Torres Del Paine. The epicentre of the Southern Patagonian Icefield. The mecca for trekkers around the world. Majestic scenery that no photo will truly capture. Yet Torres Del Paine has become a bit exclusive, a bit high-brow if you will. All efforts seem to be focused on promoting advanced bookings at the very pricey, high-end, fully catered Refugios. Rumours are rife, to the extent that many people believe you can’t even enter the National Park anymore without a prior Refugio booking!
This all leaves a bewildering level of confusion for the humble trekker who, on a whim, wants to head south and experience the wonders of Torres Del Paine for themselves, at their own pace, independently. On our trip, in the summer of 2017, information all seem skewed towards essential Refugio bookings if we wanted to even go near Torres Del Paine. We actually thought of giving it a miss which would have been a terrible mistake!
But fear not. We navigated the national park minus Refugio bookings of any kind. We saw almost every inch of trail on the ‘W’ trek trails (and more) and we saved an arm and a leg (each) in the process. This article intends to help anyone wanting to get out into this wonderful wilderness with the freedom you are used to in the great outdoors.
This does not aim to be the cheapest way to do Torres Del Paine but simply the most flexible. The Refugios look pleasant to stay at, but the booking so far in advance, through three different companies with all the various rules, quickly becomes tiresome.
What you will need:
- Trekking gear (prepare for all seasons in one day)
- Camping gear (adjust to your liking, but gear to live out of a car for 5 nights, no tent required)
- A vehicle large enough to sleep in (6-day hire, 4WD not necessary)
- Food (there are food options in the park, but limited. Best to bring enough food for 6 days, including trail snacks)
- Map (the park issued map is fine, or download this map (1.7MB))
Day 1 – Getting there + 2 Warm-up Hikes
Arrive on highway Y-290 and access Torres Del Paine National Park from the southern entrance (Rio Serrano). This is about 100km from Puerto Natales. Don’t mistake the park entry for the Milodon exhibit. This is a supposed ancient giant sloth. If you feel like paying $10 for this then go ahead but trust me it is not worth the side trip to see a statue you can see in Puerto Natales for free. Although the cave is pretty immense.
Through the Rio Serrano entrance, drive for a bit and take a left towards Hotel Lago Grey on route Y-150. On a clear day, you can see Grey Glacier from the Hotel. You can also take a leisurely 90-minute walk across a pebbled beach to a rocky island giving further views of the lake and the icebergs that have calved off and now are beached on the shore. There is also an expensive ferry here for sightseeing trips to the glacier. You’ll see the glacier the next day though under your own steam.
Take the Y-150 back to the main road you arrived in on earlier (Y-290) and go left heading for Pudeto. Pudeto is where the main catamaran takes hikers to often commence their 5-day trek. You will catch this the next day. Meanwhile, today, continue past the Pudeto Port for a few hundred metres, park up your car and take the very enjoyable, but often extremely windy, walk to see both the waterfall, Salto Grande, and the lookout across Lake Nordenskjold towards Los Cuernos.
Return to Pudeto car park beside the lake to spend the night, leaving you in pole position to get the catamaran the next day. There is a cafe here if you need food and the toilets are open 24/7. There is even drinkable water on tap! In fact, almost all water in Torres Del Paine is drinkable. Boiling it first will be safer but not really essential. There are tables and chairs outside the cafe to make up your meal. There is no ‘camping’ per se here, meaning you can’t put up a tent for example. But staying in your car is fine. Note, there is no lighting of campfires anywhere in the park.
Day 2 – Pudeto to Grey Glacier
The first full hiking day takes in Grey Glacier. You first get the catamaran (now on your doorstep) from Pudeto to Refugio Paine Grande. Check the latest schedules, but ideally get the first catamaran leaving from 9 am. Buy a return ticket as you’ll return to Pudeto in the afternoon. The catamaran is a scenic trip, ride upstairs if you can brave the cold and you’ll get the best views.
The hike from Paine Grande to Grey Glacier is straightforward but still a challenge. It is up to 6-8 hours return for fit hikers and almost 20km. Optionally, you can go to the half-way lookout and still see Grey glacier quite clearly. If you go the whole way continue past Refugio Grey (taking note of their costs!) and head up to the impressive lookout (see picture above).
Back in Paine Grande, refuel if necessary in the Refugio but keep note of the ferry departure times and line up early to make sure you get a spot! Aim to get the second to last ferry in case you for some reason miss it. You will then have one last ferry up your sleeve. Stay in Pudeto the night in your vehicle as per the previous night. Read a more detailed account of the Grey Glacier Hike.
Day 3 – Pudeto to French Valley
Repeat the previous morning’s routine and get the catamaran to Paine Grande with a return ticket once again. Despite the catamaran fare costs (28K CLP each return ticket), this is less than one night at a Refugio.
From Paine Grande take the trail towards Italiano camp and then onwards up the French Valley towards Refugio Brittanico. This is a similar time and distance to the previous day (6-8 hours; 20km). Continue as far as you are comfortable up the French Valley before returning to Paine Grande and get the return catamaran back to Pudeto.
Now, drive to Las Torres before nightfall (easy to do in summer!). Stop at the pleasant grassed field acting as the main Las Torres car park. There is a large cafe here serving food and drinks until 8 pm and there is a modern, spacious and clean toilet facility. The cafe also has a weather monitor to see rainfall, snow or wind forecasts, which is very useful in these parts.
Important: On any trail of the ‘W’ trek make it clear to any rangers you meet that you are doing a day hike and your intended overnight plans. You will unlikely need to do this but it shows your intentions are to only stay for the day. We were never stopped on the trail but there is ‘talk’ of this happening. Mostly for safety so they know people are not heading into the wilderness unawares.
Day 4 – Las Torres to the Torres Del Paine Spires
The main drawcard for Torres Del Paine. The three spires above the lake. This involves a 1km hike to the main ‘W’ trek trail before turning right and following the well-marked trail (and fellow hikers) up the steep valley. You will pass Refugio Chileno about half-way up before the steeper section that takes you to the impressive lookout.
The return downward journey should be a little quicker and have you back in camp after about 6-8 hours depending on rest stops. Stay the night again in Las Torres car park. If the weather is poor or really cloudy, you may consider doing the Day 5 hike (or staying put in Las Torres cafe!) and do this hike the following day in the hope of better weather and views.
Day 5 – Las Torres to Los Cuernos
This day is optional but still rewarding. It is a long undulating hike with impressive lake views but no real scenic highlight at the end. It is about a 6-8 hour (22 km) return journey from Las Torres to Los Cuernos. Some suspension bridges break up the journey and some river crossings you will need to wade through, best taking your shoes off for these! Go as far as you are comfortable on this trail and turn around back to Las Torres.
Stay one last night as Las Torres and as a reward, they have beer on tap at the cafe, so treat yourself as you’ve just completed all sections of the W trek!
Day 6 – Return to Puerto Natales
Wake up with over 70km in your legs from the past 5 days hiking. Today is an easy day to take in any further sites, including obligatory Llama shots, as you exit out the east end of the park at Guardia Laguna Armada. Take the Y-156 following signs to Cerro Castillo. From here you will be on the Ruta 9 back to Puerto Natales. Easy!
Other Torres Del Paine DIY Tips:
Ensure you have enough fuel. A full tank in most cars should get you the entire way from Puerto Natales and back if you follow the above route. Needless back-tracking will use up precious fuel as the distances are deceptively long. There is no fuel sold in the park itself. Even Cerro Castillo may not have any fuel so conserve fuel or bring extra along in case.
There is no ability (or need) to pre-book the catamaran (which actually looks more like a regular boat). Just line up when you start to see a line form before departure to make sure you don’t miss out. The catamaran can hold a lot of people, getting on early will also ensure you get a seat too. See the latest catamaran timetable
Take care of the rutted roads which have lots of potholes. Beware oncoming traffic on tight bends. Don’t drive at night, not only is it hard to see you also might hit local wildlife which are active at night. When parking at Pudeto put a rock behind your wheel as a safety measure in case the handbrake gives up during the night! Otherwise, you may land in the lake. Get more off-road driving tips in Chile.
Know your limits!
The day hikes listed are very doable but on the ambitious side in terms of distance. Each will take 6-8 hours so take note of your time and distances. Ensure you turn back if you go past the planned return time no matter how close you are to the end. If you don’t have a fancy hiking watch, an iPhone with its inbuilt Apple health app can track you using the GPS meaning no data connection is required.
Respect the park
Skirting around the edges of the W trek is fun and makes for an adventure outside the very controlled Refugios. They are controlled due to overuse and abuse from years of thousands of people using this natural wonderland. So it goes without saying, while you are on your own adventure, make sure you keep the park clean no matter where you are! Bins may not be so plentiful so hold your rubbish until you find one. Or better yet, take it back to Puerto Natales.