Torres del Paine National Park, the definitive guide
I spent a week in Torres del Paine in January, 2015, completing the “W” trek whilst camping. The information currently available on the web for Torres del Paine is limited and makes planning a trip to this wonderful part of our planet challenging. Avoid spending (entirely unnecessary) money on a tourist / packaged trip, and follow the tips below – we ran into a number of folks that had booked through an agency, and regretted it. Good luck, and have fun!
What is Torres del Paine and why should you care?
Torres del Paine is a fantastically beautiful National Park in Chilean Patagonia –it is hard to reach, incredibly gorgeous, and most geared towards those inclined for trekking, as it simply can’t be seen from behind a wheel. Of my many travels, it is unquestionably among the most beautiful places I’ve been in my life. It features the famous Torres “towers”, which you’ll likely recognize, a hike-able glacier, and pristine turquoise lakes. I It is located on the Southern tip of Chile, a minimum of 2.5 hour drive from any operational airport.
Getting in to TDP
Torres del Paine is removed, to say the least – and getting in is no overly easy feat. The “entry point” to the park is a lovely little lake-side tourist-packed place called Puerto Natales. PN is chock full of hostels, places to rent gear, bodegas / grocery stores, and little mom and pop restaurants, and is an ideal jumping point before beginning a trek or journey into the park.
There are several options to get to Puerto Natales (none of which are particularly convenientJ)
Via Air: There are two primary airports that service TDP:
- Calafate, Argentina: North of the park and in the Argentine side, this is an ideal option really only if you’re coming from Argentina already (direct flights from Buenos Aires) or get some type of serious cost savings. We heard ranges in time to Puerto Natales from Calafate ranging from 6-9 hours (and you have to go through immigration) – so a serious haul. Also, seemed that busses filled up way in advance and I spoke to a lovely Canadian couple that had to wait in Calafate for several days until there was an available bus, so book ahead!
- Punta Arenas, Chile: South of Puerto Natales on the Chilean side. This airport is roughly~2.5 hours from Puerto Natales, with regular bus routes that you can take for ~8,000 pesos. These buses originate in Punta Arenas town (South of the airport), and stop on the airport by request on their way to Puerto Natales – because of this, it is critical to reserve a bus spot ahead of time so you can efficiently hop on after you land. In our case, the bus was fully reserved, so we had to take a taxi 20 minutes South (opposite direction) to Punta Arenas town, before grabbing the next bus. Another option is to rent a car at the airport and drive up to TDP. I talked to a few people who went this route, and it is a reasonable option if you plan on doing primarily day hikes and want an opportunity to drive to different starting points.
o Bus Option: Contact Buses Fernandez to arrange ahead of time (highly advised): email@example.com
o Work with Kayak to reserve a car in Punta Arenas ahead of time: http://www.kayak.com/sem/cars/destination/PUQ?lang=en&gclid=CNfvi8OXq8QCFWQV7AodtH4AbQ
Via Bus: If you’re traveling from elsewhere in Chile, you may be able to find a bus to Puerto Natales (often from Puerto Montt, or from down South). These book up early during high season, so make sure to reserve ASAP! We ran into a number of folks that were
Via Boat: I spoke with a French couple that had booked a boat from Puerto Montt – this boat traverses Fjords and glaciers, and seemed like a cool option to get in for those into seafaring.
Once in Puerto Natales, any of the hostels / trek renters can sell you a bus ticket that goes in to the park in ~2 hours. All buses leave from the bus station at set / predetermined times – most tickets will include a return trip as well at several designated times on the back of the ticket. While you can probably pick up a ride the morning of your trip, I’d advise booking ahead.
To REALLY see the park, I highly recommend opting for the “W” or “O” trek. I did the W as 5 days worked with my time-frame and allows one to really hit the highlights, though the “O” (covering the entire “W” + the backside of the park) received rave reviews from the folks I spoke with, so if you have the time (~8–9 days), give it a shot. There were a number of travelers that opted for shorter options — i.e. increasing the pace / skipping pieces and doing the W in 3–4 days — though if you can make it work logistically, 5 days really was an appropriate amount of time. If you’re not on a time budget, we even talked to folks that even extended the “W” to 6 days to reduce the daily pace and leave room for bad weather. Day trips are also possible to see specific parts of the park, though the “W” or “O” will give you the true flavor.
The “Erratic Rock” hostel (in Puerto Natales) has a daily 3pm debrief to discuss the ins and outs of the park, and provide advice — they recommend a 5 day W route that goes from West to East, which is quite similar to what we did, and which I would certainly recommend. A map is included below with the route I selected, and some additional options depending on your interests / time availability.
While trekking Torres del Paine, you have two primary options to lay your head at night:
Camping — self-explanatory — you can either bring all of your own gear or rent in Puerto Natales at reasonable prices. You can also pair an under the stars camping experience with cooked food by stopping at the refugios for meals. Note that campers will typically carry all gear / food, which necessitates having a larger bag (50+ L), and adds significant weight. Camping would be my recommendation for the “full” experience — though if you have a bad back, or don’t like the outdoors, you could consider..
Refugios — dorm-style accommodations that also have food / drink available –these are the only non-camping indoor options on the trail. While certainly a more comfortable way to enjoy the “W” trek, they fill up quickly, allow less flexibility, and are significantly more expensive than camping (though not outrageous, most nights will be ~$80/bed). These need to be booked ahead of time which is difficult without knowing the route, as there are two different lodging companies that you’ll need to book through separately(with the specific nights, etc.) . If you follow the below advice, that means: Vertice (Night 1, Grey; Night 2, Grande) and Fantastico Sur — (Night 3, Cuernos; Night 4, Chileno)
My Experience with the W trek — recommendations and potential variations
The following recommendation is based on the 5-day W trek, camping, going West → East. I’ll include iterations / modifications for those looking to stay in Refugios, as well as alternative routes. If you’re camping you have a fair bit of flexibility and can “play it by ear” in some cases (continue to the next camping area, or stop and rest for the night), as advance reservations are not needed, so I’ll indicate this throughout. Follow along day-by-day with the below map.
Activity: You’ll take a bus from the central bus station in Puerto Natales, and get off at the 2nd stop at Lake Pehoe (the 1st stop everyone will need to get off to buy the park entrance — you’ll then reboard the bus and continue on). At the lake, you’ll board a catamaran (they have limited capacity so head straight there from the bus to get in line!) that will take you to Paine Grande. Be warned, sitting on the top deck is a chilling (but gorgeous) way to make the trip. Once you arrive in Paine Grande, you’ll begin the ~4 hour upward journey to Glacier Grey (1). Today’s an easy day — get to camp early and rest up! Consider adding an additional 2 hours RT by heading up to Los Guardas for another view of the Glacier.
Lodging: Campsite Grey (at Refugio Grey — paid, but cheap), or the Refugio
Alternative Options: If you continue up to Los Guardas there is a (free) camping option there as well. Alternatively, if you’re feeling particularly ambitious (or short on time), you could also turn around once hitting the Glacier / Refugio, and make the 3 hour downhill trek back to Paine Grande the same day.
Activity: While prepping for the trip in the Erratic Rock, we’d heard there was an opportunity to go glacier trekking / kayaking on Glacier Grey. According to these folks, the guides hang out every night at the Refugio, and their level of drunkenness / merriment determines the time the group heads out the next morning. While we didn’t meet or see the referred to gentlemen at the Refugio, here’s what I can tell you: There is an agency called “Big Foot Adventures” set up at Refugio Grey (from the Refugio keep on going and swing a left instead of going to the glacier) — they operate both a glacier trek as well as kayaking, and potentially some other “glacier-y” activities. We showed up at 8:30am morning of without any prior reservation, and were luckily able to join 2 others who were heading out for a glacier trek that morning (2a). This was an absolute highlight on the trip, and is HIGHLY recommended. The guide provides you crampons and other requisite gear, and you get dropped off via boat at the glacier. We spent about 3–4 hours on the glacier — trekking, ice climbing, and taking photos — it was magnificent. The all-in cost was ~$120, which is relatively inexpensive for what we got. Do it!! Following the trek (completely and utterly exhausted), we hiked the 3–4 hours back down to Paine Grande. (2b)
Lodging: Campsite Paine Grande (paid but cheap), or Refugio Paine Grande (for the high-rollers)
Alternative Options: I’d actually recommend camping at Italiano (free campsite, another 3 hours from Paine Grande, 3a on the map) if you’re up for it — extenuating circumstances forced us to stop at Paine Grande, but continue on if the legs are feeling good!
Day 3 (big day!)
Activity: If you camped at Grande, hike the 3 hours up to Camp Italiano (3a), and drop your main pack. From here, it’s a pretty grueling ~3 hour uphill trek to Britannico (3b) — if the weather holds, you’re in for a stunning climb. Despite weather warnings (i.e. folks told us we’d be able to see nothing), we had a wonderfully sunny vista, and the views, particularly from the top of the French Valley, were incredible. Take your camera, a water bottle, and nothing else. After having a bite to eat at the peak (personally, I recommend bringing avocados), make the 2.5 hour descent back to Italiano (3c), where you can grab your pack, and take a quick break. Next, continue on another ~3 hours to Refugio Cuernos (3d)— try and get in at a decent hour, as we got in quite late and our tent was in a horrible location (rocks, no space, yuk). Note that this campsite is right on the lake and incredibly windy — make sure to tie down your tent with rocks, and anything else you can find — several tents unhitched the night we were there! That said, this campsite is stunningly gorgeous.
Lodging: Campsite Cuernos, Refugio Cuernos (for the high-rollers)
Alternative Options: Campsite Frances is between Italiano and Cuernos — not a bad option especially if you find it getting late as you make your way to Cuernos
Activity: Leave Cuernos and begin heading towards Refugio Chileno via the “shortcut” (4a)— you’ll come to a cross-roads with an option of heading down to Hotel Torres, or taking the “shortcut” to Chileno, at which point you’ll take said “Shortcut”. It’s ~6 hours to Chileno, so get in for a late lunch, hot chocolate, and a beer or 2. Many warn that if you stop at Chileno, you won’t continue and will end up staying for the night. They have a point — we arrived mid-blizzard, and it was very tempting to stay in the warmth. Though many will stay at the Refugio or camp here, my strong recommendation is to continue on another ~ 2 hours (4b) to the free Torres Campsite.
Lodging: Torres Campsite (free!!), or Refugio Cuernos
Alternative Options: The main alternative is electing to stay at Chileno instead of going all the way up to Torres. If you’re gunning for the sunrise on day 5, staying at Camp Torres is recommended to avoid doing the entire trek in the dark.
Activity: If you’re getting up for the sunrise (you should), you’ll want to wake up at ~3:45am (depending on season), leave your gear at the base, and trek up the ~1 hour (5a) to catch the sunrise at the towers. The Torres Towers light up in a majestic reddish tint with the sun, and it’s not to be missed. Hang out here for as long as you please, before heading back down (5b) to pack up camp. After a quick breakfast, make your way down to Chileno (5c), stopping once again for hot cocoa and a sandwich, and finally to Hotel Torres (5d) at the base, where you can take a shuttle to the bus that brings you to Puerto Natales. You did it!
Lodging: Advise heading to Base Camp (adjacent to Erratic Rock) for their (amazing!) pizza, and laying your head somewhere in Puerto Natales for the night before making moves on a bus the following morning. These buses do fill up, so book before you leave on the trek.
What should I pack?
Preparedness for a trek of this nature cannot be understated — the hike is extreme and will expose you to the elements (even when staying in refugios), so having the right gear is of the utmost importance. This is taken from a list we prepared beforehand, and includes insights from things we missed, and regretted taking. I’ve also indicated which items can be rented in Puerto Natales (most), and which you really need to have with you.
Note: If you plan on camping, it will significantly add to the weight of your pack (items for campers only called out below)
What not to pack
- Too much clothing!! Most people we spoke with regretted over-packing, as lugging that 25 kilo bag around for 5 days can be a doozy
- Water — a water bottle is sufficient as you can pick up wonderful clean glacier water throughout the park
A note on renting equipment: While we love the Erratic Rock / Base Camp, they definitely are not the cheapest place in town to rent your gear. Shop around, and make sure you set up the tent first before you agree to rent it (remember, it is your home for 4–5 nights!).
Sounds awesome — but what’s this going to cost me?
From Santiago, it’s not as pricey as you might think — here’s my best estimate of approximate costs, though it will vary based on camping, what you need to rent, additional activities (i.e. glacier trekking), and if you need to fly Round Trip(or are coming from elsewhere in Chile)
This stands as being perhaps the single most memorable experience of my life. Will you be roughing it? Certainly. Will it be worth it? Certainly! E-mail me with any thoughts or questions: Jeremy@travelgenome.com