We had one day in Puerto Natales between Torres del Paine and heading across the border in a long-distance (5 hour) bus to El Califate, Argentina. After dropping off kilos of laundry and buying Silas new tennis shoes, we decided to go for a walk on a hill outside town to a viewpoint of the town and fjord. Here's what you do.
1. Look up info on the walk and try to figure out how long it will take your family to do it, because you need to estimate start and end times.
2. Get your hotel to book an AM taxi to take you the 7 K out of town to the start of the hike, and negotiate with your driver a pick up time.
3. Walk through the sheep gate and look around several outbuildings at the start of the hike to pay the fee. It's a mini livestock farm you have to walk through to get to the hill trail (see photo below).
4. Don't find anyone, so set off through the fields to the hill where you're sure to find the start of the trail.
5. Listen. There's a wizened old man that's come out of one of the outbuildings and is chasing after you. Stop and turn around.
6. Listen very hard to the old sheppard, who has about 4 teeth and speaks an unintelligible version of the local Chilean farmer dialect. Explain multiple times that you weren't trying to shirk the fee. Pay the fee. Get a very old paper map of the trail. Ask for directions to the trail head and not understand anything other than 2 gates (learn the word for livestock gate - tranquera).
7. Take off walking to the hill, amid the friendly sheep.
8. Enjoy your hike!
The hike up was nice, but steep, up the hill in the background of the sheep photo, through a field of wildflowers before getting to the woods uphill. Maeve and Silas got hot, so in between stopping to eat snacks, we came up with the game of trying to figure out how many petals a standard wild daisy had. Amazingly, it varied a lot, 15 and up. We got a lot of mileage out of that game.
The top was covered in radio towers, and had an awesome view of the town and sound, but was very windy. We retreated back into the gnarly woods on the back side of the top for lunch, before racing down (less than 90 minutes back - oh the ease of downhills) to meet our taxi at the turn off to the farm.
The next day we crossed by bus the border between Puerto Natales and El Califate, Argentina. The border crossing is fun, you and the other 50 people on the bus get off at the border patrol in Chile, and have your documents checked. Then you re-board the bus, cross the border into Argentina, now on a gravel road, and 10 k further on you and the busload get out again to do the same thing at the Argentina border patrol. The bus ride was surprisingly smooth - both countries have been investing a lot in infrastructure, and was on paved roads except for less than 50 K on the Argentina side. One thing we liked about the buses was that they all had a pneumatic pump connected to each tire - in case of a flat, the pump would keep it pumped up enough to get to a place where the tire could be changed.
The ride was just miles and miles of Patagonian steppe. The kids passed most of the ride playing on the readers, a key component to keeping them happy for long bouts of forced idleness. The Argentina side is in the rain shadow of the Andes and gets drier the farther it is from the mountains. Since our route went over the mountains (really through a wide open pass as we didn't go up much) and then followed the plain north to El Califate, it was far enough from the mountains to be quite dry and brown, since a number of the native bushes are greyish-silver in color instead of bright with chlorophyll. There is a town on the Chilean side right at the border, and a town less than 50 K from the border where we stopped for restrooms in Argentina, but otherwise just miles and miles of fenced land, extensive Estancias, with occasional views of cows, sheep, guanacos, or nandu. Over time, we started to notice a difference between the vegetation outside the fenced areas and inside, often much bushier and healthier near the road, a stark reminder of the environmental impact of livestock.