Torres del Paine – W Circuit
Torres del Paine is an incredible National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia, located about 2 hours from Puerto Natales, Chile. This park is a very popular destination for trekkers and backpackers alike, with 150,000+ visitors per year. We spent 1 week traveling the “W”, which is a popular route through the highlights of the park. We camped at free campsites and alongside refugios (huts) along the way. Due to the relative ease at doing this “backpacking,” it is highly popular and quite over-crowded. You don’t even need to bring a tent!
Entering the park
We took a 3-hour bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales. After a quick overnight and obligatory gringo-stop at Cerveza Baguales (local microbrewery) we loaded another bus to make the 2-hour trip to the park. Four buses seem to run on the same schedule, and all arrived to the Laguna Amarga entrance of the park at about the same time. A staff member from the park then came onto the bus to tell us about the “4 steps to enter” – which included completing paperwork, paying entrance fees, and watching a video about rules and regulations. All of this seems fairly straightforward, but with ~3200 people unloading at one, it became quite chaotic.
After jumping through the necessary hurdles, we got back onto our commercial bus (there are no park-operated buses here) to go Pudeto. From there, we caught a Catamaran across Lago Pehoe to Paine Grande, and off we went!
Lago Grey Region
This region serves as the “left-arm” of the W route, and is where we began our trek. Beginning at Paine Grande, we hiked 10.5 km (3.5 hours) to Refugio Grey. The first part of the hike is not too exciting, as fires have destroyed most of the forest. However, once the vista opened up to Glacier Grey we were truly amazed! We camped at Refugio Grey for two nights so that we could have a day to explore the glacier.
Glacier Grey lies in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, just to the west of the Cordillera del Paine (mountain range centered in the park). This enormous ancient ice mass has walls that tower over 30 feet over the lake and extends beyond where the eye can see. There are huge icebergs floating in Lago Grey to further decorate this region. We hiked north from Refugio Gray over suspension bridges and ravines, until we reached the glacier (much farther than it looks!). We then walked alongside the glacier and had lunch before heading back to our home base. This area was quite remarkable and we are excited to visit again shortly via kayaks!
Valle de Frances Region
From Refugio Gray we hiked ~11 miles (6 hours) to Campamento Italiano, a free campground at the base of the Valle de Frances. This campground has recently been re-opened after years of wear & tear forced the park to do some much-needed recuperation. Compared to what we had previously read, it seems to be much cleaner thanks to new flushing toilets and better organization! We spent one night here at a lovely spot next to Rio Frances. The next morning, we packed up our site, left behind our large packs, and headed up into the valley to explore.
This is definitely an area worth exploring! The head of the valley is a cirque of massive mountain peaks, most impressive being Cerro Paine Grande. Glacier Frances is situated along the eastern face of Paine Grande. It was exciting to observe this glacier “rumble” as it sent sheets of ice/snow into the river below. We hiked up the valley for about 2 hours to the Mirador de Valle Frances. We had wanted to make it to Campamento Britanico, however the trail and campground are currently closed. We were happy to have gone up early in the morning, for as we hiked down we passed a group of close to 100 tourists! After exploring Valle de Frances, we spent one night camping at Refugio los Cuernos before heading over to Los Torres region.
Las Torres Region
We camped one night at Refugio Chileno and one night at Campamento Torres.
From Campamento Torres, it’s a quick 45-minute hike up to the iconic Mirador Base Las Torres. The towers are huge granite monoliths that tower ~6,000 feet above the glacial lake below. It is an amazing site and a popular destination for hikers, especially at sunrise. We hiked up on the afternoon when we arrived and spent a leisurely afternoon taking in the sights (including some excellent people watching!) Despite a constant rainfall overnight and into the morning, we woke up at 5am for the sunrise hike back to the Mirador. We were doubtful about the potential for sunrise, but we were beyond pleasantly surprised when a double rainbow arced through the towers! Hands down, it was one of the most amazing sunrises I’ve seen.
While Torres is a gorgeous park and a necessary visit, the lack of organization can be somewhat frustrating. It is difficult to find straightforward and up-to-date information online, so much of the planning has to be “on-the-fly” after arriving to the park. We had originally planned to do the W from east to west, but had to adjust this, as Campemento Torres was fully reserved for several days (reservations are required and can be made at Laguna Amarga station or Campamento Italiano). While most guidebooks recommend traveling the W in 4-5 days, we opted for a full week so that we could fully explore all sites and have the option for a bad weather lounge day.
There are refugios scattered along the hike, which are run by two companies – Fantastico Sur and Vertices. Each refugio offers camping and lodging inside (usually in shared rooms); camping costs ~$10-15 per person per night. We were initially told by several people that reservations are required for camping, causing much undo stress (we didn’t make any!). However, they ARE NOT required if you have your own equipment! There are shared bathrooms for the campground, with running water and showers (occasionally hot or glacial cold). For meals, you can either cook for yourself or buy meals inside the refugio, with full board being ~$40-50 per person per day. There is also a camp store that sells the essentials for meals, snacks and alcohol. We found the meals and amenities to be better at Fantastico Sur (hot water all day!) but the camp stores were much more complete at Vertices. Regardless, all meals are the same variation of the same ingredients – some sort of mystery meat, instant mash potatoes, and cheese! And most importantly, all places sell wine and beer!
To further highlight this backcountry “glamping”, we saw people lugging HUGE packs full of non-essential items. We wrote them down in order to share the best ones here:
- Hair brush, lipstick, all types of make-up
- Entire bottle of cooking oil
- Selfie sticks
- Tall post, sticking ~6 feet above backpack (didn’t figure out the use)
- Fur boots
- 6 person tent (for 2 people)
- Girl playing music out-loud from her phone
- Guy playing ukulele while walking
- Trekking poles being used like human skewers
- Guy carrying a rolling suitcase
- 6L of Pisco Sour in glass bottles
- And the list could go on and on…
This is one item we consider highly essential:
- Day 1: Grande Paine (via catamaran from Pudeto) to Refugio Lago Grey
- Day 2: Explored Glacier Grey. Take an extended siesta.
- Day 3: Refugio Lago Grey to Campamento Italiano
- Day 4: Explore Valley to Frances, hike to Refugio Los Cuernos
- Day 5: Refugio Los Cuernos to Refugio Chileno
- Day 6: Explore Mirador Base Las Torres, camp at Campamento Torres
- Day 7: Fantastic sunrise at the Mirador, then trekked out!
This hike is on every trekkers dream list and for good reason, it is absolutely stunning. However, to do the hike during busy season means having to share it with thousands of people at one time. If we were to do it again, we definitely would return in March or April to avoid the crowds. We were pleasantly surprised by the weather in February, but we’ve heard it can still be good into the fall (March/April). Overall, it was an amazing experience. We are glad we took some extra days to thoroughly explore the side-valleys of the W!
Pros: stunning views, ‘back-country” amenities, well-maintained trails
Cons: dealing with crowds, lack of organization of park