Torres del Paine was hands down the best thing I did in Patagonia. It was a hiker’s paradise — one of the most challenging and rewarding travel adventures of my life! Although it’s best known for its iconic granite pillars, the Torres del Paine, the W trek here takes you through mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers, valleys and some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen. There are a lot of options on exploring Torres del Paine depending on your time, budget and level of physical fitness. I’d break it down into three levels:
EASY: Day trips – best for travelers with limited time and lower levels of physical fitness
MODERATE: The W trek – a 5-day, 4-night hike; best for travelers with more time who are already in decent shape
DIFFICULT: The (Paine) Circuit – a 7- to 9-day hike that covers the W trek with an extra northern loop; best for travelers with the most time, or those in top hiking shape looking to brag about being a badass
The most popular entry point into Torres del Paine is a small town in Chile called Puerto Natales. If you’re coming from Argentina, most travelers enter from El Calafate. I researched a lot about exploring Torres del Paine and the most helpful thing I did was attend a meeting at a bar called Base Camp next to the Erratic Rock Hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile. They hold free daily informational meetings at 3pm and do a phenomenal job explaining the park, answering questions and making sure you’re fully prepared for the trip.
Here are some of the best tips I got from the meeting:
- You don’t need to trek with an organized tour group. Most hikers do it on their own and make friends along the way.
- If camping, bring or rent the following gear: tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, bowls, cups, water bottle, pot and utensils.
- Clothes to pack: 1 set of “wet clothes” to hike in and 1 set of “dry clothes” to change into after you’re done hiking for the day. The weather is extremely unpredictable so be prepared.
- I hiked at the beginning of December and wore hiking shoes, waterproof pants, a dry-fit t-shirt, a dry-fit long sleeve, a waterproof raincoat, a fleece neck warmer, sunglasses, gloves and a beanie. My other set of clothing was basically the same, but kept dry by keeping everything in plastic bags.
- Food to pack: This is a personal preference. You can buy hot meals and food at the campsites but this tends to be expensive. If you’re going to pack your food break it down into meals. Here’s what I did and was happy with it:
- Breakfast: oatmeal, tea.
- Lunch/snacks: turkey, salami, granola bars, trail mix, dried fruit, cookies.
- Dinner: Soup, ramen, rice.
- Prepare to be wet and drink water like a dog. Best part is all the water in the park is safe to drink.
After considering all the options, I decided to hike the W trek for 5-days and 4-nights. I also decided I wanted to camp instead of staying in “refugios” which are basically rustic dorm-like rooms. Camping meant that I had to trek with all my own camping gear and food as outlined above.
The W trek
DAY 1: PAINE GRANDE – REFUGIO GREY (11km)
I started off in Puerto Natales, Chile where I took a taxi to the town bus terminal. I purchased my return trip ticket to and from Torres del Paine the night before (12,000 pesos). The bus departed at 7:30am and took us to the entrance of the park at Laguna Amarga. Here hikers buy tickets (18,000 pesos), fill out paperwork and watch an informational video. If you’re hiking east to west (Torres to Glacier Grey) then you can begin the hike from here or take a bus to Hotel Las Torres and start closer to the trail. Since I wanted to hike west to east (Glacier Grey to Torres) I took a bus from Laguna Amarga to Lago Pehoe where I boarded a 12pm boat (15,000 pesos) that took us across the lake to Paine Grande.
After arriving at Paine Grande I fueled up with some lunch and began hiking the W trek around 1:30pm. The distance from Paine Grande to Refugio Grey was about 11km and took about 3 hours. The hike took me through the valley, forests, alongside lakes and finally to glaciers.
Once I arrived at the campsite I set up my tent and continued hiking toward Glacier Grey. Just a quick hike north of camp was a stunning lookout where you can see the glacier from a distance. I wanted to see it up close so I then hiked north to a lookout that brought me to the edge of the glacier. You may be tired, but while you’re there I totally recommend doing this! It was refreshing to hike without my pack and seeing the glacier from above was breathtaking.
DAY 2: REFUGIO GREY – PAINE GRANDE – CAMPAMENTO ITALIANO (19km)
I woke up around 9am and took my time making breakfast and packing my gear, eventually leaving camp around 12pm. 11km of the hike was backtracking to Paine Grande on the same path of the W trek from Day 1 and took me about 4 hours. With 8km left to go, I took a break to eat and continued around 5:30pm to Campamento Italiano.
Campamento Italiano is one of the two free campsites on the W trek and I loved it! It sits at the base of Valle del Frances, tucked away in the middle of the forest alongside a river. Walking into the camp you cross a wooden bridge over the river with a view of the mountains in the valley. I remember stopping here, feeling a sense of accomplishment and just taking in the beautiful views.
DAY 3: VALLE DEL FRANCES – CAMPAMENTO ITALIANO – REFUGIO CUERNOS (15km)
Today I learned how powerful and unpredictable nature could be. I started the day hiking north up Valle del Frances with the goal of reaching the lookout point called Britanico. About an hour into the hike I was stopped by the rangers and forced to turn around because of bad weather. There were strong winds and avalanches in the area so it was unsafe to keep going and everyone was told to return.
Although my hike up the middle was cut short, the mountains, waterfalls and valley were still enjoyable. My hiking then continued to Refugio Cuernos and I dealt with heavy winds and downpours of rain. The views of the Cuernos mountain range in the distance gave me the strength to keep going and walking alongside Lago Nordernskjold felt like I was walking through a scene from the TV show “Lost.”
When I got to Refugio Cuernos tents were flying away and hikers were ditching their campsites to rent refugio beds. I decided to tough it out and set my tent up off in the distance in the forest hoping the trees would cut down the wind. After dinner, I spent some time unwinding inside the refugio and a 54-year-old woman named Martina sat next to me with her glass of wine. Martina was a mother, wife and teacher who travels the world on her school breaks. We bonded over travel stories and I was in complete awe of this woman. Her passion for adventure, strength to do the W trek alone, welcoming personality and sense of humor gave me inspiration. My goal is to be like her for the rest of my life, no matter how old I get.
After talking with Martina, I headed to my tent where I had the worst night of “sleep” in my life. The winds were stronger than before to the point where my tent was being pushed horizontally to the ground with me inside. The howling of the wind was so loud that even music couldn’t drown it out. I didn’t sleep the entire night.
DAY 4: REFUGIO CUERNOS – CAMPAMENTO TORRES (19km)
I decided to get an early start on the day as soon as I saw light. Luckily for me, a German girl named Maren, who was friends with Martina, had the same idea so we continued hiking the W trek together. Our hike began with a gorgeous rainbow — reminding me how nature can forceful and beautiful all at the same time.
By far, this was the most physically demanding day of my hike (and probably life). Operating on no sleep after 3 days of hiking with a lot of weight on my back, I was exhausted. As strong as the winds were during the night, during the day they were even stronger! We were continually knocked to the ground by the wind. I don’t know how, but Maren and I managed to keep a good pace and arrived to Campamento Torres in 6 hours.
After setting up our tents, eating lunch and taking naps, Maren and I decided to take advantage of the clear skies. Since the weather was so unpredictable, we wanted to make sure we got to see the Torres in case tomorrow was cloudy. We mustered up the strength to continue hiking the W trek about an hour north to the Base de Las Torres. The hike up was a steep incline, but we knew it was worth it the moment we got to the top and saw the Torres. Best of all, Maren and I had the entire base to ourselves. For over an hour we walked around, meditated, soaked in the views and felt like we were on top of the world.
DAY 5: TORRES DEL PAINE – HOTEL LAS TORRES (10km)
Although I already hiked up to the Torres, I wanted to do it again. Most people at camp woke up really early to catch the sunrise at the Torres, but Maren and I started our second hike after sunrise at around 6:30am. Going up again I knew what to expect, but the experience was still as majestic as the first. On the way I saw yet another rainbow and when we reached the top we once again had the place to ourselves because the sunrise hikers had already made their way back down.
Hiking back down from the Torres to Campamento Torres and then to Hotel Las Torres was a gradual decline through the valley and I arrived at the hotel around 12:30pm. As I thought back to the bus and boat ride on day 1, I reflected on the fact that all the faces that were strangers back on Day 1, were now new friends. We experienced a once-in-a-lifetime journey together on the W trek and, as we bused back to Laguna Amarga and Puerto Natales, I could feel a new sense of pride and accomplishment in myself and everyone around me.
On the W trek I stayed at 4 campsites as noted above.
Day 1 – Refugio Grey (pay – 4,300 pesos)
Day 2 – Campamento Italiano (free)
Day 3 – Refugio Cuernos (pay – 7,500 pesos)
Day 4 – Campamento Torres (free)
While I was in Puerto Natales before and after the hike, I stayed at Patagonia Adventure Hostel and would highly recommend it. The staff was incredibly helpful with information and I actually rented all of my gear from them.
Other highly recommended backpacker lodging:
I’ve done several 5-day treks before, but have never been so mentally and physically challenged in my life. The W trek was so much more than just a hike through beautiful scenery. For me, it was a journey that allowed me to connect with nature in ways I never have before — good and bad — and to push myself beyond my comfort zone. It was also a great opportunity to disconnect from technology and to spend quality time with myself. I made friendships along the way that I’ll cherish, but my trek through Torres del Paine really was about me. Selfish? Maybe. But I think it’s important we take time out of our hectic lives to focus on ourselves — and if you’re looking for a Patagonian adventure to do that, this is the adventure for you!