Torres del Paine

I don’t even know how to start this post because there’s so much to say about Torres del Paine. I feel incredibly lame whenever I talk about my experience there because words are inadequate. “It’s breathtaking.” Yeah, duh, state the obvious. How else can I describe it, though?

I remember feelings most vividly from my travels, and the awe from Torres del Paine was unforgettable. It was the same kind of feeling I had when I visited the South Island of New Zealand in 2012 and Huaraz earlier in my trip. Mountains and lakes demand that kind of power.

Planning a trip to Torres del Paine can be a hassle since park policies and accommodations change frequently. A travel guide that’s couple of years old might already be outdated. No matter how annoyed you get while planning, it all becomes a distant memory once you visit. The photos on Google don’t lie.

If you’re someone who just wants to see photos, check out the latter half of this post. For more info on planning, read on.


MULTI-DAY TREKS

If you’re a rugged hiker aiming to check another trek off your bucket list, you shouldn’t be reading this blog. I can’t provide useful insight, and the Internet has many other resources that will be a lot more helpful. If, however, you want a (very) general overview of your trekking options, I’ll try to cover the basics.

  • TREKKING OPTIONS
    • The W. If you talk to anyone planning a trek in Torres del Paine, they’ll probably mention “the W,” the most common multi-day hike. If you look at this map, the endpoints of the trek (from west to east) are the Grey Glacier and Torres viewpoint, with the Britanico viewpoint in the French Valley serving as the midpoint. This trek is in – surprise! – a rough “W” shape.
      • Visitors usually complete the W in five days, although it’s possible to complete it in four if you’re fast and/or rush. But, let’s be real, why would you want to rush in Torres del Paine? If you’re one of those people who likes to treat everything like a contest, well…this is the one time you don’t need to win a race.
    • The O. This trek includes all the stops on the W plus the northern part of the park. If you look at our trusty map again, the O includes the trail (from east to west) from the Seron campsite to the Paso campsite. The “O” name comes from the rough oval shape of the circuit (see a pattern here?).
      • Trekkers usually complete the O in eight or nine days.
      • The park limits the number of hikers in the northern part of the O, and you have to complete this part of the trek in a counterclockwise direction.
    • The Q. This trek includes all the stops on the O plus the trail in the southern part of the park that starts from the Paine Grande campsite and ends at the visitors’ center (here’s our friend, the map. I swear it’s not an affiliate link; it’s just the easiest way to show the treks).
      • Hikers usually take about nine or ten days to complete the Q.
  • ACCOMMODATIONS AND FOOD
    • If you’re hiking the W, your main choices of accommodation are refugios and campsites. Refugios offer beds, some of which come with bedding at a higher price. Beds – especially those with bedding – tend to sell out the fastest, while campsites are cheaper and have more availability.
      • Some refugios rent out camping gear, but you run the risk of the gear all being rented out, especially in high season (December to February). It’s a safer bet to buy or rent gear in Puerto Natales, where there’s a wider and less expensive selection.
      • Refugios offer meals, which you can buy even if you aren’t spending the night there. Although a convenient option for trekkers who don’t want to weigh down their backpacks with food, these meals come at a hefty price.
    • If you’re doing the O or Q trek, you’ll be camping for most parts of the northern trail.
  • WHEN TO GO
    • Weather is notoriously unpredictable in Torres del Paine, and you might be forced to zip a parka over short sleeves in seconds. Visiting Torres del Paine in the summer (December through February) maximizes your chances of decent weather, but there are no guarantees. Pack for everything.
      • I was very nervous about the weather, but I met people who hiked the W when it was raining the whole time and still had a blast. These people were a lot cheerier than I would have been in their situation, but having a positive mindset will take you far. [/Pseudo-life coaching.]
  • WHEN TO BOOK
    • If you’re W/O/Q trek or bust, you should book accommodations at least a few months in advance. This is especially true if you want to hike the O or Q.
      • Refugios and campsites are managed by different companies: CONAF, Vertice, and Fantastico Sur. Since accommodations aren’t under a centralized system, you have to look at each company’s website to make reservations. As you can imagine, it can take a lot of time to figure out what works within your planned itinerary. The reservation sites are all clunky, and you have to click on individual dates to check availability. Expect to spend a few hours just checking open dates.
      • If visiting all the accommodation sites makes you go, “WhatisthisIcantevenToocomplicated,” you can book a tour. Tours are more expensive (like, hundreds or even a thousand dollars more expensive) than self-booking, but you don’t have to worry about accommodations, food, and planning. General rule of thumb for Torres del Paine is to book as early as you can, but you can still find open tours a few weeks in advance…as long as you’re willing to spend the extra money.
    • If you’re more flexible and are open to doing just parts of the W or aren’t committed to doing the trek in a particular order, you can visit the accommodation offices in person once you get to Puerto Natales.
      • I met a number of travelers who were able to book accommodations through this method just two or three nights before their treks. They didn’t have to deal with the frustrating online reservation systems and got assistance from experienced employees. Many of these travelers didn’t get to do the full W, but at least they got to do pieces.
      • This approach can be risky since there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to secure accommodations. But, people do cancel last minute, and tour companies give up spots that they reserved months earlier. Even if accommodations are fully booked, there’s no need to despair: you can still explore the park through day trips (more on that below).
  • OTHER RESOURCES
    • So, I know I just went on and on about multi-day treks like I’m a hiking guru (ha, jokes!), but I’m no authority since I didn’t get to do one. All the info I gleaned was from other travelers and a couple of very helpful blogs:
      • Back-Packer.org suggests itineraries and offers a detailed guide on how to prepare for multi-day treks.
      • Contemporary Nomad shares experiences and advice from the O trek.
    • Erratic Rock, a hostel in Puerto Natales, hosts a free daily briefing about trekking in Torres del Paine.

Why didn’t I do a multi-day trek? I was a stereotypical backpacker who couldn’t commit. I knew I wanted to visit Torres del Paine in late January or early February, but making bookings months in advance was daunting after regularly booking things a couple of days beforehand.

I also have to admit that camping was intimidating: I didn’t know if I would be able to carry all the gear I needed. I could have done a tour, but after talking to so many backpackers who were planning treks on their own, I felt like it was the cheap (figuratively) way out.

So, all this came down to me being wishy-washy. I was my own worst backpacker nightmare.

I seriously looked into multi-day treks about three weeks before I planned to visit Torres del Paine. People who saw me on my laptop were like, “Uh, what are you doing? You’re being ridiculous. Stop.” Of course, they were right. There was no way I was going to be able to do self-bookings for early February. I did see a couple of open camping spots, but as I said: camping by myself = no go.

I planned on going to El Chalten in Argentina after leaving Chile, which also eased the pressure of doing a multi-day trek in Torres del Paine. El Chalten serves as the start and end point for some of the most well known hikes in Patagonia. I thought I would get my hiking fix there, and El Chalten would require much less advance planning; all I would need to worry about was booking a hostel.

What can a disorganized backpacker do in Torres del Paine, then? Day trips!


DAY TRIPS

Talking to backpackers eager to tackle the W/O/Q made me think that multi-day treks were the only options in Torres del Paine. False. Day trips are an option for those who are mobility impaired or otherwise can’t do a multi-day trek.

  • OPTIONS
    • Full-day hike to the Torres. You can drive to the park, hike to the Torres (the park’s namesake), and return to Puerto Natales in one day. You can do it on your own, but many companies in Puerto Natales offer this hike as a tour. You may not get to see the Torres at sunrise, like people doing multi-day treks, but hey, who’s complaining? The hike is strenuous, so it’s a good idea to bring trekking poles.
    • Day-long bus tour or self-driving. This is what I ended up doing (more details below). I might be biased, but if you can do only one day trip, I highly recommend this option. In fact, I recommend it even if you’re doing a multi-day trek. It allows you to appreciate the scope of the park and see many of the highlights at a distance, and it will get you excited to see sections of the park up close during your trek.
      • It would have been great to rent a car and drive through the park at my own pace. However, I was nervous about driving in a foreign country (I’m a bad enough driver as is), and a bus tour was still a fantastic way to see the park.
    • Los Cuernos. “The Horns” are accessible by an easy, hourlong walk. You can see them at a distance on a day tour (as I did), but I would have loved to see them at closer range if I had more time.
    • Grey Glacier. You can take a boat trip to see the glacier up close or do a day-long hike. Day tours usually stop at a viewpoint of the glacier, but access to the glacier was closed on the day I visited. I was OK with missing Grey since I planned to visit Perito Moreno, a glacier in Argentina, a few days later (much more on that in a future blog post about El Calafate).
  • RE-ENTRY
    • When you first enter the park and buy your ticket, be sure to get your ticket stamped if you want to re-enter at a later date. When I was at the park in February 2018, visitors could re-enter up to two days after their initial entry without having to pay an additional fee. As far as I could tell, there was no limit on the number of days you could spend in the park if you didn’t leave.

When I first booked a day trip, I dismissed the bus tour, thinking it wouldn’t capture the beauty of the park. Instead, I signed up for a full-day trek to the Torres (35,000 CLP or about $57) through my hostel in Puerto Natales. On the day of the trek, my tour group arrived at the park to find that the trail was closed due to flooding. We were given the option of: (1) rescheduling the trek, (2) taking a bus tour, (3) doing a four-hour trek from Mirador Lago Toro to Laguna Verde (see the southern part of the map), or (4) getting a refund. I had checked the weather and saw that rain was predicted for the rest of my stay in Puerto Natales.

Seeing the Torres had been a priority, so I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to be able to do the hike. When weighing the other options, I considered these factors:

  • I had already made it to the park, so it would be a shame to return to Puerto Natales.
  • The weather was decent, and it looked like it was only going to get worse during the rest of my stay.
  • Seeing the park by bus was better than not seeing it at all.

All I can say now is thank [insert whatever higher power that be here] that I took the bus tour. I forgot all about my disappointment from not hiking to the Torres.

If you have more time than I did, I’d recommend the following sequence:

  • Day 1: do a bus tour/self-guided drive around the park.
  • Remaining days: hike to sections of the park (the Torres, los Cuernos, Grey Glacier, etc.) or do a multi-day trek.

OK, so where are the photos?

All these blocks of text, and we haven’t even seen one photo of the park yet? I told you Torres del Paine was complicated. Here’s the prettier section of the blog post.

Our first stop on the bus tour was a viewpoint overlooking Lago Nordenskjold.

lago nordenskjold

If this were the only stop on the tour, I would have happily returned to Puerto Natales, thinking my money was well spent. But, this was only the beginning.

The next stop was Salto Grande.

salto grande

The water really is that color.

Salto Grande was near Paine Grande, the highest peak in the park.

paine grande

I guess some clouds obscured the peak of Paine Grande. Did I care? Psh, no.

Los Cuernos were to the right of Paine Grande.

los cuernos

#Blessed with a sunny day

We drove to a viewpoint of Lago Pehoe, where there were a couple of picnic tables that faced this:

lago pehoe

Toward the left, I saw a path leading closer to the lake. After a couple of minutes, I was alone; no other people were in sight.

lago pehoe

Besides some wind, it was silent. The wind was brisk but not unbearably cold – it was just enough to make me feel alert. Since no one else followed the path, I got to soak in the view for the full lunch hour. It was the most perfect moment.

Since access to Grey Glacier was closed, we headed to Cascada Paine, a waterfall with a view of the iconic Torres in the distance.

cascada del rio paine

The Torres are in the upper left of the photo.

As we drove from Cascada Paine, we saw a group of guanacos.

vicunas

Before heading back to Puerto Natales, we ended the day at a viewpoint of Lago Sarmiento.

lago sarmiento

I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be able to see the park on a sunny day. It was the best way to end my time in Chile.

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