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"I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move."
- Robert Louis Stevenson

A Guide to Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

(*Full disclosure, I worked as an Erratic Rock Employee for the 2018-2019 season)

I spent the past five months living and working in Puerto Natales, which is the gateway town to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and the famous “W” or “O” treks. Torres del Paine has quickly become one of the most popular destinations in all of South America. Unlike other national parks in South America, this one has developed a few more regulations and rules to handle and control the number of visitors that arrive each year. After helping numerous people throughout the season and answering some of the same questions hundreds of times, I decided to put together this guide to, hopefully, help those in the future looking to visit this beautiful place.

The Towers in October

The Towers in October

RESERVATIONS 

To stay at any of the campsites or refugios inside the park that are on the trails you MUST have a reservation. If you have all of your own gear (tent, sleeping bag, etc) you still MUST have a reservation to stay at the campsite. Due to the popularity of the park I recommend making your reservations as soon as you know your dates for visiting the parks as the spots fill up fast, generally making your reservations 6 months ahead of time is a good window to shoot for if you can.

Booking Campsites in Torres del Paine National Park 

Most people coming to the park are looking to complete the “W” trek or the full circuit of the park called the “O.” The “W” trek can be completed in either direction, east to west or west to east, while the “O” must be completed in a counterclockwise direction no matter if you start from Paine Grande or Las Torres. The “W” trek generally takes 4-5 days to complete and the “O” 8-9 days to complete.

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 It is good to be a bit flexible when you begin the booking process as the sites that are available can often end up determining your exact start/end date and where you will start and end your trek. In my personal opinion, it isn’t too important to have one particular campsite over the other because any combination of sites in the park that allow you to complete your trek will give you the full amazing experience.

There are three distinct organizations operating in the park running the campsites. These organizations do not communicate with each other and must be dealt with separately, all three with their own unique online reservation systems. In BLUE, are the sites inside the park operated by Fantastico. The RED spots are operated by Vertice and the GREEN sites are the free camping areas in the park operated by CONAF. Even though these campsites are free you still need a reservation to stay there.

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Start booking your campsites here:
FantasticoSurhttps://www.fantasticosur.com/

Verticehttp://verticepatagonia.cl/home

CONAFhttp://www.parquetorresdelpaine.cl/es

An example of doing the “W” trek in four nights and five days from West to East could possibly look as follows:

DAY 1: Hike up to Refugio Grey. If you have extra energy and daylight you can hike farther up the trail towards the Paso Campsite with a daypack for impressive views of the glacier at the 1st and 2nd hanging bridges on the trail. (3-4hrs, 11km. To the 2nd bridge and back from Refugio Grey is an extra 7km and aprx 3hrs).

DAY 2: Hike from Refugio Grey down and around to the Italiano Campsite. (5-6hrs, 18km).

DAY 3: Hike up the middle of “W” to the Britanico Viewpoint and back down to collect your belongings and continue onwards to Refugio Cuernos. (5.5-6.5hrs, 15.5km).

DAY 4: Hike from Refugio Cuernos to either Refugio Chileno or the Hotel Las Torres area, which include Camping Central, Refugio Central, and Refugio Torre Norte. (4-5hrs, 12km).

DAY 5: Hike up to the base of the towers and back to then catch the bus out of the park.

You can also to the “W” from East to West and this is an equally good option.

For the “O” trek, you can follow the same schedule as I described for the “W” but your first day will be DAY 2. Moving forwards:

DAY 5: Hike to Seron Campsite. (3-4hrs, 13km).

DAY 6: Seron Campsite to Refugio Dickson. (6hrs, 18km).

DAY 7: Refugio Dickson to Los Perros Campsite. (3.5hrs, 12km).

DAY 8: Los Perros Campsite over the John Gardner Pass to Refugio Grey. (8hrs, 12.5 km).

DAY 9: Refugio Grey down to Paine Grande to catch the Catamaran across Lago Pehoe and out to a bus to take you back to Puerto Natales.

 Now you can start the “O” with the towers as your first day or start by going straight to Seron. The choice is entirely yours or up to the availability of the campsites. Between Refugio Dickson and Seron Campsite there is a Park Ranger station where you need to show proof of your reservations to be able to continue. You can show the reservations on your phone, but I recommend printing them out and having them in hand if possible – this goes for all reservations for every campsite you have in the park.

Lastly, you can judge for yourself if you want to combine two of these days listed above into one day. Everyone hikes at a different pace and enjoys the park differently. For the “W” as long as you have one night in each section (left, middle, right) you can complete the whole trek. 

Huemul with Torres del Paine National Park

Huemul with Torres del Paine National Park

Park Lodging

In the park there are four different types of lodging. There are the hotels, refugios, paid campsites, and free campsites. The only hotel located on the main trails is Hotel Las Torres in the east sector of the park. For those looking to complete the “W” or “O” circuits in the park this is generally not an ideal option price wise, but feel free to visit and order a Pisco Sour from the bar if you are so inclined. They will serve you even if you are dirty, wet, or smelly from days on the trail.

For hikers on the trail the refugios, paid campsites, and free campsites are where you will be spending your time. The refugios have hot showers, outlets to charge your phones or cameras, bathrooms, and shared dormitory style bedrooms inside. Many even have WiFi you can use. The refugios all have a dining area where you will eat your breakfast or dinner if you choose to book a meal with your reservation. The refugios and their facilities are on the trail for backpackers to take advantage of. Feel free to use their bathrooms as you pass through or purchase a drink or some food with a credit card or cash if you are inclined. A bed in a refugio run by Vertice can cost anywhere from $35-$85 depending on which location and whether you want to use their sheets or bring a sleeping bag. A bed in a refugio run by FantasticoSur can cost between $85-$90.

Next to every refugio is a paid campsite where you can reserve a space for your own gear or reserve a space that includes all the camping gear you need for the night. The camping areas have their own separate bathrooms and hot showers. They also have their own designated cooking areas, which are the only places you are allowed to light your stoves in the park. If you are planning on cooking you will need to bring all of your own cooking gear as well. There are no shared pots and pans or amenities that you can use to cook. If you only need hot water to cook instant noodles or a trekking meal, you can buy hot water from any site that has a refugio. In case the weather is extremely wet, cold, and dismal you can go inside and hang out in the refugio (until 2 in the morning if you really wanted) before going back to your tent outside. Campsites run by Vertice cost between $8-$10 per person and sites run by FantasticoSur are $15-$24.

The free campsites run by CONAF provide areas that you might be more accustomed to when camping in the woods. You must have all of your own camping gear and all of your supplies/food necessary to spend the night. It is not possible to rent any gear or buy any food from the free campsites. All trash that is brought into these campsites must be taken out with you. There are drop toilet bathrooms available but you will need to bring your own toilet paper with you. In general, its great if you can carry out all of the trash you bring into the park.

Outer Park Lodging

There are a few other options that are still within the park limits but not on the trails of the park -
Camping Pehoe
Hotel Lago Grey

Just outside the park near Laguna Amarga is a campsite called Camping Goic, that is on the Goic family property. You do not need a reservation to stay there and the facilities are limited. Just expect a bathroom and nothing more. This is just for campers or people staying in their cars. The only difficulty is getting to and from the park as it is a 3-4 mile walk and there is no public transportation. In my opinion, like all of Patagonia, hitchhiking is a great way to get around if you are not in a rush.

South of the western sector of the park is Rio Serrano, home to the Rio Serrano Hotel, but there are other places as well in this area.

What do I do if I can’t get all my bookings? 

If at the moment you are trying to book your reservations for the park and the sites are all already full or perhaps there is just one night you were unable to reserve, don’t give up hope just yet. There can often be cancellations around thirty days before the date as that is the last time to get a full refund. In high season from December to February it can be very difficult to get a spot last minute, whereas the tail ends of the season (Oct-Nov & Mar-Apr) it can be easier to get your reservations sorted out last minute in town (but no promises). The best solution is always to have all of your reservations made before arriving to town. If you would prefer to pay for a booking agency to assist you with the bookings that is also a possibility. 

The other option to consider is booking an organized trek through a guide service based out of Puerto Natales. By participating in an organized trek you no longer need to worry about booking campsites or other logistical details such as transportation, food, and equipment. Besides not having to plan every step of this adventure, you will also be in the care of a guide that many people prefer having in a new place. They enrich the experience with their knowledge about the area, the history, flora, and fauna and assist you on the trail with anything you might need.

I recommend Erratic Rock as a great company to go through as I prefer their commitment to smaller group sizes than most of the other companies. However, other companies to take a look at include Dittmar Adventures and Chile Nativo. If you want to explore some of the beautiful surroundings outside the park, I’d look at RedPoint Expeditions.

If you are interested in an organized trek and want to take true advantage of having a guide, I *highly* recommend taking a look at Montano Explorer and their Oggioni Pass trek which covers all the highlights of the “O” but includes a second mountain pass that offers incredible views of the park from areas that are completely off trail. 

View from Oggioni Pass (Valley of Silence, Lago Dickson, Glacier Dickson, The Cube)

View from Oggioni Pass (Valley of Silence, Lago Dickson, Glacier Dickson, The Cube)

Transportation

Now that all the reservations have been taken care of (hopefully), let’s move on to the other logistics in regards to the national park. First off, there are two stages of transportation to reach the park. The majority of visitors will be tale the bus to reach the park. All buses leave from the main bus terminal (the only bus terminal in town). If you didn’t fly directly to Puerto Natales, you probably already made a stop at the bus terminal when you arrived to town by bus from either Calafate or Punta Arenas.

There are several bus companies that operate between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park. In general, the buses to the park leave twice a day, once in the morning at 7am and again in the afternoon at 2:30pm. The journey to the park takes about two hours. Roundtrip tickets for any bus company usually costs about 15,000 Chilean Pesos ($25). You do not need to book the bus tickets in advance, but I recommend buying them at least one day before your trip to the park in order to avoid any possible complications on the day of your trip. You can buy your bus tickets to the park when you arrive to Puerto Natales at the bus station, or almost every hostel in town can also sell you a ticket.  

If you take the morning 7am bus you will arrive at the Porteria Laguna Amarga, which is the park entrance on the east side of the park. Everyone gets off the bus here no matter where you are starting your trek. There is a registration process that I will come back to later. For those starting their trek from the east side of the park there is a smaller road that connects the welcome center to the trails on east side of the park. There will be black or white shuttles waiting to transfer you into the park. The shuttles costs 3,000 CLP ($5) one way per person. You buy your ticket before boarding the shuttle, there is no advance reservation for these shuttles. The shuttle schedule is connected to the bus timings for the park. Every time a bus arrives there will be a shuttle ready to bring you into the park. Half an hour before every bus departure there will be a shuttle ready to bring trekkers out to the welcome center.

If you are starting your trek on the west side of the park, you will return to the bus you came to the park in after the registration and ride another twenty minutes to Pudeto. At Pudeto there is a catamaran that makes trips across Lake Pehoe to Paine Grande where you can begin your trek. The catamaran costs 20,000 CLP ($35) for a one-way ticket and 30,000 CMP ($50) for a round trip ticket. You can use the return ticket any day you like. There are no ticket reservations for the catamaran, it is first come first serve on the boat, and tickets are bought while you are on the boat and not anywhere else. It takes about thirty minutes, depending on the wind, to cross the lake to the other side.

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Los Cuernos and Almirante Nieto Across from Lago Pehoe

Los Cuernos and Almirante Nieto Across from Lago Pehoe

The the majority of bus companies have two times a day that the buses bring passengers from Torres del Paine National Park back to Puerto Natales. From Pudeto, buses leave at 1pm and 7pm. From the Laguna Amarga entrance buses leave at 2:30pm and 7:45pm. A larger bus company, BusSur, is also making frequent trips to and from the park and their times are slightly different from the rest of the bus companies. However, they do have functional and easy to use website so you can always check the current schedules they have online here.

If you are driving yourself to the park you can enter in on the same route as the buses up to the Laguna Amarga entrance or you can turn off earlier from Route 9 to Y-290 and enter on the west side of the park. You will do your registration at the Administration offices here. It is a nicer scenic route and convenient if you are looking to start your day with the catamaran. You can park in the car park next to the catamaran in Pudeto and there is a parking area outside the Las Torres camping and refugio area on the east side of the park.

Registration

When you arrive to the park whether by bus or by car there is a registration process everyone must go through to enter the park, no matter if it is for one or multiple days. First, you must pay the entrance fee to the park. Anyone not from Chile must pay 21,000 CLP ($35) to enter the park (Chileans pays 6,000 CLP). The entrance fee is cash only at the park. If you would like to pay with a credit card, you can do it online through CONAF’s website – the same site you would use to book the CONAF campsites. The entrance is valid for three days. That means you can enter the park under the ticket up until three days later. Once you are inside the park you can stay for your entire trek, whether it is 5 or 10 days long without an issue.

Next there will be a short talk or video they show you about fires in the park. In the past 15 years there have been two major fires that have burnt down significant portions of the park. You can see many many of the dead and burnt trees as you enter the park. Basically, there are no fires allowed in Torres del Paine National Park. If you are cooking, there is a designated cooking area at every campsite and that is the only place you can light your stove. You are not allowed to light your stove on the trail or cook inside your tent.  

Lastly, they will give you a map of the park. This map with have the trail times, distances, daylight hours for the season, and the location of everything in the park. It is the only map you need to have while hiking in the park. With your map in hand you are now off to the trails to enjoy the beautiful sights of the park. 

Grey Glacier

Grey Glacier

Camping Gear

One of the biggest questions any traveler faces when coming to visit the park is gear. Should I bring all my camping gear, tents, sleepings bags, etc from home or should I rent the gear in town? Not everyone owns all the gear they need or maybe as a traveler on a long trip you don’t want to carry camping gear for just a few weeks you will be camping.

In Puerto Natales there are many gear rental shops that can equip you with what you’ll need. The majority of rental shops rent their gear by the day and are open late so you can return from the park and return your gear in the same day. Erratic Rock, Camaleon, Rental Natales, and Patagonia Adventures are the rental places I would recommend and all have prices listed online. If you choose to rent gear from anywhere in town it is important to set up, check, and test all gear before going into the park. If there is a problem, it is better to find out in town where you can fix it than in the park where there are fewer solutions.

Renting the gear you don’t have in town is the cheapest solution to having what you need to camp around the park. However, every paid campsite in the park offers tents, sleeping bags, and pads that you can rent for your night in that campsite if you need it. At the Vertice campsites you can rent a tent for 20,000 CLP ($30), a sleeping bag for 14,000 CLP ($22), and a pad for 5,000 CLP ($8). That’s an approximate increase of $60 for a single night at a Vertice campsite. Full equipment included campsites from FantasticoSur are about $30 more expensive than the campsite. If you are willing to pay more money you can walk without the weight of this gear in the park and rent it from each individual campsite when you are there.

The Cube, Glacier and Lake Dickson

The Cube, Glacier and Lake Dickson

Weather

The weather in Patagonia and in Torres del Paine National Park is unpredictable. In a single day you can have sunshine, rain, snow, and heavy winds. Therefore, it is best to be prepared for everything and anything on the trail. Due to the reservation system, you will have your dates for the park and you will not be able to change them last minute if you think the weather might be better a few days later or earlier. Therefore, gear up properly for any situation, rain or shine.

Guides that work in the park don’t talk about the weather due to how inconsistent and variable it can be. Weather forecasts are generally wrong and looking at multiple sites will all give you separate forecasts for the park. Also, the weather on one side of the park can be totally different than in another sector of the park.

The wind in Patagonia can be extremely strong and is the main weather factor to worry about on the trail. Two years ago there were record setting winds above 200km/h. The wind will affect everything you do in the park. Thankfully, every cooking area is inside shielding you from the wind or with the free campsites there are shelters to protect you from the worst of the wind. WindGuru is the best website to get a wind forecast for the park.

At the end of the day, you will enter the park at the dates corresponding with your reservations regardless of the weather. I find that the people who have a positive attitude and are ready for anything end up having the best experiences regardless of the weather. It is entirely worth hiking in the park, even if you have rainy and cloudy days in my opinion.

Peak of Paine Grande poking out of the clouds.

Peak of Paine Grande poking out of the clouds.

When to go?

The official high season for the park is from October to April. There have been many studies and speculations about the weather and wind over the years in the park, but in my opinion it is too unpredictable to choose February over December because the weather should be nicer or less windy. Anything can happen. Therefore, I think you should just go when it best fits your schedule. While the park is open year round, you need a guide to enter the park from May to August.

Food

The majority of self-guided hikers in the park carry all of their food with them even if they will be on the trail for up to nine days. You can find everything you need in Puerto Natales at the supermarkets and local grocery stores. Bringing your food with you and cooking in the park is by far the cheapest option available. Budgeting 5,000 CLP ($8) per person for each day of food in the park should provide you with ample food and snacks. If you are interested in buying Trekking Meals they are in low supply in the town and generally a minimum of $20 for a meal. If you are coming directly to the park for your vacation, I recommend buying those meals at home before traveling to Patagonia.

In the park, the cost for meals at the refugios are generally as follows:

Breakfast – 11,000 CLP ($17)

Lunch Box – 12,000 CLP ($19) - you take this with you on the trail

Dinner – 16,000 CLP ($25)

If you know what you want a cooked meal in one of the refugios, it is best to include it when you make your reservation. However, it is often possible to show up and order a cooked meal when you arrive to your campsite. Let them know immediately upon your check-in and you will most likely be accommodated. Dinners on dates such as Christmas and the new year are more expensive and are usually completely sold out ahead of time. 

If you were hoping to buy a meal when you arrive to the refugio and it turns out there is no space available, don’t worry, you will not starve in Torres del Paine National Park. At every paid campsite in the park and refugio there are little mini-markets where you can buy pasta, snacks, soft drinks, cooking gas, wine etc. The prices are usually 2-3 times more expensive than in town.  

Water in the park is entirely safe to drink. You don’t need to boil, filter, or use tablets to make the water safe to drink. You can do any trek in the park with a single water bottle. Every 45 minutes or so you will cross a stream, creek, or river where you can fill up your water bottle.

The John Gardner Pass

The John Gardner Pass

Summary and Suggestions

  • If you are doing the “W” trek you will need about 45,000 CLP in cash to pay for the park entrance, catamaran (one way), and shuttle bus (one way). Everything else can be bought with a credit card inside the park.

  • For the “O” trek you will need 55,000 CLP in cash if you are entering and exiting with catamaran or 28,000 CLP in cash if you are entering and exiting with the shuttle bus.

  • The shuttle bus, catamaran, and the entrance at the park are cash only.

  • I recommend bringing a sleeping bag and pad when hiking up to the base of the towers in the park (especially for sunrise). The temperatures can very cold with the wind and many people arrive at the top and after 15 minutes go back down. I think it’s a shame as this is one of the most beautiful views in the park.

  • If you are taking the catamaran to enter the park there is a waterfall called Salto Grande that is a fifteen-minute walk away from the catamaran parking area and provides a spectacular view. Just make sure you are back in time for the boat.

  • If there is good weather and you have the option to do a hike up to a viewpoint, do it! You never know what the weather will be like the next day.

  • Erratic Rock has a 3PM talk everyday with the most current information about the park. Prices and little details can sometimes change so I recommend going to their talk.

  • Keep a good attitude and you will have a great time!

 I hope you find this information helpful. If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to post them in the comments. Safe trekking!