After two years of planning, in November 2019 we finally made it to Torres del Paine, the famous national park in the Patagonia region of Chile!
Now, this isn’t going to be your full-on “How to Hike the W Trail.” There are so many other blog posts out there for that. Instead this is some additional info I don’t think is easily available or that I wish I had known.
Here were some of my favorite websites and blogs for planning:
- Itineraries, packing lists and logistics: https://www.worldlyadventurer.com/torres-del-paine-w-hike-without-tour/
- Advice and overview: https://www.swoop-patagonia.com/chile/torres-del-paine/hiking/w-trek
- Great map of the trails: https://www.stephandben.com/2012/04/map-how-to-hike-w-in-torres-del-paine.html
For thoughts what to do before you get to Torres del Paine, also read my previous post!
How was it really?
In short, incredible – challenging, exhausting, beautiful, fun, and magical. I truly keep thinking about what a great experience it was. It was hard but that made the accomplishment even better.
We opted to do the W Trail, a five-day one-way trek through the most popular parts of the park.
Brice, the anti-hiker, may tell you otherwise, but I absolutely loved it. Yes, our first day there was rough. Totally rough, to the point we almost turned back, even after we had spent so much money and time to get there.
It had rained so much the trail wasn’t a trail anymore. We were constantly trudging through ankle-deep mud or having to create new paths as the trail was completely flooded over. At times, when the trail went downhill, it became a waterfall. It was frustrating and slow going. Our first day of hiking, which should have been 3 hours, took almost 5.5. We were not excited for day 2 to say the least. On the plus side, we quickly bonded with other hikers.
The skies cleared after breakfast on Day 2 and then we actually started having fun. Every view was jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and so varied. From massive ice glaciers to stunning valleys to blue lakes, it was different and scenic around every corner. It wasn’t like other hikes I’ve done where you have to slog along boringness until you get to an amazing lookout. In Torres del Paine, every step is beautiful.
Best part really was how many great people we met along the way. It is such a social atmosphere from hikers saying hi and chatting along the trail to the communal meals in the lodges, it’s friends everywhere.
Which direction should I go?
If you do the full O Circuit, you have to go east to west, in a counter clockwise route. It usually takes people about 7-10 nights and will require at least 1-3 nights of camping.
If you do the W Trail, you can go either east to west or west to east. You also can do it anywhere from 3 nights to 5 nights, depending on how fast you walk and if you want to do any of the side hikes (making a full “W” or not).
For reference, our route was as follows:
- Day 1: Paine Grande to Grey Glacier (Refugio Grey)
- Day 2: Grey Glacier to Paine Grande (camping at Paine Grande)
- Day 3: Paine Grande to Los Cuernos via Frances lookout (Los Cuernos cabañas)
- Day 4: Cuernos to Torre Central (Torre Norte Refugio)
- Day 5: Day hike to Las Torres (Torre Norte Refugio)
But in truth, most of the decisions for people including myself comes down to what’s availability for lodging on the trail.
So how do I book?
This is the tricky part.
Whether you are camping or staying in the lodges (“refugios”), doing the W Trail or the full O Circuit, you have to have reservations. It books up far in advance and you can’t just show up at the park thinking you could find a place to stay the night.
To make matters more complicated, the park is run by two separate companies, so you need to coordinate your reservations with the two companies. I’ve now done the bookings 3 times – once for us a trip we had to cancel in 2018, once for a friend and then once again for our 2019 trip. I can say with confidence it is a pain because they don’t show you all the availability easily and things book out fast.
But it is doable! And often worth the cost savings vs going with a tour or paying a tour booker hundreds of dollars to book it all for you. The latter option will enable you to go pretty much whenever you want vs whatever is available on the Refugio websites, and will allow you to avoid all the hassle, but it is expensive.
If you have questions or problems, reach out to their customer service via email or chat. I found both companies to be really helpful and responsive.
As noted above I also had to cancel previous reservations and can say they followed their refund policy to the T.
The two companies:
- Vertice: http://www.verticepatagonia.com/en/accommodations
- Fantastico Sur: http://int.fantasticosur.com/en/online
Do I need to bring all my own gear? What if I need more gear?
This was why we were excited to do this hike vs other more pure backpacking options – because we don’t really have the gear, didn’t want to lug what we have all the way to the end of the globe, and are too lazy to want to carry most things. Yes, we hike in a very pampered fashion, I won’t deny it.
We opted to stay in refugios nearly the whole time – which are surprisingly nice dorm room accommodations complete with sheets and pillows, shared with 4-6 people. When we camped, we even rented all that gear. It came with the tent already set up, very clean sleeping bags and sleeping pads. So no need to carry anything for sleeping!
We also selected to do the full-board food option. In the lodges, they serve breakfast and dinner and most even had a full bar. Food varied but overall was really good and very filling. It was a lot of carbs but hey, when you’re hiking that much, you need it! They provided a pack lunch of a sandwich/wrap, fruit, trail mix and a chocolate bar. Not the best ever and expensive, yes, but it made it really nice not having to worry about carrying 5 days of food with us.
I really didn’t want to take a wet towel around with me. Even those fast dry ones don’t really dry that quickly. But fortunately you can “rent” a towel for a couple dollars at all the refugios.
If you need anything extra though, in Puerto Natales, you can rent nearly everything including down jackets, backpacks, camp stoves, etc. Most refugios also have “mini marts” selling things like snacks, tampons and gas for stoves should you need to get anything additional while on the trail.
Best way to fill up water/hydration packs?
Easy enough, you can just refill water bottles at the refugios or directly from streams, which are everywhere along the trails.
Everyone will tell you “the water is so safe, just drink it straight from the stream!” That may be the case but we also know people who have gotten sick and there are mules or horses using the streams too. So we always used a Steripen to sterilize the water first. Up to you, but I’d recommend that as well!
How much cash to bring?
(Prices per person, as of Nov 2019)
The bars, restaurant and mini marts at the lodges do take credit cards but cash is needed for the following:
- 21,000 CLP – Park Fee: you can pay at the park entrance in cash (CLP or USD), or in advance with credit card at bus station in town.
- 23,000 CLP – Catamaran Fee: Pay on the boat (in CLP or USD) during ride. You don’t have to take the catamaran if you start on the east side of the park by Las Torres. Boats leave at 9am and 11am. Get in line quickly once you get off the bus to not miss the first catamaran. Go up to 2nd level for views along the 20-min ride.
- 3,000 CLP – Shuttle from Refugio Torre to Bus: 15-minute shuttle to the Bus Sur buses back to Puerto Natales. Shuttle picks up at the Torres Visitor Center, just 5 min walk from refugio. You could walk but it’s not recommended. Shuttle goes 30 min before your bus (1pm for a 1:30pm bus to Puerto Natales). Be sure to arrive 10-15min early to buy a ticket. Cash only; buy at the visitor center building. Can’t book in advance.
What if I can’t do the full W Trail or O Circuit because it’s booked up or I don’t have the time?
Yes, you could do a day trip and lots of tour companies pitch this, but it’s so beautiful in the park and it’s 2 hours from Puerto Natales so here’s my best suggestion: try getting at least 1-2 nights in the Las Torres region. You could camp or do a dorm in Torre Central or Torre Norte, or even stay at the fancy Las Torres Hotel if you’ve got a big budget!
Reasons for this:
- This area is near one of the entrances of the park, making it easy from the bus
- Because Torre Central has two big refugios and a really large campsite, there is more often availability there than at other refugios along the trail
- You can do several great day hikes from there and see some of the highlights of the park, including to the “Towers” (Mirador de las Torres) and the hike along the lake towards Los Cuernos
- Torre Central was my favorite refugio with a great bar and outdoor seating with beautiful views of the Torres if it’s clear
Write in the Comments section below or feel free to reach out via email!