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THE W TREK IN TORRES DEL PAINE

January 14, 2017

Quick facts:

  • Time: 4 days / 3 nights
  • Distance: approx. 82km (60km with the French Valley closed)
  • Highlights: Las Torres, French Valley and Glacier Grey
  • Best time to go: October to April (busiest December – March; I hiked it early November)
  • My cost: CLP 201,500; USD$300; CAD$400 (refer to the cost breakdown at the end)

Campsite reservations:

Torres del Paine overview

Torres del Paine National Park lies in southern Patagonia. It stretches 181,414 hectares and is full of mountains, glaciers, valleys, breathtaking turquoise lakes and many more natural beauties. The most popular hiking routes are the Circuit (6-8 days) and the W (4-5 days). While I cannot comment on the Circuit, the W trek is beginner friendly as the trails are well marked, the elevation is minimal (1000m at Las Torres) and most of the uphill portions are not steep (except for the 1hr hike up to Las Torres). Camping equipment can also be rented (at a premium price to renting in Puerto Natales) at the paid campsites for those not wanting to carry the extra weight or you can stay in the dorm-like refugios $$. Water is drinkable directly from the streams in the park (no need for filters). In the summer months, daylight can last from about 6am to 10pm, making longer hiking days more feasible. Refer to the table at the end for a breakdown of what it cost me to do the W trek in 4 days (as well as a packing list and key tips).

The free camps are Base Torres and Italiano (run by CONAF), which must be reserved in advance. As of October 2016, CONAF limits the capacity at Base Torres – this needs to be booked well in advance. Fantasico Sur operates El Chileno, Torres Central, Los Cuernos and Frances campsites. Vertice Patagonia runs Paine Grande and Camp Grey. All reservations can be made online – note that for Vertice Patagonia, to book a campsite online, you must do so at least 72hours prior to your arrival date (lesson learned).

Getting organized

Having a love for the outdoors and hiking, the Patagonia region has always fascinated me. I knew Torres del Paine was a must-do even though I hadn’t researched it much before arriving in Chile. The only multi-day hike I had previously done was the 5 day Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu one year prior (which was guided). Based on reading a few blogs, I knew I could do the W trek on my own and started asking people at hostels about their experiences. I was told I could just show up in Puerto Natales and figure everything out there, which I did (though I wouldn’t recommend – book your campsites in advance).

On a walking tour in Cordoba, Argentina, I met another traveler who opted to do the hike with me. Five days later, we woke up bright and early for our morning flight to El Calafate. We took a bus to Puerto Natales the next evening (5hrs, ARS500; USD$32; CAD$42) after seeing the Perito Moreno glacier, leaving us one full day to sort everything out. Given there was so much else to see in Patagonia, we opted to do the W trek in 4 days instead of the full circuit. However, I will definitely be back someday to do the circuit.

We rented all the equipment from our hostel, El Patagonico, for approx. CLP7,050 (USD$10; CAD$14) per day. Andres and Monica, the owners, were wonderful in getting everything for us (and helping me locate my lost passport, whoops). All we needed to do was book our campsites and get our food supplies. Simple, right?

If you have read other blogs and if you go to the free Erratic rock session in Puerto Natales, you will likely hear its best to hike west to east and see the Torres at sunrise on your last day. This was our initial plan but plans change.

We arrived in early November at the beginning of high season and needless to say, Base Torres was full (and full for the next three weeks). Being a Saturday as well, the two companies that run the other camping sites, Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia, had shorter office hours. Vertice had already closed and you cannot book their campsites within three days of booking. With these hiccups, we changed our route to hike east to west.

Paying a premium, as we wanted to attempt the sunrise at Las Torres, we booked camping at El Chileno. This campsite is expensive (US$82) because it includes full-board (dinner, breakfast and a takeway lunch) as there are no cooking facilities available. You can skip sunrise and save money by camping at Torres Central (CLP8,500; USD$14). We booked Camp Italiano online and just had to hope for the best when we showed up to Camp Grey.

Our trek plan looked like this:

  • Day 1: Bus to the park + hike to El Chileno (camp) + Las Torres in the afternoon
  • Day 2: Sunrise at the Torres + hike to Italiano (camp)
  • Day 3: Hike to Camp Grey (camp) + hike to the various Glacier Grey lookouts
  • Day 4: Hike to Paine Grande + catch the ferry across Lake Pehoe + bus to Puerto Natales

We grabbed most of our supplies from the local supermarkets and anything else, from the big supermarket in town. Many of the items we needed were actually a little cheaper at the local supermarkets. We prepped our food, packed our bags and tried to get a good sleep. (Refer to the packing list and key tips)

The actual hike

Day 1 (13.5km, 5.5hrs):

6am rise and shine to catch the 7:30am bus to the park. While most people tried to sleep for the 2.5hr journey, I couldn’t help but stare out the window and admire the scenery. There is just something about the Patagonia landscapes that gets me.

We arrived at the park to surprisingly lovely weather despite the forecast calling for rain, strong winds and cold temperatures during our entire trek. Tip: Don’t trust the weather forecast. We registered, paid our fees (CLP 21,000; USD$32; CAD$42), watched the safety video and hopped on the CLP3,000 (USD$4; CAD$6) shuttle to Hosteria Torres. You could also walk, which is approximately 7km on a gravel road.

Walking pass the hotel and onto the trail head towards El Chileno, I knew this trek would be brilliant as we headed towards some of the most stunning and dramatic landscapes I had seen. The trek to El Chileno took 1.5 hours with just a couple of water and photo breaks. The walk was almost entirely uphill but not too steep. We were quite comfortable wearing long-sleeve shirts with the pace we were going but it was a little brisk when the strong winds blew. We arrived at El Chileno at noon and opted to take a lunch break. Tip: While hard-boiled eggs make an easy protein packed snack, they do stink up your pack even when double bagged.

As the organized hiking tours starting to come in, we headed off to Las Torres, which took 2 hours. All we brought were some snacks, water and an extra layer of clothing. It was only about 4km from the refugio but muddy and snowy for most of the first 3km, which was through a forest with some good viewpoints. If you don’t like mud and wet feet, learn to embrace the mushy feeling (especially if you wear running shoes like I did).

The last kilometer took an hour as it was all uphill, slippery and very windy. This is the first time other hikers started to comment on my choice of footwear. The views at the top were so much better than any photos I had seen and because we headed up early, we beat the tour groups and day trippers and enjoyed the views with only ten other hikers around. We took some photos and just sat, admiring the views for about 45min while snacking on some dried fruit, nuts and of course, chocolate.

Coming down took just as long as going up given the weather and trail conditions. A couple of times, I even questioned my footwear. We were eager to get our tent set up and warm up in the refugio (since we were paying a hefty price). This truly was luxury camping and a good intro to camping for Diana with hot showers and hot meals. They even helped us set up our tent on the wooden platforms provided. Hint: the showers and facilities were nicer in the refugio than the ones designated for the camping. Making new friends at dinner (which was delicious) and talking about the sunrise, we started reassessing our plan for day 2 thinking of the mud and water we walked through frozen at 4am while in the dark in running shoes. So we decided to pull out the bottle of pisco that we brought to keep warm and enjoyed our friends’ company for the next hour.

Day 2 (16.5km, 6hrs):

Rather than waking up at 3:30am, we enjoyed a sleep-in to 7am. Breakfast consisted of eggs, cereal, bread, cheese and meats, coffee/tea, orange juice and fruit. We anticipated leaving by 8am but stayed in the refugio until 9:30am trying to warm up our feet by the fireplace. It was very cold at night despite wearing wool socks and having warm sleeping bags. I was also held up talking to a few people just finishing the Circuit, which is when I knew I’d be back someday to hike it. We packed up the tent and started out.

Heading to Italiano, we opted for the ‘shortcut to Los Cuernos’ path, which took an hour to reach. For the next 5 hours, we enjoyed the turquoise waters of Lake Nordenskjold on our left and the revealing of Los Cuernos (‘the horns’) on our right. I couldn’t get enough of the vibrant colours and the dramatic landscapes surrounding us.

Realizing we’d reach Italiano mid-afternoon, we thought about going up the French Valley. When we arrived, signs were posted at the ranger station and at the trail head indicating the valley was closed due to strong winds. Apparently, it had only been open one day within the previous week.

With no sign of the park ranger and the door to his station closed, we found a place to set up our tent and took a nap. Italiano is a free campsite with just a couple of toilets and a shelter for cooking. It is in the woods and there is a stream nearby for water supply. The winds were strong and we had to use rocks and logs for extra support with our tent. Lucky enough, we got there early and found a fairly smooth place to set up with no rocks or tree roots even though it had a minor slant. People arriving later in the day weren’t always so lucky. You are supposed to give a reservation code to the ranger, but no one came by to check – this might be more necessary for the busier months.

We had saved our boxed lunches for dinner and just snacked earlier in the day. As the winds howled, we hid in our tent sipping on some pisco, eating chocolate and laughing all evening.

Day 3 (31.6km, 7.5hrs):

We woke up early hoping to hike up the French Valley but it was still closed, sigh. Changing our plans again, we hiked to Paine Grande to find out where we could stay our third night. Given we were hiking faster than the mapped signs and the weather was good, we decided to make Glacier Grey a day trip (22km) and leave our big packs at Paine Grande. Waiting to check-in, we met a number of hikers that thought we were crazy for attempting to hike what we did in one day (it was a long day of hiking with just under 32km but made it

Paine Grande was the windiest camp site yet, completely out in the open. I should mention that we had to reposition our tent a couple of times due to the winds. Tents should be as close to the hills as possible and rocks were needed on all pegs for this site. After eating some lunch, we set off. Motivated by the idea of happy hour at Paine Grande, we hiked fast. The winds were fierce, nearly blowing me over a few times. I also wondered why no blogs I read about this trek talked about this part of the hike. There was quite a bit of up and down for the 11km stretch out to Camp Grey and the path was rockier. As a number of hikers struggled with their big packs, we kept thinking how nice it was we just had my day bag.

Three hours later, we reached Camp Grey and headed straight to the first mirador 1km (15min) away. I have to admit, after seeing the Perito Moreno Glacier just a few days before, the initial shock factor was subdued. It was still an impressively vast and beautiful glacier nonetheless. Tip: If you have time (and do try to make time), hike to the next mirador (4km away) which goes across a suspension bridge and gets you closer to the glacier. We didn’t do this as we were worried about the ups and downs ahead of us on the walk back to Paine Grande (and wanted to make it before happy hour ended at 7pm).

Turns out we didn’t have anything to worry about, as it took 2 hours to return. In all fairness, we did trail run the last 10 minutes in excitement of seeing Lake Pehoe and knowing we were done. Had we known it was this fast, we would have gladly hiked to that second mirador! Onward ho and we went up to the bar, meeting a couple Swiss girls from our hostel. Four rounds of pisco sours later, it was time to shower and eat. The shower and cooking facilities were very nice and the lodge itself seemed nicer than El Chileno. What was supposed to be a nice hot pasta meal turned into soup and crackers as the pasta and sauce were misplaced (to be enjoyed later when we returned to the hostel). Luckily I even brought the soup, which was unappealing a few times I brought it out before. We went back to the lodge to continue celebrating.

Day 4 (2km, 30min):

I was wide awake by 7am even though our boat didn’t leave until 11am. It could have been from the wind practically blowing the tent in (even though we had a really good North Face tent). I packed my things and headed to the lodge to enjoy the warmth and say goodbye to a few new friends just starting their treks. As the clouds rolled in, I got Diana up to take down the tent. Sure enough, it started raining and we packed it up wet. Having been the only rain during the 4 days, it was fine. By the time we boarded the boat, the sun came out again.

While we waited for the bus on the other side of Lake Pehoe, we walked to the nearby waterfall which only took 15 minutes. The winds were still fierce with guides warning people not to get too close to the edge. We both napped on the bus back to Puerto Natales and enjoyed hot showers and comfy beds at our hostel that night.

Overall thoughts

I am still in awe of how amazing this trek was, and how well Diana did for her first camping and multi-day hiking experience (it definitely won’t be her last). Having seen lots of mountains, the landscapes here were jaw-dropping for pretty much every minute of the trek. I will definitely return to this park and hike the full circuit next time.

My packing list

  • Tent + sleeping bag + mat
  • Stove + gas + Cooking pot + plates + cutlery
  • Sponge + small dish soap
  • Toiler paper
  • Water bottle
  • Headlamp
  • Excess zip block bags and garbage bags
  • Basic toiletries (face wipes, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant, hand wash)
  • Basic first aid supplies
  • Sunscreen
  • Clothing:

    • *If it had rained, waterproof pants would be handy
  • Food:
      • Breakfast: Granola + mandarins (if you’re a coffee person, bring it)
      • Lunch and Snacks:
        • Carrot sticks
        • Hard-boiled eggs (note these get smelly)
        • Crackers + cheese slices
        • Mandarins
        • Chocolate bars
        • Nuts and dried fruit
      • Dinner: Pasta + tomato soup for the sauce; instant soup

    • *Keep in mind El Chileno was full-board so we had 3 fewer meals to think about

Key tips:

  • Book campsites at least a few weeks in advance if you want to free camp at Las Torres and Italiano
  • Do not leave your supply shopping to the end of the day, the line-ups took about 40 minutes to check-out at Unimarc and about 20 minutes at the local supermarkets
  • Practice setting up your rental tent before hitting the park
  • When setting up your tent, put the tent and peg bags in your pocket or high chance, they’ll fly away
  • Portion food in zip-block bags
  • Sleeping bag should be good for at minimum -10°C temperatures
  • Pack your sleeping bag and clothes in garbage bags to keep dry in case it rains
  • Backpack covers tend to blow off, don’t rely on these to keep your stuff dry
  • Embrace wet feet – this will happen
  • Keep expectations low on the weather front (its unpredictable)
  • Have fun and enjoy!
Torres del Paine cost breakdown      
Item CLP USD CAD
Roundtrip bus to the Park      15,000 $       22 $       30
Park entrance      21,000 $       31 $       42
Lake Pehoe boat      18,000 $       27 $       36
Shuttle to Hotel Torres      3,000 $         4 $         6
El Chileno camp 1      49,500 $       74 $       98
Camp Italiano      28,200 $       42 $       56
Paine Grande camp      6,000 $         9 $       12
Happy hour drinks 2      16,500 $       25 $       33
Food and supplies for 4 days      16,100 $       24 $       32
Gear rental for 4 days      28,200 $       42 $       56
Total 3    201,500 $     300 $     400
* Cost per person
Note 1: Pre-book for free camping at Base Torres or camp at Central Torres for CLP 8,500 instead
Note 2: Happy hour drinks not necessary (but fun)
Note 3: Does not include accomodation for night before and after in Puerto Natales. I paid CLP24,000 (USD$36, CAD$48) for two nights.