It’s the crown jewel of Patagonia. Everyone knows about it, everyone’s going there and you’d be strange to miss it. Or would you? Hiking in Torres del Paine is so popular that the Chilean national park is starting to restrict the number of hikers allowed on specific routes and campsites are chock-full of nature enthusiasts in orange tents.
It’s arguably the most beautiful place in the world, and it certainly deserves the attention. But navigating the flood of tourists, hiking possibilities and slew of ‘helpful’ information online and off can be overwhelming. Some say there’s too much info out there, and some say there’s too little. And while the most uncontrollable of factors—I’m talking about you, weather—can make or break your experience, these are the things I wish I knew before traveling to the heart of Patagonia and embarking on the trek of a lifetime.
El Calafate – Puerto Natales
This was the worst logistical part of the trip. My story: I arrived to El Calafate from El Chalten on a Thursday afternoon, hoping to hop on a bus to Puerto Natales that same evening. Little did I know the first available option was in three days—not something I wanted to hear since I had already been-there-done-that with El Calafate and the Perito Moreno glacier. I met an American guy and German couple in the same boat—trying to get to Puerto Natales as soon as possible—so we assessed our options as a group (rental car, taxi, hitchhiking, just waiting) over food before coming back to the bus station. To our delight we found a “Friday Special” from one of the companies. We ended up getting tickets for the next day at 4:30 p.m. on the six-hour bus ride, crossing the border into Chile and giving us hope we could start the trek sooner rather than later.
What to know: To my knowledge there is no way to buy a bus ticket from El Calafate to Puerto Natales online; you must buy at the bus terminal itself. But I did meet a girl from California on the trail who said if you email Zaahj you can get something on the books. I would 120% recommend doing this if you’re traveling during high season to avoid any miscommunication, wasted days or frustration. Despite the popularity, the busses are quite infrequent and fill up quickly so getting this piece of the puzzle in place should be a priority. (The same goes for hostels in Puerto Natales for your pre-Torres and post-Torres trip if traveling in January or February.)
This part was perfectly clear from the get-go thanks to online research. There are two daily busses that leave Puerto Natales for Torres del Paine, no matter the company. (Why they do this and swarm the park’s administration center with hikers at the exact same time, I have no idea.) You have the option between 7:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m. It’s all up to you depending on your hiking plan, but both are possible ways to get going. We arrived at the Puerto Natales bus station at 11 p.m. on Friday and stayed to purchase the first available bus: 2:30 p.m. on Saturday. This was perfect for us, giving us all morning to rent gear from Erratic Rock (the only place you should go in my books), hit up the grocery store, get more information about the coming days in the wilderness and grab a hearty lunch. It did feel a bit rushed, and I’m sure we could have left on Sunday morning to prepare a bit more, but we were ready to rock and roll that afternoon.
(How to Get Out: Your bus company will pick you back up at wherever you got dropped off. If you’re ending at Torres and end up at the Hotel, you’ll pick up a shuttle (you can either pay with card at the hotel lobby or cash once you board the shuttle) that will take you back to the main administration center. The sporadic shuttle times line up so that your bus will be ready and waiting for you there. Example: Maria Jose’s pick-up times are: Laguna Amarga 2:30 or 7:45, Pudeto 1:30 or 7:00 or Administration 1:00 or 6:00. Check with your bus driver or company to get clarification.)
HOW TO CAMP: Refugio vs. Campamento
General guideline: Refugio = $ | Campamento = Gratis
Campsites in order West – East, starting at Paine Grande after taking the catamaran. (Two campsites in one bullet mean that you can theoretically make it to either in one day, depending on if you have a reservation at the campamento/free site or not.):
- Refugio Paine Grande $
- Campamento Italiano OR Refugio Los Cuernos $
- Campamento Torres OR Refugio Chileno $
- Refugio Las Torres $ (near Hotel Torres)
- Campamento Seron
- Refugio Dickson $
- Campamento Los Perros OR Campamento Paso
- Refugio Grey $
First thing’s first: You should camp. Carrying your gear is rough, makes things harder and requires more logistics, but it’s ten times more rewarding. You could technically do the W without paying for a campsite (starting at Campamento Torres) but I say you should fork up the $10 and camp out at a refugio along the way to truly enjoy it.
Getting a spot in a refugio/paid campsite is easy and it’s rare spots will fill up. But the same isn’t true with campamentos/free sites. We heard myriad rumors about registration before leaving for the park: that we should have already done it online, that you shouldn’t worry about it and that you can do it all at once as soon as you get into the park. None of which were true. We soon found out that you reserve the free campsites as you go—book the one you’re headed to tomorrow at the campsite you’re at today. Example: Arrive at Refugio Paine Grande off the catamaran and immediately head to the registration building to get your spot at Campamento Italiano the following night.
My story: We completely forgot about registering when we got to Refugio Paine Grande. After breakfast the next morning we walked over to the little building to reserve our spot at Campamento Italiano for that night thinking we would be okay. Luck was on our side; we received spot 29/30. But it was a no-go for Campamento Torres the next day, which meant we had to stay at Refugio Chileno ($) instead.
Our original plan was to do the full circuit—the “O.” A number of factors went into the decision to stop after the “W,” but after talking to others at Chileno there was a chance we wouldn’t have even had a place to camp if we continued to the backside. We were told that Refugio Dickson was full (even though they’re a paid site) and they were turning people away. Where you would go if you went anyway? I’m not sure, but it’s something to check into at the administration center if starting the full circuit.
After arriving, paying and watching a video at the administration center, you have a few options to start your trekking adventure.
- Take a shuttle from the administration center to the Torres Hotel. On the morning bus from Puerto Natales? Hike up to Refugio Chileno or Campamento Torres (if you have it booked) for your first night. Afternoon bus? Either stay at Refugio Las Torres (by the hotel) or make it up to Refugio Chileno if you’re up for some immediate ascension and think you can make it before dusk.
- Get back on your original bus to go to Guarderia Pudeto to take the catamaran to Refugio Paine Grande. This means you’re doing the trek west to east, saving the Torres for last.
Day 1: Catamaran to cross the Lago Pehoe
The boat leaves sporadically throughout the day, but the few times that you can catch it line up with bus schedules so it should work out perfectly. We took the afternoon (2:30 p.m.) bus from Puerto Natales and caught the 6 p.m. catamaran—what looked like the last one of the day. Pay on the boat after departing and enjoy the 30-minute ride before arriving at your first official stop. Refugio Paine Grande and campsite are directly next to the lake/dock, so no need to walk far before registering and paying at the office on the backside of the building before setting up camp.
Day 2: Refugio Paine Grande – Campamento Italiano
- 7.5km to Campamento Italiano
- Pay, set up camp, lunch
- 5km up/10km total to Britannico and the Valle del Frances
- Night 2: Campamento Italiano
Day 3: Campamento Italiano – Refugio Chileno
- 11km to the fork in the road where you have the option to hike up to Torres or down to the hotel
- 4.2km from fork to Refugio Chileno
- Night 3: Refugio Chileno
Day 4: Refugio Chileno – Mirador Torres
- 3.7km up/8km total to Torres lookout
- Night 4: Refugio Chileno
Day 5: Refugio Chileno – Puerto Natales
- 4.2km to Torres hotel
Sufficient research and preparation cannot be overstressed in this category. Have the funds? Consider coming with dry meals or purchase some from a few stores in Puerto Natales before leaving. It’s practical, something good to look forward to and saves space and weight. If that’s not an option or if you want to go old school with it, here are some notes about we brought so you can consider your options. Keep in mind that refugios have boxed lunches ($19 USD yikes!) and dinners you can buy, as well as a snack store if you run out of food or want a sweet treat along the way.
- Pre-packaged apple-flavored oatmeal: We thought this was genius. No need to ration things and an instant breakfast meant we could get on our way with ease. Unfortunately, it was the most bland of meals. Make sure you pack cinnamon, dried fruit, nuts or honey to spice it up.
- Coffee and tea to get warm!
- Sandwiches (first two days): A typical quick lunch on the trail. We got bread, packs of salami and some cheese and took our chances without refrigeration. (Should have gotten more bread just to eat on its own since it’s lightweight.)
- We were pretty much planning on eating a few snacks for the remaining lunches. When I’m hiking I don’t get very hungry—it’s strange, considering you’re burning all the calories—so eating light was fine by me.
- Lentils and rice: A sad, but ideal meal. You can do a lot with a little, it’s great nutrition for hiking and it’s easy to make gourmet. But given our fast-paced grocery run, we didn’t think that last part through. All we had were chicken and garlic/onion bouillon cubes (and tuna) to add flavor.
- Pasta: For sauce, you can use powdered soup mix instead of a saucy, heavy bag or can.
- Others had ramen noodles, polenta, mashed potato mix and other obvious camping meals.
- Cereal and power bars
- Fruit cups
- Granola or cereal
The four seasons in one day thing? That’s real. We saw everything from wet and cold to hot and sweaty to 100mph gusts of wind to a snowstorm. That said, I was relatively happy with what I brought, considering I was going off of a seven-month long inventory and didn’t have any hardcore, mountain-specific gear.
My strategy: Have hiking clothes and camp clothes and never mix the two. I brought a pair of Columbia hiking pants and some Nike running capris to hike, and Nike thermal running tights to sleep in. For the top, I layered up with workout-like tank tops, a long sleeve dryfit shirt, lightweight pullover, Patagonia puffy jacket and rain jacket. Plus three pairs of hiking socks (one light weight, one mid-level warmth and one wool for sleeping), a giant scarf and alpaca hat.
Things I wish I had? Rain pants, rain pants, rain pants. This would have helped with the wind protection and prevented me from getting soaked. And some gloves for the chilly nights or cold, rainy afternoons when setting up camp.
Don’t forget a headlamp, non-hiking camp shoes (I brought my chacos despite the weight, which came in handy for muddy areas vs. flip flops) and your toothbrush. As for the rest, it’s up to you.
- Buff. The best invention ever and useful for anything and everything. Cover your face in the harsh winds, protect your neck in the snow or collect your sweat on the climbs.
- We didn’t shower while on the trail, but you have the option to at refugios so bring the bare minimum for that if you’re interested.
- Wet wipes and/or toilet paper. It can get rough out there.
- Tissues for sniffly noses or to clean
- Moleskin for wear and tear on your feet
- Book, sodoku or word search for entertainment
- Water filter/iodine tablets. Rumors flew around regarding bad water sources (another potential downfall of overpopulation), so it wouldn’t be a bad idea to filter your water from the natural streams along the way.
Bottom line: Weight is everything. If you’re debating about bringing it, don’t.
When it comes to the gear, it’s pretty obvious: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking set and stove, gas, silverware (3-in-1). Hiking poles are another option. I had no experience using them, but figured that since I was where I was and the fact that this was my first serious backpacking trip, I’d give them a go. We had a love-hate relationship. There were moments where I wanted to throw them over the cliff and others where I relied on them like a baby on it’s momma. All in all, go ahead and get them. You’ll be grateful for the extra support.