Torres del Paine (TDP) is frequently featured on lists of the most beautiful places in the world, and in person it lives up to expectations with deep turquoise lakes, enormous glaciers, jagged snow-covered peaks, and jungle greenery.
It’s also a nice introduction to international wilderness backpacking (at least if you're from the US like me). The hike itself has more amenities than most backpacking trips I’ve done, in the form of refugios. For the camping crowd each refugio provides bathrooms, (mostly) hot showers, a small store, water taps, and a shelter for cooking and cleaning. You could take that a step further and purchase hot meals, bagged lunches to go, enjoy the bar, or rent beds, rooms, and even cabins. We opted to go the camping route but enjoyed several hot meals and pisco sours at the refugios. On top of that, trekking in TDP does not require annoying permits (except camping reservations), water filtration methods, or bear canisters. Compared to backpacking in the Sierras, the W is relatively benign with the entire trail below 3000 ft although our trip registered over 15000 ft of elevation gain.
We were able to spontaneously plan this trip about a month before we left! Initially I was overwhelmed, especially with the lack of information online and having to communicate with people in a different language on the other side of the world. After going on the trip I realized that the planning aspect is really not that complicated and the fact that we were bringing our own tents made our trip much more flexible. I include a bunch of planning information I learned below as well as detailed itineraries of each day.
Note: beginning in September 2016 advanced campsite reservations are required due to a large increase in the number of hikers in TDP. Reservations will be checked at the park entrance and may be made at arrival only if there is availability. An additional fee may be included and lack of availability could disrupt your itinerary.
Click on an itinerary day or map icon to read a detailed description of that day.
Dates hiked: 1/27/16 to 2/1/16
At first glance planning this trip seems really complicated, but if you can figure out a couple things up front all of the details fall into place:
This part is easy – no permit required! However campsites and refugios require reservations. Check out the descrptions and links on this page for more details.
We heard horror stories about travelers getting detained at Chilean customs for bringing nuts and trail mix so I only packed a single cliff bar as a snack and declared it on my forms. We ended up having no problems going through customs, so if I was doing this trip again I would’ve packed more food from home. If you are planning to pick up food in Chile there’s a large grocery store in Puerto Natales as well as small stores in the refugios that have limited options. Be aware that you won’t have the same options as an American grocery store so if you are picky or have a weak stomach you may want to bring more from home.
The refugios in the park have a set of 3 hot meals each day and you can choose to buy a whole package or individual meals. These are only available at specific times and in some cases you must reserve them several hours in advance. You can also pre-purchase meals online with your campsite or room reservation. Breakfast is typically a spread of oatmeal, cereal, toast, and sliced meats and cheese with coffee and tea. We only had one lunch at a refugio and it was a large portion of pasta with meat sauce. They also offer bagged lunches to go that typically include sandwiches and snacks. Depending on the refugio, dinner is served either cafeteria style or a multi-course meal. They usually include juice, soup, salad, a main course, and dessert. Some refugios have vegetarian options for the main course but not all of them.
If you choose to cook your own food each refugio has a specific room or shelter to use with tables, running water, and sinks for rinsing dishes. This is the only area where you are allowed to use a stove. You can supplement your meals with additional purchases from the refugio store.
Most of the refugios also have a bar, and ones that don’t have drinks for sale in the store. The main beverages of choice are wine, local beer (Austral), and pisco sours. Great way to end a day of hiking!
This was the hardest part of planning the trip for me! We traveled from LA to Lima, Santiago, and finally landed in Punta Arenas. We took a bus to Puerto Natales and spent our first night there. We took a bus into TDP the following day. There are other options for getting to TDP but this seemed to be the most direct route since we were going straight to the park.
After we chose dates for our trip we had a lot of flight options leaving from Los Angeles. All of our options would take a minimum of 20 hours traveling and at least 3 flights. For a trip like this I recommend trying the website Hipmunk to graphically display flight options including, duration, layover time, cost, and relative pain. Here are a few suggestions for international flights based on my experience:
The Punta Arenas airport is 20 minutes away from the actual city. If you are staying in the city there are taxi cabs available to take you. We decided to continue our traveling saga all the way to Puerto Natales immediately after our flight instead. Since the airport is outside of the city you must reserve a bus spot in advance in order for them to pick you up. There are several bus options available, see links for more information. We went with Bus Sur because they responded to my last minute email reservations!
The bus ride to Puerto Natales is about 3 hours and arrives at the central bus depot in the city. Hotels and hostels are all within a 15 minute or so walk from the bus station. You can also purchase tickets for the bus to the park. There are many options for buses to the park and we had no trouble buying tickets the day before our trip.
As mentioned above there are many bus companies operating out of the Puerto Natales hub to take you to the park. You will get a return ticket at the same time for your fare back at the end of the trip.
Each inbound bus will stop at park administration first for a permit and informational video. At this point you can reserve the walk-in campgrounds: Italiano, Britanico, and Torres. When we arrived those campsites were already completely full.
If you are starting your hike on the west side of the W the buses will continue on to the ferry landing at Pudeto. You cannot buy ferry tickets in advance, just get in line and pay on the boat with Chilean pesos or US dollars. The ferry ride is about 30 minutes to the Paine Grande refugio.
The following is a list of gear necessary for TDP that may not be required on other trips.
The following list contains all refugio and camping options on the W, following the route we took. Refugios operated by Vertice and Fantastico may be booked online