Torres del Paine — The Definitive Guide

Part I: Our Daily Itinerary

This is the first in a two-part series of posts about our trip to Torres del Paine. Here, the focus is on experiences of each day. To see more photos, read about some travel lessons, and learn more about the specifics of planning our trip, click here.

Stunning beauty, challenging terrain, and a whole lot of airport hours. Torres del Paine National Park in Chile was our destination for two weeks of adventure through Christmas 2016 and New Years 2017. It lived up to lofty expectations!

Laurel, her brother Doug, and I adventured in this land together. We didn’t completely avoid difficulty, but we each have a wealth of new knowledge and experiences.

Our trek followed the ‘O’ of Torres del Paine. Far more visitors trek the shorter ‘W’ route — indeed, the ‘O’ portion of the trail restricts the number of hikers to ~80 at any given time. The choice for us was easy. Because the ‘O’ includes the ‘W,’ and because we were traveling so far already, we wanted to experience the whole thing. We found it to be a wise choice. Some of our favorite moments, locations, and experiences were on the less-traveled section of trail.

Each night, for the most part, we slept in a new place. Most times, that meant a different piece of ground in a different campsite. Bolded items in the below post represent nights of our trip.

Dec 23: Sleep on the plane(s)

We flew LATAM. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to fly in one of the fancy new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, with lovely mood lighting and seatback entertainment (not pictured). There may not be any way to avoid traveling on multiple airplanes to get to Punta Arenas. In our case, that meant three: DC to JFK, JFK to SCL, and SCL to PUQ. For those counting at home, that’s about 24 hours of travel time.

Dec 24: Stay overnight at Hospedaje Costanera, Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is a tiny little airport with only a handful of gates. We were the only plane when we arrived. A taxi downtown costs about CLP 10,000, or about $15 USD. The funky Hospedaje Costanera was comfortable and clean, though the kitchen was small to share with several other guests.

Dec 25: Stay overnight at El Patagonico, Puerto Natales

After retrieving forgotten luggage at the airport, we boarded our afternoon bus to Puerto Natales, about a three-hour ride. El Patagonico hostel, about a ten minute walk from the bus depot, had incredibly helpful staff, was situated within easy walking distance from anywhere we could possibly want to go in Puerto Natales. The accommodations were bright and comfy. The only place in town open for a bite to eat on Christmas Day was the Erratic Rock Base Camp; pizzas and Austral beers made marked the end of another successful day!

Dec 26: Campamento Seron

Our first day of hiking started on pavement: with a scramble through town to buy up enough food for the hike. There are a couple of supermarkets in the downtown area of Puerto Natales, but like everything else, these were closed the previous day, Christmas. Thankfully, everything in the entire town is easily walkable, even with a giant pack.

Next, we stopped by the Vertice Patagonia reservations office (along with a dozen other campers). Laurel and I had mistakenly reserved each campsite believing it was one campsite = one tent. We share a tent. Made sense at the time. However, Vertice books and charges for campsites on a per-person basis. Most of the people waiting in line before us had not reserved campsites ahead of time. Prior to 2016, this was a common experience, especially for more nomadic backpackers on months- or years-long trips. Unfortunately, most of the other campers walked out of the office empty handed. Luckily, the man behind the counter took pity on us , and let us pay extra for a second person. Huzzah!

After packing away all of our food while waiting in the bus station, we boarded the first of two buses to start our hike. Upon entering the park at Laguna Amarga, we paid our entrance fee, watched a required video, and got onto a shuttle to the trailhead. (Many people take the bus from Puerto Natales through Laguna Amarga to Pudeto, where they can board a boat to begin the ‘W’ trail.)

We began hiking at 5:00pm in bright sunshine, as if it was midday. One of the benefits of being at the end of the world in summer is eighteen hours of sunlight! About four-hours later, having traversed forest, meadow, and slightly hilly terrain, we arrived at Campamento Seron.

Everything at Seron was wonderful. Except the bugs. Bring bug spray!!

Dec 27: Campamento Dickson

Trekking to Dickson is more difficult, and much longer than to Seron. The path weeds out many of the non-O hikers along the way. Several relatively short climbs dot the path and offer unobstructed views of windswept Lake Paine, green fields of shrubbery, and dark and craggy mountains in the distance.

Halfway through the hike, in a copse of trees, is the Park Ranger hut. Here you will need to show reservations for Dickson and Los Perros for each traveler to continue on your journey. You’ll also have a chance to sign your name in the first of many visitor books, for which they will ask for your passport number.

After six hours of hiking, you’ll crest a short rocky ridge. Campamento Dickson will greet you from afar, orange tents clearly visible on a wooded peninsula that juts into glacial Lake Dickson. You may have your first encounter with icebergs here. Mountains loom in the distance. It’s quite a sight for weary travelers, and the camp store sells cookies to anyone with a sweet tooth.

Unfortunately for us (especially me for some reason), mosquitoes at Dickson are as terrible or worse than Seron. These blood-sucking creatures somewhat marred our experience of what one Chilean tour guide described as his favorite campsite. To repeat, my one regret is not bringing bug spray.

Dec 28: Campamento Los Perros

Campamento Los Perros lies in a lovely wooded section of the trail, well guarded from the wind, and mostly lacking pesky winged pests. Getting there means traversing forest, crossing rivers, and cresting low hills, each with stunning views of the varied Torres del Paine landscape.

Towards the end of the hike, glaciers cling to life on the rock faces of mountains, dripping into ponds below. It’s fascinating to think about how much surface area these sheets of ice once covered, and scary to imagine how quickly they’ll be gone.

Cold water and high winds make these some of the colder sections of the trek, but Los Perros campsite has another store (more cookies!), bathroom facilities, and a kitchen shack that will help you hide from the cold while you heat your meal. Rest up here, travelers, because tomorrow is a difficult day of climbing the summit of the John Gardner pass!

Dec 29: Campamento Paso

We awoke to birds chirping, cold air, and of course, a typical 5:25am sunrise. Hiking from Los Perros to Paso is billed as the most challenging day, so we got one of our earlier starts, departing around 8:30am. (For several other groups, this day was a brutal 10+ hour slog from Los Perros, through Paso all the way to Campamento Grey. Some folks booked campsites at both Paso and Grey, as backups.)

Soon after leaving Los Perros, the trail opens into a gently sloping mountainside. It’s not hard to imagine an enormous sheet of ice occupying the space you walk upon; the ground is rock and gravel, the treeline slowly melts away as you walk, and looking behind grants you a breathtaking view of the green, gray, and blue valley from whence you came.

Just before summiting the John Gardner Pass, we met a friendly park ranger — or perhaps an apparition — offering hot mate tea from his mug. Language barriers were broken with a beautiful phrase, “uno mas.” Travelers like us have used this phrase hundreds of times to order more beer, and the friendly park ranger used it to insist we share more of his beverage.

Our spirits revived, we trudged the final steps through snow, and reached the glorious summit. Awaiting our gaze was Glacier Grey, the southernmost tip of a 100 sq. mi. ice field that stretches north beyond the clouds. Don’t let the pictures fool you — what looks like a lake is in fact solid ice!

A note of warning: at the top, it’s windy.

Like, hurricane-force-winds windy.

Like an unexpected punch to the gut, windy.

Bundle up before you reach the 1200-meter summit, because, as mentioned, the wind is strong and cold! Our pre-planned celebration included a dram of inexpensive pisco we had purchased way back in Puerto Natales. We hurried through the celebration, snapped a few photos, and took off at a trot down the rocks to escape the cold.

Reaching Campamento Paso from here requires strong knees to climb down the many steps hewn into the forested mountainside. From your tent, you may catch a glimpse of Glacier Grey through the trees. Camping here is the least luxurious of any campsite in the park, which is perhaps a reason why so many travelers continue past Paso to Grey. A single “bathroom,” essentially a hole in the ground, was skipped by most campers in favor of the woods. No chance for cookies here.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of amenities, this was our favorite campsite. It felt homey, and we had a chance to make friends over coffee in the wooden lean-to with the few fellow hikers who chose to hunker down here for the night.

Dec 30: Campamento Paine Grande

This, our longest day, began in the rain. Breaking camp in the rain is really not that fun. Cold, wet, muddy. Our rain gear, hiding deep in our packs until now, proved extremely valuable.

Paine Grande is about eight hours of hiking from Paso. Half of the day is spent descending the mountainside, walking towards the edge of Grey Glacier and its calved icebergs. Technical challenges await: crossing the rocks of fast-moving rivers, climbing metal ladders that have seen better days, and traversing hanging wooden bridges 150-feet above deep gorges.

Note the rickety metal ladder in the background of this photo, just below the lone tree. It’s well anchored, but still kind of scary in the rain!
Those little specks in the water, to the right of the iceberg? Kayakers.

About Halfway through the day, Refugio — or should I say “Hotel” — Grey sits upon a flat meadow near sea-level. Women wear makeup and pearl earrings; men wear jeans and collared, button-down shirts. Tourists sip cocktails on wooden balconies of the Refugio, surfing the web on their laptops. The reception area has a Christmas tree.

After pooping in the woods that morning, it’s a wacky sight to see!

We took a moment to make lunch in the campsite’s enclosed kitchen area, but didn’t spend too much time dallying — there were still four hours of hiking pleasant, ambling hills to reach Paine Grande.

Paine Grande is another tourist haven, complete with a bar and restaurant. Boats drop passengers off on the dock, arriving from Pudeto on the other side of Lago Pehoé. Winds sweep down from the peaks that surround this sanctuary, which is perhaps the largest of all the Torres del Paine campsites. It also has hot-water showers — something not seen since Dickson — a welcome sight for stinky folk. Anchor your tent well, purchase some delightful beer and cookies, and enjoy the warmth and mirth of the kitchen building before bedding down for the night.

Dec 31: Campamento Italiano

Campamento Italiano is nestled in the woods beneath the looming face of Glacier Francés and above the azure-blue waters of Lago Nordenskjöld. It’s not difficult to get here from Paine Grande — perhaps two or three hours of hiking — and we took advantage of the time to rest our weary legs.

An option for the day is doubling your hiking time by climbing to Mirador Brittanico, a lookout over the Valle del Francés. Nursing a few minor sprains by this point, we opted to stop at Italiano. Friends who climbed to the top described a stunning scene, and a large flat rock with which to enjoy the views and take a short nap under the sun.

Campamento Italiano, in the middle of the “W” trek of Torres del Paine, is also a heavily frequented campsite. We learned the hard way; mobs of 20-somethings (which we all happen to be as well) drank well into the evening to celebrate the New Year, very loudly. We didn’t sleep well. On the bright side, we got to hear the drunken a capella version of the Chilean national anthem along with famous chants of “Chi-Chi-Chi! Le-Le-Le!”

Jan 1: Camping Central

Climbing down from Italiano to complete the circuit takes you through wooded trail and another glitzy campsite, Los Cuernos. The path wanders along lakeside beaches and through barren hills. At its finish, Hotel Las Torres’s gleaming barn-style buildings offer a welcome reprieve from a long day of hiking. A small shack sits apart from the hotel and advertises “Cold Beer + Ice Cream.” Yes, please. Second regret of our trip: not capturing this magical establishment on film.

Camping Central is relaxed and open. For many, it’s the starting point of the circuit. It has hot showers, flat, grassy ground, and picnic tables. From here, we mounted our final hike: the climb of the Torres!

Jan 2: Camping Central

Our final day of hiking. A momentous occasion! Aches, pains, and sprains be damned: the reason most people come to this park is to see the famous Torres, and there was no way we weren’t climbing all the way to the top.

Climb we did. It’s perhaps not the most difficult day, but it’s a solid 3–4 hours of climbing upwards, and the final 45 minutes (from Campamento Torres on) is steep, rocky, and sometimes treacherous. Luckily, because we were staying in the same campsite two nights in a row, we left our big packs and carried a much lighter load in daypacks for the day. Our knees thanked us.

It was another sunny day, but we slowly walked into a cloud. This particular cloud was precipitating, and it was very cold. Finally, after chasing Laurel up the rock at what might only be described as a speedy mountain goat pace, we arrived at the famous Torres!

They’re there, I promise! Just behind that cloud… Yeah. Bit of a bummer. (To see what it looks like in sunlight, click here for a Google Image search.)

Easily the coldest 20 minutes of the whole trip occurred here, at the base of the Torres. It’s pretty spectacular nonetheless, and after 8 days of arduous hiking, we couldn’t help but feel an enormous sense of accomplishment.

As we all know, accomplishments deserve rewards. So we trudged back down to our base camp, showered, donned our finest (read: driest, least smelly) clothes, and walked straight to the Five-Star Hotel Las Torres restaurant. Which was fully booked, and couldn’t seat us, of course.

But the bar was open, and boy did they have excellent bar food!

Doug ordered a regular hamburger for dessert. Laurel and I opted for a double-dose of sugar.

And that’s a wrap! Hiking, complete. What a trip!

Jan 3: Erratic Rock hostel, Puerto Natales

At 9:00am the morning after our celebratory meal, we boarded a hotel shuttle bus to Laguna Amarga in search of a ride back to Puerto Natales. There were no scheduled rides, but several idling buses. We found a friendly driver headed back to town who took us aboard. We were the only passengers.

Erratic Rock hostel is something of an expat institution in Puerto Natales; they host an information session about Torres del Paine every day at 2:00pm, rent gear, and sell delicious pizza and beer — all in addition to normal hostel duties. As English-speaking Americans, making friends there is easy, and the staff is knowledgeable and helpful. We washed all of our clothes in an actual laundromat, instead of a river (or the rain).

Jan 4: Hotel Ilaia, Punta Arenas

Sadly, we did not think to take pictures of the beautifully peaceful Hotel Ilaia. However, it is an excellent establishment, well worth the additional price if you can afford it. We believe (but cannot confirm) that it is women- and family-owned. The hospitality is outstanding. The entire hotel is immaculately clean. The breakfast is overwhelmingly delicious.

We took the time to rest, recharge, and explore the downtown area of Punta Arenas. Completos were consumed, beer was drank. We slept in extraordinarily late. It was a merry time. We also scheduled an outing for the following day to Isla Magdalena.

Jan 5: Hotel Ilaia, Punta Arenas

Go to the tour office (recommended by Hotel Ilaia staff). Take a 45-minute bus ride. Board a boat. Wait an hour as it travels across the Straights of Magellan. Walk around with cute penguin friends. It’s that easy!

Isla Magdalena lies northeast of Punta Arenas, smack in the middle of the Straights of Magellan. In 1982, it was declared a national monument — Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos — by Chile, protecting the island and its avian inhabitants from potential human disruption. The isle is home to 60,000 breeding pairs of penguins. Penguins migrate from here to the coast of Brazil in the winter, and return every October to mate.

Despite being pretty darn cute, these penguins were also smelly and loud. Penguin honks sound like a mix between a duck and a seagull. They assaulted our nostrils and pounded our eardrums, but won our hearts. Laurel purchased a commemorative sweater once we were back on mainland.

Jan 6: Sleep on the plane(s)

By this time, I had read deep into the Stormlight Archive, and was on to the second book. For sci-fi / fantasy fans, I highly recommend it, even though the author plans eight more books and we may have to wait decades to feel closure. Bringing our Kindle was a great idea for the long stretches of time spent on buses, planes, bus terminal floors, and uncomfortable airport chairs.

Jan 7: Back in our own beds!

Overall Impression

This trip was incredible, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime. It was challenging and exciting, exhausting and gorgeous. We’d probably do it again, and it also awakened in us a desire to try many of the other spectacular hikes around the world: Machu Picchu, Everest Base Camp, and Kilimanjaro, among others.

Over 16 days, I experienced many things I had never done before, and saw terrific scenery up close and personal. All-in-all, pretty amazing, and highly recommended!

If you’re interested to learn more about the planning phase, and things we learned to do (or not to do), check out the second post here.

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