The Torres Del Paine National Park is located in the south of Chile, in Chilean Patagonia to be precise. It’s a land of wild landscapes, where high, craggy mountains dominate the skyline. They are complemented by sparkling lakes, vast glaciers and some of the most extreme weather conditions on the planet. Welcome to the W Trek….
The Torres Del Paine. I don’t remember the first time I heard of the national park. It seems to me that for as long as I’ve been travelling, it’s been there on the list of “to visit one day” places. Now, I was in South America, having fled the pervasive greyness of the British winter, and there was never going to be a better time for it.
There are several trekking routes within the national park. While talk of the ten day “O” trek had been attractive, the reality was that I hadn’t hiked for ten days for about as many years and so decided to focus on the five day “W” trek.
You can hike the W from west to east, starting with a catamaran trip to Refugio (Hotel) Paine Grande, or start from the east and going straight to the Torres after which the park is named and working westwards. Both have their benefits but I’d been told that the west to east route had better views of the Los Cuernos mountains and started with a relatively easy day’s hike to ease you in. So this is what I chose.
The Erratic Rock Talk
I’m a relatively hardy traveller and have no qualms about undertaking a challenge on my own. I’d been feeling rather gung-ho about it when I walked into Erratic Rock, a hostel in Puerto Natales, the town nearest to the park. I was there for the free talk, given daily by the hostel’s trekking guides to help would-be hikers know what to expect.
Yes, I’d been feeling fairly lighthearted and cheerful. Then I heard phrases such as “80km per hour winds” and “torrential rains” and started to feel that little bit less sure. They warned that the weather in the Torres del Paine park was notoriously unpredictable, so much so that no one ever checked the weather forecast. What’s the point in having a forecast when the weather can change from heavy rains to blazing sun, shift over to fierce winds and then again to snow in the course of one day?
So no weather forecast. Which basically meant preparing (and carrying kit for) every feasible weather eventuality. I can’t say I was thrilled by the prospect. I had enough clothing, but had been hoping to travel light as everything that was on my back at the beginning of the trip would need to be carried every step of the way. This is in addition to the food and drink I’d also be carrying.
Never mind, at least there would be lots of other solo travellers in the same predicament, right? But as I looked around the hostel, it struck me that everyone else seemed to be in pairs or groups, busily discussing who would carry what, who’d be in charge of what. There was no one else alone and frantically taking notes with the knowledge that if something was forgotten, there would be no one else to remember it, no one to remind them. Thankful as I was for the talk, it’s fair to say that I came out of it several times more pensive about my pending visit to the Torres del Paine than when I’d gone in.
The Trek To Refugio Grey
The moment I stepped off the catamaran to start the first day’s hike, it started raining. I rolled my eyes. Much as I’ll argue that it doesn’t rain as much as everyone else in the world seems to think it does in the UK, it’s not something I’m entirely unfamiliar with either. Many summer walks have been complemented by lashings of stuff, and I’d rather been hoping that this hike would have been a little different.
Knowing that the rain might not stop for a few hours at least, I set off. Hiking poles in hand (I’m somewhat of a klutz, and notoriously unbalanced on descents), pack in tow. It was windy and rainy to the point my glasses were doing that comedy thing of being so wet I couldn’t see through them.
After a few short, steep climbs, the rain had stopped and the sun came out. Lago Grey, an unexpected bright blue was behind me. Turning round, I could see a few small icebergs floating on the lake.
The rest of the day’s hike towards Refugio Grey (so named for its close proximity to the lake and glacier of the same name) was uneventful. There were frequent climbs and descents on the rocky path but on the whole it was not too challenging. I passed through meadows of foxgloves carpeting the rocky outcrops and spied a few tantalising glimpses of the glacier.
Unfortunately, that section of the park was severely damaged by a large fire in 2011. The fire burned for five days and covered an area of 40,000 acres – impossible to control due to the high winds and expanses of unpopulated land. The terrain is recovering but the damage is still evident in the sections where the only flora is the burnt out trunks of thousands of trees. At Erratic Rock they’d been at pains to stress that there were no open fires allowed in the park outside of special areas in the campsites. It had become clear why.
Seemingly in no time at all, I’d arrived at Refugio Grey where I flopped onto my bed for a short rest before heading to the communal area for dinner. The pleasure (and sometimes pain) of travelling solo is that you’re forced to make conversations if you feel at all sociable. I got chatting with a Chilean family who were doing the hike as a family reunion and who put up with my painfully slow Spanish with good humour. They talked about how, as Chilean people, they felt pride in the park and the care that was being taken to preserve it for future generations.
Refugio Grey to Paine Grande
The next day was also supposed to be relatively easy. I was going to hike 1 ½ hours to a viewpoint over Glacier Grey then return to the refugio along the same path and then take the path going back to Paine Grande. My Torres del Paine trek would be well underway.
It should have been simple but the morning dawned with heavy rains and winds so strong that I was continually being blown off my feet. In retrospect, I must have looked so funny – I’d be walking in one direction and then be blown two paces in the other. At the time, what I felt could be described as a combination of pissed off and frustrated.
As the weather was supposed to get worse that afternoon, I was faced with a difficult decision. Should I hike to the viewpoint (where the weather conditions made it unlikely that there was going to be much of a view to be had) and then risk not being able to make it to Paine Grande that day due to the bad weather? The other option was to walk to the nearer viewpoint, 15 minutes away and then go onwards to Paine Grande from there. I decided on the latter. The hike to the nearby viewpoint was disappointing enough to make me glad that I hadn’t spent another three hours on a round trip to see much of the same.
Soon after, I set off for Paine Grande. It all looked so different from the previous day when the sun had been shining. Even with my heavy pack on, there were a few instances where the wind managed to blow me off course. I put my music on and trudged along. About halfway through the hike, the wind died down and the rain stopped. Before I knew it, I could see the lodge looming on the horizon and another day’s hike was done.
Los Cuernos via the Frances Valley
I had always known that the third and fourth days of the W were going to require a change in pace. So far, I’d hiked about 12km each day. Day three of the hike would be 28km with a steep uphill climb into the Frances Valley, where the views of both the valley and the surrounding mountain ranges were supposed to be some of the best to be had on the trail.
The first section of the path between Paine Grande and Campamento Italiano (a free campsite at the base of the Frances Valley) was wonderful. The path was relatively flat and there were plenty of glacial springs where I refilled my water bottle. The water was so pure and clean in that way that only glacial spring water can be.
While the fire had affected this part of the park as well, it’s effect was much less pronounced. I skirted another large lake and, after an hour or so, got my first proper look at the Cuernos mountains – dark and imposing – rising 2500m into the sky.
On arriving at Campamento Italiano, I dumped my large pack at the ranger’s station and then started uphill towards the first lookout “Mirador Frances”. It was steep at times and of course, fate would have it that the day had turned hot and clear. Suncream oozed down my face as fast as I could put it on. After an hour scrambling uphill, aided by my poles and some strategically placed ropes, I’d made it to the lookout.
The view was worth the effort: from the height you could see the full scale of Lago Nordenskjöld, framed by the valley through which I’d just climbed. Cerro Paine, the tallest mountain in the park at 2850m loomed high and to the side, I could see the Torres in their glory.
I headed further in to the next lookout, Britanico, but the clouds had come in fast and I wasn’t able to see much of the vista by the time I arrived.Soon enough, it was time to return to Italiano.
I still had a long walk before arriving at Los Cuernos Refugio, my night’s accommodation. The walking wasn’t difficult: the first part was on a wide open flat with the stunning views of Cuernos that had been the deciding factor in my trekking the W in this direction.
After passing Campamento Frances, the terrain changed, turning into a wooded habitat through which the path wound its way. Uphill, downhill – it seemed endless. My pack was feeling heavier and heavier with each step and I was starting to flag.
I was also becoming increasingly paranoid about the pumas I’d heard roamed the Torres del Paine national park. It had been hours since I’d seen anyone else and as I became more tired, I was increasingly convinced that a puma was going to pounce, feasting on my tired limbs before I made it to the refugio.
Luckily, by the time I was starting to question whether the refugio actually existed, I came across a small lakeside beach. It was the perfect opportunity to take off my boots and dip my feet into the bracingly cold water. I rested for a few minutes before gathering my belongings for the last push.
Refreshed and cheered, I put on my pack and walked back onto the path from the beach. No sooner had I done so did I see the refugio peeking out from the trees. Los Cuernos Refugio is no five-star lodge, but it was a welcome vision on the horizon.
That evening was a fun one. By now, I’d come to recognise and chat to the others doing the trail in the same direction. My fellow Torres del Paine hikers were a mixed bunch, ranging from 20 to 75 and all with their own stories to tell as to why they were doing the trail. There were two Englishmen, Max and Mike, who worked in the City and had happened to be in the Americas at the same time. They had grabbed the chance to hike together and spend some quality “bromance” time..
There was also a young married couple from California, Cole and Ned. They had been travelling on and off for the past year since Cole had had a serious health scare the previous year. She had grown up as a diabetic and had been told from a very early age that the kind of physical activity required for a hike such as this would always be beyond her. Her parents, she explained, had always encouraged her not to let her condition limit her and it was thanks to them, and improved medication that she was able to undertake the W. In these leisurely conversations, people were at ease, with nothing more than the prospect of dinner and bed stretching over the course of the next few hours, they were open and chatty.
We swapped the day’s battle stories over dinner and drinks, heading down to the lake’s shore in time to see the sunset. In the summer, sunset in the Torres isn’t until 10.30pm and marked the the time to turn in and get ready for the next day.
Los Cuernos to El Chileno and the Torres
Soon enough, it was time to say goodbye to Los Cuernos Refugio and embark on my last full day of hiking to Refugio Chileno and then on to the Torres themselves. It’s a steep climb out of Los Cuernos and already very hot despite it being before 9am.
The going was quick after the initial uphill burst, at least for a few hours before the path started to climb towards Chileno. It was a slow two hours of hiking up steep inclines that were rarely punctuated with any flat sections. I stopped frequently: for water, to reapply sunscreen, to have a snack – for any reason that would afford a short break from the uphill climb.
Finally, I spied the refugio. It was at the bottom of the valley at which I stood at the top. Yet somehow, between the two points, there were still more uphill sections to be tackled. It was with a great sense of relief that I dropped my pack when I finally arrived at the refugio. The day’s hike was not yet over. All the guides I’d read recommended going up to the Torres in the afternoon if it was clear as the weather was so changeable that there was no guarantee that the visibility would be any good in the morning.
Once again, I started out. This time unburdened by my heavy backpack. It’s an hour’s walk (uphill again) from Refugio Chileno to the free campsite Campamento Torres. The path was mostly through forest, with a few rickety bridges crossing fast-flowing streams coming from the mountains.
At Campamento Torres I consulted the map and was relieved to see it was only 45 minutes to the viewpoint from which the Torres could be seen at their best. What a 45 minutes. The path was so steep as to be almost vertical. It was hot, rocky and strenuous work. On the way up I bumped into an Australian who had given me directions in Puerto Natales. When I’d asked him how difficult the last section was, he’d pulled a face, avoided the question and said how beautiful it was when you reached the top. Now I understood why.
Towards the end of the path, I emerged from the forest above the treeline. Instead of being surrounded by the lush canopy that had been the main feature of the last hour’s trek, I was instead faced with a bouldered terrain that looked impossible to surmount. It was not impossible but it was difficult work making my way from boulder to boulder. The poles were useless as there was nothing for them to grip onto – before long I put them away and decided to tackle it with my hands and feet.
More than once I considered turning and heading back – after all, no one would know that I hadn’t made it to the top. Still, I persisted. When I came to the top, I was glad that I had. There they were, the Torres del Paine, up close. Jagged peaks rising from a green lake to complete the picture.
I sat, rested and soaked it all in for a few minutes before packing up my bag and going back down. It had started to rain and continued to do so for the rest of the evening. I’d made it just on time.
By the time I got back to the campsite, dinner had started but the others had saved a space for me to sit with them. For five minutes I shovelled food into my mouth, with barely the energy to participate in the conversation going on around me. And then it hit me, I’d done it – we had all done it – we’d completed the W Hike in the Torres del Paine national park. The wine and beer flowed that night and we stayed up playing cards and somewhat rude word games by the lights of our head torches.
The next morning was cloudy and rainy – making me thankful that I’d gone up to the Torres the day before. There would have been no glorious sunrise to see, just a grey mist. In any case, I was mildly cloudy from the wine the night before and the thought of that strenuous hike made me snuggle further into my sleeping bag and feel a bit queasy.
I packed my bag and geared up. There was nothing left for me to but walk the 5km down with the others to the Hotel Las Torres to start my journey back to Puerto Natales, and, with that, a clean shower.
How To Get To The Torres Del Paine
To get to Torres del Paine, travellers have two main options – either to fly to the Chilean airport of Punta Arenas, connect overland to the nearest town, Puerto Natales and take the morning or afternoon bus to the park’s entrance or to fly to El Calafate in Argentina, take a bus (crossing the border) to Puerto Natales and then connect to the park.
Map of The W Trek
The wonderful folk at Alpaca Maps have created this map of my trek.
Trekkers can choose to hike in the Torres del Paine park with their camping gear and food and stay in the free and paid campsites along the camp. Another option is to stay in the refugios and pay for meals to be provided. The latter is the easiest option, particularly if you are hiking on your own but can prove quite pricey for very basic lodging and food.
Bookings for the refugios and camping can be made via Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur.
There are so many wonderful treks in South America – if you’re in Colombia, check out this piece on hiking the Valle de Cocora for inspiration…