Would you like to visit Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park sometime soon? Or, like me, do you like to fantasize about adventure travel? If so, this blog is for you!
I hope you have a chance to read Bob’s very personal blog from Torres del Paine posted earlier this week. This trip has been a particularly soulful experience, coming just a few weeks after the passing of Bob’s wonderful dad, Saul. We feel so fortunate to be able to be in such a glorious place at this time. Saul and Bob’s mom Heide were very much in our hearts and minds.
Torres del Paine is one of the great hiking destinations in the world, so if you love to hike, you’ll probably be happy here. If you’re not a hard core hiker, don’t let this scare you off. We met many people during our time at Torres who haven’t hiked before and were hiking happily. Since the park is stunningly beautiful from every angle, you could find bliss just gazing at the mountains from the lodge or strolling around lazily. A few areas of the park are accessible by boat. But to see most of the really exciting spots, you’ll need to put at least a little wear on your hiking boots.
When we first started looking into this trip, I found it a bit complicated. We didn’t want to pay the extra cost of booking through an international touring company, so we had to navigate some weird logistics working with a local company. You can shell out a few extra dollars (a lot more, actually) and let REI or some other reputable adventure travel company make the arrangements for you. Also good!
I’ve written this for the average person who would be visiting Torres during a few weeks’ vacation, not traveling for months. There are lots more travel options, including proverbial slow boats, if your time and money are limitless–which is not true for most of us. I hope that our experiences and lessons learned will shorten your research time and simplify your planning process.
Go in Northern Winter/Southern Summer
Ok, this is obvious. The best time to visit this part of the world is in summer, when it’s not freezing and completely snow-covered, i.e., between December and March. Since it’s so far south, you’ll also enjoy the super long days.
Even in summer, daytime temperatures don’t get much above about 50F and it’s near freezing at night. On any given day, there can be bright sunshine, high winds or no winds, snow or freezing rain–it’s extremely variable. We had all of the above conditions but overall the weather was great. Dress in layers and be prepared! We hear the mountains are stunningly beautiful in the winter, but you can’t do much hiking then.
Parlez-usted Espanol? (<–joke!)
If you don’t speak Spanish well, don’t worry. I loved using my Spanish again; it definitely allows you to have richer conversations. (Example: “Where is the bathroom?” is not a very interesting conversation.) But I was amazed at how many people speak English–it’s the lingua Franca for tourism. You may find an occasional taxi driver or waiter who doesn’t speak English. Most of the tourists we met were from Europe, the United States, and Asia; far fewer were from Latin America.
Fly Round-Trip Via Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina, or do a Loop
Both cities are beautiful and welcoming to tourists and non-Spanish speakers. Via Santiago, the total travel time to Torres is slightly shorter (by about 2 hours). We chose Buenos Aires for several reasons: the airfares were the best at the time we looked; we wanted to visit nearby Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina; and we’re spending another month in Argentina after returning from Torres. We loved Buenos Aires–it’s truly a sexy world-class city. But we met many others who came through Santiago and also loved it and mentioned how friendly the people are. Either way, you need to go through Puerto Natales, the closest town to Torres and the launch point for tour operators that you’ll probably be working with (more on this below).
Here are the basics of the three trajectories:
- The Chilean Route. Fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile (3 ½ hours), the southernmost city on the South American continent (Ushuaia, Argentina is farther south, but it’s on an island off the mainland). From Punta Arenas, you can rent a car and drive or take a bus north to Puerto Natales (3 ½ hours).
- The Argentine Route. Fly from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina (3 ¼ hours). (The calafate is a prolific local berry, “barberry” in English.) From El Calafate, you can drive or take a bus to Puerto Natales, Chile (five hours, but it could take longer if the border crossing is congested as it was for us on our return to Argentina).
- The Loop. Why chose when you can do both? Except you might get crushed on airfare–we didn’t look into this.
What to Do
The classic thing to do at Torres is hike the 44-mile “W circuit” (shaped roughly like a W) over 4-6 days. There is also the 66-mile “O circuit” over 6-9 days. The bottom of the O coincides with the W; the top is much more primitive, rugged, and less well-marked. You can also do day hikes, take a boat to visit Glacier Grey (it’s really blue, but named for someone), or do a guided flat water kayak trip. The views along the W circuit are really fabulous…and I’m sure that’s true on the O as well.
We did the W over four days, and loved it, but we definitely found it challenging in some regards. The daily distances are highly variable, because the refugios are not located at regular intervals. The third day was quite tiring: we hiked 15 miles: about eight miles with our full backpacks and seven very steep and rocky miles to Lookout Británico and back with only a light load of clothing layers, lunch, snacks, and drinking water. We could have turned around before the lookout, but we would have missed an amazing view.
Our knees would have benefited from a rest after day three, but we stuck with our itinerary for the final day so we could see Glacier Grey. That entailed another 14-mile hike and a bit of stress worrying about getting back to our scheduled boat and bus rides back to civilization. We made it with time to spare, because we were really hoofing it. A more relaxing pace and an extra night camping at Refugio Grey or Paine Grande would have been nice.
This is an isolated place, which is of course part of its appeal. There’s no real town, so services and accomodations are limited. Here are the options, from high-end to most basic.
- There are three hotels that you can drive to (that we know of) in three different parts of the park. Only one is actually on the W. Prices vary and can hit $800-$1,000/night (all inclusive) at the most exclusive place.
- The W has a network of refugios (basic hostels with bunk room accommodations, meals, common areas, and bar service). Refugio Cuernos also offered small cabins for rent, which looked charming.
- Near each refugio is a camping area with some tents already set up, on the ground or (for a bit more money) on wooden platforms. You can also rent sleeping bags and pads, and get all your meals at the refugios. We liked this option best (and chose a platform) so we could sleep outside (together rather than separately in an indoor bunk room). We had a lighter load than typical backpacking for which you carry your tent, sleeping gear, food, and cooking equipment. We were plenty warm at night in our platform tent, and we liked hanging out in the refugios during waking hours to chat with our fellow adventurers. We had access to reasonably clean bathrooms with flush toilets and showers with varying degrees of hot water. Tent rental is also a bit cheaper than bunking in the refugios.
- The lowest cost option is to bring all your own camping gear and reserve a spot to pitch your tent near a refugio or in one of the camping-only areas along the trail. No campfires are allowed, and cook stoves are also banned in some places because of the high risk of wildfire. When cooking is allowed, there is a designated common area; Paine Grande provided an indoor kitchen area for campers. You can use the bathrooms and showers and buy basic supplies or food and drink in the refugios if you want. We saw lots of people doing this; they were easily identifiable because they were the ones lugging the heaviest packs.
- You can do primitive backcountry camping along the northern part of the O circuit (the section that doesn’t coincide with the W). I’m not sure what it costs and if there are cooking bans. We originally considered doing the O, but based on our conversations with people who had just completed it and found it very challenging and still deep with snow in some areas, we’re happy that we did the W.
If you want to do the W or the O, booking ahead will increase your options and you’re more likely to get what you want. We met many people who were unable to do the full W because they couldn’t get tent or refugio accommodations along the whole route. We met others who wanted to reserve tents, but they had to pay more and stay in the refugios because all the tents were reserved. A good time was had by all, just the same. We booked exactly two months in advance and got what we wanted. If you’re on a tighter schedule, you may luck out, so it’s still worth a try.
There are three operators for the refugios and campgrounds on the W and O. You can book through another company, but they’ll have to go through one, two, or three of these operators, depending on what you want to do. FantásticoSur is owned by a local family that operated private refugios before the park was established. Three of the four sites where we camped along the W are owned and run by FantásticoSur, which runs a total of four refugios and five campgrounds, and offers accommodations in cabins or geodesic domes in two locations. Technically, these sites are located just outside the park’s boundary, but they are indistinguishable from the park itself. The fourth place we stayed is operated by Vértice, a local concessionaire that operates three refugios and four campgrounds. The Chilean park service runs two free primitive campgrounds that can be booked separately.
We first tried to book all the accommodations ourselves with FantásticoSur and Vértice. That appeared relatively easy on FantásticoSur’s website, but it was more difficult with Vértice, and we’d run the risk of not being able to coordinate our itinerary between the two companies. Since we would also have to book transport to and from the park, arrange to pay the $35/person entrance fee, and figure out a couple of other transportation logistics at the end of the W, we ultimately decided to let FantásticoSur book everything for us. Although their website said they’d help us design our own trip, all of our interactions with the company’s staff pushed us to take one of their pre-packaged programs, and that’s ultimately what we did.
Knowing what we do now, I think the ideal W trip would have shifted accommodations slightly to use two refugio/campgrounds from each company, with a final boat trip returning from Glacier Grey. For those who may be interested, the stops would then be: Chileno, Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Grey.
Other Nearby Sights
A visit to Perito Moreno glacier near El Calafate, in the southern section of Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park, is a must. It’s magnificent, and you can get very close thanks to a system of boardwalks. Spend at least a ½ day, or, better yet, do a full-day tour that includes a boat ride and guided walk on part of the glacier with crampons. Full-day tours leave by bus from El Calafate. We didn’t allow enough time for this, so we hired a private car and driver, which turned out to be cheaper than renting a car and driving ourselves.
We also spent a few days in El Chaltén, a separate gateway town at the northern end of Los Glaciares. The mountains and lakes in this area are very similar to Torres, but you can do day hikes from your lodging or campground–there are all kinds of accommodations, many of them very hip! We spent three days in El Chaltén, but we could easily and happily have stayed longer since there are so many great hikes and the town has such great lodging, dining, and microbrew options. If you spend more time here, you won’t be so disappointed if you have to lay low due to high winds. On our last day, the winds gusted to over 65mph in town; walking down the street was crazy let alone hiking on a steep, narrow and rocky trail! El Chaltén is the newest town in Argentina and it’s really buzzing. It’s a great story–read more about it here.
Ushuaia and Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego National Park would also be fabulous to include on this trip–we’ll come back someday, I hope! Additionally, there are other Chilean national parks in the region–click here to read about them and the critical (and initially controversial) role played by Douglas Tompkins, founder of the Esprit clothing company, and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, former CEO of the Patagonia clothing company, in the preservation of these wild lands. So far, these other parks appear to lack the well-developed tourist infrastructure that make Torres and Los Glaciares relatively accessible. But be intrepid, amigos!
A Few Words about Fire
We learned a lot about forest fires while in the western United States last year. While 2017 was a particularly active year for wildfires, we learned that fire from lightning strikes is a natural and important part of the biological cycle of the forest ecosystem in the western United States. Not so in Torres del Paine. Strict fire and cooking regulations are in place now because of a tragic wildfire ignited accidently by a visitor eight years ago. Although there’s not a lot of combustible material here, it’s a very windy place. The wildfire was difficult to suppress because it kept jumping from place to place carried by strong wind gusts.
If you decide to visit this beautiful region, please let us know. We’d love to hear your travel tales and see your photos. And of course we’d be happy to share additional info and stories from our trip.
Take care and keep in touch, amigos! We’re off to Mendoza province next where this year’s Malbec yield is depending on us!