These are two of the most spectacular treks in the world, but are neither strenuous nor difficult to access. This is the best guide to the Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Treks, in-print or online. This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for hiking Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were missing essential information, out-of-date, or just plain wrong. Here is the information gathered from our recent Circuit Trek in Torres de Paine.
Table of Quick Links to Plan Your Torres del Paine Trek
|Quick Links to: A Step by Step Planner for Your Torres Del Paine Trek|
|Step 1: Pick W Trek or Circuit Trek||Step 2: Plan day by day Intineary||Step 3: Reserve campsites, meals…|
|Step 4: Plan your Gear (w Gear List)||Step 5: Plan your Food (w Food List)||Step 6: FAQs, notes, tips and tricks|
|Quick Links to General Information: Maps, GPX files, and Transportation|
|Itinerary: W Trek in 3 to 4 days||Itinerary: Circuit Trek in 5-6 days||Table of hiking times/distances|
|Maps of W Trek and Circuit Trek||Official 2017 Park Trekking Map||GPX File W Trek and Circuit Trek|
|Transportation: Buses & Ferries||Cooking, Camp Stoves, & Fires||Weather and Tents|
|CONAF continues to make logistical changes to this trek over time. Check this grey box for the latest important changes. Below are the top informational items to note for your trek for the 2018-2019 season.|
Campamento Torres (área de acampar Torres) will be closed for the 18-19 season! This has significant implications for the W Trek, As a backup until this resolves, you could consider booking Campamento Chileno (Área de acampar Chileno) with Fantastico Sur. It’s plus an hour or a bit longer hike up to the Torres de Paine (vs. C. Torres), but still doable. Because they have the monopoly, last year they only booked hikers who paid for full meals. Expect the same for the 2018-2019 season.
In January, 2017, CONAF instituted quotas and we expect these to continue for 2018-2019 for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek
You need to have all your campsite reservations in place before you enter the park. “You need to show reservations at each campsite in order to stay. This is being enforced. There are limited campsites so making your reservation is essential. (Overcrowding last year caused camp latrines to collapse and many people got sick. Due to this, multiple campsites are now permanently closed.)”
There is a 80 person per day limit for the “Backside” (non-W portion) of the Circuit Trek. This is passively regulated by the campsite reservation system (that is, if you have all your campsite reservations you are part of the 80 people per day allowed). This is being strictly enforced! There is a guard house (Guardería Coirón) on the backside operated by CONAF and and you’ll be asked to show proof of your reservations to proceed. Note: We have received reports of trekkers without reservations being sent back. [see Official 2017 Park Trekking Map]
Per CONAF: “If you are unable to book in all the camps you want to visit, you must adapt your itinerary according to the camps you could get. Consider that there are two other camping and shelter providers where you can book:Fantastico Sur* and Vertice*. We remind you that if you do not have the corresponding reservations you will not be able to access the mountain trails and you should plan other visit options, as there will be control points where you must show the voucher or confirmation email of your reservation.”
*Note: Can’t get a site on Vertice/Fantastico? Switch to ‘book in chilean pesos’ – yes it switches to Spanish, but google translate can help you out.
The back page of the Official 2017 Park Trekking Map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. This map will still get you everything you need for the trek.
WHEN CAN I BOOK MY RESERVATIONS?
Fantastico Sur: has posted their rates online, but it does not look like they are taking reservations on their website yet.
However, below are three buttons—one has the rates for the 2018/2019 season, one is the booking form (you can email the form to make a reservation — may take a while), and the last is their policies including cancelation info. For the 2017-2018 season, their refugios in the W were open October 1-April 30, Circuit October 1-March 31.
Vertice: Has their 2018-2019 dates posted already and it looks like they are booking reservations . Their W refugios are open September 1-April 30, Circuit November 1-March 30. Check their website for latest prices.
CONAF: Says that reservations can be made only six months in advance (180 days before you go) for their sites of Italiano (open October-April) and Paso (open November-April).
Note: this is a trip guide. We are not a booking agency and have no special access to Vertice, Fantastico Sur & CONAF. As such, your best strategy is to deal directly with V, FS & CONAF yourself. Wishing you a great trek and we will continue to post information as we receive it. Warmest, -Alan and Alison
WHEN DOES THE PARK REALLY OPEN? Over the years we have received reports of some confusion and disarray in TdP, particularly around opening dates. So, keep in mind that the required booking system is still somewhat new to the park and clearly causing a lot more work for Fantastico and Vertice employees. As such, there is bound to be a difficult transition from the older, more free flowing system to this new stricter one. Our advice would be to continue to try and keep the communication lines open by contacting all parties, CONAF, Fantastico, and Vertice using all email addresses, Facebook, and phone. Also keep in mind that all three of these agencies are distinct and most likely do not communicate amongst themselves. You are the only thing they have in common which puts the burden on you to figure out what is going on.
CLOSED AS OF April 30, 2018: Most Refugios and Private Campamentos close for the season. Backside of O/Circuit guided only.
As of April 30 Most, most Refugios/Private Campamentos (Fantastico Sur and Vertice) are closed for the season. You can still camp on the W but obviously there will be far fewer resources. The “Backside” of the O or Circuit Trek (Serón, Dickson, Los Perros, Paso John Garner, etc.) is closed unless with an official guide. These will re-open to general use/travel at the start of the 18-19 season
Overview of Torres de Paine W Trek and Circuit Trek
The Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Trek (or ‘O’ Trek) have a well deserved reputation as world class backpacking trips. The Torres del Paine Park has the goods, with stunning views at every turn. Massive glaciers, including the vast Heilo Sur (Southern Ice Shelf) the second largest non-polar ice field on the planet. There are immense towers of rock, rushing mountain streams and waterfalls, huge azure lakes, and sublime fields of wildflowers—Andean Condors with a wingspan of over 10 feet soar overhead. Finally, you’ll meet interesting people from all over the world. The Torres del Paine provides true global trekking.
The Torres del Paine W Trek the Circuit Trek are more accessible and more manageable than other world-renowned treks like the John Muir trail or Tour de Mont Blanc. The Torres del Paine treks are shorter and less strenuous. The classic W trek can be done in as little as 3 days. And we comfortably did the Circuit Trek in 4.5 hiking days with plenty of time to gawk and take photos. The treks do not have a lot of elevation gain or loss. All the hiking is near sea level so there’s no altitude to deal with. The park has excellent trails with good signage. It is almost impossible to get off route or lost. Water is plentiful and in the campsites can be drunk without treatment. You are never far from help. There are ranger stations and/or campgrounds about every four hiking hours. In fact, the Torres del Paine would be a trek in the park if it weren’t for periods of nasty Patagonian weather and strong winds—very strong winds. Even so, the Torres is an entry level trip for many backpackers and trekkers. It is also a great way to start trekking in South America which has almost endless opportunities for more fantastic treks!
Current and Accurate Information for Torres del Paine
This guide was inspired by Alison and I finding a scarcity of accurate and up-to-date information on how to plan for hiking Torres del Paine. In fact mainstream, supposedly reputable materials about the trek were plain wrong. We hope to correct this with current and accurate information from our recent completion of Torres del Paine Circuit Trek (which includes the full W Trek). Much of this information is especially needed in high season when some park facilities (especially on the W Trek) are full, or near capacity and camping reservations well advised.
- The top ranked Amazon guide and map for Torres del Paine are seriously out of date. The Cicerone Guide (updated 2013) & Standard large map of TdP (Zaiger) both have out of date trail and campground info. e.g. recommending camping in closed campgrounds. Listing nonexistent campgrounds and suggesting hiking on trails that are now closed to travel.
- We provide a current park map with correct campground & trail information (jump to Park map)
- Hiking times in most guides and park maps are too conservative. If you are a moderately fit hiker you will likely do better than these times. This is one case where hiking too fast is as problematic as too slow (since you need to reserve your campsites ahead of time). The major complaint that we heard was of people hiking faster than expected and arriving at their reserved campground around noon (and it doesn’t get dark until after 10:00 pm in the summer!). That is they could have easily hiked to another stage that day to the next campsite. (Here is a listing of our less conservative hiking times and distances for Torres del Paine)
- The W Trek can easily be done in 3-4 days vs. the usual 5 days—with plenty of time to take photos and gawk at all the wonders of the Torres del Paine. (See our suggested 3-4 day W Trek Itinerary here.)
- Circuit Trek can easily be done in 6 days vs. the 8-13 days recommended guides. (See our suggested 5-6 day Circuit Trek Itinerary posted.)
- Bus/Ferry logistics – we also optimize bus and ferry logistics so that these times are round trip from the door of your hotel/hostel in Puerto Natales!
- Gear – Almost all guides will have you ridiculously over pack gear. Yes, the weather can be rough at times in Patagonia. Fear of this causes many (most) folks and even so-called “experts” and guide books to recommend massively over packing gear. But there’s no need to stagger around with a heavy pack to deal with Patagonian weather. Rest assured, you can pack much lighter and still be warm and safe.
- Alison’s pack with food was under 15 pounds (under 7 kilos) and Alan’s pack with food was under 17 pounds (under 8 kilos). Our gear easily handled the rain and strong Patagonian wind. (Here is a detailed list of gear we took.
Step 1 – Pick your trip: W Trek, Circuit Trek or ‘Q’
- The W Trek is by far the most popular. Most people do it in a relaxed 5 days but it can be done in 3 days. It covers the standard highlights: Glacier Grey, Valle Frances and Glacier Frances, and of course the Torres de Paine, the gem of the Park. There are a lot of trekkers on the W Trek in high season. In addition to a many backpackers, the W Trek can be swarmed by day hikers going to the same key miradors (viewpoints) as the backpackers. W Trek campsites can be filled to capacity. On the bright side you’ll meet a lot of fun and interesting people from around the world.
- The Circuit Trek or ‘O’ Trek does all of the W Trek, then continues around the back of the Torres del Paine to complete a full loop. We believe many backpackers could easily do it in 5 to 6 days. (We comfortably did it in 4.5 hiking days). We prefer the Circuit Trek. The “backside,” non-W part of the Circuit Trek, is every bit as beautiful as the W Trek but with fewer people (since its limited to 80 people per day). And you see a lot more of the park, which is more varied than just the W Trek. For instance, you walk for miles above Glacier Grey, a 7 km (4.5 mile) wide river of ice that flows down from the immense Heilo Sur (the vast Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the second largest non-polar ice shelf). This was our favorite part of the trek. And finally, the Circuit Trek gives you more time to enjoy this stunning park! [The tricky part of the Circuit is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]
- The ‘Q’ Trek is the ‘O’ plus the section between the Serano Visitors Center (see park map here for details) and Refugio Paine Grande. This section forms the tail of the ‘Q’ and adds a bit more hiking and sight seeing for those so inclined.
Link to the .GPX File for the routes and waypoints for the Torres del Paine W Trek and Circuit Treks. It is arranged for the Circuit Trek but includes all tracks and waypoints the W Trek.
The Park’s official 2017 Map (note important changes!)
This is the standard map handed out (for free) when you get your permit at the Park Entrance. It is accurate and more than adequate to plan and safely navigate the route.
- Trekking Map – Torres del Paine (main map) will open in Google PDF viewer which will only display it in low resolution. But the full file can be dowloaded and viewed in full resolution with Acrobat or other PDF readers. IMPORTANT! The ‘Circuit’ or ‘O’ Trek can now only be done counterclockwise from Hotel/Camping Las Torres to Campamento Paso. And as stated earlier, you’ll need proof of reservations for each night. (This is strictly enforced at Coirón Ranger Station and you will be sent back to Serón if you do not have reservations!).
- (rear side of) Trekking Map – Torres del Paine (backside) will open in Google PDF viewer same as above. IMPORTANT! Note that of the map now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced.
Step 2 – Plan your Day by Day Itinerary – how fast you’ll hike & where you’ll camp
Determining where you’ll camp each night is a critical first step to planning your trip since, during high season, you will need advance reservations. Note that the Park now has cutoff times listed for many trails—that is you need to start hiking before that time to reach your destination. This is now strictly enforced. See table above.
We give suggested itineraries for the W Trek and Circuit or ‘O’ Trek. But we also give the table below which lists distances and hiking times for both the W Trek and Circuit Trek. With it you can modify those itineraries or make your own new itinerary.
There is no wild camping in the Torres del Paine (not in a designated campground). You must camp at one of the designated park locations. They are serious about this. They threw someone out the park for wild camping the week we were there. Thus you need to camp at a specific campsite each night. Reservations can be made ahead of time (see references below in Step 3).
Special Note about a contingency for a layover day(s): You may want a contingency plan to spend at least one extra day on the your trek*. Weather conditions are notoriously difficult to predict in Patagonia. Localized, glacier and mountain influenced microclimates along with moisture flow from the Straits of Magellan, and generally strong circumpolar summer winds can interact to create strong weather of all sorts. Be prepared for high winds, rain and even snow, along with sunshine and calm. Many times in the same day. You may be forced to take layover a day by high winds*. Plan your route itinerary accordingly. Refer to Step 3, Reservations for how to include this in your itinerary. [*This is especially true for the Circuit Trek. The tricky part of the Circuit Trek is getting over Paso John Garner. This pass can sometimes be closed to travel by rangers due to high winds and/or low visibility.]
C= campamento (camp) R= refugio (more facilities, meals and beds in addition to camping)
- This table is a just starting point for planning. You will need to estimate your own hiking pace based on your abilities and pack weight.
- Times in above table are for Alison and I on our recent trek which we averaged about 2 miles per hour (3.4 km/hr). We are reasonably fit and experienced hikers and carried packs under 18 pounds (under 8 kilos) . See our gear list for details. But we are both over 50 years old and by no means speed hikers. And during our trek, Alison was recovering from influenza.
- Hours (hiking times between points) is just that—hiking/moving time only. Our hiking times include only short stopped tasks like tying a shoelace, snapping a quick photo, putting on a rain jacket, or filling a water bottle. They do not include stoppage or breaks longer than 2-3 minutes. We averaged 2 miles/hour the entire trek.
- Hiking faster than expected can be just as problematic as slower. See below…
- Hiking times on Park Maps and in most guide books are conservative (based on an “average” hiker traveling with a heavy pack and not intending on setting any speed records). If you are reasonably fit hiker you will likely do better than these times. We believe with an early start and decent to OK weather, most backpackers could probably do two stages in a day. You have 17 hours of daylight in January!
- So chances are that you’ll take less time to get from place to place than their estimates. This is one case where hiking too fast is as problematic as too slow. The major complaint we heard was of people hiking faster than expected and arriving at their reserved campground around noon. e.g. they could have easily hiked another stage that day to the next campamento/refugio.
- We suggest you get an early start and hike far when the weather is good. You may get bad weather later in the trip. There is a lot of daylight in the summer hiking season. The key to making miles is to keep a steady pace and minimize time lost on long stops.
Step 3 – Reserve Your Campsite, Tent, Bed, Meals, etc.
There are four types of “campsites”: Park camps (public), private run camps, Refugios (all private), and one Hotel. Only the four park Campamentos (campgrounds) are free. All others have varying fees based on the facilities they provide.
- Park Campamentos are the most basic campsites. There are four free ones run by the park: Campamentos Italiano, Torres, Paso & Los Carretas. In high season, you need to reserve the ones on the W early (C.Italiano & C.Torres) as the they are often full. They are reserved at CONAF (Park) offices in P Natales or at the Park entrances. These campamentos have designated dirt tent sites, an assumedly clean water supply, a common cooking area (which you are required to use when cooking with a stove), and a pit toilet quality bathroom. These are in the woods with no views–but advantageous for protecting your tent from being flattened by strong Patagonian winds.
- Private Campamentos charge a small fee for use. They usually have a few more amenities. Often a small store, a cold or hot shower, tent rentals, and some even serve dinner (which you can reserve ahead or some times get seated day of). They do not have bed lodging. One of the best meals of our trip (in town restaurants included) was at Campamento Serón!
- Refugios have beds (and, in at least one, cabins for rent) in addition to camping. They have nicer (sometimes substantially nicer) shower and toilet facilities than campamentos. Note: camping at a Refugio entitles you to use the nicer shower and toilet facilities, same as the folks sleeping in beds. This makes them an attractive alternate to camping at nearby Campamentos (e.g. camping at Refugio Frances vs. Campamento Italiano).
- There is one Full-service Hotel (Las Torres) on the route, conveniently located on the W within day hiking distance to the actual Torres del Paine.
Four organizations handle reservations (with links to make reservations):
- Park Campamentos: The Park now offers a way to reserve their free campsites online. The website is here, Reservas De Campamentos (free campsite reservations) and appears to only be in Spanish.
If you can’t reserve online, then try going in-person to CONAF (Park) offices in Puerto Natales or lastly, to the Park entrances. If you can’t reserve in Puerto Natales, make sure you are first off the bus at the park entrance to get the best shot as W Campamentos Italiano, and Campamento Torres.This may not be possible in Puerto Natales or the Park entrance. With the online reservation system, it appears that the CONAF campamentos may be booked six months in advance.
- Fantastico Sur* handles reservations for: Refugio Las Torres, Camping Las Torres (not the same as the closed Campamento Torres), Refugio Los Cuernos, Camping Los Cuernos, Domo Los Cuernos, Cabañas Los Cuernos, Refugio El Chileno, Camping El Chileno, Camping Serón, Domo Serón, Camping Francés, Domo Francés, and Refugio Torre Norte
- Vertice Patagonia* handles reservations for: Refugio Paine Grande (camping, meals & beds), R. Grey (camping, meals & beds), R. Dickson (camping, meals & beds), and Camping Los Perros (camping only).
- Hotel Las Torres (a full service hotel at one end of the ‘W’)
- *Note: Can’t get a site on Vertice/Fantastico? Switch to ‘book in chilean pesos’ – yes it switches to Spanish, but google translate can help you out.
- Breakfast is 8’ish. You’ll get a late start if you choose to eat one from a Refugio. Lunch is around 12:30. Dinner is 7’ish.
- Fanstastico Sur was responsive and very easy to work with. We easily changed campsite reservations, and dinner reservations when our schedule varied from planned (hiked faster than anticipated).
- Vertice Patagonia was harder to work with. Credit card payments online didn’t work. Their office in Puerto Natales had limited hours (closed on weekend). People report having the best results via email.
- Alan’s pack was under 17 pounds (under 8 kilos) with food
- Alison’s pack was under 15 pounds (under 7 kilos) with food
- We carried about 10 pounds (4.5 kilos) of shared food for the trip. We supplemented this with purchased food along the way.
Note that we have reports of bugs from Serón to Grey. We use the following on areas not protected by clothing: DEET (or the newer Picaridin which doesn’t degrade clothing or plastics). We prefer airline friendly 0.5 pump sprays, which are small, pocketable and easily applied in the field. Alternatively, for around $6 USD you can get spray at Cruz Verde Pharmacies in Puerto Natales.
You can also a wear long sleeved shirt and full-length pants factory-treated with insect repellent (permethrin). Pre treated clothing has near-permanent effectiveness (clothing treated before purchase is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings). You can also treat your own clothing with a Permethrin spray (Sawyer) which lasts up to 6 weeks (or 6 washings).
Below is a comprehensive list of our Torres del Paine gear.You can scroll in the list below to see the entire list.
Our Gear List is best viewed here: (World-wide Trekking Gear List (link to original table). We took this gear on our Torres del Paine Trek except as noted:
- Shelter: Mountain Laurel Designs DuoMid XL – a huge pyramid shelter that we shared. 24 oz (680g) in SilNylon, 16 oz (450g) in Cuben Fiber. We survived strong winds while watching a nearby conventional mountaineering tent be crushed.
- If you want a regular tent look at: Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 2 Tent, one of the lightest freestanding tents. Or for a value tent, REI Quarter Dome 2 Tent.
- Shared sleeping bag (actually a shared down quilt): Hammock Gear Burrow at around 24 oz (700 g) for 2 people. It’s also our first choice for a solo sleeping quilt, which we prefer to a sleeping bag. For more see: 2018 Buyers Guide to Lightweight Backpacking Quilts
- For a solo sleeping bag: look at the light and warm! Feathered Friends Merlin UL 30, or the Western Mountaineering SummerLite only 19 oz!
- Pack Alan: HyperLite Mountain Gear 2400 Southwest. Only 28 oz (790 g), waterproof & incredibly durable with Cuben Fiber
- Pack Alison: ULA Ohm 2.0 Pack
- Warm Jackets: MyTrail 850 Fill HL Hooded or 800 Fill UL Hooded down jackets (only $149!) and in Women’s. We also use incredibly light and warm Feathered Friends Eos Down Jackets.
- Action suit: Worn 95% of the time, REI Sahara convertible pants mostly as shorts; and a merino wool shirt supplemented with a Patagonia R1 Hoodie when cold and windy. For more see: Top Mistakes Using the Layering System – How to Stay Warmer and Drier
- For hiking shoes we prefer light trainers/trail runners around 10-12 oz per shoe (280-340 g). For a variety of reasons we do not take Goretex/waterproof shoes.
- Camp footwear: Trails can be wet and it’s just faster and easier to walk thru the mud and muck than waste time hopping and skirting around. We brought very light flipflops (2.5 oz, 80g) and Injinji socks for camp. The flipflops do double duty as shower shoes and camp footwear when worn with the Injinjis. Beware packing heavier camp footwear. A pair of Crocks is around 1 pound, and a pair of light running shoes can approach 2 lbs!
- We did not take bear canisters. No bears in Patagonia.
- Camera: for camera gear we take see Best Lightweight Backpacking Cameras. I took a very light 16 oz (450 g), but very high quality digital camera readily accessible on the shoulder strap of my pack. I could get it out for a shot in just a few seconds.
Note that trekking/camping gear can be rented in Puerto Natales at outfitters like the Base Camp of Erratic Rock. Another option to save both weight and time is to rent a tent at one of the campsites. To be assured of one you’d need to reserve one ahead of time, but we saw plenty of rental tents empty on our trek in high season.
Note that the table below is in scrollable window. Please scroll down to see the entire Gear List
Cooking stoves & Fires
See my information on Cooking and Lightweight Backpacking Stoves
- The park is crazy strict about no fires whatsoever*. You can only cook with a stove in a designated area of the campground. Canister and Alcohol stoves are fine. *This is due to two devastating camper started fires in 2005 – 155 km2 (60 sq mi); and again in 2011 – 176 km2 (68 sq mi).
- Fuel canisters are everywhere in Punta Arenas and P. Natales. Hardware stores, hiking stores, and many other locations. Even some of the small stores at Refugios along the route have canisters. There are many options in town (hostels, hiking stores) to leave your partially used canisters for others to use.
- Alcohol fuel is available at Cruz Verde pharmacies in plastic bottles.
Food for Torres de Paine
- We brought 5 lb (2.3 kg) of food per person to do the Circuit for an expected 6 days on the route. This consisted of:
- Breakfast and coffee for every trail day (we like an early start)
- The majority of our lunches and daily snack food
- Two dinners to cook on trail
- Our dinner strategy was to cook two of our own backpacking meals; buy pasta, cheese and sauce on the trail for two meals; and have two sit-down meals along the way as the spirit and circumstances moved us.
- We supplemented this with a modest amount of food purchased along the route
- You can bring as much or as little food as you want. You can carry almost no food if you are willing to pay top $ for it on the trail (about 1.5 to 2+ times town retail cost).
Here is a piece I wrote on Backpacking Food: Best Backpacking Food – simple and nutritious – veggie and omnivore friendly
- Follow all regulations (click for link) (unfortunately, only in Spanish) regarding bringing food into the country, including declaring what you bring in! My best understanding from reading the reg’s and from reports from other trekkers as of Jan 2017, is that fruit, vegetable, meat and milk products cannot come into the country—including dried and dehydrated versions. They will check at customs when you enter Chile. According to other trekkers, sealed backpacking meals are OK. As such, you will likely need to at least partially provision in Punta Arenas (best/more options) or Puerto Natales to complete your food for the trip. We bought our cheese, dried fruit, and dried meats once we were in Chile.
- Alimentacions (small food stores) are at all refugios and most private campgrounds. They have limited non-perishable supplies. Usually Coke, beer and sometimes wine, cookies, candy bars, and a few have basic camping supplies like fuel canisters. And many have pasta, tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese packets (which can be combined for simple but filling dinners).
- There are sit-down style meals at the Refugios and at Campamento Serón if you want to pay for them. We ate two dinners while there, one was just OK at Frances, but the meal at Serón was fantastic. (Dinner seating is usually at 7:00 or 7:30 pm).
Most folks will end up flying into the Punta Arenas Airport. From the Punta Arenas Airport: All the guidebooks (and the buses themselves) say that the buses from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales stop at the airport. However, we did not find that to be the case during the high season.
- We had to take a white/grey bus from the Airport to the Buses Fernández terminal in Punta Arenas, around 5,000 chilean Pesos per person. From there, we got on the next bus to P. Natales.
- Or you can take a taxi from the Airport to town for around 10,000 chilean Pesos (approx. $16 USD in 2016)
- Buses, during high season, in general run every hour (see schedules). While making reservations from a town was easy enough, we found making a reservation from the US difficult and, in the end, not needed.
- Buses Fernández (the bus we took) Runs buses from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (the usual town to stage from for Torres del Paine Treks). While they do get crowded, the bus companies worked together to make sure all customers were accommodated.
- Buses Gomez (the bus we took) Runs buses from Puerto Natales to the Torres del Paine Park (start of W Trek and Circuit Trek). Again, the buses work together to accommodate all who are going. The other bus company we saw actively operating in the park was “Buses María José” although we didn’t use them.
- Update Aug, 2016: Bus-Sur also runs Puerto Natales to the Torres del Paine Park, and has a 7:00am bus. With a very early bus there is a possibility of catching the 9:30’ish ferry from Pudeto (see below).
- Catamaran on Lago Pehoé (Site with transportation and park information) and the Actual Helios Patagonicos Site (in Spanish) – this is the ferry that gets you across Lago Pehoé from Pudeto (the bus drop-off) to Refugio Paine Grande, start of the W Trek going west to east. Note that in high season the ferry may operate more frequently than their schedule indicates—adding extra ferries as passenger demand increases. You pay on the ferry.
Bus service from Puerto Natales Chile to El Calafate Argentina (El Chalten)
The other high profile (fantastic!) destination in Patagonia is the Cerro Torre, Fitzroy area outside of El Chalten in Argentine Patagonia. Alison and I trekked in this area in 2005. To do that you’ll need to take a Bus (unless you have a rental car). We have not taken the bus between Puerto Natales and El Calafate but there is a fairly large bus terminal in Puerto Natales with a lot of bus traffic during the day. Bus-Sur and Turismo Zaahj offer service between Puerto Natales and El Calafate (gateway to El Chalten). We cannot personally vouch for the buses, having not taken them across the border to Argentina.
I have been advised that during high season, Dec to Feb that busses can fill up so it may be best to book well in advance (possibly before you arrive). Some readers have used a third party to book the bus. They report “we used Patagonia Extrema/Southroad to book – we paid a 35-40% premium on tickets, but it was worth it, as our Calafate-PN, PN-Park roundtrip, and PN to PA buses were all sold-out.”
Also from El Calafate you can easily see one of the great natural wonders of Argentina, the Perito Moreno Glacier (scroll a fair amount down to see the pictures). It’s one of the few advancing glaciers in the world—it moves about 7cm each day. Because it is constantly moving, vast blocks of ice fall off the face of the glacier into the lake, calving icebergs with an explosive detonation that sounds like a bomb going off.
Chile’s Atacama Desert
The other incredible destination is to fly to the Atacama Desert. This is where Alison and I went last year post TdP. It is the driest non-polar desert in the world. Amazing salt lakes and wildlife! We saw 3 of the 6 world’s flamingo species while there. Amazing star watching, possibly the premier astronomical research location on the planet. There is El Tatio an immense caldera with its many geysers is in the Atacama Desert at over 14,000 feet (4320m). Its name comes from the Quechua word for oven. It is among the highest-elevation geyser fields in the world. El Tatio has over 80 active geysers, making it the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere and the third largest in the world.
General Notes and FAQs
- In high season, all portions of the W Trek are crowded with both backpackers and novice day hikers. You’ll have tons of company on the trail (we had some issues getting around groups of hikers). Many W campgrounds will be filled to capacity. But then solitude is not really the point of the W. We met a lot of fun people from all over the world on the trek.
- You will see fewer people on the backside than the W Trek but don’t expect it all to yourself as 80 people are allowed in every day. In high season you’ll meet fellow trekkers on the Backside. You’ll still share the camp with other trekkers but in calmer conditions.
- The backside of the Circuit Trek is every bit as beautiful as the W Trek and it has more varied terrain.
- You have 17 hours of daylight in January! That’s a lot of hiking and/or exploring time. Most trekkers should be able to hike two “stages” in a day.
- We suggest you get an early start and hike far when the weather is good. You may get bad weather later in the trip or even later in the day. The key to making miles is to keep a steady pace and minimize time lost on long stops.
- Keep eyes out for birds and wildlife. We saw Andean Condors quite close when hiking between R Frances and R Chileno. And Magellenic Woodpeckers in the woods between Dickson and Perros.
- Water is everywhere. Usually you are 30 minutes or less from a stream or some other source. And according to local guides, and our guide book the water can be drunk without treatment. We filtered water on trail (a conservative option), but drank water untreated from our campground’s designated water sources.
- Hiking is only allowed on designated trails. Off trail travel (even on marked routes that say guides only) is strictly forbidden.
- The is no wild camping (camping anywhere in the park that is not a designated campground). They threw someone out the park for doing this the week we were there. (see Campsite Reservation Section)
- Valle Frances area: Campamento Britanico is currently closed for camping. You can hike as far as Mirador Britanico but not further. The Mirador further up from M. Britanico (located at the base of Fortelezza) is closed.
- Valle del Silencio area: Campamento Japones is closed to camping unless you are with a guide. And Valle Silencio and its mirador are closed to hiking (unless you are with a guide).
- Campamento Torres is also closed. The closest to the Torres you can get is Refugio Chileno.
- Torres de Paine trails are well marked by an obvious and well trodden footpath and with orange blazes, and orange posts that mark the route. It’s almost impossible to get off route or lost
- Torres del Paine trails are well maintained with good footing (with the exception of boggy areas). You can hike quite fast.
- In boggy, muddy areas it’s just faster and easier to walk thru the mud and muck than waste time hopping and skirting around. And less risk of fall and injury.
- Camp footwear: Trails can be wet and you shoes are likely to get wet too. We brought very light flipflops (2.5 oz, 80g) and Injinji socks for camp. The flipflops do double duty as shower shoes and camp footwear when worn with the Injinjis. Beware packing heavier camp footwear. A pair of Crocks is around 1 pound, and a pair of light running shoes can approach 2 lbs!
Weather and Tents
See my information on Recommended Tents, Tarps and other Shelters
- Weather conditions are notoriously difficult to predict. Localized, glacier and mountain influenced microclimates along with moisture flow from the Straits of Magellan can interact to create strong weather of all sorts. Be prepared for high winds, rain and even snow, along with sunshine and calm. Many times in the same day. You may be forced to take a layover day by high winds. Plan your route itinerary accordingly.
- Alison and I have had days in Patagonia where the wind was so strong we were unable to walk forward when not protected in the woods. Thankfully not on this trip.
- Always pitch your tent/shelter in the woods or with some other strong windbreak—not in the open! We saw a tent in the open a 100 feet from us crushed by strong wind gust, snapping its poles.
- Tent rental is an option worth consideration. You save the weight of carrying a tent and the time and hassle of setting up and taking it down. They usually come with ground pads. Many times the rental tents are already pitched in the most desirable campsites. [Even tho we had our own shelter, we opted to rent a large, clean, and very nice tent at Campmento Los Perros to speed our pre-dawn preparation for going over Paso John Garner. It only cost around $12.]
While not as sexy as an open meadow, camping in the woods makes a lot more sense in windy Patagonia. Pictured: a tent platform well protected in the woods at Refugio Frances. A minimal camping fee entitles you to the full Refugio facilities including the nicest hot showers and best bathrooms of our trip.