For nearly 10 years, it had been a goal of mine to complete a long distance trek in South America. The more research I did, the more discouraged I became. The 15,000-foot altitudes of the Peruvian Andes are not for the faint of heart, and the heat of Colombia and Brazil seemed beyond intimidating. After months of lengthy research, I landed on Chile. Chilean Patagonia is one of the most stunning regions in the world but lies at an altitude of only 3900 feet, thus making it accessible for all levels of hikers.
Torres Del Paine is one of the most well-known national parks in the region. With 2400 square kilometers of terrain, there’s plenty of trail to be explored. Though you can enter the park to complete short day hikes, the multiple-day W trek is a great option for those wanting a bigger challenge.
Most research will lead you to believe that you need to shell out several thousands of dollars to complete the W with a guided tour. However, the W trek isn’t particularly technical and the trail is well marked. If you are a moderately experienced hiker or backpacker, the W can be completed independently, at a much lower cost.
When to go
I foolishly thought I could begin planning this trek just a few months in advance. It wasn’t until I began checking the accommodation booking sites that I realized nearly everything was sold out for my desired dates. I had hoped to complete the W trek in late November when the weather is more dependable (though in Patagonia it rarely is). But I was forced to go in late October, due to the volume of bookings later in the year. If you plan to hike during peak season (November-March), it’s important that you begin booking very early, perhaps even a year in advance. The trail is extremely popular, and accommodations sell out fast.
The first questions you’ll need to answer are:
How many days will you spend trekking? And what direction would you like to hike?
The W trek can take 4, 5 or 6 days depending on your speed. It can also be competed from from East -> West or West -> East. The famous Torres Del Paine will be tackled at the beginning if you choose to hike East-> West. I opted for West-> East, so I could save the famous towers for the finale.
Where to Stay
The stops along on the W trek offer different levels of accommodation. You can choose to camp or stay in the refugios, which are considerably more comfortable but more expensive. They are similar to hostels, with most rooms having 4-8 beds and a shared bathroom. You can also opt to have your meals provided (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) or bring all of your own food.
You can make reservations online via Vertice, which manages the accommodations in Paine Grande and Glacier Grey. And with Fantastico Sur, which manages the accommodations at Central, Cuernos, El Chileno, and Frances.
Getting There (Santiago –> Punta Arenas –> Puerto Natales –> Torres Del Paine)
To arrive in Chilean Patagonia you must fly to Santiago. From there you can catch another 3 hour flight to Punta Arenas in the south. Later, take a bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales. A popular company is Buses Fernandez, and you can catch the bus at their direct terminal offices in Punta Arenas. Buses depart every 2 hours starting at 7 am and the journey takes about 3 hours.
From Puerto Natales, you will catch a bus into the park which takes another 2 hours. The bus terminal is located in the center of the town and the majority of hostels will be within walking distance. Most bus companies have only 2 daily departures into the park, so try to buy your ticket in advance for the early bus (7am). Lastly, depending on which direction you choose to hike, you will take another bus or boat to your hiking start point.
I recommend arriving 2-3 days before beginning the actual trek, to spend some time in both Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, which are both lovely towns worth exploring.
My 5 Day Itinerary
Day 1 (Puerto Natales –> Refugio Grey)
– Catch the 7am bus from Puerto Natales into Torres del Paine. You’ll want to start early as the boat that goes to Paine Grande departs at only 9 am, 11 am, and 6 pm. You can find time-tables here.
– Once you arrive at the park you will pay your registration fee and then continue in the same bus to the boat dock or to the other end of the park.
– Upon arriving at the boat dock, get in-line to board, as the boat won’t take any more passengers once it is full. You will pay for your ticket onboard.
– After a short boat ride (45mins) you will arrive at the Paine Grande Lodge. You can choose to leave some equipment here for the night if you plan to return and stay the next day.
– Follow the signs to start your trek to Grey Lodge. This portion of the hike covers 11 km and takes between 3-4 hours. The hike is lovely and not particularly difficult. The main challenge here is that the path can be extremely windy and doesn’t offer much coverage from rain or sun.
*Refugio Grey is one of the nicest refugios along the W trek. I highly recommend spending a night here if you want to split your time between camping and refugios. The food offered here is also amazing. Bring extra cash or your credit card to buy drinks and snacks at the bar.
Day 2 (Grey –> Paine Grande)
– You will follow the same path as the previous day to return to Paine Grande. The hike is mostly flat or downhill. You can choose to add in an early hike to the hanging bridges before making your descent.
– Paine Grande offers pre-pitched tents that are large and spacious and a kitchen area to cook your own food. You can also choose to stay in the refugio and purchase the meal plan.
Day 3 (Paine Grande –> Los Cuernos)
– This will be the longest and most difficult day of the trek covering 21km and involving a lot of elevation gain. That said, this day offers some of the most stunning views of the trek and should take around 7 hours.
– Wake up early and begin your trek to refugio Los Cuernos. This refugio offers wifi at a cost and has a beautiful bar overlooking the mountains. Save some cash or have your credit card handy to enjoy a delicious Pisco Sour after your long day.
Day 4 (Los Cuernos –> El Chileno
– The trail from Los Cuernos to El Chileno includes a subtle and steady elevation gain throughout the day. The trail can be quite muddy if it rained but it offers some beautiful river and lake views throughout the trek.
– The trail covers 15km and takes 5-6 hours
Day 5 (El Chileno –> Torres del Paine –> Puerto Natales)
– The final day of your hike is long but will include the grand finale of the Torres del Paine
– Wake up very early (some choose to start around 4/5 am to arrive at the towers at sunrise) and begin your 4km trek to the towers. The hike is mostly uphill and winds through the forest as well as some exposed cliffside paths. It is advised to use hiking poles for this day, as there can be ice or snow at the top.
– After visiting the towers, start your descent to Hotel Las Torres. From there you can catch a bus back to the park entrance and then take the bus back to Puerto Natales. In total this day will cover 14km.
What to bring
Your gear selection will largely depend on whether you choose to camp or stay in the refugios during your trek. Since most campsites will provide a tent, it’s not necessary to bring yours, but all other camping essentials are recommended.
Camping Gear: sleeping bag 20 degrees or less, sleeping mat, gas stove/jet boil, gas canister, light weight bowl/plate/utensils, travel towel.
Clothing: Layers are the most important thing. Handful of lightweight shirts/base layers, fleece jacket, waterproof jacket, waterproof gloves, water resistant pants, several pairs of socks, hiking boots, slippers for the camp/refugios, warm hat, sunglasses, clothes you can relax in at the refugios, pajamas.
Hiking Gear: Hiking poles (I found these were not needed most days, but I did wish I had them on the hike to the Torres), headlamp, sunscreen, moleskin, water bottle.
Things I wish I had known
Researching accommodation and food prior to my trip led me to believe that I needed to decide in advance if I would stay in the refugios or if I wanted to include any meals. I was also under the impression that I needed to carry all the food with me that I might eat while camping.
This was certainly not the case. The refugios leave some space open for hikers to decide at the last minute if they would like to change from camping to a dormitory. It is best not to count on this and to reserve in advance, but there will likely be an opportunity to change while you are hiking. You are also able to add dinner or breakfast at the refugios at any point. In regards to carrying your food, all of the refugios have small shops offering snacks like chips, cookies, and soup. It is not necessary to carry all of your food with you from the start of the trek.
Have you completed a Patagonia trek solo? Let us know in the comments or on Twitter!