Courtesy: YouTube/Jetset Times
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (Torres del Paine National Park) is one of the largest and most popular national parks in Chile. First established in 1959, the park measures a little less than 250,000 hectares and receives almost 150,000 visitors a year (mostly in January and February), with a slight majority (about 60%) from foreign countries. The park boasts such an impressive variety of flora and fauna species that it was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978. Wildlife includes camelid guanaco (the world’s largest subspecies of puma), huemul (endangered deer), two species of fox as well as many species of bird, including condor and flamingo.
But the main attractions of the park are the Cerro Paine Grande, a massif of granite spires, and the Cuernos del Paine, a vast formation of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks unlike anywhere in the world. It wasn’t until 1976 when British mountaineer John Gardner and two of the park’s rangers, Pepe Alarcon and Oscar Guineo, set out and pioneered the circuit trail, recognized today as a world-renowned trekking destination.
There are numerous routes but the two most common are the ‘O’ trek (an 8-10 day circuit that encircles the Paine massif and offers a panoramic view of the park’s prime attractions) and the ‘W’ trek (a 4-6 day trek that provides up-close views of enormous glacier formations, including thundering avalanches from chunks of fallen glacier). Given the time needed to complete the ‘O’ circuit and what time of year you visit (due to heavy snowfall the northern pass may be impassable and therefore closed), many trekkers opt for the shorter and therefore more popular ‘W’ trek.
Depending on who you ask, the ‘W’ trek is typically completed going from west to east, since the gradual rise in altitude and degree of difficulty increases with each ascent of the peaks. Given our late start (we arrived at the park around 5:30PM), we decided to do the trek from East to West so we could reach the mirador (viewpoint) of Base de las Torres in time for the amanecer (sunrise).
So, armed with little more than rented hiking gear, more pasta than you would care to eat in a lifetime, some cheap boxed wine and our foolhardy wits, our small band of brothers—Julien, Gwendal (one-half of the French Filmmaking duo known as The Gwens’ Chronicles) and myself—set out to see what the ‘W’ trek was all about.
Here’s a day-by-day breakdown of our route along the ‘W’ trek.
Punta Arenas – Puerto Natales – Portería Laguna Amarga – Hotel Las Torres – Refugio y campamento Chileno
Total distance: 12km (starting from Portería Laguna Amarga)
Total time: about 3.5 hours (starting from Portería Laguna Amarga)
We took the 8AM bus from Puerto Arenas and arrived in Puerto Natales around noon. As the nearest city to the park, Puerto Natales is the base for many trekkers, including where food, rental equipment, clothing and last minute essentials can be purchased. Be aware, however, that some items like outdoor gear can be marked up as much as 20% or higher. It’s best to purchase most of your gear and food before you arrive, such as in Punta Arenas, which is where we rented our gear and purchased most of our food.
At the bus terminal we purchased our tickets, arrived at the park by shuttle at 5PM and were dropped off at Portería Laguna Amarga (park ranger office) to register and pay the entrance fee (CH$18,000 or about USD$30 per person).
From Portería Laguna Amarga you can take a shuttle to Hotel Las Torres or you can walk the 7km to the hotel. We opted to walk instead to save time and not wait for the next available shuttle to arrive, although it took us a little more than an hour to walk to the hotel. In the meantime, however, quite a few buses passed us along the way and we were unable to hitch a ride, so it might be worthwhile to wait for the next bus.
Once at Hotel Las Torres follow the signs for Refugio y Campamento El Chileno. This is essentially where the trek begins. The climb to the refugio is rather steep (about 400 meter ascent), and somewhat cumbersome given you’ll need to carry your pack. For this reason, it’s absolutely crucial to reduce as much weight as possible from your pack as even the slightest amount can make a world of difference while trekking. Try to carry around 15 kilos (33 lbs.) or less if possible, or else you will dread the thought of having to wake up each morning and lug around all that unnecessary weight on your back.
It takes about 2 hours to reach Refugio El Chileno. Keep in mind that it’s always worthwhile to camp (CH$7,500 or USD$13) instead of lodging at any refugio. The cheapest simple bed at Refugio El Chileno, for example, is CH$30,000 (USD$48). We arrived around 9PM, set up camp, ate a hearty meal (pasta with tuna) and went to bed to get an early start for the next day.
Refugio y Campamento El Chileno – Base de las Torres – Refugio y Campamento Los Cuernos
Total distance: 24km
Total time: 10.5 hours
Despite feeling exhausted, we woke up at 5:30AM to prepare ourselves for a 2-hour hike to Base de las Torres. We left just before 6AM and depending on what time of year you visit the park, should be plenty of time to reach the mirador for the amanecer. The hike requires another 450 meter climb, which isn’t so bad considering you can leave you’re gear at camp, so you’ll only need a small daypack. The ascent is steep but having walking poles can make a big difference. If you don’t have any, which I didn’t, you can always use two branches and they will work just as well.
The biggest problem won’t be trudging along the snowy mountaintop but rather negotiating the last 30-45 minutes of the icy terrain just before reaching the mirador. It’s not so bad if you have proper hiking boots but with regular outdoor/cross trainer shoes, the climb will require some serious concentration and effort to stay upright without slipping and falling every step (this is where walking poles/branches are helpful to maintain balance).
Make sure to walk only along the pathway, which may not be easy to see at first (bring a headlamp) but it’s where the trail of hard packed ice curves along the mountainside. In other words, avoid walking in the soft, plain snow, which I can certainly attest to since I accidentally veered off the trail a few meters and found myself waist deep in snow! I was stuck for a few minutes trying to wrench myself free, but there’s no need to panic as long as you free one limb at a time and slowly crawl towards the trail on your stomach, if possible. This would also be a good time to mention to bring your outer shell/waterproof pants. I conveniently left my pair in my backpack at camp because I didn’t know (well, I forgot to ask) if I would need them.
For those with endurance and stamina, there is a campsite called Campamento Torres, less than an hour away from the mirador, where you can conveniently set up camp near the top. It’s a great way to avoid the hassle of the early morning hike to the mirador.
It takes about 2 hours to reach Base de las Torres (the first point of the ‘W’) from Refugio El Chileno. Once you arrive find yourself a good spot, prep your cameras and admire the beauty and quietude of the lake (although it won’t exactly be quiet with 20+ admirers and their chatter to accompany the view). Nonetheless, just after 8AM the sun creeps over the mountain’s edge and slowly colors the Torres del Paine massif from grey to yellow, orange and then a brilliant crimson, almost blood red-like hue. It’s an absolutely stunning sight to behold! Any pain, discomfort or fatigue you may have felt on the hike up, instantly fades away upon first sight of this natural beauty.
After a little over an hour, the mountain range slowly fades back to its original gray hue, which is your cue to head back to camp. Descending down the mountain can be a bit trickier than the climb up, at least along the icy portion of the trail. A good tip if you’re left without proper hiking boots or gear (again, which I didn’t have) is to sit on the ice and scoot your way down the pathway, all the while using the bottom of your shoes and palms of your hands as (pardon the pun) ‘handbrakes’. You may appear a little odd to others but at least you won’t be slipping and falling at every opportunity. Oh, and make sure to wear some gloves when you do this or else you’re hands will get some serious cuts and cold burns (something my hands know all to well).
At 11AM we arrived at camp, ate a hearty breakfast (oatmeal porridge mixed with chocolate pudding, powdered milk and raisins) and packed our gear for the long day ahead. At 1PM we left Refugio El Chileno for Refugio y Campamento Los Cuernos (our next stop), which is about 13km away or 6.5 hours (though we managed the trek it in a bit less time). There is a slight shortcut that can save valuable time on the way to Los Cuernos (look for a signpost that reads ‘Los Cuernos’). The trail isn’t difficult to undertake, though there’s plenty of mud and overgrown brush to obstruct and slow your pace. We stopped and ate lunch along the way and then ate dinner around 8PM once we arrived at Refugio Los Cuernos. We then set up camp and took a much-needed shower after a long day of trekking.
Refugio y Campamento Los Cuernos – Campamento Italiano – Británico
Total distance: 15km
Total time: 7.5 hours
After a long day we ended up sleeping in until 9AM, ate breakfast, packed up and then left around 11:30AM for Campamento Italiano. Before you leave in the morning, however, make sure to stop by Lago Nordenskjöld (situated right in front of the refugio) and embrace the quietude and serenity that the lake naturally exudes. It’s well worth a visit, especially in the morning when everyone is either still asleep or eating so you can have the view all to yourself.
This would also a good time to mention that there are outlets at the refugios, in case you’d like to charge the batteries of your camera or phone. Also, nowhere along the trek was there Wi-Fi or Internet access available at any of the campsites or refugios. The point, as one sign at a refugio poignantly displayed, is to ‘Enjoy Nature!’, which means any social media updates you were planning along the way will have to wait until after you return to civilization.
By the third day I could feel the strain in my knees, feet and back from constant trekking, which you quickly learn is how everyone feels at some point along the way. We reached Campamento Italiano, set up camp at around 3PM, ate a good meal and by 4PM we set out for the second point of the ‘W’: Valle del Francés.
The trek along Valle del Francés is beautiful, with multiple cascading waterfalls, verdant forest and thundering avalanches from enormous Glaciar del Francés that can often be heard (and seen) in the nearby distance. Near the top of the trail you’ll encounter snow and ice but it won’t be as difficult to negotiate as with the trek to Base de las Torres. The mirador at the very top of Valle del Francés was closed, which meant Británico was the highest point we could reach. Once at Británico, the creviced snow-covered mountain ranges offered a splendid view, which makes the second peak of the ‘W’ absolutely magnificent to behold, especially at sunset which I would highly recommend viewing if you have the chance.
If you come later in the day, be sure to bring a headlamp in case you reach camp after dark. After a couple of hours at Británico, we headed back towards camp and arrived at dusk, cooked dinner (you guessed it, pasta!) and went to bed.
Campamento Italiano – Refugio y Campamento Paine Grande – Refugio y Campamento Grey
Total distance: 17.5km
Total time: 6 hours
Each successive day of trekking makes the next morning that much more difficult to get up and start again. Though wearied and worn as we were, we broke down our tents with haste in hopes of hitting the trail soon. By late morning, we were packed and ready and to go and made our way to the next stop: Refugio y Campamento Paine Grande.
The trail curves along the shore of Lago Sköttsberg, which provides many great rest spots and offers quite a few points for photo opportunities along this beautiful lake. Though it officially takes 2.5 hours to arrive at Refugio Paine Grande, general fatigue and an aching ACL added an extra hour to my 7.5km trek. Once at Refugio Paine Grande, we ate a much-needed lunch of delicious Top Ramen (trust me, nothing tastes better than instant noodles after a long day of trekking) and left around 3PM to make our way to Refugio y Campamento Grey.
Prepare yourself for a long trek (10km and 3.5 hours), as there are a few high ascending points on the trail, along with extremely strong winds and rocky terrain. This is where having walking poles and balaclava windproof mask (to cover your face from harsh wind) will come in handy.
But the highlight of the day came when we witnessed a rare sight: an Andean condor perched high above on a rock ledge. When we caught sight of this magnificent bird, quietly surveying the valley below, we drew immediately silent because we didn’t want to scare it away since it is rare to spot one in nature, let alone see one fly. For almost an hour, we watched and waited with eager anticipation in hopes of seeing it fly across the open sky, as it slowly waddled its way up the face of the mountain. Even though we were several hundred meters away, the incredible 3.5-meter (almost 12 foot) wingspan of the bird was quite evident and awe-inspiring, to say the least. When it finally took flight for a few brief seconds in the air, it was without question the highlight of our day and one of our best memories of the ‘W’ trek.
Dusk was fast approaching, which meant we needed to make haste and reach camp in time before visibility became an issue. We arrived at Refugio Grey after dark, set up camp, ate dinner, took a much-needed shower and went to bed.
Refugio y Campamento Grey – Refugio y Campamento Paine Grande
Total distance: 16km
Total time: 8.5 hours
One of the advantages of camping at Refugio Grey is having the mirador less than an hour away. Due to our close proximity, we decided to trek further up the trail to catch a more encompassing view of the glacier. After we ate breakfast we headed up the trail about 2 hours and found a good spot to rest and take photos.
This would be a good time to mention that there is often an argument amongst travelers as to which glacier offers more worthwhile views: Glacier Grey or Glacier Perito Moreno (Calafate, Argentina). The best response is that they’re different, which may sound like a lazy answer but it’s true. Glacier Grey offers amazing panoramic views especially since the trail varies in elevation, which means everywhere along the trail will guarantee an incredible view. Glacier Perito Moreno is impressive because the walkways in the park allow you to get within several dozen meters of the glacier (there’s even a tour that allows you to trek onto the glacier!). If you can only choose one for your itinerary and are pressed for time, then I would go with Glacier Perito Moreno, but if you are not in a rush then Glacier Grey is an absolute must. Although, I must say the fact that you have to trek, carry all your gear and essentially earn the right to experience the amazing views of Glacier Grey will always make me partial to it. By contrast you won’t have to trek, camp or exhaust yourself for the amazing views of Glacier Perito Moreno, since the national park is situated directly in front of the glacier.
After a couple of hours the cold air was becoming a bit intolerable, and so we retreated back to camp where we ate a big lunch (side note: eating well on the trail is essential since the arduous nature of the park’s long trails requires that you expend lots of energy, so eating big meals was crucial), packed up and headed towards Refugio Paine Grande. At this point with all the days of non-stop trekking, lugging around heavy packs—not to mention lack of sleep and general fatigue—the stress and toll of trekking the ‘W’ trek becomes evident when your body hurts more and more each day. My knees and feet were killing me and my upper back had developed terrible welts due to poorly adjusted backpack straps. It’s important that your backpack is perfectly adjusted to your height and body type. If possible, visit a REI store before your trip, as they can adjust your backpack to fit your specifications for free.
Given how much my body ached, it took me an additional hour to reach Refugio Paine Grande (at around 7PM), which meant camping at Campamento Las Carretas was out of the question (another 10km trekking to that campsite). We decided to camp at Refugio Paine Grande instead to rest and prepare ourselves for one last trek in the morning.
Bonus: ‘The Tail’
Refugio y Campamento Paine Grande – Campamento Las Carretas – Centro de Visitantes y Administración
Total distance: 16km
Total time: 5 hours
Technically, the ‘W’ trek ended when we reached Refugio y Campamento Paine Grande, since we visited all three peaks along the trail. At this point you have two options to leave the park: you can either take a ride on a catamaran from Refugio Paine Grande (leaves each day at 12:30PM from the refugio and costs CH$30,000 or approximately USD$48) to the bus or you can trek to Centro de Visitantes y Administración (16km or almost 5 hours) where you can catch the bus from there (leaves at 1PM sharp). I must admit that I wasn’t too thrilled about trekking yet again, especially considering that it wasn’t necessary, but since we made it this far (plus it’s free to trek) we thought might as well get our money’s worth and trek one last day.
Surprisingly, even after several days of camping and trekking your body gets used to the arduous routine of marathon walks. All the pain and body aches tend to subside once you start moving again (or perhaps it was the comforting thought of no longer having to deal with early morning wake-up calls that subdued the pain). And so, just before 7AM, after we ate a quick breakfast and headed out to trek ‘The Tail’.
With the exception of the first few kilometers, the trek is not a difficult undertaking at all. In fact, the vast majority of the trail (about 85%) is completely flat, as if you were in the middle of a Savannah grassland or portions of the United States Midwest. One of the benefits of trekking ‘The Tail’ is the free campground at Campamento Las Carretas, located 10km from Refugio Paine Grande. It’s a pleasant and tranquil trek with a beautiful backdrop of mountain ranges and Rio Grey running along the sendero (walkway). Despite how I felt, I was able to complete the trek a half-hour sooner than I had anticipated (there’s no way I was going to miss this bus, which perhaps helped hasten my time).
With plenty of time to spare prior to our departure, we sat down at an outdoor table by a nearby lake and ate one last meal; feeling relieved and satisfied that our long journey had come to an end.
I don’t normally trek or camp, especially for as long as did in Torres del Paine, but having witnessed such incredible natural wonders along with the privilege of sharing the journey with great friends, I have to say that this has been one of the most memorable experiences of my six-month South American trip. And so, in the end—after more than 5 days, 100.5 kilometers trekked and 41 hours spent on the trail, enduring a bad knee, sore back and every aching muscle you can think of (not to mention acquiring a slightly improved French vocabulary), this trek was absolutely worthwhile and a necessary addition to any trekker’s bucket list.
Other helpful tips:
- Bring a pack cover for your backpack. The weather in the park can be unpredictable, which means it can rain without notice. If you don’t have a cover an easier and cheaper option is to use a garbage bag and place it inside your pack, which works just as well to keep your belongings dry.
- Never eat inside or near your tent (always eat at least a few meters away) or else you’ll find plenty of mice in your tent at night.
- Bring a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses and long sleeve shirt to protect you from the sun.
- Outdoor gear, such as pant covers, gaiters, jackets, boots, gloves, balaclavas and the like are essential. Remember to always dress in layers, since the mornings and evenings tend to be cold but the daytime can be warm (depending on the time of year, of course).
- Best time to visit is in January and February (when the ‘O’ trek is possible to complete) but it’s also high season, which means plenty of tourists. I went in early April and the weather was pleasant, with no rain and less tourists.
- If there was ever a time to bring a good quality camera with you on your travels, this would be it! Also, bring extra camera batteries and a USB cable to charge the batteries at a refugio.
Photos: Flickr/Jerry Leon