit. I was surprised to learn that there were several porters and two guides all managing a single group. And of course, it was immediately obvious that the group they were serving must be the Malaysian ladies. I learned later that the ladies were a group of 14. What an adventure it must have been for guide, porter, and guest alike!

Oh, and I almost forgot, we met three ladies on the trail.  All french.

They travel the world together: Veronique, Katherine Katerin, and Sandrina

We met them again at Los Cuernos.

They also introduced me to a game called tarot. Not the fortune telling kind, but a card game version. Upon getting home, I asked my wife about it, and apparently, it’s a well known game in France and she had played it often as a child while camping with the family.

We would end up meeting these three world travelers again at Chilleno and yet a couple more times the following day as they did the Three Towers in the morning.

With stomachs sated, and a drink to decompress, we ended the evening heading back to our tents to get some rest before our uphil hike to Chilleno the next day.

Patagonia Map Routes W-Trek

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s