Patagonia- Hiking the W in Torres del Paine National Park

Itinerary: 

  • Days 1-2: Fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile
  • Day 3: Bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (gateway to Torres del Paine)
  • Day 4-8: Hiking the W Trek, bus back to Punta Arenas

RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ CHILE→ Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina →  Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan

Dates: February 15-24, 2014

Our Odyssey: 

It’s been several days now since Tim posted pictures of us in Torres del Paine national park in Chilean Patagonia, and even more days since we wrapped up our hike, but I’ve been admittedly feeling lazy and procrastinating blogging. This week has consisted of lounging around our B&B in Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world), eating crab and watching “House of Cards” on Netflix. Life is good.

Anyway, seeing as we are bound for Antarctica starting on Sunday March 2, I figured it was about time I stopped putting this post off. Perhaps it’s that our hike itself was so exhausting, reliving it by writing it all out just made me want to take a nap. Thankfully I had an inspriring conversation with my best friend Tara tonight, whom I’ve known since I was 2 years old, which has given me some renewed energy and reminded me to break out of the mechanics of a to-do list.

She asked me what I have learned from the trip up until now, such a simple question but one that I hadn’t reflected on much up to that point. This prompted a conversation about a couple of things I’ve found most rewarding so far, the first being an appreciation for my body and a confidence in my ability to complete physical challenges. In the span of less than a month, we completed not only the trek of the Inca Trail, but also the W Trek (named such because you hike a W shape through the park) in Torres del Paine – two of the world’s major hikes. Both were challenging in different ways and both required physical and mental stamina, and a year ago, I did not think I would ever be able to do these types of hikes. In the months leading up to this trip, I made a regular habit of working out, and while I saw the benefits in my daily life, seeing my body in action on these hikes and feeling the difference in my abilities compared to times I’ve struggled more in the past to complete less challenging hikes, was a phenomenol reward for the dedication I put into my body over the past 8 months.

Now, for me, the W hike was more challenging than the Inca Trail- it’s longer (about 50 miles), has repitition (you do a lot of hiking up to a site or a point, and then hike the same way back), and the trail is a lot rougher (lots of large rocks and loose gravel). That said, some of the other conditions on this trail were better compared to the Inca Trail- we had better bathrooms, hot showers, and the luxury of sleeping in a bed instead of a tent most of the nights. And the W trek is not at high altitude, so the uphill climbs and general hiking were much easier cardiovascularly. But oh did my feet hurt on this one.

There are two directions you can take on the W- east to west or west to east. We started east and went west. The hike can be done in 4 days, but we did it in 5 by splitting the last leg of the W into 2 days. Food is available in the restaurants at the refuge (including box lunch options), but is a bit pricey. The grocery stores at the refuges are not stocked with the healthiest or most filling of options (think cookies and junk food), so unless you want to spend a lot on the prepared food (about $50/day), bring food with you.

We got to the park on February 18, after a day of bus rides first from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, then from Puerto Natales to the park. With our “layover” at the bus station in Puerto Natales, it was about 8 hours total, but only 5 hours on busses. We bought our tickets from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales and the return in advance in Punta Arenas at Bus Sur (one of the many bus companies), and then got our tickets for busses to/from the park once we got to the bus station in Puerto Natales. Once we got there we walked 7km to the campsite we were staying in that night (Los Torres campsite and refuge).

Coming from this direction on the W, the first day of hiking is up to the “torres”, or towers, for which the park is named. It’s probably the toughest day- 15 miles round trip if you start and end at Los Torres refuge, and a lot of uphill climbing. Additionally, the last half hour of the hike is across a treacherous cliff of rocks. You’re high up and the wind is blowing fiercely, and it’s easy to imagine that there must be a few people who’ve fallen off and died this way. Your reward once you make it though is a truly amazing view of the three towers situated around a turquoise lagoon. Adding to the power of this site is the knowledge that, unlike Machu Picchu, literally everyone who gets to see this site in person worked their asses off for it.

There is an alternative to starting and ending at Los Torres refuge- there is another refuge you pass midway through the hike up (Chileno), that you could stay at instead of hiking all the way back down, and there is a shortcut you can take the next day to sync back up with the main trail without having to hike all the way down. I think if we had known about this we may have opted for that itinerary, since our feet were in pain after this 9 hour day and my heel was blistered.

Our second day was the easiest day, and more or less a commuter trek (no key sites, just beautiful scenary in general) to get to the next refuge (Los Cuernos). This day is pretty short – only about 5 hours of hiking. At this refuge we made a handful of acquaintances on the same general itinerary as us, and in particular spent most of our time with Melanie, an Australian human rights lawyer, and Kyle, a long term traveler from, of all places, Richmond, Virginia (my home town).

The third day was the longest, and we actually opted to cut it a bit short. On this day, we hiked from Los Cuernos refuge up into La Valle Frances (French Valley). This is the second arm of the W and ends with a view from the valley surrounded by peaks. We didn’t go all the way to the end of this hike, since we’d heard that the view you get from a large clearing about an hour from the top is about the same as what you get if you make the climb to the end. It was a great view, and I’m glad we made the decision we did to stop and turn back down once we reached the view from the clearing. After hiking back down, it’s another 8km hiking to get to the next refuge (Paine Grande).

The next day is the last day for the traditional W trek, where you hike up the last leg of the W to Grey Glacier and back down again, a total of 22km, catching the 6:30pm catamaran that takes you to one of the bus pick up points to head back to Puerto Natales. We decided to split this day up by staying at Refugio Grey at the top of the hike. We were really grateful for this decision, since this resulted in two fairly easy days to end the hike on. The views of the glacier start midway through the hike up and it’s truly astounding- the glacier is huge, and you only see a little bit of it but even that seems so large.

The next day we hiked back down to Paine Grande, where the catamaran is, and caught the 12:30 boat back to the busses, and made our return to Punta Arenas from there.

Some recommendations, should you happen to be planning a hike in Torres del Paine:

1. Wear amazing hiking boots – waterproof as you will hike across many streams, and thick-soled as it is very rocky.

2. Prepare for any weather. We had rain jackets and rain pants as well as jackets in addition to our clothes.

3. Leave your luggage at your hotel in Punta Areans or Puerto Natales (wherever you are staying and returning to before and after your hike) and pack lightly, as you need to carry your things from site to site during the hike. We packed one set of pajamas, one set of hiking clothes, and 3 pairs of underwear each for the 5 day hike.

4. Book in advance, as refugios fill up fast.

5. Book it yourself, not through a travel agent. Though a travel agent is easier, it costs a lot more and the people we talked to were not entirely pleased with their services. We booked everything ourselves and it is not too challenging to figure it all out.

And with that, I’ve done enough work for today- back to reading and relaxing 🙂

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