Where is Torres del Paine?
Torres del Paine is the southernmost national park in Chilean Patagonia. It’s nestled between the massif of the Los Andes Mountain Range and the Patagonian steppes.
Translated, “torres del paine” means “towers of blue,” named after the iconic towers seen at Mirador Las Torres. It’s one of the most visited national parks in Chile and is an extremely popular hiking destination. Since park entry fees are so high, most people choose to complete the 5-day W trek or the 8-day full circuit to spend more time in the park.
When to go
The best time to go would be spring/summer in the southern hemisphere, which falls between November and April. Perfect for that warm winter getaway! I would highly recommend trying for the shoulder season instead of peak season (January/February), as I heard it gets way too crowded to enjoy what’s supposed to be an escape into nature.
I went in late November, with the American Thanksgiving crowd (all suspiciously from Colorado, I might add), and found the trail to be perfectly fine. When departing from the campgrounds, we’d run into groups, but once we distanced ourselves and kept our own pace, we wouldn’t really be hiking with others. Since there is only one trek, you do run into a lot of the same people once reaching the campgrounds. I will say that on the last day, it got fairly crowded. Maybe because the last day is a popular dayhike or because peak season had started.
How to get there
First of all, strap in for a long ride. If you’re coming from anywhere outside of the continent, it’s going to take a while. My personal travel time took around 36 hours, but I booked through points so there were some flights that didn’t make sense. I went from ORD -> DEN (why??) -> DFW -> SCL -> PUQ.
Your ultimate city destination is Puerto Natales, otherwise known as the gateway to Patagonian Chile. To get there, you want to make your way to PUQ, the airport in Punta Arenas. (This is also the city to stay in to visit Isla Magdalena, the island of 120,000 magallanes penguins, if you’re interested) From the small airport in Punta Arenas, there are many bus companies that run regularly between Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.
The total travel time between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales is about three hours, with random stops in between. Don’t get off until you reach the final terminal in Puerto Natales.
The companies most used are Bus Sur and Bus Fernandez. Bus Fernandez only takes email reservations as of now (Dec 2016). When I made reservations with Bus Sur (Oct 2016), they also used email reservations and then a PayPal charge, but now I believe you can book directly from their website. When booking, you should specify that you’d like an airport pickup, because otherwise they’ll expect you at the city centre bus stop. It takes about 20 minutes to get from the city centre to the airport, so whatever departure time they have, add about 20-40 minutes, because they also run late. I paid $22USD for a round trip ticket. They also sell one-ways for $12USD.
I recommend staying in Puerto Natales for two nights before the trek to get everything in order. The city itself is a cute little place and not lacking at all in good restaurants or hostels. Staying two nights gives you time to relax, attend an information session at the Erratic Rock, rent gear, and buy food for your trek. If you’re on an extended trip, many hostels in town will also have lockers to rent (or for free if you’re staying there before/after the trek) where you can keep stuff you don’t need while hiking.
To get into the park, you’ll need to purchase roundtrip tickets (I paid 15.000CLP Nov 2016) for buses that depart from the city centre. We stayed at the Singing Lamb, which sells the tickets and offers transportation from the hostel to the terminal in time to catch your bus. There are two departure times: 7:30AM and 2:30PM and the ride is about 2 hours into the park.
There will be a stop at the entrance/visitor center where you’ll pay the park fees ($30USD or 18.000CLP) and watch a short, informational video. We were told that they wouldn’t be accepting foreign currencies, but my friend was able to pay in USD. From here, if you’re trekking east to west, either take the little shuttle (2.000CLP) to Hosteria Las Torres, or hike an hour there and start hiking towards the torres. If you’re trekking west to east, get back on the bus and it will take you to the catamaran at Pudeto.
You don’t need to make reservations to board the catamaran, but you do have to pay on board (12.000CLP). The schedule for the catamaran lines up nicely with the 7:30AM bus, leaving promptly at 9:30AM. Enjoy the glimpses of scenery while on board, you’ll be up close and personal in no time! Finally, you’ll arrive at Refugio Paine Grande, which is the starting point for trekkers going west to east. Congratulations, you made it!
The Trek Itself
The reason why it’s called the ‘W’ is because the trail you’ll be hiking on is literally shaped like a w, if you usually write non-angularly. It can be hiked from either direction, depending on when you want to see the famous towers.
Erratic Rock and many tour operators take it from west to east, saving the towers for the last day. This is also the way I did it, and honestly, I don’t think I would’ve liked hiking it from east to west. Many reasons for hiking west to east include:
- Your pack would be lightest when you’re at the towers (with those uphills, that’s definitely what I needed)
- You’re saving the iconic view for last
- Your trek starts with a 1-hr catamaran
Reasons for hiking east to west:
- Immediate gratification; you get that view straight away
- It’s easier to know what the weather would be like a day in advance rather than a week in advance
- Your trek can end with a 3-hour catamaran
There are many ways to do the ‘W’, but the most popular is the 5-day. Some do 4 days, which I believe is cheating yourself out of the entire experience. If, for any reason, you do it in 4 days, the sun stays out long enough that time is not an issue at all, making the 4 day doable if you enjoy long hiking days. In late November, the sun rose around 5:30 and set around 10PM.
Honestly, I would recommend 6 days instead.
Day One: Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Grey (11km, 3.5 hours)
Day Two: Kayaking/Ice hiking with Bigfoot Patagonia
Day Three: Refugio Grey to Campamento Italiano (18.6km, 6 hours)
Day Four: Campamento Italiano to Refugio Los Cuernos, with a dayhike into Valle Frances (20.5km, 8.5 hours).
Day Five: Refugio Los Cuernos to Campamento Torres (not to be confused with Refugio Las Torres) via the shortcut to Chileno (20 km, 7 hours)
Day Six: Campamento Torres to Refugio Las Torres with sunrise hike to the torres (10 km, 5.5 hours)
This itinerary is for those that are camping and carrying their own tents throughout, because that’s what I did.
If you’re mainly staying in the refugios or if you are renting tents at each campsite, for day 3, you would have to push forward to Refugio Los Cuernos and stay for two nights, doubling back to catch Valle Frances. This would be pricier, since staying at Refugio Los Cuernos means you must purchase full board even if you are only camping there. On day 5, you would stay at Refugio Chileno instead of Campamento Torres. However, you would not be able to catch sunrise at the torres since you’d have to start out around 2AM. For me, camping is the full experience and allows better immersion with nature.
Even though this trail is highly popular, the trail conditions are rugged. You won’t find any of the paved stuff that we see in US National Parks sometimes, you won’t even see a gravel trail. When I say rugged, I mean it’s highly technical (weaving through multiple-sized rocks throughout) in some parts and then plain dirt in other parts.
If you have weak ankles, maybe strengthen them a bit before heading on this one.
It is impossible to get lost on this trail. There is only one in the entire park, making it impressive if you do manage to get lost. Even if you do, you’ll undoubtedly see people a few meters ahead.
Don’t want to do it alone?
There are many options and packages that allow you to hike the ‘W’. Almost all the outfitters in the area run trek trips with a large group. I saw some that had porters carrying their mats and tents so that they didn’t have to! Chickens. Since I don’t really book with large tour operators, I don’t have any information on them. But they are rather easy to find, so I’ll let you do some of the legwork.
Want to do it alone but don’t want the hassle of making each separate reservation?
Fantastico Sur sells a bundle where you can hike alone, but have all the campsites reserved. They reserve this early in the season so that people who book last minute still have the opportunity to hike in Torres del Paine… at a price, of course. I spoke to some Australian girls who had paid $300 for that bundle, with an additional $200 for all food included. That’s 5X what I paid, most of which went to one night at Los Cuernos. Still, if you’ve found out that it’s too late to book all the campsites, look into this option.
Whatever you do, do not try to hike in Torres del Paine National Park without having made at least most of your reservations beforehand. It pisses off the park rangers, the refugio operators, and the park service in general. Do not do this. It is one of the most popular trekking destinations and there is not enough room at all for everyone to just walk in.
We met countless people who didn’t know they had to make reservations and were turned away.
It’s absolutely illegal to camp outside of the designated campsites as well, especially if you’re trying to cook your own food. Because lightening rarely strikes any part of Patagonia, the only fires that have started have been caused by humans, which is sad and unnecessary. 2016 was the first year that reservations have been mandatory and accessible online for the free ones.
There are three companies that operate within the park: CONAF (the official park service), Vertice Patagonia, and Fantastico Sur. For my itinerary, CONAF operated Campamento Italiano and Campamento Torres, both of which are free. Vertice Patagonia owned Refugio/Camping Grey (6.000CLP). And finally, Fantastico Sur owned Refugio Los Cuernos ($84USD, including full board).
For the last one, if you have the ability to swing it, I’d recommend a cabin. We didn’t, because we were hardcore budgeting, but the cabins include an outdoor hot tub, which would’ve been awesome for a mid-hike break.
Print out all your reservations. At Refugio Los Cuernos, we ran into a lot of people whose reservations had been lost and, instead of letting them stay, Fantastico Sur told them to head elsewhere. It actually happened to my friend, who paid to access wifi just so she could prove to them that she had already paid.
All that being said, depending on your luck and knowledge of Spanish, if you’re missing a reservation here or there, you may be able to swing it. I just wouldn’t take that risk. It adds unnecessary stress after a long day of hiking, not knowing if you’d be able to stay at that particular campsite or not. For us, we had most of our reservations, but changed our itinerary halfway through. So, for Campamento Italiano, none of us had reservations. One out of our group of 4 had absolutely no reservations the entire time, and with pure dumb luck, we were able to get him in.
How were the accommodations?
Cooking areas/Drinking water
Well, for the free campsites, don’t expect anything more than a drop toilet and the river for running water. Definitely don’t expect showers. All campsites had a designated cooking area. With the free campsites, these just looked like open wooden huts. With the refugios, these were actual rooms with a sink and running water.
Now, I know a lot of you have questions about showers. I honestly went in not expecting to shower for the entire trek. Yes, I’m aware that it’s 5 days without showering, but you’re in rugged backcountry.
Free campsites will absolutely not have any showers and the quality of the showers in the refugios vary by day and by refugio. I remember asking about showers at Refugio Grey and was told not to do it. To take a shower, they charge $12 and you aren’t guaranteed warm water.
Being that close to the glacier, I didn’t want to freeze my ass off, so I chose instead to use wet wipes and dry shampoo. (Tip: bring wet wipes and dry shampoo… and suspend your need for being squeaky clean) I did end up showering at Refugio Los Cuernos because it seemed more like a little resort buried deep in the mountains than a campsite, but that was the only time I did so. And the water was hot. And it was free. They were kind enough to just give me travel-size shampoo and soap. I’ve never been so happy to take a shower in my life.
Yes, there are occasionally bars at your campsites, which makes for a fantatic time. The only time we took advantage of it (because of accessibility and budget) was when we were at Los Cuernos.
Let me tell you, that campsite, expensive as it is, is a treat. It had a bar whose walls were more windows than walls, looking out onto the glacial lake. The price of a beer at Los Cuernos was about 4.000CLP each, with pisco sour at 2.500. Unfortunately, they were out of pisco sours, so we had to settle for beers all around. I loved chilling inside (and outside) with my group of friends, drinking beers, and watching the sun set while being cozy indoors.
If you get there early enough to some refugios (usually before 5PM), you can let them know that you want to partake in dinner. It would be easier to reserve these ahead of time, but I believe there is still an option if you want to treat yourself day of. I believe they also have a lunch option for you to pack.
For example, when I ordered full board at Los Cuernos, they gave me a cute little packed lunch containing a chicken breast sandwich, trail mix, chocolate, a granola bar, and an apple. Not bad! If you’re not planning on packing any food and plan to survive solely on what the refugios give you–don’t.
First of all, what if they lose your reservation, and therefore your full board? Also, I’ve heard many people say that some refugios give you too little, some too much, and I’m not sure which ones are which. But what I do remember is a German wife telling me how her husband “went hungry” the night before. Because you’re burning so many calories while hiking, the last thing you want to do is go hungry. Even if you eat until you’re full, chances are you will still drop some weight.
Each refugio does have a tiny little store where you can buy little snacks or bars, but do know that this is way more expensive than buying it in Puerto Natales and carrying it in. They also sell soda here, so if you’re craving some fizzy drinks, these will be the place for you!
I had unusually great weather for all 5 days of the trek. There was hardly a cloudy day, except for the day where there was little to no shelter from the sun. Other than that, we could see for miles all around us, making for absolutely gorgeous photos and scenery. The weather was also unusually warm for the first part of the trek, reaching up to 30C one day.
This is unusual and you probably shouldn’t expect it. I came into the trek expecting to experience all four seasons in one day, like many have said before me.
I expected to experience disappointment when you can’t see where you’re even hiking. I packed for the worst kind of weather, even going so far as asking our gear guy if I had enough jackets (I brought 4 small puffies). He laughed in my face and said that would be more than enough.
In the information session at Erratic Rock, they said that once, a 200-pound man was flung 5 meters away from where he was standing. That’s how strong the wind usually is. But we experienced none of that until we were back in town. Campamento Torres is where I experienced my first truly cold night.
Also, while waiting for sunrise at Mirador Las Torres, bring a sleeping bag because it is freezing up there.
What I wore while hiking:
- T-shirt (over a thermal if it was colder)
- Knee braces
- Wool socks
- Hiking boots
What I wore at camp:
- Underarmour leggings
- Underarmour long-sleeve
- Puffy vest
- Patagonia Nano Puff
Gear & Food
Gear: to rent or bring?
This completely depends on a few things:
- Do you already own the item? If so, bring it.
- Would you basically pay it off by renting it? Buy it so you can use it in the future.
- Is this part of a 6-month RTW trip? Rent if you’re not going to be doing any more hiking.
- Is it peak season? Think long and hard about risking gear not being available.
Absolutely everything you need can be rented or bought in Puerto Natales on a per diem basis. If you take the time to shop around, you can find a lot of better deals than the ones offered at Erratic Rock. Especially if you head down the street called Arturo Prat, meant for the tourists. This is where you’ll find tons of rental shops and hostels.
We rented from a little place called Rental Natales (hi, Guillermo!), which had brand new gear and great prices. He was also a really funny dude. Overall, for a tent, a mat, a set of hiking poles, and a gas canister, I paid $72 for 5 days. Not too shabby!
If you’re staying a night or two in Punta Arenas before heading to Puerto Natales, there’s a fantastic zone/mall where everything is duty free. That’s actually one of the few reasons people travel to Punta Arenas, especially if it’s before they head out on this trek.
We all brought freeze-dried food packages from the US into Chile because it’s hard/impossible to find in the country. We would typically eat it for dinner, making dinner easy and convenient after a long day. All you have to do is boil some water with a jetboil that my friend had (1-2 min), pour it into the bag, and wait 8-10 minutes.
For not-dinner (because food consumption became dinner and not-dinner), we would have a slew of snacks on hand. It’s not great to eat in large portions on the trail because you still have to hike, so we’d munch on something every hour or so.
Some examples of snacks I brought are:
- Cured sausage found in Puerto Natales x 2
- Clif bar for every day
- Packets of PB/Nutella for each clif bar
- Tuna packets
- these peanut butter bars that we found
- a lot of dried fruit and nuts from this nut guy in town
I actually brought WAY more than I thought I needed, which added a few unnecessary pounds to my pack that I could’ve done without the entire time. On day 3, I realized that I had budgeted 2 clif bars a day instead of the one, and had been carrying around all that extra weight for no reason. So I started handing them out to my companions, begging them to help me lighten the load.
I would suggest really thinking about what you’re going to eat and budgeting it out in your head. Always carry an extra freeze-dried pack, just in case, but refrain from buying everything in sight. Remember that you have to carry everything you bring.
Water on the trail
Water is extremely plentiful in Torres del Paine. We’d cross a stream with crystal clear water every 45 min or so and could fill up directly from the source without any filtering!
This not only means that you can access delicious glacier water frequently, but also that you won’t really need a large bladder of water, making your pack way lighter. I had just an average plastic water bottle that was enough to keep me going. The thing is to remember to finish one before refilling, just so you know you’re getting enough.
The only day we had to stock up a little is from Los Cuernos to the Chileno shortcut, which is 4 hours with only 2 or so spots of water to fill up at.
Your mindset is so important during a trek and it makes or break the trip. Many times, trips do not line up with expectations or there are a little more hurdles than you were prepared to weather.
Days when you’re just constantly walking (torturing yourself), it’s hard. So practice self care while on the trail. Don’t forget that you’re there to have fun. Don’t forget that the walking you’re doing for most of the day is to be lived through.
I frequently caught myself zoning out during the day while hiking, whether because I was listening to Hamilton: the Musical and reliving the time I won $10 tickets to the show in Chicago, or because I was particularly exhausted that day.
When I did catch myself, however, I had to remember that hiking was part of the experience. It wasn’t a job that I had to get over with before I could enjoy my time at camp that night. It wasn’t something to endure before I could relax. It was one of the reasons I went on the trip. And if you zone out while hiking, you’re going to miss a lot of the views and you’re going to miss a big chunk of the experience.
So remember to have fun and to look up every now and then!
And, that sums up the guide to hiking the ‘W’ in Torres del Paine! Have fun and stay safe out there!
For photos and a summary of my experience, click here.
Let me know if there are additional questions! I will continue updating it.