Torres del Paine: Hiking the W Circuit

For us Torres del Paine is Patagonia. Years of dreaming about seeing the three iconic granite monoliths rising above the Paine mountain range is what lured us here. And we were going to spend 5 days backpacking the world-famous W trek.

Ranked among the best multi-day hikes in the world, the W Circuit in Torres del Paine is South America’s most popular hike. And rightfully so as the trail takes in some of Patagonia’s most ass-kicking, eye-popping, jaw-dropping and breath-taking scenery. There just aren’t enough superlatives that involved body parts to describe this place.

The W Circuit is so called because of the shape the route forms as it cuts through the Cordillera Paine.

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This crowded well-traveled trail is 50 miles long and can be done in 4 or 5 days. Hikers can either camp at the basic (pit toilets/no showers) but free park campsites or stay at Refugios, hiking huts equipped with beds, dining halls & even a bar. The Refugios also have private campsites for those looking for more amenities than the public campsites.

OK, so we’re not exactly backpacking in a desolate wilderness area.

We (meaning G&D) have never done more than a two day backpacking trip (unlike Sally who is a superstar backpacker) and the thought of carrying 20 to 35 lbs on our backs for 5 days seemed a little daunting (at least for D). Well actually carrying a water bottle is daunting for D. So our plan was to rent tents and sleeping bags at the Refugio’s private campsites and buy our meals there. The only thing we would be lugging around would be clothes, snacks and gear. One thing we really didn’t have to worry about was carrying gallons of water as the water from the glacier-fed streams is totally safe to drink. Woo Hoo. Yep, backpacking doesn’t get any better than this.

However, after we kept reading (over and over again) how you can experience “four seasons in a day” and about the mice in the campsites we decided it was better to stay at Refugios instead. G had scoffed about sharing a bunk room with strangers who may or may not get all Norman Bates on us but the idea of keeping dry and warm outweigh any horror film cliche.

East to West or West to East?

Most people do this hike from West to East starting at the left prong of the W. From this direction you face Los Cuernos Peaks (the horns) the entire time and save the Towers for last. This of course assumes you are lucky enough to have great weather to even see Los Cuernos. We opted to do East to West starting at right prong of the W. We wanted to do the hardest part of hike to the Towers first while we still had energy, fresh legs and knee joints.

Here is our W hike route. Each day route is highlighted by a different color starting on day 1 (red).

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Day 0:  Transport to Torres del Paine NP, Refugio Torres Central 
Day 1:  Hike to Base Las Torres (Mirador)  (9 miles), Refugio Chileno
Day 2:  Hike to Los Cuernos area (8 miles), Cabañas Los Cuernos
Day 3:  Hike to French Valley inc. Británico (14 miles), Domo Francés
Day 4:  Hike to Grey Glacier (15 miles), Refugio Grey Glacier
Day 5:  Kayak at Grey Glacier, hike back to Paine Grande (8 miles)
Catamaran & Bus transfer to Puerto Natales.

For us novice backpackers this was a great way to experience “back country” backpacking without actually doing any backpacking.

Logistics:

When to Go:  Peak season at the park is during Chile’s summer from December to February. This is when the park is most crowded and you have to book your camping sites/Refugios way in advance. We wanted to avoid the crowds, of course, so we decided to go in March when the crowds thin out. Unfortunately, there were still plenty of people on the trails and I can’t imagine what it’s like during the peak summer months.

Weather: The weather at Torres del Paine is notorious for its wind gusts of up to 100mph, sudden downpours and even snow, all potentially on the same day. The winds are particularly fierce during the months of Dec to Feb and start to “calm” down in March. The weather can get so bad that people have hiked the whole trail without seeing the mountains or Towers. Or as we find out the other day result in trail closures. Be prepared for misery.

Transportation: To get to TDP from Puerto Natales you can take a bus, drive or arrange for private transfer. Depending on your schedule most people catch the 7:30am bus to start their hike early. It’s about 2 hours drive from PN to TDP. The bus will stop off at the Laguna Amarga Park’s entrance where you will get off to pay your entrance fee before continuing on to your final destination.

  • For the Las Torres area you catch the park shuttle at the Laguna Amarga entrance after paying your fees. Costs about $5 for the 10 minute drive.
  • For the Paine Grande you need to get back on the bus to continue on to Pudeto Jetty to catch the catamaran which will take you to Paine Grande pier. Take note of the schedule. Costs around $27

Where to Stay:

Hotels: Hostería Las Torres is the only full service hotel inside the park located at the Las Torres area. Many people who are short of time or not interested in Refugios/camping can stay here and do day hikes to Base Mirador Torres (Towers) and French Valley. $$$$

Public Campsites: The park has free campsites managed by CONAF (National Forest Corporation). These are very rustic sites with pit toilets and no shower facilities.

Refugios:  Luckily or unluckily depending on your viewpoint there is a highly developed network of Refugios managed by two private concessionaires, Fantastico Sur & Vertice. Each Refugio has a dining hall, bar area and a lodge/common area, though the quality of facilities and service varies. Yes I am talking about you Refugio Chileno with your bad service and stinky bathrooms. $$

  • Bunk rooms are shared coed with 6 to 8 bunk beds.
  • Option to pay for bedding or use your own sleeping bag.
  • Different meal plans are available.

Private Campsites:  The Refugios also have campsites on their property where it’s possible to rent a tent, sleeping bags, and mats if you don’t want to haul your own stuff.

Planning:

CONAF:  The governing body of all the national parks of Chile. They managed the free campsites in TDP which include Guardas, Italiano, and Torre.

Fantastico Sur:  Operates the Refugios/private campsites between the right to middle prong of the W trail which includes Refugio Torre Central and Norte, Refugio Chileno, Refugio Los Cuernos, Cabañas Los Cuernos & Domo Francés

Vertice Patagonia:  Operates the Refugios/private campsites left of the middle prong of the W which includes Refugio Paine Grande & Refugio Grey

You can book directly with CONAF, Fantastico Sur and Vertice. Both Fantastico Sur and Vertice have set programs/packages which makes it convenient to book with one company or you can book the individual components i.e transportation, bus, yourself directly if you want to create your own route and mix public camping, Refugio etc.

We booked the W Special Program with the kayak excursion through Fantastico Sur. It included transportation, accommodations w/made up beds and meal plans. For some reason Fantastico Sur programs leave Puerto Natales at 2:30pm which seems like a waste of a day. Vertice programs however leave at 7:30am allowing more time in the park.

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