W is for Patagonia, Torres del Paine
Chile’s premier hiking route is Patagonia’s W – a stunning four day trek that takes in glaciers, mountains and turquoise coloured lakes: scenery that takes your breath away.
This well trodden path of the W route (map), in Torres del Paine National Park, is a relatively easy trek and can be done by self-catering, booking onsite tents or staying in comfortable refugio accommodation. For those wanting to escape the crowds, the O route (map) or backside of the mountain, offers an extra four to five days of trekking with far less people.
I met a group of Swiss and Chilean trekkers on my broken down bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales and was invited to join them on the W. I had grand plans to hike the O and thought it would be good to see how I went on the W before continuing on by myself to complete the full circuit. This would be my first trek with a full pack.
I felt pretty strong by the final two days but I acknowledged that the weight of the pack was just too much for me to trek more than seven hours a day. The O requires up to 12 hours a day and a steep four hour uphill section that I would have needed to tackle in strong winds.
Note: thousands of people are on this trek each day. Start hiking early to avoid sharing the viewpoints with a cast of hundreds.
Day 1 and 2
We took the late bus from Puerto Natales to Los Torres campsite and set up tent there. There are three campsite options, a hotel and a refugio.
Los Torres campsite is at the bottom of the mountain and the warmer and more protected site. A two hour trek up towards the Torres del Paine lookout is Chileno shelter and campsite, set on the river. It is a beautiful campground and within 1.5 hours trek of the mirador but it catches the wind and is cooler. Further up the valley is the basic and free Torres campground which is the ideal location for trekking to watch the sunrise but also is cooler at night.
With good weather, we left our campground at 7am and had the mirador, set on the glacier lake, all to ourselves and without wind when we arrived around 930am. On the way down we passed hundreds of people heading up. Go early is the best tip.
We returned to the same campsite and I fell asleep to a group of Spaniards partying outside our tent, too tired to notice the noise.
We trekked six hours this day with full packs to Frances camp close to the lake which had the most fabulous showers of any campground I have stayed. The tents are on wooden platforms so bring a thick mattress.
Other camping options included Los Cuernos two hours earlier or Italiano an hour further on. The latter is free but had only one working toilet and no other facilities.
We were away by 730am, hiking to Italiano with full pack. The weather was spectacular, 24 degrees, zero wind and not a cloud in the sky – a rare event in Patagonia at this time of year. We dropped our packs at Italiano and continued on to Britanica lookout, along the way, passing the incredible Frances Glacier. The view from the mirador was spectacular and we ate lunch there taking in the view.
As we headed down we passed hundreds of people. At the mirador for Frances glacier, the sun had worked its magic melting parts of the glacier to result in huge chucks coming away and falling hundreds of metres to shatter on the valley floor with the explosion echoing around the valley. Spectacular.
We hiked on to Paine Grande camp where we had been warned to expect tornado strength winds and tents to become missiles. But this day, there was little wind and we sat in the sun enjoying a beer, cheese and salami. Sunset at around 1030pm turned the mountain tops of Paine Grand Hill and Castillo Hill pink and darkness lit up the stars.
I woke in the early hours to the wind trying to launch our tent but it managed to survive the night. We hiked later than normal to Grey Glacier in strong winds and under threatening skies that never quite broke into rain.
Grey Glacier stretched for kilometres up the valley and was simply spectacular and huge chunks of ice floated across the lake. We struggled on the way back to remain upright as we fought the wind, which I don’t believe was at its full strength. On return to camp, several tents were travelling across the campground and others were broken. Ours had survived the day.
We caught the 630pm ferry to the bus connection to Puerto Natales (no need to book). I didn’t have a hostel booked due to my O route plans and faced booked out hostels. But by luck, one hostel had opened its new wing that day and I had a brand new mattress to sleep on. Somehow my trekking buddies and I stayed awake for a very late dinner – our first pieces of salad in days, heaven, and a bottle of wine, before we started to fall asleep at the table.
Food and water
Light in weight and high calorie is the focus of trekking food. I opted for spaghetti, tomato soup sashays to use for the source (mixed herbs and garlic for flavour), wraps and tuna for lunch, porridge for breakfast and salami, cheese, mixed nuts and energy bars for snacks. Sashays of drink flavours worked a treat to quickly replenish sugars and electrolytes when trekking.
You can drink the water directly from the rivers without water purification tablets – it is that clean. The rivers are so frequent that you only need to carry one 600ml bottle to refill along the way.
There are many rental shops around town and most hostels rent gear too. They are open until 11pm so there is plenty of time to organise gear in the evening. They have absolutely everything except inflatable mattresses. Expect to pay between 2000-4000 Chilean pesos per item per day.
Grab and emergency blanket. These tiny silver sheets work great as a mat for the base of the tent keeping the cold and damp out.
Hostels in Puerto Natales book out up to a week in advance so book as early as you can. Also, buses to and from Ushuaia book out up to five days in advance, so again, book early. If you wish to stay in the onsite tents or refugios along the W, it is necessary to book well in advance. If you have your own tent, it is possible to book your campsite when you reach the national park entrance.
There is no need to book the O route, backside of the mountain section.
Fires and swimming
Two fires from stupid actions by campers have left huge scars on the Torres del Paine landscape providing a reminder of the need to follow park’s rules regarding fires.
Sadly it is not permitted to swim in the lakes due to the danger of “drowning”. It made me question whether we should be allowed to walk up mountain tracks for fear of falling. All a little over the top and disappointing on our beautiful 24 degree windless day.
Park fees: 18,000 (check latest prices here)
Return bus fare: 12,000
Boat: 15,000 one way
Campsites: 7,000-8,500 per person. Some sites are per person, others are per tent. There are free campsites as well.
Base Camp on the main square offers 3pm briefings covering the entire trek and suggest gear and food to take as well. Some of the advice was way off base (eg. don’t bother putting on your waterproofs, just walk in the freezing rain and wind), but other advice was good