Itinerary: Torres del Paine > Puerto Natales > Punta Arenas
“Wow, it’s just…so beautiful.”
These are the words I repeatedly uttered like a broken record the six days my brother and I roamed through Torres del Paine National Park. And I think he would have been annoyed if he hadn’t been having the same reaction to the stunning landscapes we encountered.
Let me start by saying that visiting the park at the end of April mere days before hiking trails and campsites close for the winter is a gamble at best. On a good day in the height of summer, you can still expect to experience all four seasons in the harsh Patagonian climate. At the end of fall and start of winter, you’ve got to be prepared for the worst.
Case and point, we had originally planned to do a somewhat aggressive 6-day circuit or ‘O’ Trek, but upon arrival, we were told that the John Garner pass was closed due to snow and high winds, effectively shutting down the ‘backside’ and any circuit attempts. And though this news was disappointing, because it was the shoulder season, we were able to easily shift our campsite reservations to a leisurely backwards 'W' Trek. (See map: red was original ‘O’ route, and blue was our final ‘W’ route. Numbers indicate campsites for each night of the trip. Map courtesy of park service.)
I say ‘backwards’ because most people tackle the W Trail west-to-east, saving the infamous Torres for the end. We had intended to do the circuit starting and finishing at Las Torres, so we found ourselves on the east side to start. As it happens, the Torres were also closed due to bad weather when we arrived, so we figured we would hike the W in reverse and loop back to Las Torres at the end, crossing our fingers they might reopen by the time we got back…
Catching the 2:30 pm bus from Puerto Natales, we spent our first night at the Central Torres campsite, talking to some sodden trekkers who had spent the last few days slogging through downpours and muddy tracks. Having just had our plan flipped on its head due to weather, my brother and I shared a feeling of foreboding as we tied down our tent and hunkered down against the wind. We were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by warm sunshine the following morning as we set off on our first day of hiking. I don’t know what else to say other than it was a beautiful day, and I was so happy to share the lovely scenery with my brother.
We stopped for lunch at Los Cuernos, a beautiful campsite tucked into the hills, overlooking Lake Nordernskjöld. We continued onto the Francés campsite and settled into our platform for the night. This campground reputably has the worst mice problem of all the sites along the W Trail, and I can confirm seeing and hearing several scurrying around the tent platforms. A fellow hiker found that they’d gotten into her backpack and quinoa, which she thought she’d secured safely in a tree. We also heard of a couple who had brought boxed wine into their tent with them, only to wake up in a red puddle, the mice having chewed through both their tent and the box. I’m happy to report our gear and food was spared.
The following morning, we woke up early to catch sunrise as we set off on our second day of hiking (the middle part of the ‘W’). When we got to the Italiano campsite, we were allowed to drop our overnight backpacks at the ranger station for the quick out-and-back to the Británico lookout. We were told that we might only make it as far as the Francés viewpoint because further along the trail had been closed to snow the days before. But as we climbed our way up, our luck prevailed, and we were able to make it all the way. Score!
After lunch at Italiano, we continued onto Refugio Paine Grande, where we set up camp for the next two nights. When we rewrote our route, we decided to do the western part of the ‘W’ to Glacier Grey as an out-and-back day trip from Paine Grande, giving us an extra day of hiking without overnight gear on our backs. And I must say, this was a great way to go — you can really fly without the extra weight!
We were welcomed to our third day of hiking by a beautiful sunrise. Then we set off from Paine Grande with light day packs and made it to Refugio Grey for lunch, seated at a lookout over the glacier. Pushing on a little further, we managed to hike to the second suspension bridge on the way to the Paso campsite before turning back, arriving back at Paine Grande just as heavy rain started to fall and the sky turned to black. (Definitely try to make it to the second bridge if you can - so much more impressive than the first!)
The following day, we had a bit of a lie-in and enjoyed a relaxed breakfast as we waited for the ferry to take us across Lake Pehoé, so we could take the bus back to the eastern Las Torres entrance. From there, we hoofed it up to Refugio Chileno, where we rewarded our efforts and celebrated our last night on the trail with a bottle of red wine and lavish dinner prepared by the lodge. It was quite cold at Chileno, with some snow sticking to the ground and every inch around the lodge fireplace covered with damp gear. As of that evening, the Torres lookout was still closed due to snow, so we went to bed with fingers crossed but also with a healthy appreciation of everything we’d seen so far, knowing that might be it for our W Trek.
Our last day in the park, we were digging into the lodge breakfast when the crowd at Chileno collectively gasped as the Torres peeked out from the clouds and shone in the morning sun. (I should note here that many people prefer to make the sunrise excursion to the lookout, but not knowing whether it would be open, my bother and I decided against the early wakeup call.) We quickly packed up camp, leaving our overnight gear in the lodge, and raced up the trail, which was miraculously open. As we made our way to the top, we trod carefully across the icy path and snow buildup. And when we crested the ridge to find the majestic Torres looming over the lake below, I just about squealed in delight, surprised at our unbelievable good weather fortune.
We spent an hour absorbing the sun and sights, feeling the triumph of our trip sink in. Then we made our way back to Chileno to collect our things and back to the park entrance to catch the evening bus back to Puerto Natales. That night we indulged in a hot shower, hung out all our damp gear to dry, and downed a delicious pizza and dessert at Base Camp. It was a perfect ending to a perfect trek.
The next day we slept in and wandered around town a bit, but given it was the shoulder-almost-off season, Puerto Natales was a bit of a ghost town. We caught an afternoon bus to Punta Arenas, where we enjoyed a nice (chilly) evening, walking around the city and grabbing dinner before preparing ourselves to fly out the next day.
After pining over Patagonia for years (no exaggeration) and drooling over pictures of Torres del Paine, I can proudly state that it did not disappoint, and if anything, it exceeded my highest hopes. I will forever remember my great visit to this wild, wonderful place.
Next Stop: New Zealand
DETAILS, TIPS & TRICKS
Planning Your Trip to Torres del Paine
- WHEN TO GO: The ‘high' season is October 1st through April 30th. Outside this window, many campsites close down, and the O Trail is inaccessible without a guide; apparently you can still hike the W, but it resources are limited and buses don’t run regularly (if at all). Summer is Dec-Feb when the weather is warmest and campsites are at capacity — RESERVE WELL IN ADVANCE! Fortunately in the shoulder seasons (Oct-Nov and Mar-Apr), there are less people, and you have a little more flexibility to determine where you stay as you go. You will still need to have proof of reservations to enter the park. I loved the fall colors of April!
- Bear in mind that when you go will determine how many hours of sunlight you will have. If you plan to pack in a lot of mileage or have a slower pace, you’ll be better off in the summer months when there are extra hours of sunlight.
- Also good to note that buses and ferries run less frequently in the shoulder season. Be sure to check timetables and ask about any closures upon arrival at the ranger station/welcome center.
- WHERE TO STAY: There are two private companies that operate various campgrounds through the parks: Fantastico Sur and Vertice. Additionally, there are a few free campsites that the CONAF park service operates, but availability is limited, and the Torres campsite is closed. More details on reservations here. Book your campsites based on the route you’d like to take (W or O) and mileage you want to cover each day. There’s a really great breakout of the distances and expected time on the park map here. To note, the campgrounds offer a variety of amenities from mere tent sites to full room and board. At Chileno, for example, you are required to purchase full board, whereas others allow you to choose. (However expensive, Chileno is a really great location if you want to try for sunrise at the Torres, so the full board may be worth it!) If you don’t want to carry full gear, you can reserve tents, which is a nice option when it’s really rainy.
- There is a ton of information out there on the two treks — some conservative for average fitness, and others more aggressive for serious backpackers. Be realistic with what you want to achieve and bake in time to stop and absorb the scenery. More information here and here. It is important to note that the O circuit can only be done counterclockwise.
- WHAT TO BRING: This depends on what kind of trekking you want to do: basic backpacking or refugio fashion. There are plenty of packing lists out there. Here is a very high-level list, and another very detailed list. I would say that basic backpacking requirements apply, with a few extra considerations:
- Be sure to bring rope to tie down your tent, and do so carefully so that it doesn’t tear in the wind.
- No need for bear canisters or spray, but you will need to tie up your food to keep away from mice.
- No need for water pumps or filtration — you can fill up at all the campsites. There are also really nice toilet and shower facilities at most of the campgrounds, so skip the trowel and bring a towel (if you fancy).
- Definitely bring rain jacket, pants, waterproof shoes and rain cover for your backpack. If your shoes are not waterproof, you’ll want camp sandals to change into. You’ll also want at least one change of clothes to be dry at night, but expect to wear soggy clothing the next day as things don’t dry out quickly. Dry bags for sleeping bags or bag liners are also worthy investments.
- Layers, layers and more layers. I found it was really nice to have proper snow gloves, and definitely used my warm beanie. Warm socks are a must!
- No need to bring extra gas for cookers — many travelers leave used canisters at the campgrounds, so you can pilfer the communal pile.
- Micro-spikes are useful to have on hand for icy morning hiking if you don’t have the best tread, but full-on crampons and ice axes aren’t necessary. Hiking poles are also useful.