I know this blog is focused on all things points and miles, but sometimes it’s nice to get into the nitty-gritty details of the vacations that these points and miles allowed me to take. Visiting Patagonia has been on my bucket list for a while. After seeing what an amazing time my sister had on this same trip last year, I decided to get serious about booking it. Patagonia refers to the region that makes up the greater part of Southern Chile and Argentina. This post details one specific hiking trek in a specific national park in Patagonia. Here’s everything you need to know about hiking the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.
Feel free to skip the boring logistics and head straight to my review of the trek. I promise there are more pictures later on in the post!
Preparing for Your Trip
Located in Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is one of Chile’s most popular parks with over 150,000 visitors each year. Torres means towers in Spanish and refers to three granite summits in the Cordillera Paine. Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche language which is fitting because the color blue is everywhere; it’s in the lakes, the glacial ice, and on a clear day, the sky. Most people visit Torres del Paine during the summer (December through March) when the daylight is plentiful (the sun sets around 10pm!) and the air is warmer. Summer is also the rainy season, so the weather can be very unpredictable.
As of October 2016, it’s mandatory to have your accommodations reserved before entering the park. Nobody checked ours and we did meet people who entered the park without reservations, but it would be risky to try this after spending money (or points/miles!) to get there. When heading to Torres del Paine, you have a few options for accommodations. There are three organizations/companies with accommodations in the park: National Forest Corporation (CONAF), Vertice Patagonia, and Fantastico Sur. CONAF is operated by the Chilean government, while Vertice and Fantastico Sur are privately owned companies.
Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur operate several refugios throughout the park. These hostels include full room and board consisting of a made-up bed or sleeping bag in a shared room (4-8 people depending on the refugio), breakfast and dinner at the refugio and a bag lunch for your hike, and access to bathrooms and hot showers. While this option is expensive, you don’t have to worry about carrying any food or gear. This is the option we chose and I’ll go into detail about the booking process a bit later.
I won’t go into much detail on camping since we opted to stay in refugios. Basically, your options are staying at free bare-bones campsites offered by CONF or paying to reserve campsites through Vertice or Fantastico Sur. If you reserve a campsite, you can choose to rent a tent, sleeping bags, and have meals provided. Otherwise, you can bring your own gear and just rent a spot to set up.
For more details on camping, see number 3 on this post.
Booking the Trek
We decided to book the W trek through Fantastico Sur. They provide guided or self-guided options with or without meals included. I recommend self-guided because the trails are well marked and easy to follow. I also recommend getting full room and board so you can avoid carrying extra gear.
You cannot book the W trek online because one of the refugios on the trek is owned by Vertice Patagonia. You can contact Fantastico Sur to inquire about trek options and book your preferred itinerary via email.
My advice is to book as early as possible since refugios can fill up fast. We booked our January 2017 itinerary in July 2016. We were told that we would have to camp one of the nights since the refugio owned by Vertice was at capacity already. Luckily, we were able to upgrade to the refugio from the campground while we were in the park (more on that later).
There are two options for the W trek. The 5 day, 4 night W trek is $815 with full room and board. We opted for the 4 day, 3 night option for $665. The main difference is that you get to the park early in the morning on the first day instead of late afternoon. This allows you to start hiking right away so you can skip over the first refugio entirely. Both prices include all transportation between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine. You’ll need to make time to stop at Fantastic Sur’s offices the day before the trek to get your tickets and itinerary. They are closed on Sundays but you may be able to ask to have your packet left at your accommodation in Puerto Natales.
Since you don’t have to carry any camping gear or food, it’s easy to pack light. You can experience all four seasons in one day in Patagonia, so I suggest being properly prepared. Here’s a complete packing list of what I brought on the W trek.
You’ll need to spend the night before the trek in Puerto Natales. You can fly directly there (flights only operate certain days) or fly to Punta Arenas and take a bus to Puerto Natales. I’ve gone into details about how to get to Puerto Natales from Santiago here. On your last day of hiking, you’ll get back to Puerto Natales by 10:00pm so plan to stay in Puerto Natales for another night. If you are traveling with more than your hiking necessities, you can make arrangements with your hotel or hostel to leave a bag while you are on your hike. We spent the two nights on either end of our hike at a cute boutique hotel, El Muelle (free with the Barclaycard Arrival Plus!).
Hiking the W Trek
This trek is called the W circuit because the trail literally looks like a “W”. This 50-mile hike takes about 4 or 5 days depending on where you plan to stop each day. While I got over 40,000 steps on my Fitbit some days, the hiking wasn’t too strenuous. There are some ups and downs, but the low elevation makes the W trek very much doable. I’m providing the estimated hiking times from Fantastico Sur below. I don’t remember our exact timing each day but we were always at least 30 minutes faster than the minimum suggested time. Here’s what we experienced on the W Trek in Torres del Paine.
Entering the Park
We got to the bus station in Puerto Natales at 7:15am to catch our bus to Torres del Paine. Fantastico Sur provides the bus ticket but you’ll have to go to the ticket booth for your seat assignments.
The bus ride to the park entrance at Laguna Amarga took about two hours. We waited for about 45 minutes to pay our entrance fee (21,000 Chilean Pesos). The park accepts cash or credit card but the cash only line was quicker.
After paying, we watched a short video about park rules. Then we took a shuttle bus to the Las Torres sector of the park. We already had our ticket for this shuttle from Fantastico Sur, but you can buy one on board if necessary.
If you select to do the 5 day, 4 night W trek, you take the bus from Puerto Natales in the afternoon instead. After taking this final shuttle to Las Torres, you will spend the night at the first refugio.
Hiking to Base Torres – 8 to 9 hours, 19 km
For our condensed itinerary, we began hiking upon arriving at Las Torres. The first hike is to Base Torres, where you get the most spectacular views of the Towers. This is often people’s main reason for going to Torres del Paine. While it may seem like you are seeing the “best” thing right off the bat, I assure you there is no shortage of breathtaking views on the W trek. If you want the Towers to be the last thing you see on your trek, there’s an itinerary through Fantastico Sur to hike the W in the opposite direction (West to East).
The first hour and a half of the hike brought us to Refugio El Chileno where we would be spending the night. We dropped our packs, grabbed our bagged lunches, and continued on to the Towers. A good portion of the hike was through a Lenga forest.
The final ascent to the Towers involved a lot of rock scrambling. Since the Towers is a popular attraction, this part can be slow going due to heavy foot traffic on the trail and limited ability to pass others easily. Nevertheless, the Towers do not disappoint. It’s even bigger and more majestic in person. We felt lucky to have a beautiful day with sunshine and blue skies.
We spent some time at the top before heading back the same way we came to Refugio Chileno for a shower and some dinner. Chileno is kind of small so we mostly hung out in our bunks.
Day 2: Hike to Los Cuernos – 4-5 hours, 11 km
Day 2 mainly consisted of hiking between Refugio El Chileno and Refugio Los Cuernos. This was a pretty easy hike and we got to the refugio in the early afternoon. We were blessed with a second day of sunshine. Los Cuernos is located on Lake Nordenskjöld so we had some free time to sit by the lake. The water is freezing and I’m not sure if swimming is allowed, but people were jumping in!
Refugio Los Cuernos was larger than Chileno. It had more indoor seating which Chileno lacked but the toilets were continually breaking. At one point we were down to one toilet for all the women…no bueno.
Day 3: French Valley – 10-12 hours, 25 km
I was nervous about this day because it sounded long and difficult. The first part of the hike is from the refugio to one of the CONAF camps called Campamento Italiano. We were able to leave our packs here before hiking up the French Valley.
The weather started out nice but I decided to put the pack covers on our bags before we left. The hike up the French Valley has some awesome views, lots of streams and waterfalls to cross, and plenty of rock scrambling.
There are multiple lookout points along the hike. The first is the French Glacier lookout. The next lookout, Mirador Britanico, offers a great view of some of the biggest peaks in the park.
This makeshift sign says “Mirador Britanico” but it’s covering a map that shows more to the trail. I’m not sure we actually made it to the real Mirador Britanco. The trail was blocked off with tape so we had no choice but to turn around.
It started to drizzle at the top and by the time we got back to Italiano, it was a torrential downpour. Thank goodness I put the pack covers on before we left!
At this point, we’d been hiking for most of the day. We still had to walk the final stretch to our last refugio, Paine Grande. This part was pretty miserable. We were continually pelted with rain during this two-hour hike. Paine Grande emerged as a beacon in the distance…until I saw the tents set up outside and remembered this was the night we were supposed to be camping! When we went inside to check-in, we decided to ask if we could pay the difference and stay indoors if there was room. Thankfully, they seemed to have plenty of room inside. I was never more happy to be indoors in my life!
Paine Grande was the nicest of the three refugios. There was a massive cafeteria, an upstairs bar, and plenty of bathrooms and lounge areas. All of the refugios have snacks and drinks for sale. They take U.S. dollars and credit cards but you’ll get the best rate with Chilean pesos. We bought a well-deserved bottle of wine and enjoyed the simple pleasure of being indoors. The rooms at Paine Grande had made-up beds instead of sleeping bags. I felt so cozy in my little bed that night as the wind howled and the rain fell on the poor suckers stuck outside camping.
Day 4: Grey Glacier – 8-9 hours, 22 km
Despite being a similar length as the French Valley trek, I wasn’t nervous about this hike. As a result, I severely underestimated it and was extremely tired by the end. You can leave your packs at Paine Grande so at least the hike didn’t require any added weight. The morning started off rainy and windy. We were in full rain gear for the first few hours. After seeing a rainbow over Grey Lake, the sky cleared and we had amazing weather for the rest of the day.
This trail has a lot of ups and downs and can be a bit slow going since your body is pretty tired at this point. We stopped at Refugio Grey to eat our packed lunches before heading the final 20 minutes to Grey Glacier. The way back was fine until the very end when my legs were just too dead.
By the time we got back to Refugio Paine Grande, my heel actually hurt a lot and I developed a slight hobble. I was afraid I’d have to take a break from exercise for a few weeks but it was miraculously healed by the time we got back to Puerto Natales. I guess I’m a baby and it was just a bad calf cramp!
We had a few hours to kill hanging around Paine Grande until the 6:30pm catamaran arrived to take us back to civilization. This ticket was also provided by Fantastico Sur. The catamaran ride across Lake Pehoe was one of my favorite parts of the trip. You get some amazing views of the park from the boat which looks stunning against the blue of Lake Pehoe’s water. One bus ride later, we were back in Puerto Natales. We had a final meal out, a well-deserved shower, and a good night’s sleep before starting our two-day journey back to Boston.
This was by far one of my favorite vacations ever. If you like hiking but aren’t necessarily into camping, the W trek is perfect since you have full amenities at the refugios. A majority of the hikes have places where you can leave your big pack so you’re mostly just carrying a light day-pack. If I had more time off from work I would have loved to experience Argentinian Patagonia as well. Guess we’ll just have to come back!
Check out these articles for more information:
- What to Pack for the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park
- How to Get to Torres del Paine from Santiago
- 5 Highlights of Torres del Paine National Park