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Torres del Paine 'W' - Patagonia, Chile
(Parque Nacional Torres del Paine)
Mirador Las Torres
Hiking in Patagonia is every hiker’s dream. If you are in the early phase of planning your Patagonian hiking holiday, you may be wondering whether you should hike in Torres del Paine in Chile or Cerro Fitzroy/Torre in Argentina. The answer to the question is simple: don’t choose one option over the other unless you have time and/or budget limitations. Both locations have excellent hiking possibilities but the experience is different.
Torres del Paine offers thru-hiking with great facilities but because of its access, it feels off the beaten track. The huts there offer good cooked food and there are campsites providing either a place to pitch your own tent as well as pitched tents for rent. Cerro Fitzroy/Torre only offers basic camping (as in no showers or food) so if you choose to thru-hike there, the experience will be more rugged. However, because the hiking trails depart from El Chaltén itself, you can day-hike and enjoy the town by night. The town has a relaxed almost hippy-ish atmosphere and plenty of eateries to choose from. Well, by now you got my point, try to go to both places. Luckily, these two hiking areas are only 8 hours away from each other by bus. If you have time limitations though, my suggestion is to go for the Torres del Paine ‘W’ trail because it feels more off the beaten track and it offers longer thru-hiking possibilities.
Seafront at Puerto Natales
The Torres del Paine National Park is located on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap, which is the biggest ice sheet in the southern hemisphere (outside Antarctica). It is hard to explain how beautiful this place is. There are glaciers, lakes with varying water colours, forests and incredibly beautiful mountains. This place is a treat for geologists and geomorphologists because the effect of glaciation in shaping the environment is visible everywhere.
Souvenir shop in Puerto Natales
The nearest airports offering regular flights throughout the year are Puntarenas (Chile) or El Calafate (Argentina). We flew to Puntarenas airport and took the direct bus to Puerto Natales, which departs from the airport terminal. This bus ride lasted about 3 hours.
Puerto Natales is a nice little town and the final option for any last minute supermarket or drugstore shopping. Unless you are on an non-meaty diet, this is a good place to try the local specialty, which is the ‘cordero asado’ (baked lamb). There is a great view from the lakeshore which is definetely worth the short stroll from town.
Buses from Puerto Natales to the park first stop at the CONAF office (Chile’s National Forest Corporation), where visitors have to purchase the park entrance tickets (no advanced online purchases possible) and then watch a video. The video is about park regulations, fines and prison sentences involved for those who break them. It seems that the video producers forgot to include the context, which is the history and effect of accidental fires on this park. Anyway, after listening to this video, you either switch buses or continue onwards on the same bus.
Pudeto ferry heading to Refugio Paine Grande
Pudeto ferry arriving at Refugio Paine Grande
Reservations and services provided
All hikers overnighting at the park need to have reservations. Huts and camping sites are not run by a single institution, so unless you book everything through a tour operator, you will have to contact at least 2 institutions to make the bookings. The Refugios/Campamentos Paine Grande and Grey are run by Vértice Patagonia whilst El Francés, Los Cuernos, Torre Central and El Chileno are run by Fantástico Sur. We made all our bookings online but since at times the companies seemed to have gone radio-silent, we emailed them to ask for an update on the reservation status.
An map showing the distribution of facilities across institutions is available here (an English version of this page seems to be unavailable). The Campamento Italiano camping site only has WCs and a small covered cooking area. It is free of charge but reservation is needed. Note that the previous URL also allows you to make the reservation for this camping site.
Full track of our great 5 day, 85km hike
There are random controls of hut or campsite reservations so don’t show up without having secured all the reservations unless you fancy embarrassments and/or paying fines.
The huts are very well equipped and offer cooked food and drinks; make sure you treat yourself to a pisco sour (or two) every night. Prices are expensive but this is obvious in such a remote place. Vértice Patagonia’s huts are cheaper so we decided to sleep and eat at Refugios Paine Grande and Grey and rent a pitched tent at El Francés and El Chileno. If on a tight budget, carry your own tent and food but note that Refugio Grey has a mini-market (‘mini’ as in mini but great for those either doing the longer ‘O’ hike or for those who feel they are about to murder someone for a bar of chocolate). Vértice Patagonia offers packed lunches but as we did not try them I can’t comment on their quality or value. The Fantástico Sur lunches were OK but not great. Breakfasts and dinners were very good. It is possible to charge phones and powerbanks at the huts.
Refugio Paine Grande
Park infrastructure is great. The trails are well marked and it is almost impossible to get lost, the only exception is in the shortcut to El Chileno when hiking from Refugio Cuernos. Here, the trail gets narrow at places and sometimes it seems to disappear. Download a .gpx track on your phone to stay safe. We used the Locus app which can take geo-referenced photos. The ‘W’ track recorded on my phone can be downloaded here. If you don’t have the track on your phone and sunset is approaching when you reach the diversion, it is probably best to avoid the shortcut.
There is plenty of water available in the streams. During most of the journey there is no need to carry more than 500ml. However, check this with the hut staff before heading off. We found plenty of water resupply options except in the section just before arriving at Refugio El Chileno. Regarding water taste and quality, we are no experts but the water looked so clean and tasted so delicious that we did not even bother to use the Sawyer water filter. The rule of thumb is to collect clear flowing water, preferably slightly upstream from where hikers cross the rivers. Be sneaky and drink water at the water source so that you don’t have to carry so much water in your backpack.
Our track of Day 1
Day 1: Refugio Paine Grande to Refugio Grey (13.5km)
We did this section of the ‘W’ after getting off the ferry so this was an afternoon hike. At Refugio Paine Grande we asked about water availabilty and quality along the route. We also left a few things which we did not need to take to Refugio Grey in their storage (sleeping mats and some protein bars). Leaving items there seems to be possible for those who have hut accomodation bookings.
First sight of icebergs in Grey Lake
The technical difficulty of this stretch is easy but it has one short section of moderate difficulty. There is also one spot which is wind-crazy; it reminded me why serious backpacking tent manufactures do wind tunnel testing. Yes, it is that bad; but if your jacket and trousers are really wind-proof and you have a sense of humour, you will probably have a good laugh. At least we did.
Arrival at Refugio Grey
There are many great viewpoints along this section but the first sight of the icebergs and the Grey glacier is truly special. The views of the Grey lake and distant mountains to the west are fantastic. It is possible to see a ferry taking regular tourists from Hotel Lago Grey to the Grey glacier.
Our track of Day 2
Day 2: Refugio Grey to Refugio Paine Grande (19km)
We spent several hours going to the lakeshore’s mirador and then following the trail north towards Campamento los Guardas. This gives a closer look at the Grey Glacier, not only to the ice mass itself but also to the wonderful scars left on the hills by the moving ice mass.
Icebergs near Grey Glacier
After doing this exploration to the north of the Refugio Grey, we went back to the hut and then retraced our Day 1 steps back to Refugio Paine Grande.
On Day 2 we noticed that the colour of the water of Grey Lake is different to that of the Pehoé lake. In fact, all the lakes have different colours. This is caused by the difference in glacial runoff reaching the various lakes. The water colour we see is determined by the amount of light scattered back from the water to our eyes.
Our track of Day 3
Day 3: Refugio Paine Grande to Mirador el Francés to Campamento el Francés (16.4km)
Our goal was to reach the Mirador Británico in the French Valley but because of the weather, we were advised to go as far as the Mirador Francés. Rain slowed us down because we were constantly trying to avoid the puddles.
View of Los Cuernos from Refugio Paine Grande
Bridge crossings... one by one and ♫des-pa-cito♫
Once you reach the Campamento Italiano, you can leave your backpack there and continue hiking with a lightweight (foldable) day pack.
Backpacks left at park ranger station while hiking to Mirador Francés
View at Mirador Francés
The views from Mirador El Francés are beautiful. You will see not just the hanging glacier and the Cuernos del Paine mountains but a wonderful view of Lake Pehoé.
Tent city at Campamento El Francés
Our track of Day 4
Day 4: Campamento El Francés to Mirador el Francés to Campamento El Chileno (18.1km)
This stretch is very beautiful because of the views of the Cuernos del Paine and because the trail borders Lake Nordenskjöld. In fact, at one point we were hiking briefly on the lakeshore itself.
View of Cuernos del Paine from Lake Nordenskjöld
We got fooled into thinking that this stretch was relatively flat but the terrain wasn’t that flat. Basically the trail is flat until Refugio Los Cuernos and thereafter it gets more demanding.
Bridge between El Francés and El Chileno (seems out of a modern art gallery)
When we joined the trail from Refugio Torre Central heading to Campamento El Chileno, we bumped into loads of day-trippers heading to the Mirador Las Torres. This is the only place were we encountered large amounts of people. More on that later…
Trail between Refugio Los Cuernos and El Chileno
The Campamento El Chileno is located in a lovely place right next to the Ascencio river. This campsite has similar services to those offered by El Francés, including the way they handle dining. This means that you will be given a breakfast time slot on the basis of your check-in time (first come, first served on the following morning). Remember the crowd of day-trippers I mentioned before? Well, that breakfast time slot is crucial if you want to beat the day-trippers to the Mirador Las Torres. Believe me, Mirador las Torres is a truly magical place and you will enjoy it much more in solitude.
Tent city at Campamento El Chileno
Our track of Day 5
Day 5: Campamento El Chileno to Mirador las Torres to Refugio Torre Central (18.8km)The trail to the Mirador las Torres follows the Ascencio river and then heads West. The hike is not too demanding until the last kilometre or so, where it does get pretty tough.
Refugio and Campamento El Chileno next to the Ascencio river
Mirador Las Torres: the highlight of a fantastic 5-day hike
The last section of the ‘W’ trail means retracing Day 4’s steps until the shortcut to Refugio Cuernos and then continuing towards Refugio Torre Central.
Knee-grinding section of the descent from Mirador Las Torres
We finally arrived at the private shuttle terminal where backpackers head to Laguna Amarga, which is the departing point of the buses to Puerto Natales. I still can’t believe how beautiful this place was and also how good the park infrastructure was. Would I do this 90-ish kilometre hike again? I would love to, maybe next time giving the longer ‘O’ trail a try.
Trail between Refugio Las Torres and El Chileno overlooking the Ascencio river (busiest section of the ‘W’ due to the day-trippers)
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These suggestions are based on my personal experience on this trail. The selection criteria are based on quality and weight. My assumption is that this will not be your last hike on a trip and that the lighter your backpack, the more you will enjoy hiking.
The weather in this place is very unpredictable so you should select the clothing very carefully. Layering is crucial to make sure that you can handle the weather. Because it can be so windy, don’t put all your trust on your backpack’s cover because a gust can blow that away easily. Line your backpack with a trash bag or use dry bags if you have some. Wind-proof trousers with some water-repellence are ideal if it is windy and it is just drizzling.
Backpack and contents for 5-day hike (spot the small big treat!)
Shoes/socks. You will be walking mostly over hard soil but there are also stretches where you will walk over rock, or even over granite. Walking shoes or boots with a sturdy sole are best. My recommendation is to wear hiking boots because of ankle protection; lightweight trail running shoe-inspired boots are a compromise for those who don't have a history of ankle injuries. (see examples: male or female). A good quality light-weight hiking sock with extra padding is essential to avoid blisters (see examples: male or female).
Remember, shoes could mean make or break
Clothing. Zip-off water repellent stretch hiking trousers are a comfortable and convenient option (see examples: male or female). A thin long-sleeve base layer will help avoid getting burnt. The ideal baselayer for this hike is one that can be washed and dried overnight (see example: male or female). However, a merino layer is one of the most necessary pieces of clothing for this hike. It will keep you warm and you can wear it many days before it starts to stink (see examples: male or female). Many people use this merino layer as base layer but I prefer to use it over a very thin base layer that I can wash and dry overnight. Taking a lightweight wind jacket (see examples: male or female) is definetely worth it for sunny but windy days. Add a fleece (see examples: male or female). Also take waterproof gloves and a couple of Buffs (preferably a normal buff and a polar buff) to protect head and neck. A high quality waterproof jacket is necessary to avoid the weight of your backpack damaging the shoulder area of the jacket and causing water leaking in(examples: male or female ).Note that it can be extremely windy in Torres del Paine (as in wind-crazy), so don't even think about bringing just a poncho, no matter what material it is made of.
Sleeping gear. Having an ultralight sleeping mat and sleeping bag is crucial to keep the backpack's weight down. If you camp, a 3 season down sleeping bag is ideal. If you are not camping, a 2 season down sleeping bag will be warm enough. Try to aim for no more than 1000 grams on your sleeping bag and 400 grams on your sleeping mat.
Hiking poles. Take hiking poles to protect your knees because there are sections of the trail section which are steep.
Photographic equipment and power. An ideal hiking camera should be lightweight, have a large aperture for handling low light scenes and should have a wide angle lens with a minimum full-frame equivalent focal lens of 24 or 28 mm. If you opt for a heavy camera, there are camera straps combining neoprene and elastic to absorb the shock of movements. These straps are so comfortable that they actually make the camera’s weight seem much lower. If you want to record the track using your phone and plan to take photos with it as well, take a powerbank along to avoid running out of battery power.
Other supplies. A responsible hiker takes emergency equipment along. The bare minimum consists of a first aid kit, a headlamp capable of at least 150 lumens, a whistle, a compass (a global compass works in both hemispheres), a map and if cold temperatures are expected, an emergency blanket. Finally, protect your face and lips using sun cream lotion and chap stick.
I found the
Trekking Torres del Paine - Chile's Premier National Park and Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park
guide by Rudolf Abraham to be very useful. For general planning I relied on the
Lonely Planet Chile and Easter Island Travel Guide
Lonely Planet Argentina Travel Guide.
DISCLAIMER: A.L. Montoya-Morales is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and in the Booking.com Affiliate Partner Programme, both of which are affiliate advertising programs designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com and booking.com.