Torres del Paine is undoubtedly the most famous national park for hiking in Patagonia and probably the whole of South America. Don’t feel embarrassed if you’ve never heard of it, I hadn’t before I started researching for this trip. What I didn’t know is that Torres del Paine is probably one of the most expensive national parks in South America, if not the most expensive. It’s not just the entry fees and transport, but you also have to decide between camping or staying in refugios (kind of like mountain lodges with dorm rooms). Food is expensive too unless you’re willing to carry five days worth of meals on your back for the whole trip. With all these different things to think about as well as route variations – you can go east-west or west-east and you can spend four or five days hiking – there’s a lot of preparation and planning that needs to go into doing this trek, even at the very start of the season in October.
I’m going share my experience of the ‘W’ from preparation to advice, including my favourite parts of the hike and some adventures along the way. As a spoiler now I’ll let you know it didn’t all go to plan but I did manage the whole route without getting lost once. However this blog could not be more aptly named for this post as throughout the five days hiking I lost more things than I think I have lost in my whole trip!
So, here are my dos and don’ts for successfully hiking the ‘W’ in Torres del Paine:
Do book your refugios or camping spots more than two weeks in advance. I only started booking 10 days in advance and this caused me a few issues. The companies that own all the accommodation, Vertice and Fantastico Sur, can be very slow to respond to emails so it’s best to give them as much time as possible.
Don’t pay extra at the refugios for bedding (or other equipment unless you only need it for one night). You can rent a sleeping bag in Puerto Natales, the closest town to the park, for $3,000 pesos a day (£3.60). It might add weight to your bag but it saves a fair amount of money. The same goes for tents, hiking poles and any other equipment you might need.
Do the route in four days instead of five. Most guides will tell you that the route takes five days and should go left to right. But unless you are extremely unfit, have a serious injury or have time to waste, then it wont take you five days. Save yourself one night of accommodation and do it in four. The park map has estimates for the time it takes to do the route so this can help with planning your stops.
Don’t pack more things than you need. Before you reach the park you should know if you are eating in the refugios or bringing your own food. The same goes for clothes, you’ll know how many days of hiking clothes you need. Any thing extra in your bag just adds weight to your pack and more weight means less fun. It also means more things to lose. Also, keep any miscellaneous items in bags within your pack as it’s easy to drop things along the way without noticing (headphones, padlocks etc…).
Do bring your passport. The refugios and campsites will ask to see and take a photocopy of your passport and travel card for tax purposes so make sure you bring it with you. Put it in a safe part of your pack, inside a zip-lock bag if you have one. Also you can get a free passport stamp at the ranger office when you pay your park entry fees and as there’s not much for free here, take it when you can.
Don’t arrive in Puerto Natales on the weekend. This small town is ghostly most of the time but especially during the weekends. If you arrive during the week you can visit the offices for Vertice and Fantastico Sur to complete your accommodation bookings or ask any questions in person. The supermarket also gets very empty on a Sunday so the selection of snacks is very low.
Do go to the Erratic Rock briefing in town before the hike. A hostel and hiking rental shop called Erratic Rock in Puerto Natales give free briefings daily at 3pm in their hostel. These guys are experts and they gave me loads of great advice. They’ll answer all your questions. So highly recommend this!
Don’t lose your bus ticket before you’ve even left the town. This is just one for me probably but if you’re buying a bus ticket to Torres del Paine in advance from your hostel (recommended) then don’t lose it. Or panic and think you’ve lost it, run all the way back to hostel when it was in your bag all along. Put it in a safe place that you’ll remember (not inside your passport).
Do make friends with the people on your route. On your first night, find out who is going in the same direction through the park as you and which campsites or refugios they are staying at. You’ll see them everyday for the next four or five so it’s much nicer if you get to know them.
Don’t forget to pack a day bag. There will be at least three times when you can drop off your big bag at a refugio or ranger lodge and hike with a smaller pack for the day. I forgot to pack a smaller bag so I had to carry my packed lunch in a plastic bag. Hiking hands free is much easier and I was already carrying a huge water bottle around with me. One lady even asked me if I was hiking because I seemed so relaxed with my equipment (none of the gear but some idea).
Don’t go crazy and eat a whole box of powdered potatoes if your reservations don’t work out. Because I arrived in Puerto Natales on a Sunday and didn’t managed to finalise my booking with Vertice – their refugios weren’t aware of my reservations. This meant on my second night of accommodation, where I had intended to have dinner, there wasn’t enough food for me. So instead of acting rationally, I bought a box of powered potatoes with a packet of cheese and salami from the mini market and ate the whole box as their only ‘hot’ option.
Do set off early on your Frances Valley day. Depending on what route your doing this could be your second or third day, but whatever direction, it will be a long day. For most people the views of the Frances valley and from the Britanico viewpoint (in the middle of the W-shape) are the best. If you set off early then you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the views and rather than rushing to make it to you next camp before sunset.
Don’t miss any opportunity to climb up to the Torres base. I know that regrets are futile when you’re travelling but I regret not going up to the Torres base twice. It’s meant to be the hardest part of the whole route to hike but it’s also the hardest part to see clearly as it’s notorious for changeable weather. If you have time, go up twice to see the Torres because you never know when it will be clear enough to see the mountain tops. We rested when we arrived to the camp, ready to go up the next morning but in the morning there was a snow storm and we couldn’t see much more than an outline. Annoyingly it completely cleared up in the afternoon as we were leaving the park.
Do wear hiking boots. This sounds like obvious advice but I did actually see two people hiking up to the Torres in the snow with slipper-style pumps on. Just crazy.
Don’t fall into the mud. At some points the route is very muddy and boggy, especially if you take the Chilenos shortcut. I managed to get a little stuck in middle of a bog and while jumping with my big bag, fell flat into the mud. Thankfully I had my coat and water-cover on my bag otherwise I would have been very wet and muddy. Also don’t try to dry your muddy alpaca gloves by the fire and burn them so that you have to throw them away.
Do make time to really enjoy in the views and take as many pictures as possible. While you’re hiking to a schedule and you want to have enough time to get to all the sights each day, make sure you leave time to just sit and enjoy the views. There’s no point paying all that money to rush around the park and not enjoy the amazing landscape. Even if you don’t need the break physically, you’ll appreciate the time just to relax and stop as often as you like to take as many pictures as you want.