This post is part one of a FOUR part series entitled THE Definitive Guide to Hiking Torres del Paine.
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 all prices will be 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 Wednesday).
- 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 Thursday).
- 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. In fact, if we had to do it all over again, we probably would have taken an extra day to camp in the Valle de Frances on day 3, which was our personal highlight.
Here is the breakdown of where we hiked and camped each day. There will be a recap post next week that will go into more detail about the actual hike itself. This is just a quick guide showing which route we took. There is a small map below, but I suggest opening this map in another tab for reference since it is much bigger and easier to read.
Starting Point: Refugio Paine Grande (bottom left of the “W” on the map)
Ending Point: Refugio Grey (up the left side of the “W”)
Sleeping Arrangements: We rented a tent from Refugio Grey and slept in their campground
Length: ~8 miles (11 km)
Starting Point: Refugio Grey
Ending Point: Refugio Paine Grande
Sleeping Arrangements: We slept in Refugio Paine Grande in a 6-bed dorm
Length: ~8 miles (11 km)
Starting Point: Refugio Paine Grande
Ending Point: Campamento Los Cuernos
Hiking Note: We left Paine Grande hiking east. When we got to the middle part of the “W” we went north towards Campamento Britanico in the Valle de Frances. After hiking all the up the valley and back, we continued heading east towards the right part of the “W”.
Sleeping Arrangements: We slept in a 12-person dorm room, with 3 bed high bunks. I was on the very top of one. Not fun when having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Length: 15 miles (24 km) Crazy long day that saw us up really early and hiking really late. Exhausted after this day. Be sure to check out the recap next Monday to get suggestions on what we would do if we had to do it over again.
Starting Point: Campamento Los Cuernos
Ending Point: Campamento Chileno
Hiking Note: After arriving at Chileno, setting up camp, and eating lunch, I hiked up past Campamento Torres to the Mirador de Las Torres and back before dinner.
Sleeping Arrangements: We rented a tent from Campamento Chileno and slept in their campground.
Length: 9.5 miles (15 km) to Campamento Chileno. It’s another 7 miles (~11 km) round trip to the Mirador de Las Torres. 16.5 miles (26 km) total
Starting Point: Campamento Chileno
Ending Point: Hosteria Las Torres
Hiking Note: This was a short hike to the end where this is a lodge that serves hot meals and cold beers.
Sleeping Arrangements: We took a bus back to Puerto Natales and checked back into our B&B, the Erratic Hostel 2.
Length: 3 miles (5 km)
Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for Part 2, which goes over what to pack when heading to Torres del Paine for a trek.