A big part of our RTW trip, particularly in South America, was built around hiking and trekking. We hiked the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, Colca Canyon in Peru, and various hikes in and around El Chalten. All were in preparation for our biggest trek yet, hiking the “W” in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (TDP) in the Patagonia region of Chile.
In addition to being drop dead gorgeous, one of the other main appeals of hiking in TDP is that all hikers and trekkers can do it independently if they want. Sure, you can sign on with an expensive tour, but it’s unnecessary. Going at it without a guided tour is highly recommended so you can go at your own pace, take the route that’s right for you, and have a multitude of choices along the way.
TIP #1: This post will be littered with different costs for hiking the “W”. I will summarize them all at the end of the last post, so they’re all broken down in one nice, neat place.
TIP #2: When planning your trip to TDP, make sure you schedule AT LEAST ONE, if not TWO, days in Puerto Natales. On your first day there, make sure you attend the FREE INFORMATIONAL MEETING at the Erratic Rock hostel at 3pm EVERY SINGLE DAY. Seriously, if you take any advice from this post, take this one. The meeting is chock full of EVERYTHING you need to know about hiking the W or the Circuit, and it’s FREE. Why would you not go?
TIP #3: Check out this map–it’s one of the better ones I’ve found, and if you keep it open in another tab while reading this post, it will be easier to follow along and plan.
Hiking the “W” or El Circuito?
This is the first question you must ask yourself when heading to TDP for a multi-day trek. If you’re not a hard core hiker, let me suggest the shorter “W” trek. While we aren’t accomplished hikers, we have done our fair share of longer treks, and the “W” was more than enough of a challenge for us.
- The “W” Trek- Allow 4-5 days for trekking the “W.” It is named the “W” because the shape of the trail resembles a “W.” Trekking the “W” or the full circuit has it’s pros and cons.
- The “W” is shorter- The “W” is at least 2 days shorter than hiking the full circuit, but depending on your fitness level, the full circuit could take twice as long.
- Options- Hikers and trekkers have options for hiking the “W,” as far as where to start and end and how long to take. You can try to fly through it in 3-4 days or really take your time and do it in 5-7 days (more on this later in the post).
- No tent necessary- There are refugios, which are hostel type accommodations, along the “W” trail, allowing you to sleep in a bed under a roof and not carry a tent. These are more expensive though (more information about camping vs. refugios later in the post).
- More crowded- The W is shorter and draws all types of people, so the trails are more crowded. NOTE: While I have read complaints about the overcrowdedness of the “W,” we hiked it during high season and found it to be fine. Sure, you’re not isolated the whole time (though there were plenty of times we didn’t see another person around us), but it’s not like walking around Times Square either.
- El Circuito- El Circuito is a little more hardcore, and most hikers complete it about 7-10 days. This circuit goes around the Torres and Cuernos del Paine, and it is typically done counterclockwise, starting from Laguna Amarga guarderia.
NOTE: The rest of the post will deal with hiking the “W” as this is what we hiked. The “W” is part of the circuit, so much of the information will still be applicable.
Which route to take
So you’ve decided to hike the “W” and now it’s time to decide which way to go. Basically, you have two choices on where to begin.
- The traditional way is east to west, starting at the main lodge, Refugio Las Torres. You take the bus from Puerto Natales then take a minibus up to the lodge from the park entrance (more specific transport information is below).
- The opposite route is becoming more popular, however, hiking from west to east. On this route, you take the same bus from Puerto Natales but take it further into the park, all the way to the catamaran launch across Lago Pehoe. Then you load onto the catamaran and arrive at Campamento Pehoe/Lodge Paine Grande in the early afternoon where you can begin your hike.
Route we took- We decided to take the second option-west to east. Our main reasoning for this is because the Torres (for what the park is named) are seen near the end of the hike instead of the beginning. In retrospect, while the torres were spectacular, they were by no means the major highlight of our hike. It’s not like the Machu Picchu payoff at the end of the Inca Trail.
Getting to and from Torres del Paine (how to do it, costs, etc.)
Bus-Buses run from Puerto Natales to TDP and back and leave from various places around the city. If you go to the meeting at Erratic Rock or rent some gear from there, you can also get picked up from their front doors each morning. You can buy your tickets from the Erratic Rock, and they cost about $33US/person for round trip tickets. Buses arrive at the Erratic Rock at 7:30AM each morning and arrive at Laguna Amarga inside Torres del Paine at about 10am.
When traveling east to west, the hike ends at the lodge by the Laguna Amarga entrance. A mini shuttle runs back to the original administration center travelers enter the park at (and costs $5US), and from here you can catch the bus back to Puerto Natales.
Admission into Torres del Paine and getting to the trailhead
After arriving at the Administration Center, trekkers purchase their tickets to get into the park (cost ~$33US/person).
- If going west to east (the route we took) and beginning your hike at Lodge Paine Grande, get back on the same bus and take that to the catamaran. The catamaran leaves daily at 9am, noon, and 5pm and costs $23/person one way or $38/person round trip. The catamaran will drop you at Lodge Paine Grande, and there are several trailheads there.
- If going east to west and beginning your hike at the Laguna Amarga, then hop on a mini-bus from the park entrance which will bring you to Laguna Amarga where you can begin the hike.
Where to sleep when hiking the “W”
So now you know which trail you’re hiking, where you’re beginning, and how to get there. But where do you stay while hiking the “W”?
Basically all hikers have two options: staying in a refugio or camping. The great thing about these options is that you don’t have to choose only one or the other. You can camp a few nights and stay at a refugio a few nights. It’s really up to you.
TIP #4: Regardless what you choose, if staying or camping at a refugio or on their land (particularly during high season), make sure you book as far in advance as possible. They book up quickly.
Refugios are basically hostel-type accommodations inside the park. They are all different, most only have dorm style rooms, and they are very simple. Also, for what you get, they are expensive. As of February 2011, a single bed in a dorm room is anywhere between $40US and $58US. This only includes the bed. Sheets, pillows, and/or blankets are extra.
There are several refugios around the park and of course they are not all owned by one company (see, I told you researching this hike was a pain in the ass). However, Fantastico Sur seems to own most of them, so if solely staying in refugios around the park, you can probably just deal with them. If camping for part of it, you may have to deal with more than one company.
You may want to open this map again for reference). I am going to use the west to east route as a reference since that’s the way we took.
- Fantistico Sur- Fantastico Sur runs the majority of refugios in TDP. They range in costs, and you can book through their website.
- Refugio Paine Grande- If hiking west to east, this will be your starting point. It’s a great lodge with a bar upstairs, a restaurant, and even internet. This is the nicest refugio you’ll see until the end of the hike. A single bed runs $58/person (sheets, pillows, and blankets extra), and it is a shared room (6 people) with shared bathroom.
- Refugio Grey- Next up on the west to east route is Refugio Grey, about 7 miles (11km) and 3.5-4 hours away from Paine Grande. It is very simple, and a bed costs $40/person.
- Refugio Cuernos- You are firmly in the park once you reach Refugio Cuernos. It’s about 8 miles (13km) from Paine Grande (in the opposite direction of Refugio Grey). Cost for staying here is $48/person.
- Refugio Chileno- Chileno is close to the finale, sitting in between the exit to the park and the Torres themselves. Cost for a bed in Refugio Chileno is $48/person.
One of the great parts about hiking TDP is the options one has for accommodations. Since staying at refugios in the park can be really expensive, consider camping along the way. Hikers can camp the whole time or combine camping and refugio stays (which is what we did).
If camping, there are options.
- You can bring your own tent from home and use that.
- You can rent a tent from a place like Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales and use that.
- You can rent a tent from some a refugio (not all offer this, so check ahead as you have to reserve far in advance). The big advantage in this is that you don’t have to carry a tent or set it up. If you rent one from the refugio, you will arrive to an already set up tent.
All sites mentioned above (Paine Grande, Grey, Cuernos, and Chileno) all offer camping in land around their refugios. Contact Fantistico Sur to reserve space and equipment. There are also camp sites along the “W” at Britanico, Italiano, and Torres. All three require trekkers and hikers to bring their own tents, sleeping pads, blankets, and food/cooking equipment and all are free and require no advance reservation.
Price for camping: If camping at Paine Grande, Grey, Cuernos, or Chileno, costs for a site, tent, and sleeping pads for two are $28US. For camping at Grey, contact Vertice Patagonia. For all others, contact Fantastico Sur.
Camping on your own: If you want to carry your tent and camp the whole way, you can rent all you need from the Erratic Rock hostel. Here are the prices:
- Tent- $5.25US for a 1 person tent; $6.25 for 2, $10.50 for 3
- Sleeping bag/pad- $6.25
What to Pack
TIP #5: Go to the meeting at the Erratic Rock while in Puerto Natales. While I will regurgitate a lot of the information they gave, it’s just a great meeting to go to, and you will get tons of great information and tips, particularly for packing.
TIP #6: Rent or bring hiking poles. They save your knees. I don’t care how young or in shape you are, hiking poles are fantastic and a necessity for any long trek.
What to pack when preparing for a trek like this is always difficult. Everyone wants to be prepared, but no one wants to bring too much stuff. Remember, whatever you bring you’ll be carrying on your back. For the purposes of this guide, we’re going to assume that you’re hiking the “W” or Circuit in summer, or high season (December-February).
Weather in Patagonia is fickle and ridiculous, so you do have to be prepared, even in the summer. While it most likely won’t get too cold (i.e., not below freezing), you will probably need some warm clothing. Remember that wind in Patagonia is crazy, like nothing you’ve ever seen. Layers are the key when packing for a trek in Patagonia. Luckily summertime sees lots of sunlight (provided it isn’t raining, which it most likely will at some point of your trek). Depending on the month, you can have anywhere from 14-18 hours of daylight.
What we brought- We both brought two complete outfits, and that’s it. One was our daytime outfit that we wore when hiking, and one was for camp and sleeping. After finishing hiking for the day, take off your hiking clothes, put them in a big, plastic trash bag and in your pack. The hiking outfit will be disgusting and nasty by the end, probably wet and mildewy, and it will suck putting it back on in the morning, but that’s OK. Once you’re on the trail for a few and get the blood pumping, you’ll be fine. This is THE most efficient way of packing for a trek, and it will be my method for any multi-day trek I take from here on out.
- One pair of zip-off, convertible hiking pants; one pair of lightweight hiking pants
- Two lightweight, moisture wicking t-shirts
- One long sleeve, lightweight, warm (made of wool), moisture wicking shirt
- One microfleece
- One lightweight, waterproof rain jacket (leave the poncho at home; the Patagonian wind will make a poncho its bitch)
- 2 pairs of underwear
- 3 pairs of socks (Smartwool or anything made of merino wool work best for hiking, in my opinion)
- One warm stocking hat and one pair of gloves
- One pair hiking shoes; one pair small, lightweight, comfy shoes for camp
- With the exception of underwear (she brought 5 pairs of underwear because hers are very small and lightweight), we brought pretty much the exact same things, only hers were female clothes.
As with anything having to do with Torres del Paine, you have options. The refugios all offer meals; breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So you could opt to eat some of your meals at the refugios. This will obviously save lots of weight in your pack, but it will be a huge hit on the wallet. We only ate one dinner at a refugio, and I have to say it was really, really nice and really good. If we had more money, we would taken advantage more.
TIP #7: Don’t bring too much of one thing. We brought tons of trail mix figuring we’d eat that as one or two meals a day. Nearly two years later, I have a tough time eating trail mix.
Refugio Meals: If on a tight budget and trying to decide, keep in mind you can also buy beer and/or wine at the refugios, which is really nice after a 10 hour hiking day. Here are the refugio meal prices:
- Breakfast- $11US/person
- Lunch- $14US/person (box lunch)
- Dinner- $18US/person
Camping Meals: If you can’t afford meals at the refugios, then you’re simply going to have to bring a stove, mess kit, and a lot of your own food. It’s sounds daunting, especially if you’ve never done this before, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Thankfully Puerto Natales has several great grocery stores and sections for trekking food. You can also rent a little stove and mess kit that will have everything you need. Erratic Rock rents any equipment that you may need. Here are their rates:
- Stove- $3.25
- Mess kit- $8.50 (will accommodate 3 people-bowls, plates, silverware, pot, pan)
The food we brought: Counting the day we left and the day we returned, we were gone for 5 days. We needed eleven meals for the trail as we had breakfast at our hostel before leaving, lunch at the refugio before actually getting on the trail, and lunch the final day after finishing. I actually came across the menu we wrote out before we left (yes, we did write out a menu, and I suggest you do the same-you don’t want to bring too little or too much). Here is a sampling of things we ate for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks:
- Breakfast: We had a combination of granola bars, instant soup, and oatmeal
- Lunch: We ate a sandwich the first day before we got on the trail. Then it was a combo of trail mix (made from lots of nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate) and granola bars. Quick and easy.
- Dinner: We ate a combination of instant soup and trail mix for dinner. We did eat one meal at a refugio, which was very, very good.
- Snacks: Trail mix, granola bars, and lots of chocolate and candy. This is one time you’re actually encouraged to eat sugar and lots of it
All these costs add up, so let’s break it down (all costs per person in US dollars).
- R/T Bus tickets from Puerto Natales to TDP- $33
- Mini shuttle from end of trek to park entrance- $5
- Catamaran across Lago Pehoe- $23 one way; $38 r/t (round trip not necessary unless hiking the full circuit and starting/ending at Lodge Paine Grande)
Entrance to the Park: $33
- Refugios- Range from $40-$58
- Camping- If at a refugio site, $7.25 just for the site
- Rental gear for refugio camping
- Tent (for two)- $15
- Sleeping Pad- $3
- Sleeping Bag- $9.50
- Rental gear for refugio camping
Gear Rental at Erratic Rock Hostel- The Erratic Rock also offers much more as far as gear, from waterproof pants and jackets to crampons to hiking shoes, so be sure to check out their rental page for all they have to offer.
- Tent- $5.25US for a 1 person tent; $6.25 for 2, $10.50 for 3
- Sleeping bag/pad- $6.25
- Stove- $3.25
- Mess Kit- $8.50
- Hiking Poles- $4.25
Food at Refugios
- Breakfast- $11
- Lunch- $14
- Dinner- $18
I’m pretty certain I have covered about everything you’d possibly need to know when preparing for a multi-day trek in Torres del Paine National Park. If not and you still have any questions, please comment below.
And stay tuned because the rest of the week will offer more on Torres del Paine, including a recap of our hike, the exact route we took, times it took, and how it impacted us (this was probably the most difficult hike either of us had done to that point). Of course, there will be tons of pictures as well, so don’t forget to check back!