Instead of stuffing my face full of turkey and watching football this year during the Thanksgiving holidays, I packed my backpack and headed way down south to Chilean Patagonia, where I embarked on the awe-inspiring W trek in Torres del Paine National Park.
Full of glaciers, lagoons, mountains, and valleys, Torres del Paine National Park is a bucket list destination for many. To escape from the chaos of work and American politics, I decided to disconnect from the outside world for a few days, pitch a tent, and soak in the beauty of the W trek, the most popular multi-day hike in Chilean Patagonia.
At many points during my 6 days in Torres del Paine, I had to stop in awe and think to myself, “is this real?” Yeah – that’s how incredible it was. I can’t even begin to describe the beauty and valor of this place. Even simply going through all the pictures is leaving me speechless.
If you’re looking for the adventure of a lifetime amongst some of the world’s most stunning landscapes, read on to find out how you, too, can trek the W!
Before You Arrive
Going on the W trek requires a little bit of preparation, as the trail gets more and more popular each year, especially during the months of October to April. The closest city to Torres del Paine is Puerto Natales, and this is where you’ll do the bulk of your last-minute shopping and packing before your trek.
Before you head out to the park, you’ll need to run a few errands. Below are a few of the things you should be thinking about before you embark on your trek:
Getting to Puerto Natales
The easiest way to get to Puerto Natales from Santiago is to fly to Punta Arenas and then take a bus to Puerto Natales. Around a month before my trip, I bought my flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas on LATAM and it cost ~$250 round trip. However, I met a few Europeans during the trek who said that their flights from Santiago cost over $700 round trip because they bought them at the last minute. With that said, I recommend buying your flights at least a month in advance to secure a good price.
Once you get to Punta Arenas, you can grab a shared shuttle from the airport to Buses Fernandez, where there are buses almost every hour to Puerto Natales for 7,000 CLP. There are other bus companies that provide transportation to Puerto Natales for a similar price, but I used Fernandez and recommend it. When you arrive in Puerto Natales, the bus station is only a 10-minute walk from the town center.
Accommodation on the trails of Torres del Paine National Park consists of two main types – campsites and refugios. Campsites consist of assigned plots of land that you can use to pitch your tent, while refugios are indoor accommodations much like a hostel or a basic hotel. Except for in free campsites, all of the campsites and refugios are equipped with cooking areas, showers, and toilets. In order to be permitted to enter the park, you must have your accommodations on the trail booked in advance. When I was in Puerto Natales, I met many people who ended up having to change or cancel their travel plans to Torres del Paine because they failed to book their accommodation ahead of time. Don’t let this happen to you!
For the campsites, you can either choose to carry your own equipment or you can rent it from the campsites themselves. One main consideration here is price – renting from the campsites is a lot more expensive than carrying your own equipment. Without equipment rentals or meals, campsites usually run from 0-11,000 CLP ($0-16 USD) per person per night (yes, some campsites are free!).
If you’d like to do the trek but don’t want to camp, the refugios are for you. As the refugios are a bit nicer, they come with a much higher price tag. There are dorms in the refugios that run ~55,000 CLP ($95 USD) per night.
Food and Water
During your W trek, unless you want to spend an arm and a leg for pre-cooked meals at the refugios, you must carry your own food with you. Open fires are not permitted in Torres del Paine, so you’ll have to carry a stove and a gas canister in order to cook your meals.
In Puerto Natales, you can find things like pasta, rice, and soup base at the grocery stores, but I opted to purchase all of my camping meals before I left the United States. I also made sure I had a lot of things like trail mix, dried fruits, salami, and chocolate for snacks along the way.
Before I left for my trek, I packed the following items to prepare my meals during the trek:
- Food Items
- Breakfast – 6 Clif bars, assorted flavors
- Lunch – One large package of flour tortillas and two sausages
- Dinner – 6 freeze-dried camping meals
- Snacks – dried fruit and assorted trail mixes
- Cooking Items – you can rent/buy these things in Puerto Natales if needed
- Small gas canister
- Mess kit (pot, pan, measuring cup, silverware)
Water in Torres del Paine is said to be extremely clean, since there is little wildlife in the park and the water often comes straight from the glacier. Most people just filled their water bottles at waterfalls or small streams without using any kind of purification system. However, I’m super paranoid when it comes to the cleanliness of my food and water, so I bought a SteriPen Water Purifier to cleanse and purify my water after I got it from the stream. I highly recommend it if you want to be extra sure that your water is safe to drink.
The weather in Patagonia can be extremely unpredictable, so it’s best to pack a few base layers as well as various outerwear items. It can also get quite rainy, so it’s necessary to have adequate waterproof gear as well. Here’s what I packed for the trek – it’s just an example but this worked really well for me:
- One tank top
- Two dri-fit tee shirts (one short- and one long-sleeve)
- Merino wool base layer for sleeping
- Sports bras
- Two pairs of “active” leggings
- One pair of “sleeping” leggings
- One pair of hiking pants
- Thermal puffer jacket
- Thermal fleece jacket
- Rain shell
- Hiking socks
- Hiking boots
- Flip flops for the shower
- Hat and gloves
- Buff or headband
You should plan to pay in cash for basically everything in Torres del Paine. Some places will take some cards, but it’s really unpredictable whether or not the machines are working, etc. Be sure you have enough cash to pay all of your expenses for the days you are in the park, including park fees, transportation fees, and any incidentals (like sodas, snacks, etc.) that you’d like to purchase from shops inside the refugios.
Aside from clothes and food, you’ll also need a variety of additional equipment in order to camp and trek. Some parts of the hike are pretty intense, so it’s important to come prepared with all the gear you may need. Here are the things that I brought with me in my backpack:
- Camping Equipment – you can rent these in Puerto Natales if needed
- Hiking Equipment – you can rent these in Puerto Natales if needed
- 65 L backpack (I brought my trusty Osprey Women’s Ariel 65 Backpack, pictured above)
- Trekking poles (I used my Black Diamond women’s trekking poles)
- Photography Equipment
- Other miscellaneous items
- Garbage bags – for making sure your clothes and gear stays dry
- A compressible pillow (recommend ThermaRest – they are so comfy!)
- A book and/or journal for the evenings
- Toiletries, bug spray, and sunscreen
Lastly, once you arrive in Puerto Natales, it’s really helpful to attend one of the various information sessions around town. The most well-known one is the Erratic Rock information seminar, which happens daily at 3 PM at Erratic Rock Hostel. You don’t have to be staying in the hostel to attend. I listened to the seminar before my trek and highly recommend it, especially if you are planning on trekking alone. This is a great place to meet other trekkers, rent gear, and hear about the various details of trekking on the W trail.
Getting to Torres del Paine National Park from Puerto Natales
Here’s where the available information gets tricky – getting to Puerto Natales. The Internet is a cluster of information that often contradicts itself, so it can be confusing to plan your trip. The entire round trip to get to and from Torres del Paine should cost ~54,000 CLP, or ~$85 USD.
As of November 2016, these were the bus and catamaran schedules from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park:
Buses depart at 7:30 AM and 2:30 PM from the Puerto Natales bus station to Torres del Paine National Park, and the journey is approximately 2 hours long (15,000 CLP round trip).
- If you are starting at Paine Grande and going counter-clockwise, take the bus to Pudeto where you’ll then catch the catamaran (below)
- If you’re starting at Torres Central, take the bus to Laguna Amarga and take the shuttle (3,000 CLP) from there to Torres Central
Everyone must disembark at the park entrance and pay the entrance fee of 21,000 CLP.
- Those disembarking at Laguna Amarga will take the shuttle from here to Torres Central
- Those taking the catamaran will re-board the bus and go on to the next stop, Pudeto
The catamaran departs at 9:30 AM, 12:00 PM, and 4:30 PM and from Pudeto, and the journey is approximately 30 minutes long (18,000 CLP one-way).
- If you are taking the 7:30 AM bus, you will take the 9:30 AM catamaran
- If you are taking the 2:30 PM bus, you will take the 4:30 PM catamaran
My W Trek Itinerary
I had some extra time in Chile, so I decided to extend the typical 5-day, 4-night W trek into 6 days and 5 nights. I did parts of the trek alone and parts with a friend, so I’ve experienced what it’s like trekking on both sides of the fence. Below is the itinerary I took – it’s just for reference, there are plenty of ways to modify it to fit your own timeline!
Day 1: Puerto Natales – Catamaran – Grey
Total cost: 7,500+18,000+21,000+5,000 = 47,000 CLP or ~$73 USD
Hiking time: 3-4 hours
Campsite: Campamento Grey (Vertice Patagonia)
After taking a final inventory of my things, I scarfed down the breakfast provided at my hostel (Wild Hostel, in case you’re wondering), left some of my things in the luggage storage, and made my way to the Puerto Natales bus station for the 7:30 AM bus to Torres del Paine. The bus ride into the park started off with somewhat monotonous flat lands, then BOOM – there it was, almost out of nowhere: Torres del Paine National Park.
After paying the registration fee and taking the remainder of the bus ride to Pudeto, I boarded the catamaran at 9:30 and arrived at Paine Grande campsite just after 10. After a quick lunch and afternoon siesta with a new friend, I set off on my own for Campamento Grey. The gravel path passed through a shrubby canyon, then borders a few glacial lagoons. This day was mostly uphill, but luckily wasn’t too long of a hike, and there were plenty of places to stop along the way.
Eventually, the path brought me to a mirador overlooking the majestic Grey Glacier. I spent a good while here, admiring the view and snacking on some trail mix. Then, another couple of slightly uphill kilometers brought me to the campsite, where I was able to secure “a room with a view.” I was pretty exhausted, so after a lukewarm shower and a ready-made meal, I went straight to bed.
*Note: This leg of the hike doesn’t have very many streams, so be sure to stock up on water at Paine Grande before you depart.
Day 2: Grey – Campamento Paine Grande
Total cost: 6,000 CLP
Hiking time: 3-4 hours
Campsite: Campamento Paine Grande (Vertice Patagonia)
Waking up bright and early, I packed up my things and left them at Campamento Grey as I hiked around Grey Glacier for a little while. Through the campsite you can organize kayaking tours (~$80 USD) to see the glacier up close, but unfortunately I decided not to go on that tour. Instead, I hiked up toward Paso (past the campsite in the same direction) and to another mirador near the camp for the majority of the morning.
Around lunchtime I picked up my things and headed back down to Paine Grande campsite the same way I’d come the day before. Again, I stopped at the mirador for a quick break before arriving at Paine Grande. Once I arrived at Paine Grande campsite and checked in, I enjoyed an AMAZING hot shower (I’m basically in heaven just thinking about it right now) and a meal cooked in the campsite’s indoor kitchen area. I also picked up a Coke Zero at the refugio store to reward myself. My friend, Bryan, from the United States met up with me that evening, and we finished off the rest of the trek together.
*Note: This leg of the hike doesn’t have very many streams, so be sure to stock up on water at Grey before you depart.
Day 3: Campamento Paine Grande – Mirador Britânico – Italiano
Total cost: 0 CLP (free campsite)
Hiking time: 5-6 hours
Campsite: Campamento Italiano (Conaf)
The golden sun shining on the lake woke me, and as I shuffled around the tent, I noticed a small brown fox lurking around the camping area. He seemed friendly, so I didn’t feel at all threatened by him. Apparently, these foxes hang out around the camping area all the time!
After eating breakfast and packing up, we started off toward Campamento Italiano, one of the park’s free campsites. As they say, the best things in life are free, and this campsite, with its perfect proximity to both beautiful views and clean, running water, was no exception. It was a short hike, less than 2 hours, to arrive at Italiano from Paine Grande.
Luckily, we got to there early and reserved a freaking awesome campsite right next to the cool, glacial river. Just past the trees sat the breathtaking Paine Grande glacier – a towering ledge of ice and rock that once again made me feel small and humbled. Once at the campsite, we pitched our tents to claim the territory, ate a lunch of sausages and tortillas, and grabbed our day packs for the long, somewhat difficult hike to Mirador Britanico.
Many people only hike up to Mirador Frances (less than halfway to Britanico), but if you care at all about seeing and experiencing truly beautiful things, you should suck it up and hike all the way to Mirador Britanico. It’s a bit of a tough, uphill hike, but it’s worth the burning in your thighs and the final scramble up a few meters of near-vertical boulders for the 360 views at the top. This place was absolutely incredible and really moved me with its striking natural beauty. No, I didn’t cry at all, I swear…*turns away, wipes tears from eyes, and sniffles*
But really, this was one of those places that truly made me think to myself, Holy shit. Am I really alive right now or did I pass on to heaven already?
We arrived back at the campsite in the evening with enough daylight to grab water from the stream, cook dinner, and read a book. The sounds of the rumbling river below helped me drift peacefully into slumber that night.
Day 4: Italiano – Chileno (or Torres, your choice)
Total cost: 0-49,500 CLP (Chileno price includes 3 meals)
Hiking time: 9-11 hours
Campsite: Campamento Torres (Conaf) or Chileno (Fantastico Sur)
This was by far the toughest day for me, both physically and mentally. We hiked over 10 miles with our full backpacks on, and my face got so sunburned despite wearing a ton of sunscreen. It was a small price to pay, though, for the beautiful views around Lago Nordenskjöld, Paine Grande and Los Cuernos. This path mostly alternates between small uphills and downhills, and isn’t too strenuous. However, you’ll be wearing your full, heavy pack for the whole hike on this day, so be prepared to take a few breaks to rest and recover. Whenever I found shade from the sun, I’d sit and chug water and eat chocolate trail mix like it was the end of the world.
When you get close to Torres Central, you’ll see a fork in the road. Take the left-hand path that says “shortcut to Chileno.” After this, it’s a somewhat steep uphill portion for ~2 more hours that reconnects with the main path. On the shortcut path, there are two streams you’ll have to cross, so be prepared to get your feet wet. For me, the freezing water actually felt nice on my aching, swollen feet, giving me a little relief on this final stretch.
Finally, after connecting with the main trail at a junction informally named “the corner,” you’ll start to see the path go a bit downhill and that’s when you know you’re almost at Chileno. You’ll then cross a bridge and see the refugio to your right, and if you’re as grumpy as me by the time you get there, you’ll probably throw all of your stuff on the ground and pass out on a picnic table. Although camping at Chileno is pretty expensive, it comes with all three meals included, so it was really nice not having to worry about cooking for the evening.
If you decide you don’t want to pay the steep camping + full board price for Chileno, you can continue hiking an additional 1-1.5 hours uphill to the free Torres campsite, which is the closest campsite to the final mirador.
Day 5: Chileno – Mirador Torres del Paine – Torres Central
Total cost: 11,000 CLP
Hiking time: 9-11 hours
Campsite: Campamento Torres Central (Fantastico Sur)
This was the final day of hiking, and it began before the break of dawn at 3:00 AM. We’d decided to get up before sunrise and make it up to the Torres del Paine mirador before the sun rose. Instead of lugging all of our things around, we packed up our tents and large backpacks and left them at Chileno, only bringing our day packs along for this last morning hike.
We hiked for 2 hours in the dark, crossing rickety bridges and tripping over tree roots. The first hour or so wasn’t that bad – it was uphill, but the path was wide and not too steep. Once we passed Campamento Torres, however, the path quickly got steeper and rockier, the switchbacks becoming more and more common. Finally, just after 5 AM, we arrived at the “pinnacle” of the W trek – the Mirador Torres del Paine. It was a truly breathtaking sight, and not just because of the uphill climb. These awe-inspiring rock formations look like something from another planet, and they took on the faintest red color in the early morning, despite the gray clouds.
Reaching the Torres felt like I’d accomplished something really amazing. Not only was the view one of the most incredible in the world, but it was a feat just making it to this point. And, as I froze my ass off in the chilly morning air and strong gusts of wind, I smiled knowing that I was in the midst of one of the world’s most amazing natural wonders. It was a real spectacle, one I will never forget.
Once the sun was up high in the sky, Bryan and I descended back to Chileno, ate breakfast, and made our way down the final path to Torres Central campsite. To reward ourselves for a trek well done, my friend and I set up our tents and then treated ourselves to a fancy dinner at the Hotel Las Torres. As we ate we realized that our feast was well-deserved, as it was Thanksgiving Day! We laughed about how we’d both lost track of the days during our time disconnected from the rest of society. It was a great way to celebrate and round out a beautiful but exhausting hike.
Day 6: Torres Central – Puerto Natales
Total cost: 3,000 + 7,500 = 10,500 CLP
On the final day, I slept in to recover, took a warm shower at the Refugio Torres Central, ate a warm breakfast at the lodge, then packed up and headed out to catch the 12:30 PM shuttle to Laguna Amarga and 1:00 PM bus to Puerto Natales. As I watched Torres del Paine National Park disappear behind me, I sobbed like a baby. I couldn’t help it. I don’t know what elicited such strong emotions, but I think leaving one of the most beautiful places known to mankind had something to do with it. I swore to myself I’d return one day – please hold me to that promise.
A Few Final Tips
Make some friends on the trails – As a solo hiker at first, I was admittedly quite scared to embark on part of this trek alone, especially without a method of communication with the outside world. However, in Puerto Natales, I realized a lot of people do this trek alone! Even though I was hiking most of the time with my friend Bryan, I made tons of friends throughout my hike, including a super kind Chilean guy named Juan, two kickass ladies named Sibylle/Cybil (same name, different spelling), a friendly Brit named Adam, a sweet family from Chicago, and countless others. I even met up with Cybil back in the US after the hike and we laughed as we reminisced over the exhaustion and magnificence of the trek.
Bring silverware – I forgot silverware because I am an idiot, so I used my hands and borrowed other peoples’ silverware for the majority of the trek. Don’t be like Kay. Bring silverware.
Take trash with you – Torres del Paine is a national park and it needs to be protected from trash and other non-biodegradable waste. Given that, it’s good practice to carry any non-organic trash with you that you bring into the park. This includes cans, plastic bags, wrappers, etc. It’s not that much extra weight and it really helps reduce the waste in the park.
Seriously, pack all your stuff into one bag – I had two bags (one for my equipment and one for my camera stuff) and I severely regretted it. Thankfully, my trusty hiking companion Bryan helped me carry it for part of the way, and it ended up being okay. With that said, when I return to Patagonia I will only have one backpack. Don’t be like Kay. Don’t overpack.
Do your part to prevent climate change and support national parks – As you’ll learn when you hike in Patagonia, the glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. After I returned from my trip, I vowed to do anything to reduce my personal carbon footprint and support organizations that are working to reduce the effects of climate change. A little bit goes a long way, but we’ve got to work together to protect these beautiful natural marvels before they disappear.
Torres del Paine National Park’s Official Site – Here you can find the most up-to-date information on the park, entrance fees, schedules, and more.
Vertice Patagonia, Fantastico Sur, and Conaf – You’ll use these sites to book your accommodation on the W trek. Vertice and Fantastico Sur are private companies (paid campsites), while Conaf is the national park service (free campsites). I recommend doing this as soon as you have set your dates, as spots are in high demand and sell out quickly!
How to Hike the W – A super helpful guide on back-packer.org that details a few different itineraries you can take. I used this as one of my main resources when I was planning my trip, and I recommend looking it over if you’re in search of some alternative trek options.
Have you ever hiked the W? What are your top tips? Share your expertise in the comments!