Torres del Paine is a national park on the Chilean side of Patagonia. The W Circuit is a 3-4 day hike through the most scenic sections of the park. The trek was beautiful, and definitely ranks high on my personal “wonders of the world” list.
Planning the trip was trickier than I expected – the information available online is scarcer than other treks I’ve been on (eg Inka trail).
Here’s what I wish I knew before I went.
W CIRCUIT BASICS
The trek is a 3-4 day hike (4 or 5 nights). You can camp, or stay at refugios along the way. (We stayed in refugios. More comfortable, and we didn’t need to carry camping gear.)
If you’re really hardcore, you can bring all your own gear/food and camp. Or do the full circuit (which is ~10 days). We weren’t that hardcore. :)
The version of the trek that I did is below.
Day 0 Arrive at the park. Sleep at Los Torres Refugio.
Day 1 Hike to the Los Torres lookout and out. This day is often seen as “optional” – not everyone hikes all the way to the lookout. I thought it was beautiful and definitely worth it. Sleep at Los Torres Refugio.
Day 2 Hike past Lake (&(*&(. Sleep at Los Cuernos Refugios.
Day 3 Hike the French Valley. Sleep at Paine Grande Refugio.
Day 4 Hike to the Glaciar Grey lookout. Sleep at Paine Grande Refugio.
Day 5 Take the Catamaran to the buses, for transfer out.
(I’ve also posted more pictures from my hike here.)
If I could do it again, here are some changes I’d consider. Note – I obviously didn’t do this route, so no vegetable throwing if it’s a bum idea. :)
Day 0 Arrive at park and hike to Refugio Chileno. Sleep at Refugio Chileno.
Day 1 Hike to the Lost Torres lookout. Since you’re starting further along, you have the option of getting up early and trying to be at the lookout during sunrise’s “golden hour.” Sleep at Los Torres Refugio.
Day 2 (SAME)
Day 3 (SAME)
Day 4 Hike to the Glaciar Grey lookout. Sleep at Glaciar Grey Refugio. This means you have the option of seeing sunset and sunrise over the glacier.
Day 5 Hike to Paine Grande Refugio and take the Catamaran to the buses, for transfer out. Catamarans run 3 times a day. Be sure to check times before you leave for Glacier Gray on Day 4.
THE TREK – A FEW NOTES
You don’t need a guide to do the W Circuit. In fact, I didn’t see anyone with guides.
Clothing layers are super important – it can go from being very hot and sunny to incredibly windy and freezing. We fortunately didn’t hit any bad rain… but from what folks said, there definitely can be. Polarized sunglasses also help a lot with the glare.
Two different companies own the refugios: FantasticoSur and Vertice. I used FantasticoSur to book all of the stays. Don’t do this – comparing prices once there, they charge a ridiculous service fee. Instead, just book directly from the websites. Do book in advance, especially if you’re hiking during the high season.
The refugios are clean and basic. The food is fine, and the boxed lunches for the hikes had plenty of calories (tho i’d still recommend bringing your own luna bars to supplement). And they even have hot showers. Vertice’s refugios were definitely nicer.
At Refugio Los Cuernos, we lucked into having rented “cabanas.” I had assumed they’d be platform tents, but they’re actually private 2 person cabins in the hills. They’re much more expensive than beds, but have a patio, beautiful views, and skylights. Our one clear night happened to be when were in the cabins and so we could see the entire nighttime sky – including the milky way and a shooting star or two. These aren’t 5 star cabins by any means, but given where you are (and all the hiking you’ve just done) they feel incredibly luxurious.
We flew in and out of El Calafate, in the Argentina side of Patagonia. Aerolineas Argentinas is the only company that flies to/from Buenos Aires. Book early – they have cheaper fares, but those were sold out by the time we booked and our flights were pricey.
There’s no way to buy bus tickets online – you just have to go to the bus station as soon as you get into town. While there’s a way to book tickets directly to the park, I couldn’t figure it out. We bought bus tickets to Puerto Natales.
I’d recommend allowing a full day in Calafate in order to do mini trekking on the neighboring Perito Moreno, which is jawdropping. We only had a half day, so we got to see it but didn’t have time to walk in it. Book the day before. Also note that the bus to the glacier does not include the park entrance fee or the boat fare to see the front of the glacier. Also, the ATMs have LONG lines (and sometimes run out on the weekends), so plan ahead.
In El Calafate, we stayed at Casa de los Grillos, which I would highly recommend.
On the way to the park, we spent one night in Puerto Natales. Your hotel can help you get bus tickets into the park.
On the way back from the park, we also spent a night in Puerto Natales. That night, we splurged and stayed at Hotel Indigo in Puerto Natales. Their rooftop jacuzzi was really cold when we were there, but other than that, it was a great stay (the hotel design is great).
Hope this helps!