TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve contains rugged granite peaks, windswept grasslands, intimidating ice fields, and glacially-fed rivers and lakes. Perhaps more than anywhere else in Patagonia, it has a convenient setup for trekkers of every budget and mindset, with an extensive trail system and routes from one-day outings to Las Torres to multi-day treks around the Paine Massif.
While it’s easy to find online information about the must-see places in Torres del Paine, it gets trickier when it comes to actual advice that makes your trip easier and ultimately more successful. So here are a few important tidbits you may not find elsewhere online to help you plan your trip.
1. Study the routes.
Perhaps the most famous trek is the 5-day “W” route, named for the W-shape of the trail when traced on a map. The “W” takes in the southern half of the Paine Massif exploring the stunning Grey Glacier, the gorgeous French Valley and – drum roll – Las Torres.
The more challenging 8-day “O” route winds along the northern side of the massif, crosses the John Gardner Pass and then takes in all the attractions of the “W.” The 9-day “Q” route is similar to the “O” but adds an additional day along the Grey River southeast of the massif. Both the “O” and the “Q” see a lot fewer trekkers, which makes for a much more genuine experience. Ultimately, we chose the “O” circuit because we wanted to explore the whole massif and we liked the fact that the “O” culminated with a sunrise visit to Las Torres.
The most important thing is to do your homework and get a realistic idea of what the trek involves. Know who you are and what you feel comfortable doing. If you have never done a long multi-day trek, the “O” is probably not the best place to start due to the extreme weather and no easy escape routes. The “W” does provide for shorter versions and an easier exit.
“O” route: red; “W” route: yellow; “Q” route: red/blue.
2. Keep your budget in check.
In addition to the extensive trail system, the park is set up for every budget imaginable. Visitors can hike independently, hire a personal guide and porter, or do the trek as part of a tour. Similarly, there’s a good range of accommodation and food options to choose from. We camped the entire time and cooked our own food, which is obviously the cheapest and most independent way to do the trek. (Our 8-day trek cost US$350 for the two of us which included our return transfer from Puerto Natales to the park, park entry fees, food, camping fees, and rental equipment.) Others may choose full-room and board in lodges or a combination of camping and lodging. Quite often, this is determined by the trekking route itself. On the popular “W” route, hikers have a good range of choices. But there are stretches along the “O” and “Q” routes along the northern part of the loop, where camping is the only option.
3. Hike counterclockwise.
We can’t stress enough how important it is to trek counterclockwise to avoid heavy headwinds. For the “W,” this means hiking west to east. Walking counterclockwise, the strong winds descending from the Grey Glacier will be at your back as you hike; this will literally make your hike a “breeze.” Similarly, crossing the John Gardner Pass counterclockwise makes a lot more sense. The last camp, Campamento Los Perros, is closer to the pass and not as steep which means a shorter and easier ascent. Also the views of Grey Glacier while descending are fantastic.
Moreover, the poor maintenance of the trail down the western side of the pass has caused sections of the trail to erode into large steps, which can be several feet high. Walking down this path is no thrill, but walking up it would be sheer murder. While many people claim it’s better to walk in a clockwise direction to avoid the crowds, we don’t think that’s true. You can easily find some solitude on the trail by either leaving the camp really early or much later than anyone else. We always headed out late and took the whole day to explore rather than rushing to the next camp in a big clump of hikers.
4. Make a reservation in advance if you want to camp at Campamento Torres.
Now for some seriously bad news. If you want to camp at Campamento Torres so that you can easily hike to Las Torres to catch the sunrise, you are required to make a reservation for the campground in advance. Stupidly, the reservation has to be made at the park entrance the day you start your trek. Unfortunately, this means you have to stick to a set daily schedule so that you arrive at Campamento Torres on a certain day. Many references say that you can change your reservation at Campamento Italiano, but that was not possible as of spring 2015.
5. Keep an eye out for the wildlife.
If you are a wildlife enthusiast like us, Torres del Paine is definitely the right place to go. While you are not tripping over animals along the trails, there’s plenty of wildlife around. We spotted a puma and Andean condors on almost a daily basis, either circling high above us or perched on rocky outcroppings.
6. Choose the correct season.
While you can’t choose the right weather for your trek, you can definitely choose the right season. Don’t be confused by the publishing date of this post. Best time to visit the park is from October to April. We did our hike during the shoulder season in late February 2015 and were quite lucky with the weather; we only had two semi-rainy days. Also, be aware that during summer in the southern hemisphere, UV radiation can be very high. (Use a sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30.)
7. And your equipment wisely.
It is easy to underestimate the harsh Patagonian weather. While our trusty old tent barely made it through the trek, other people’s tents were literally ripped apart by strong wind gusts. (Luckily, most campgrounds and refugios rent out tents and sleeping bags, although they might be hard to come by during high season.) Of course, warm sleeping bags and good hiking clothing is essential. The weather changes here every three seconds. One moment it’s wet and freezing, the next it’s sunny and hot.
8. Be respectful to the ecosystem, wildlife, and the local people.
Torres del Paine is quickly becoming overwhelmed by the sheer number of visitors. Facilities simply aren’t sufficient for the 150,000 people who visit the park each year, most of them within a period of a few months. The situation is most extreme along the “W” where competition for reasonable campsites can border on gladiatorial. Similarly, fire safety regulations require that people cook in special cooking areas which are overcrowded and, at moments, dangerous with dozens of propane stoves precariously balanced on uneven picnic tables just waiting to topple over and cause another forest fire. We noticed numerous environmental problems related to the overwhelmed campsites included raw sewage flowing into the lakes.
9. No one will rescue you.
Be warned, the park does not have the resources to rescue those who undertake dangerous sports and there is no rescue team for climbers.
10. Book accommodation in advance.
Because of the sheer number of visitors, it is highly recommended to book your accommodation and meals at least 6 months in advance if you are planning a lodge-based trek. Although most camping can also be arranged in advance, we didn’t have any problems showing up and getting a spot right then. Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia run a number of pay campgrounds while CONAF – the National Forest Corporation – runs a few free and very basic campgrounds. All pay campsites can be booked in advance whereas the free CONAF sites cannot. There’s one exception to the rule, which we mentioned above. Campamento Torres requires a reservation at the park entrance when you start your trek. Also, check out Ecocamp Patagonia who’s business model is grounded in sustainable and responsible tourism, with the region’s first fully sustainable accommodation south of the Amazon.