A multi-day hike in the Torres Del Paine National Park was one of the first things to make our bucket list for our whole year long trip after Jacinta fell in love with the pictures and travel stories online.
Soaring mountains with beautiful scenery, yet accessible hiking, made for an irresistible mix, and pushed South America right up the destination list for us.
The National Park
Torres Del Paine is a national park in Chile, in the Patagonia region that encompasses the southern parts of the country and bordering Argentina.
The park is about 1.5 hours drive from the nearest town of Puerto Natales, where most hikers base themselves prior to the treks.
The 4-5 day W Trail and the 8-10 day O Circuit, named such for the shape of the actual trails, are world famous and very popular in the season from November to March.
So much so that in 2016 they started enforcing mandatory reservations at the various accommodations available – camping, refugios (like a mountain hostel) or the two hotels at each end of the park.
We chose to do the shorter and more popular W Trail, as we didn’t want to give up 10 days for one hike and we weren’t sure we’d be up to it physically for the O Circuit as we had never hiked for that long before.
The big decision we had to make then was which direction to walk it, West to East or East to West.
One of the advantages of starting from the West was there used to be a free campsite near the Mirador Del Torres, which allowed you to get up there for sunrise on the last day and see the beautiful light show if it was clear weather, but that is now closed, and the next closest option is very expensive as you have to pay for full board even if camping ($97 USD each!).
We decided to go the other way starting at Torres Central because it seemed to be a little less popular and hence could provide a bit more trail to yourself.
The O Circuit has already been restricted to unidirectional walking (anti-clockwise), and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the same happen to the W Trail sometime in the future.
As reservations are compulsory and need to be made months in advance in peak season, this can be a big factor, in fact we met many people with less than ideal itineraries based purely on what they could book.
Technically we were arriving just after peak season but it seems that now April is also being included, so everything in the park is open for business, except for one camp-site on the O Circuit that decided to shut up shop at the end of March which ruins it for everyone – but we wont go into park politics here.
Making the actual bookings was a nightmare, there are three different companies involved;
- CONAF, the Chilean national park agency which runs all of the free campsites
- Fantástico Sur, the company that runs the sites on roughly the Eastern side
- Vértice Patagonia, the other company who runs all the remaining sites in the West
We ended up not booking the one remaining free site on the W Trail as we would have needed to bring all our gear, so we were left dealing with the other two. Fantástico Sur were quite easy with modern systems, but Vértice had an email only booking system which they sporadically replied to after a couple of months due to the sheer volume of queries.
After numerous attempts to book they started to implement an online booking system for the start of the season, but it was obviously rushed, missing options and only allowing payments in Chilean pesos meaning it included all taxes, some of which foreigners don’t usually have to pay. By all reports it is now significantly better and in future all bookings for three companies should be possible online – woohoo!
We chose to hire camping gear from each individual site rather than hire it from town and carry it.
It ended up not being significantly more expensive (unlike the exorbitant refugios), and meant we carried a lot less weight and arrived to a set up tent each night – probably the best decision we made.
The hiking itself lived up to all of our expectations.
Every day was filled with amazing views that at times literally took your breath away, and you just had to keep turning back for another look.
The autumn foliage was just stunning, and as our Swedish trail friend said, “I think we chose the right time!”
Because we weren’t carrying so much weight, and because we dropped our main pack for the hardest parts to the Mirador Del Torres and Valles Francés, it wasn’t as physically hard as we thought it might be – although Jacinta still hates hills.
Having caught a 7:30 bus in the morning (15,000 pesos / $32 AUD return each), gone through the remarkedly efficient registration and park entrance payment (21,000 pesos / $45 AUD each) process and then dropped off our stuff at the campsite, we were ready to hike from about 10:15.
From there the first day was a stated 9 hour return hike, mostly uphill to the Mirador Del Torres, the Torres (Towers) Lookout which forms one of the sides of the ‘W’.
The track started out as a literal garden trail, but quickly got more challenging.
There was a bit of time pressure to make sure we finished the day before all the light disappeared. We passed Refugio Chileno, the old Torres free campsite, navigated the last steep 45 minute climb and then made it up to the Torres in slightly less than the 4.5 hour allowance, with the weather looking fairly threatening.
It was quite cloudy around the Torre, and it gradually got worse until the rain set in. We, along with a large contingent of others, decided that was a good signal our stay at the top was up and we proceeded down with a steady stream of rain.
Luckily it was a lot quicker downhill journey and in about 3.5 hours we were back and camp where it was thankfully dry and we could cook up our couscous and vegetables before retiring to our tent and mattress. Yep they gave us a mattress!
Day 2 was more a transit day from Torres Central to Camping Frances with low expectations, a relatively easy 6 hour hike passing past one of the oldest refugios in the park, Los Cuernos.
It ended up being a great day though as we got pretty good weather and the views out over the aquamarine lakes were mesmerising.
We also walked along the lakeside beach for part of the trail before we started the tough climb back up to our campground for the night which is known for its very impressive bathrooms – glamping indeed!
One of the other highlights of the trail is the Valles Francés, the French Valley, which was the third day on our itinerary. Callum had been looking forward to this the most out of the days, but it turned out to be a bit of a fizzler thanks to some heavy cloud cover.
It was a short 30 minute start to the day to move from Francés to Campamento Italiano, the one remaining free camp on the W, where we dropped the main pack and set off up the fairly steep path.
We were surprised by the first mirador which happened to coincide with our first break after an hour, the clouds obscured most of the view but started to clear as we ate our energy boosting snacks.
After another hour and a half and bit of a scramble up some steep rocks we reached Mirador Britaníco with a lovely view of clouds all round. Not long after we arrived numerous other people did too and it became a bit of a stand off between our group’s ability to withstand the cold and the tantalisingly slow clearing of clouds, albeit with a great jovial atmosphere.
There was a bit of entertainment when an American guy nearly lost his (prohibited) drone when it ventured out into the clouds and started to ice up, he finally found it straight above us but it started to spiral down out of control until he managed to safely land it, a few quick heart palpitations later.
We eventually lost our battle with the cold without getting great views, although there were some hints of the majesty at a lower clearing on the way back down.
We picked up our pack and made the 2.5 hour, comparatively boring trek across to Paine Grande, with the famous Patagonia winds starting to make an appearance as we arrived. We whipped up our super satisfying pasta dinner and then retired to our tents with their camping mats. Where were our luxurious mattresses Verticé??
Our last two days were thankfully a bit shorter, only 3.5 hours of hiking each way between Paine Grande and Refugio Grey.
The hike up on the first morning was miserable, with constant rain and driving wind in our faces. It eventually cleared up and asides from freezing from the glacial breeze it was quite a nice afternoon spent wandering to another glacier lookout. The best part? We were back to fancy mattresses for the night.
We had to make it back for a 11:35am catamaran from Paine Grande on our last day, so we departed at 7am well before sunrise, armed with headlamps and a desire not to have to wait until the only other option at 6:30pm. We quickly discovered that Jacinta’s Kathmandu head attire failed to do much else except make a faint glow, hopefully just a battery problem but at that stage definitely not up to pre-dawn hiking. After a quick swap we used the light of our other headlamp to guide us until dawn hit about an hour later, and we had a relatively pleasant hike back with plenty of time to spare.
The catamaran took us back to meet our bus where we had a bit of fun trying to work out what to do, there was a 1.5 hour wait and we had to get a bus with a different company (all included in our original return bus ticket) who shuttled us back to Laguna Amarga, the starting point for our trek and location of our actual bus.
We finished the day off with a super enjoyable dinner and delicious vino at a little place called Cafe Artimaña back in Puerto Natales to celebrate the completion of a fantastic hike.
The Closing Thoughts
We didn’t get terrific weather in Torres Del Paine, but it certainly wasn’t bad and we’re very grateful for that.
There were fairytales and horror stories of people who got either end of the stick, so we were pretty happy being somewhere in the middle.
Making the decision to rent gear from each place meant we spent more time enjoying the hiking, but didn’t spend a huge chunk of our budget on one hike.
It’s sad to see more restrictions on the trails, and less flexibility to change plans, but given the sheer popularity of the trails and the genuine desire for protection and sustainability it seems to be necessary.
For any one who loves hiking or nature, Patagonia would definitely have to be on the bucket list.