Torres Del Paine – easily one of the most extreme and erratic treks I’ve done. Unlike many other treks, this one condenses some phenomenal sites into 5 incredible days. This post is a photoblog but at the end of it, I’ve included some practical info that may help you as the information out there is a bit sketchy!
You’ll be based in Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres Del Paine, and will need to catch a bus through to the park. This meant an early morning start and a 2 hour ride to the park. The weather reports up to this point were dismal – gale force winds, snow and rain, temperatures dropping to -11 degrees celsius!
I decided to do the W circuit starting at Paine Grande and ending at Torres Hotel. You’ll see that everyone refers to doing the W from east to west or visa versa. I opted to go from west to east and backloaded the highlights of the trek. In order to trek the circuit this way, you need to catch a catamaran across one of the many lakes in the park to your starting point – Paine Grande, a camp site positioned in the shadow of Paine Grande – a gigantic mountain!
From Paine Grande, I hiked to my first camp site – Camping Grey, a 3.5 hour walk away. Fortunately the weather held out for the duration of the walk there, with the exception of a little snow. Walking through forests in the snow is a magical experience – a bit spooky but enchanting – I loved it.
This camp site is the base from which you can view the Glacier – this gigantic slab of ice which you’ll first notice in the distance and think you’re seeing things. I’ve never seen a glacier before and couldn’t believe something like this existed!
As I opted to do this trek independently, I was carrying my own food and equipment and set up a tent every night. I have to say setting up a tent in public is almost the same as parallel parking in front of a busy restaurant – pressure! To complicate things, the wind is ridiculous – there were nights where we had to literally nail our tents down to platforms to prevent them from being blown away!
As for the cooking situation – I only had to worry about feeding myself for the first 2 nights as the camp sites thereafter only offer full board. As much as I feel that this is a scam to extort money from you (as it’s NOT cheap), I was grateful to not carry the extra weight. I don’t know how porters do it honestly, 5 days of carrying my own equipment and I fear I’ll be putting a chiropractors kids’ through school!
The wind that night was hectic – trying to sleep in a tent when it sounds like a category 5 hurricane is going on outside isn’t for ants!
This day entails hiking all the way back to your start point and then tacking on another 7.5kms to your next camp. I opted to spend my second night in Campamento Italiano, the only free campsite on the W circuit.
The walk there is incredible – you hug the shores of a laguna for most of the way with Paine Grande looming above you. I’m not too sure what it is about these mountains but they’re different to other mountains – more jagged, extreme, dangerous? I don’t know but there is certainly something about them that fascinates me more than most other mountains I’ve encountered.
To compound this feeling, you will walk through forests of dead trees which, in the windy, cold and extreme environment, make everything feel all the more surreal. Furthermore, it is just the start of the high season so there was virtually nobody else in sight – excellent!
Campamento Italiano is situated near a massive river so the sound of flowing water will accompany you throughout your stay here. The incredible wind with the sound of the water makes it feel otherworldly.
The camp is fine but there’s a rat problem. If you’re considering staying there, be warned – hang your food in trees and keep no food in your tent. I’d go as far as saying there’s an infestation. This was my only criticism from 5 incredible days of trekking.
My motivation for staying at Italiano is that it is on the doorstep of the French Valley – a valley surrounded by the Paine massif and more of the most spectacular and extreme landscapes. You’ll spend hours walking through either forests full of dead trees, or forests full of bushy ones where you’ll stumble upon the odd deer. If Narnia was real, this would be it.
I remember being focussed on the mountain range in front of me but at some point I turned around and realised there was another, equally large, range right behind me. To make the experience more dramatic, avalanches are common here (most probably due to the incredible angles of the mountains), and as you’re walking, you’ll occasionally hear a roar and crash of snow, followed by a plume of white bursting from the mountains!
Spring is definitely in the air, despite the frigid conditions. Many of the trees and plants are just beginning to bloom. On my trip there have been 2 places I’d like to do in both summer and winter – the first is Siberia on the Trans Siberian railway in winter (I did it in summer) and the second would be to do Torres del Paine in the heart of summer.
From the French Vally, I made my way back to Italiano to collect my backpack and walk another 2.5 hours to my next camp – Los Cuernos. Although Torres Del Paine is a national park, most of the camp sites on the W circuit are owned by 2 private companies (Vertice and Fantastico Sur) Los Cuernos is a Fantastico Sur camp and in order to stay there, regardless if you’re camping or staying in a refugio, you need to sign up for full board at a cost of $95 a night (but bring your own tent!!) I believe staying in a refugio will set you back around $145. Having said this, it needs to also be said that the food was incredible. I met 2 South Africans at the camp and had dinner with them – nice touch of home!
Fortunately the wind behaved itself that night so I had a rather decent sleep – much needed as the next day was going to be a big one.
From Los Cuernos, my plan was to get to my next camp, Chileno, as quickly as possible to give me a fighting chance to see the Torres (the towers – those rocky spires) in half decent weather as the conditions change rapidly here.
This meant a 3.5 hour hike to a shortcut to Chileno. I made it to the shortcut with an hour to spare so I was gunning it but somehow (and I still don’t know how) I didn’t take the shortcut despite following the sign. The hour I gained, I lost by taking the long way around but regardless, I made it to Chileno with ample time to spare (despite having to cross a marsh which necessitated me walking barefoot through glacial waters).
The climb to Chileno is a steep one – it felt like the uphill wasn’t going to end and carrying a loaded backpack wasn’t helping. It’s funny how you forget the suffering a few days later and now only remember the great experiences and funnily enough, this is one. It’s cold here but by the time I had completed the climb, I’d virtually stripped off all my layers (which were quickly reapplied upon arrival!).
After setting up camp (and nailing it to the platform), I devoured a sandwich and began the push up to the Torres before the weather got seriously bad, as it was forecasted to do. The climb is not as difficult as it is made out to be but it certainly is the toughest part of the 5 days but the reward of seeing the Torres loom over the laguna are quite something.
I made it to the top in time to still get a pretty decent view of them, although slightly shrouded in cloud. It was a surreal experience being up there in the cold, snow falling and wind pummelling you, all whilst taking in this spectacle of nature. I won’t forget this day.
That night was another decent one with the exception of being woken up occasionally by the snow falling on my tent, but that was an experience in itself and I’d happily take the disturbance!
As predicted, the weather was turning dramatically (well, it was at camp, but conditions change so quickly). After breakfast, I made my way down to the base and through a combination of hitchhiking and bus-catching, made my way back to Puerto Natales.
I really battle to explain Torres Del Paine, but the general idea I have of it is that it is unlike any other range of mountains I’ve encountered based purely on the fact it’s so extreme. Yes, Patagonia is known to be a temperamental place and I’m sure these extreme conditions have left their mark on the park, but it’s more than that – the park is concentrated in it’s beauty – everything is photo worthy or surreal and different. It needs to be seen to be believed.
The rest of this post is dedicated to some more photos but at the end of the photos is a guide on how I approached the circuit. There is a lot of misinformation out there. Even the people that should be in the know are not. That is my single biggest bit of advice if you’re thinking of doing this trek – fact check everything and get multiple opinions!
How I tackled the W circuit:
- I did the W circuit over 5 days (4 nights) and went from west to east, starting at Paine Grande and ending at Torres Hotel.
- I stayed in Camping Grey for the 1st night ($8 just for camping), Italiano (free), Los Cuernos ($95 – camping and full board) and finally, Chileno ($95 – camping and full board).
- To get to Paine Grande, you catch a bus from Puerto Natales and get off at Pudeto (the bus will stop at the ticket office so you can buy your ticket). The bus ticket will cost you $13 and the park entrance ticket another $34.
- From Pudeto, you have to catch a catamaran to Paine Grande. You can’t book this ticket in advance and buy the ticket ($29) on board.
- From there it’s simply hiking for 5 days – the park is very well marked.
- To get back to Puerto Natales, catch a minivan from Hotel Torres ($6) to the park entrance and then jump on a bus to Puerto Natales ($13). Check bus schedules and minivan schedules beforehand. They change frequently and don’t necessarily sync with the bus schedules – I had to hitchhike to the park entrance or walk 7kms.
- I stayed in a hostel in Puerto Natales called the Singing Lamb. Despite the odd name, i’d recommend the hostel – it’s warm and comfortable and they’ll store your luggage whilst you’re trekking (for CLP1000 a day).