So you’ve decided to go to the ends of the earth, literally, to visit the Torres del Paine and hike the world-famous “W” trail. Five days in Patagonia, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, aquamarine lakes and soaring condors flying overhead. Sounds perfect. First though, there are a few things you need to consider.
TDP, as I shall now be calling it, is a long way South. A long way. Getting there usually involves a flight, either to El Calafate in Argentina or more commonly to Punta Arenas in Chile. From either of these you take a bus to Puerto Natales, the closest settlement to the park. I would recommend going to Punta Arenas, as it’s nearer and you don’t have to worry about border crossing with all your gear. To get to Puerto Natales is straightforward too, there’s about 10 direct buses a day. It is important to book your bus from the airport to Natales online before you get there, or the buses won’t pick you up. With bussur.com it costs CHP$7000 (about US$10) one way, or $13000 for a return if you know when you need to head back. If you don’t have a bus reservation, you may have to go into Punta Arenas town, a scandalous CHP$5000 per person taxi ride away – only to get a bus which goes right past the airport anyway.
In the park you have a few options, which dictate lots of other details about your trip. You can camp, either in your own tent or a pre-made one, or stay in the refugios, which we did. Camping is obviously the cheaper and slightly more authentic option, although you are only allowed to camp in designated spots, so you don’t really get any more of a wilderness experience than those staying in the refugios. Additionally, you have to carry a sleeping bag, a mat, a stove, food, and if you elect to, your own tent, which adds considerable weight to your back on the 80km or so trek. Thirdly, if you don’t already own all this gear, renting it gets very expensive very quickly.
The refugio option is the “softer” option. Every night you get a bed, and all your meals are provided, some of which are very good. Refugios are part hostel, part hotel, part shelter, and in the high season (September-March) are usually booked up months in advance. They are packed to the rafters in the rain too. They are not cheap, at all. We booked ours through Fantasico Sur. The company was helpful but it cost over $800 per person, all transport, accommodation and food inclusive.
The classic W option is to go from East to West over 4-6 days. You enter the Park at the main entrance and work your way West, finishing at the Grey Glacier, before you take the catamaran back to the bus. This is the option we did, although there are countless other choices depending on your time limits. In some ways I think it would be preferable to start at the West point and work eastwards, as you would finish with the nicest refugio and the shorter day hikes.
The days range from 6-12 hours, and about 12-25km in length. All of them involve hills, great views and Patagonia’s interesting version of the weather. I will say at this point that we were unlucky with the weather, we did not get the “4 seasons in a day” as advised. We got one season – the wet one. According to a guide we met in one of the refugios, it was the worst rainfall in the high season in a decade. Paths turned to streams, streams turned to rivers and rivers turned to raging torrents. Paths washed away, landslides were frequent and previously grassy passages turned to impassable bog. Sturdy, waterproof shoes are an absolute imperative, unless you want trenchfoot.
Hints and Tips
- Be prepared for godawful weather. You may be lucky – we weren’t. Have waterproof everything, keep your clothes in dry bags, get a decent rain cover, the works.
- The refugios, although nice enough, are basic. You have a dorm bed, so take ear plugs if you are a light sleeper. They are also a little boring, so I’d advise bringing a book or kindle with you. Charging your devices can be a bit of a pain too, as the dorms don’t have plug sockets, so bring a battery pack if you have one.
- The refugios are also pretty expensive. When you’ve finished a hike, it’s tempting to have a coffee or tea, or something a little stronger. These will set you back a fair amount. It’s a good idea to take teabags or instant coffee with you as hot water is free, and if you have the weight for it you could take a bottle of something strong and warming. I certainly would have liked a wee dram at the end of the day instead of a CHP$7000 beer.
- Pack enough socks. The drying facilities are somewhat lacking in the refugios and there is nothing worse than putting on wet socks. Trust me.
- Get some hiking poles. There is an awful lot of up and down, as you would expect in the mountains. Your knees take a pounding, especially with added weight on your back. Poles apparently take 30% of the strain from your knees, and they’re really handy for crossing rivers when you need to test the depth.
- If your phone is your camera, put it on flight mode. You don’t need data and wifi in the wilderness (plus, where there is wifi in the refugios it is obscenely expensive). Instagram can live without you for five days. This hugely conserves the battery – mine still had 30% by the time I got on the bus back to Puerto Natales.
- Take a backup camera. You will be furious if yours breaks or gets wet and you miss the scenery of your life. It’s also not a bad idea to make friends with some fellow hikers and set up a photo-sharing arrangement.
- Take snacks. The all-inclusive food is enough, even for someone like me who eats a lot. However, it is always nice to have a few treats of your own. Cereal bars and sweets are my personal favourites.
- Use a water bladder. So much easier than getting a bottle out every time you fancy a sip, and if it’s freezing you don’t have to take your gloves off. This also leaves room for a thermos flask, which again is the best thing ever when you’re freezing your balls of at a lookout point.
- If you have dietary restrictions, don’t rely on the facilities at the refugios. The tour companies do try to accommodate restricted diets, but if they don’t have the right stuff in they can’t just nip to the shops and pick something up for you. Bring a few extra snacks if this applies to you.