A visit to Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, is high on most people’s lists for what to do in Patagonia. Finding information on how to do it without a guide isn’t too easy – I hope this is a good comprehensive overview and helps a few of you out.
You have a couple of options of what to do and how to do it. Most people do the W trek which can be done in either an Easterly or Westerly direction. This is usually a 5 day, 4 night trek. We chose to do the longer O or Circuit Trek which we did in 9days and 8 nights. You could do it a little quicker if you needed to – we met some doing it in 6 or 7 nights. Only do 6 if you’re very fit and your boots are nice to your feet. You don’t need a guide for either option because the path is well signposted and you’d have to try really really hard to get lost!
Have a look at my packing post for more information on what to bring with you…
We entered the park and walked to Camp Serón – a good well-equipped campsite which even had wifi available (also available at a couple of other refugios/campsites along the way). For me, this day was the worst. Not a promising start, I know! I was quite nervous about this trek since the longest trek I’d done previously was only 4 days and it was back in 2006. I’m generally more of a day hiker but I’ve really caught the bug now despite nearly giving up after day 1.
We had bad weather (which it turns out is just part and parcel of a trip to Patagonia)- it rained or snowed the whole way there, our packs were heavy and we were getting used to the pace, the terrain and the comfort of walking with all our stuff.
The walk was varied, crossing big open plains, a couple of small rivers and tottering through forests where a herd of horses were hanging out away from the rain.
There was lots of mud and the going was pretty slow. Try and keep your feet dry by avoiding puddles and using stepping stones to cross streams – this is day 1 and wet boots now mean wet boots until the sun comes out and you can dry off properly. It is worth bearing in mind that it is almost impossible to find an accurate weather forecast for this part of Patagonia – we had three totally different forecasts before we left and none of them were very accurate. Expect all of the weather at some point!
HANDY HINT: Don’t leave anything important (like your toothbrush) at camp because, although you can stock up with pasta and snacks and even beers at the majority of campsites, you cannot purchase a new toothbrush anywhere on the O. Fact.
We woke up to snow on the ground and on the tent. A proper winter wonderland!
We had a 6 hr walk ahead of us to Dickson Campsite which is right on the lake of the same name. A beautiful spot with icebergs floating by – probably my favourite campsite.
We waited for the rain to pass and didn’t set off until about 10am but we got lucky with the weather – sunny but cool all day. This day was actually one of my favourites – we passed lake after lake and climbed hills that gave us fantastic views of shimmering blue, wide plains where you could imagine Puma stalking us with beautiful snow capped mountains on the horizon. We also saw some really cool plants – bulbous bushes with bright red flowers which looked other-worldly with their dusting of snow.
The winds can be pretty strong in places so keep a tight hold of your walking poles and, when trying to climb over the stile don’t let go…
Have your lunch at the halfway rangers station – it’s a good place to stop and it has both toilets and picnic tables so you feel very fancy. When you arrive at the campsite, dip your feet in the icy water if you can bear it – it will soothe your blisters after 2 days of walking.
We walked to Los Perros which is only a 4.5hr walk. Depending on the time of year this might be one campsite you choose to skip if you want to walk the route in fewer days. If there is risk of snow on the pass don’t skip this one though – you’ll want more time for the pass if there is snow.
Los Perros Campsite is a good one with an indoor area for cooking which makes all the difference when the weather is chilly. There is also a fire!
The walk was beautiful – mostly through forest tracks with lots of gentle hills. Loads of good logs for snack spots, lots of shelter from wind and rain and shade for those of us who are pale and freckly. There are also some stunning views of the mountains as you pass – you can see glaciers and lakes all day.
Because we did this trek at the start of November (which is when the O opens) we were some of the first people through the John Gardner Pass. We had actually met a few people who had been turned back from Los Perros unable to walk the pass because the weather wasn’t good enough. Luckily our group made it! Keep that in mind if planning a trip early in the season.
We headed off at 8am and started uphill through a pretty steep, boggy section of forest. When we eventually made it out the top we were immediately assaulted by the wind. It is strong there! The route from there is over rocks and scree uphill until the top of the pass.
There were patches of snow, some up to mid thigh and this made it a bit of a slow day. This was the day for wearing waterproof trousers! We had some pretty comedy moments of plunging through a crust of snow and getting stuck or falling over. But, I am a lover of snow always and I revelled in making a snow angel once we’d crossed the pass!
This is a pretty tough day, especially if the wind is strong but the view you get as you come over the pass is totally worth it. This is the big selling point for the O trek… The first view of the Grey Glacier, stunning and stretching for miles in either direction. All you can see is ice and rocks and sky for miles. Beautiful.
After this you have a few more hours of walking to reach Camp Paso, the first of the free campsites. The route is all downhill and mostly a pretty steep and slithery forest pass. Take your time – we had a few falls! Camp Paso is pretty nice, well sheltered and next to a pretty stream but the drop toilet isn’t for the faint hearted! You could make it all the way to the next camp (Grey) from Los Perros if you needed to go a bit faster but be aware that the downhill can be tough on the knees… walking poles are highly recommended!
We headed down to Camp Grey on Lake Grey which is often the first or last stop for someone doing the W. The walk wasn’t long – about 4 hrs and the campsite is well equipped with an indoor cooking area, hot showers and decent toilets. However, we really noticed the lack of charm once we reached the W. In my opinion the back of the park, the first part of the O is infinitely better than the rest of the O trek (aka the W).
The walk down was mostly downhill again, though with a few pretty steep uphill sections and some slightly terrifying exposed and windswept edges. There are some outstanding views as you walk alongside the Glacier towards the lake of the same name. However there are also some booby traps!
Other people might enjoy these but I didn’t… I’m referring to a couple of long, swaying rope bridges over terrifying drops and a sketchy looking ladder or two. As you may have guessed, I’m not big on heights! But, I lived to tell the tale, my friends loved those bits and the rest of the walk made up for the part when I was hovering, hyperventilating at the end of a rope bridge I’d just survived only to be facing a steep and scary ladder to get down back to earth whilst carrying poles and a 13kg backpack.
We set off for Camp Italiano, another of the free campsites. We realised on this day that the W really wouldn’t be as much fun as the first part of the O because there were walkers going in both directions – lots of them. For our first 5 days everyone was going in the same direction and “everyone” referred to a group of about 10 walkers all of whom we got to know at night at the campsites. While still beautiful, this day, and the rest of the W was a comparative disappointment because of the number of people.
If you only have time for a 5 day walk I would recommend doing the back of the O and on day 5 walking from Paso to Camp Paine Grande to take the catamaran out from there. I think that walk would be a much more satisfying way of experiencing the beauty of the park and much more interesting to do with a limited timeframe. Also, going against the crowd is always fun! Be the black sheep!
The walk itself was good, mostly out in the open over rolling hills – nothing too steep.
We cut a couple of hours off the times outlined in the park maps which we found to be a trend on the W – perhaps because more people do the W the average walking time is slower? Italiano was a decent campsite with drop toilets and a shelter for cooking- it was however very busy since a free campsite on the W is highly sought after.
We had a pretty easy day here since we left our big bags at camp and went for a wander up the French Valley. It’s pretty much uphill the whole way but you can see some great hanging glaciers and a gorgeous view of the lake from high up. Lots of good snack spots and lunch spots to choose from and an easy downhill wander back – all without carrying any weight! You almost feel like you could fly.
When we returned to the campsite and picked up our bags we only had a 20min walk to the next campsite Camp Francés. If you aren’t too conscious about budget I would walk further and stay at Camp Cueron or even Hotel Los Torres if you can because this was an easy day but the Day 8 is long and mostly uphill. However, the campsites inbetween Francés and Torres are all very expensive. We couldn’t afford to do that which made our penultimate day a long and tiring one but the showers at Camp Francés set us up nicely for the next day – genuinely some of the nicest, fanciest showers I’ve experienced the whole way through South America.
Set off early – this will be a long day. The route starts off along the edge of the lake which is very pretty, quite up and down and pretty windy.
After about 1hr or so you arrive at Camp Cueron and you can readjust your gear before heading off again. From here the vast majority of the walk is uphill – it’s not really steep, more of a gradual uphill but it is a bit tiring considering you’re on day 8 by this point. This was also the hottest day of our walk and the only day I walked in just my t-shirt. You’ll need suncream close at hand in weather like that because there is a hole in the ozone right above this part of Chile and you don’t want to end up looking like a typical pink prawn of a tourist with attractive sock marks halfway up your calves!
The walk continued over a sort of sweeping landscape – very green with a couple of little lakes dotted around and some lovely grassy stretches. Around lunchtime keep an eye out for a good spot with shade – there aren’t many and you’ll want a proper rest on such a long day especially if it’s hot. We found a lovely spot – it felt like somewhere you might bump into Winnie the Pooh and piglet out for a stroll. Sadly we weren’t there long before our solitude was interrupted by a group of about 10 people walking the W together.
I think I’m making myself out as a bit of a grump who doesn’t enjoy the company of others. Honestly, I’m not! I just prefer nature when there are fewer people trying to see it… Plus, it did at times get a bit farcical saying “Hello, hello, hola, hello” to every hiker you pass when some of these groups are 20 odd people walking in single file on a narrow track towards you!
Anyway, if you continue uphill for a couple of hours you’ll reach Refugio Chileno which is only about an hour downhill from free camp Torres where you’re heading. We stopped here for a couple of celebratory beers before heading up to our final campsite. If you get to camp and you’re not completely dead and the weather is good, I would recommend dragging yourself another 45mins up the path to visit the famous Torres right then and there before coming back down for dinner. We waited for the morning instead and that was a mistake…
The last morning of sharing a tent and eating porridge for a while was a pleasing thought. Unfortunately once we poked our heads outside the tent we realised that it had been raining all night and that there was no visibility further up making it impossible to see the Torres up close. Although sad, it wasn’t the end of the world – the previous 8 days had been full of some incredible views, great people and enough pasta to sink a battleship.
Don’t come to Torres del Paine just for the Torres… You can’t control the weather and you might go home disappointed. The walk is totally worth it in its own right and the Torres would just have been the cherry on the top of the cake. I’m not even that fond of cherries!
So, we started our descent – almost entirely downhill apart from a half hour section right after passing Chileno. You almost skip down the hill imagining all the delicious non-pasta food you’ll have that evening. And an icecream. And some wine! At the bottom make sure to treat yourself to a drink in the fancy bar of the Torres Hotel and await your bus* whilst quietly mocking the day trippers walking by in trainers, jeans and those thin plastic rain cagouls – go on, you’re a hardy Trekker. You now have the authority to mock!
*The shuttle bus leaves from right outside the hotel – no need to walk back to the cafe where you started the O.
The How To: Book your bus ticket to the National Park the day before – it costs around 15,000CLP and is open ended. This approx 2 hr bus ride takes you to the park entrance where you pay your entrance fee and watch a video about fire safety and the rules of the park. You should be setting off on your walk by about 10am after taking the shuttle to the starting point at Hotel Las Torres. When you finish your walk you take the shuttle back to the park entrance and find the bus company you came with and collapse gratefully into your seat. You should arrive back in Puerto Natales before 5pm that day – ready for a delicious dinner and early to bed!
Facts at time of writing: Park entry 21,000CLP Vertice Campsites 5000CLP Fantástico Sur 8500 CLP Conaf Campsites FREE Erratic Rock Talks 3pm everyday