Trekking Patagonia: Planning for the W Circuit in Torres del Paine

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.

Torres del Paine

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.

big_map

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.

REFUGIOS

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.

GETTING THERE/AWAY

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.

El Calafate

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.

Puerto Natales

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!

8 comments

  1. Karen,

    I found your info about the W in TDP very helpful as I am planning to lead a trip (as a volnteer for a non-profit Boston-based conservation/recreation club) in 2012 to do the W and also some hiking around Monte Fitzroy. I have a question about booking the refugios. You recomment not using Sur Fantastico but booking “directly from the web sites” Not sure exactly what you mean. I found Vertices site and SF’s sites and their prices. Is there yet another site to go to to book the lodges/refugios? I thought they were th eonoy concessionaires in the park and that one needed to use them? I thought Verice did Lago Grey and Paine Grande and FS did Torres Central and Norte, Los Cuernos and el Chileno. Any additional advice would be most appeciated.

  2. Thanks for the great information. I’ve been reading conflicting reports about needing a guide/tour. If I am a solo traveler, will I be able to hike on my own? I don’t necessarily need a guide, but I was wondering if I’ll be forced to join a group. If I can go alone, would I just need to book a spot at the refugios and then make my way along the trails from one to the other? I’d probably be there in about a month (mid to late March).

  3. @Derek You definitely don’t need a guide for the W Circuit. As for solo… we did it during high season, and I would have definitely felt comfortable doing it on my own. There was enough traffic on the trek, that worse comes to worse, I think someone would have come along and been able to help. In mid-March, I’m not sure how busy the trails will be…

  4. Hi Karen, I’ve spent days sending many emails to FantasticoSur and they have not been helpful as its been difficult to see how their Option 2 for $680 tallies with the lodges’ rates. I have felt so frustrated, so you can imagine how happy I was to find your blog – thanks so much for all the info. We are going to the park at the end of March, just hope it won’t be too wet and windy!
    Angela

  5. Hi Karen
    What a great entry! Just wondering whether you heard anything about the full Circuit? Would you be tempted to do it, or did you feel like you saw enough with the W trek? I’m not sure I’d even have the energy or willpower to do the whole Circuit, but my husband is keen to when we’re there next May.
    Heather

  6. Hi Heather,
    The full hike looked beautiful. I feel like I got to see a lot on the W, and from what I’ve heard from a friend who did the whole loop, most of the “key sights” are seen on the W. That being said, the full circuit gets you even further off the beat and path, since there are no refugios out there.

    I’d say – if you’re a fit hiker with the time, the full circuit looks wonderful. But there is a trade-off on how much weight you’ll have to carry (since you’ll need your own food, shelter). For me, that would have made it harder… and specifically, prevented me from carrying my camera. :)

    K

  7. Pingback:Patagonia – Torres del Paine National Park in winter (Chile) « patagonian dreams

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