Are you a hiker? Try Torres Del Paine in Chile!
Where and what is Torres Del Paine?
Torres Del Paine is located in southern Chile, at Patagonia. The closest airport to Torres Del Paine would be Puerto Natales. It is also very close to the Argentinian border. There are multiple ways to get to Torres Del Paine, and I’m going to tell you the way that I went (from the North).
Torres Del Paine is actually comprised of three distinct granite peaks of the Paine mountain range. “Torres” means tower in English. There are other mountains that surround the three granite peaks. When you hike around it, it is quite majestic. Torres Del Paine is located in the Chilean national park, which means you will have to pay to get in there. During high season (November to April), there could be as high as 1,500 new hikers per day in the park. On the other hand, low season (according to my count and estimate) may only have 100 new hikers per day.
When people talk about Patagonia, they often think it is one particular place, however Patagonia is actually a massive 1,00,000 km2 area covering countries such as Chile and Argentina. Even at the hike in Torres Del Paine, we were covering only a tiny fraction of Patagonia.
The famous W Trail
If you look at the picture below, the W trail literally looks like a “W” shape. In the middle of the W, you hike up 500 metres to be at the Britanico lookout. At the top, you get to see a beautiful view of the mountains.
Picture view at the Britanico lookout
The W trail total distance is about 70 km. Aside from climbing up Britanico and Base de las Torres lookout, the altitude gain/loss is fairly stable (no more than 200 metres of altitude difference). Even with the two peaks at the W trail, the altitude gain is only 500 to 600 metres. Of course, at the Base de Las Torres, you are rewarded with the best view of Torres Del Paine.
Picture view of Torres Del Paine
Below is the altitude gain/loss map
Even though the altitude gain at max is only 600 metres, the difficulty lies on the distance that it takes to go up such an altitude. For example, for both Britanico and Las Torres, the last 1 km distance is the toughest. You hike straight up for an altitude gain of 500 metres non-stop, which is very steep. Not to mention, while you hike up, you start seeing snow and ice on the trail path. When you come down, you have to be careful not to slip and fall.
Aside from the steep trail path, the general path is not easy either. The trail has various terrain, which involve going through prickly bushes, and crossing many rivers. The trail is generally well marked, however there are sections of the trail where you don’t see any markers. For example, the path from Cuernos to Refugio Torre Central has terrible markings. It is possible that your hike could suddenly deviate to Chilenos. Just be mindful of that.
Of course, for any long hiking trips, it is important to bring walking poles for this trail.
You have the option to stay overnight by camping, or stay inside lodges at night. The lodges in Torres Del Paine are called “refugios”. These refugios are basically hostels in the park. There is another category of accommodation which is called “Domos”. These domos are dome like lodges that can fit 8 people comfortably with a shared bathroom. There are only two domos in the trail, located at Domo Frances, and Domo Los Cuernos.
I’ll explain the pricing of the refugios in later sections.
Which direction should you walk?
For the W trail, you could walk from East to West, or West to East. The more popular way is to walk from West to East. What my friends and I did is to park our car at Refugio Torre Central, then we took a shuttle bus to Laguna Amarga (the information centre). Then we took another shuttle bus from Laguna Amarga to Pudeto, from there we caught a catamaran and cross the lake to Paine Grande refugio. (I’ll explain the exact logistics in the later sections below).
Normally, on day 1 you would walk from Paine Grande to Camp Grey to initiate your starting position of the W trail. However, by the time you get to Paine Grande, it would already be too late and too dark. It is highly not recommended to hike in the dark, so you may as well start the hike the next day. Below is my suggested hiking schedule.
On Day 1 – you would walk from Paine Grande to Camp Grey, and then from Camp Grey back to Paine Grande, and proceed to Cuernos – 25 km
On Day 2 – you would walk from Cuernos up to Britanico for a beautiful lookout and then come back to Cuernos – 25 km
On Day 3 – you would walk from Cuernos to Refugio Torre Central – 25 km
On Day 4 – you would walk from Refugio Torre Central to Chileno, then proceed to Base de las Torres lookout. Afterwards, you come back down to Refugio Torre Central – 20 km
When you come back to Refugio Torre Central, guess what? Voila, you get back to your car!
Oh by the way, throughout the trail there are paths that are only reserved for horses. You should always stick to the path that is for humans. The path that is for horses usually involve crossing a river, which is impossible for mere mortals like us. Do not go to the wrong path.
What about the Q Trail? Or the O Trail?
The Q trail, or the O trail, is an extension of the W trail, which is another 50 km. You can see from the picture below how the Q trail looks like.
Access to the Q trail is more restricted. For example, the National Park only allows 80 hikers per day to go through the extension of the Q trail (this is passively regulated by the number of campsite reservations there). In addition, the sleeping condition in the Q trail is more stringent. For example, the W trail has the option of camping or stay in refugios; but the Q trail is strictly only camping.
If you decide to camp, be ready to know how to set up tents under harsh windy and rainy conditions.
Weather and season
The reason why there is a low or high season in Torres Del Paine is because of the weather in the trail. Remember Torres Del Paine is located in the Southern Hemisphere, so the season is totally opposite from the Northern Hemisphere.
From November to April, Torres Del Paine is beautiful and wind speed is only 20 km/h. The temperature ranges from 18 Celcius to 7 Celcius which is a comfortable temperature for hikers. On the other hand, from May to October, Torres Del Paine is experiencing its winter or wet season. Temperature could drop to 10 Celcius to -3 Celcius. The overall view is gloomy and rainy. Not to mention that wind speed can reach as high as 70 km/h. Due to this reason, not many hikers like to come to this National Park during low season. However, it may work out well because there are much fewer hikers so the trail isn’t as packed.
I went to Torres Del Paine during the tail-end of the low season in October. There weren’t too many hikers but the weather was pretty gloomy. You could witness the four seasons in one day, so better layer up.
Around the park, there are rangers stationed in front of various refugios. They will sometimes carefully ask you (or stop you) from hiking if they assess that the path is dangerous. For example, on our first day walk from Paine Grande to Grey, the ranger told us that the river level was knee high, so we weren’t allowed to walk. Another example is if the walk up to Britanico is icy, the ranger will also close the path.
It is important that you pace yourself throughout the hike, and make sure you are always with some other hikers. For example, by talking to other hikers and staffs who work at refugios, we learn that missing hikers happen more frequent than you think. We knew that there was a hiker gone missing for at least 2 days and still couldn’t find his body. Another scary fact we learned is that a hiker at a different refugio had a severe asthma attack because she pushed herself too hard to keep up with the guide. Later on, her chest began to contract and the rest of the crew got her quickly to the refugio. Later on, she passed away. Word of advice, don’t push yourself too hard.
How to get there?
There are two ways you can get to Torres Del Paine. The popular way is to come from the south, where you fly to Puerto Natales. Puerto Natales is about 112 km south of the National Park. You would take a bus from the bus terminal. The bus leaves around at 7:30am and 2:30pm and takes 2.5 hours to arrive at Laguna Amarga (the park entrance). The bus price is around 15,000 pesos. From there, you take a bus to Pudeto and then catch a catamaran to arrive at Paine Grande. Sad to say, I didn’t go to Torres Del Paine through this method.
The other way is to come from the north. I flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, and rented a car from there. The exact schedule of how I got to Torres Del Paine is listed below:
Drive from El Calafate to Laguna Amarga (total time 4 to 5 hours). It is best that you drive from El Calafate to Esperanza (1.5 hour) because that path is at least paved. Esperanza is the only place along the path that you can get gas. Then, the drive from Esperanza to the Argentinian border takes another 1.5 hour. For a good 20 min (about 5 to 6 km), the road is really bad to the Chilean border. Afterwards, the road is well paved.
Be careful of the time it takes to wait at the Chilean border. Depends on the crowd, the line could be as high as 45 min.
Afterwards, you drive another hour from the border to Laguna Amarga (the admission centre). At Laguna Amarga, you pay about 21,000 pesos at the gate.
Then you drive from Laguna Amarga to Refugio Torre Central (only 20 – 30 minutes). At the site, you can park your car there for free.
From Refugio Torre Central, you take a shuttle bus back to Laguna Amarga (this costs 3,000 pesos). Be wary of the schedule as there is a last bus for the day.
From Laguna Amarga, you take another shuttle bus to Pudeto. You pay 5,000 pesos to the driver. The bus ride is less than an hour, and then you’ll catch the catamaran. The last bus leaves at 4:30pm, but the catamaran won’t leave until the bus arrives, which is an amazing coordination.
You take the catamaran to sail across Peho lake and arrive at Paine Grande refugio. You pay 18,000 pesos at the boat. The last boat leaves at 6pm.
From there, if you arrive early, you have the option to hike from Paine Grande refugio to Camp Grey to initiate your W trail. If not, you can do that the next day.
Congratulations, now you may begin the scenic route.
Below is a video which I explained the schedule at Pudeto.
How are the refugios?
The refugios are owned by 2 private companies in the Torres Del Paine park.
Fantastico Sur – they own Refugio El Chileno, Refugio Los Cuernos, Refugio Torre Norte and Refugio Torre Central.
Vertice Patagonia – they own Refugio Paine Grande, and Refugio Grey.
It’s really expensive to stay at these refugios. For example, staying one night at Refugio Paine Grande was $170 USD per person per night. It covers your breakfast, lunch and dinner. At least, Paine Grande was spacious and amenities were decent. The costs could be justified.
On the other hand, Refugio Los Cuernos was bad. There were no tissue papers in the bathroom, no shampoo or soap provided. Only one stall had hot water for shower. Even the beds looked ridiculous as I have never seen bunk beds with three levels. Did I also say that our bedroom had no heat the entire night? Each night also costs $170 USD per person per night. Again, this price covers your breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I heard from other hikers that Refugio Chileno was also really bad. I never stayed there though, so I cannot make a comment.
Refugio Torre Central was much better though. They at least give you shampoo, soap and towels. Overall, better amenities and facilities. The rooms only fit 6 people (instead of 8 at Cuernos).
What to bring?
You should bring all the essential gear for a hike. The list is not exhaustive, but generally includes:
Snacks (nuts, dried fruit)
Hand cream – essential
Tissue paper (remember Cuernos has no tissue papers)
Shampoo and body wash (a lot of refugios do not provide)
Blister band-aid and scissors
Walking poles – I wish I had them
Chilean pesos (these drivers only accept cash)
Plugs and eye masks (anything to make you sleep)
Your own tea bags (because you have to pay for tea bags)
Hiking boots (not those running shoes)
Down jacket and gloves (it gets cold when you are up at Britanico)
Rain jacket and rain pants (trust me, Patagonia always rains and heavy!)
Plastic twine – super useful to dry your wet socks
Cards or board games – bring something easy to carry (such as Code Names or Coup)
Asthma puffer if you have asthma
If you are camping, bring:
Portable cooking stove
Maybe flour if you want to make pan cakes
Sleeping bag and insulating mat that can withstand the cold
There are many activities that you are not allowed to do. For example, you can only camp in the authorized areas indicated on the map provided to you. It is strictly forbidden to spend the night elsewhere. You are also only allowed to bring small cookers/stoves that do not use plant material as fuel. Again, you can only cook at the designated areas.
If you want to bring a drone, sorry, that is also not allowed. But most importantly, you are not allowed to start a hike at night.
I should also mention one thing for your interest. Pumas exist in this National Park. If you encounter a puma, you have to remain calm, remain upright and try to appear that you are larger than the animal. Then you make loud noises to scare it away. If you see a puma feeding a young one, you should run away.