Torres del Paine — The Definitive Guide (II)
Part II: Summary & Lessons Learned
This is the second in a two-part series of posts about our trip to Torres del Paine. To see more photos, and read about each day of the 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!
While there are many options for the intrepid traveler to discover the natural beauty of Patagonia, this post summarizes a 16-day jaunt from Washington, DC to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, including a day trip to Isla Magdalena to make friends with 120,000 penguins.
Torres del Paine has three main options for hiking: the 3–5 day ‘W’ hike, including the climb to the famed Torres; the 7–9 day ‘O’ hike, a full circuit around the Torres; and the less-traveled ‘Q’ hike, which includes the full ‘O’ and then takes you south of Lake Pehoé.
We chose the ‘O’, a relatively straightforward circular path around the central Torres spires. Because travel time was already adding up to be several days, we wanted to spend the most time hiking. We also read on several other posts about the beauty and challenge you find on the ‘O’ but might be lacking on the ‘W’. (Not to say the ‘W’ isn’t gorgeous. But we can confirm, the ‘O’ is more gorgeous.) It was ultimately a pretty easy choice; if you can handle the difficulty, or if you can afford a tour group with porters, the ‘O’ is well worth the additional time, effort, and expense.
When We Went: December 23 — January 7
Laurel, her brother Doug, and I were all employed full-time in the US when we planned our trip. To make the most of the very long journey to TdP (more on that below), we settled on 16 days total away from home. This was plenty of time to complete the 7–9 day ‘O’ hike, travel to and from Punta Arenas, and have a few buffer days in between.
Chilean summer offers the best opportunity for good weather, and it happily coincides with the American holidays, when each of us had several days off from work — so we could take fewer vacation days.
- Christmas is the middle of summer in southern Chile, meaning 18 hours of sunlight and best chances for good (warm & sunny) weather conditions
- We all took fewer vacation days from work. Many companies have built-in days off and you spread the time off over two calendar years
- It’s high season for adventure travel in Patagonia. Everyone has the same idea about time off, Chilean summer, etc. so you can expect to see crowded buses and quite a few fellow hikers on the trail, especially the ‘W’ trek.
- Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales are pretty quiet on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, making it more difficult than normal to get around or find sustenance
It’s not cheap to fly to the end of the Earth, but it’s also not exorbitantly expensive. As with most things, you can easily spend a lot of money once you’re there if you want to maintain a certain lifestyle. Cost of living in Chile is cheaper than the US, but not by much. If you’re expecting $0.40 tacos like you might find in Mexico City, you’ll be disappointed, both because things aren’t that cheap, and because tacos are Mexican, not Chilean, and you won’t find many.
We ‘saved’ a lot by already owning camping gear, which meant no need to rent, and no need to spend big bucks on fancy accommodations in the park. If you have to buy or rent gear, you might spend a lot more than we did. Our one big splurge was on the beautiful Hotel Ilaia for our final two nights, which was an experience I wouldn’t trade, despite the expense.
Total cost per person: ~$2,000 USD
- Flights: ~$1,300, booked six months in advance
- Buses/Taxis in Chile: ~$75
- Camping food: ~$75
- Penguin tour: ~$100
- Campsites: ~$100
- Non-campsite food and beer: $150
- Hostels and Hotels: ~$250
- Completos Italianos: $7
Getting There: Prepare for Lots of Travel Time
Step One, Airplanes: Fly to Punta Arenas, Chile (PUQ). For Washington, DC-based travelers like us, that meant about 24 hours of time on planes and in airports.
- DC-JFK — a short flight in the opposite direction of Chile from DC.
- 7 hour layover in JFK — Woof. You can probably avoid this by not booking through a discount website like we did.
- JFK-SCL — Flight time from New York to Santiago is about 10.5 hours; we flew overnight.
- 1.5 hour layover in SCL
- SCL-PUQ — About 3 hours of flight time. Our flight to Punta Arenas actually touched down in Puerto Montt along the way to offload a few passengers, so it took slightly longer.
Step Two, Buses: You may be able to find a direct bus from Punta Arenas to TdP, but we planned for a night in Puerto Natales to load up on food and get our bearings. That meant one bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales, and another from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine the following day.
- Bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales —The trip takes about 3 hours. There are a handful of bus companies that make many trips to Natales each day from downtown Punta Arenas or even from the airport; you can book ahead of time or day-of. We took Bus-Sur, they had great customer service at their depot downtown, and let us change bus times at no extra cost. The bus was packed.
- Bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga in Torres del Paine —This trip is slightly shorter than the previous, about 2 hours. The bus station in Puerto Natales is almost like a right of passage for backpackers. It’s also convenient; all bus companies in one location. We took Bus-Sur again, our bus experience with them in Patagonia was quite lovely. (Note: if you choose not to do the ‘O’, or if you choose to start your ‘O’ somewhere other than we did, you can also take this bus through Laguna Amarga all the way to Pudeto, where you can board a boat for the next phase.)
- (Optional) Las Torres shuttle from Laguna Amarga to Hotel Las Torres — Once you’ve made it into the park, through the instructional video at the park service building, and paid your park entrance fee, you can start your trek! It will take about 75 minutes to reach the trailhead. Or, if it’s late in the day or you’re lazy like us, you can pay 3000 pesos for yet another bus to drive the distance in about 20 minutes.
Getting Back Home — Tips and Tricks
Traveling from Torres del Paine back to home is mostly retracing steps. However, there are a few things we did that went really well and might be useful for you.
- Camp an extra night. We stayed at Camping Central, at the base of the Torres, the night after our final hiking day. This allowed us to take a huge, leisurely, delicious, beer-infused dinner at the Hotel Las Torres bar to reward our completed trek. It also meant we got onto a bus the next morning feeling relatively fresh, showered, and without feeling rushed.
- Buses will take you to Puerto Natales off-schedule. The earliest scheduled bus from Laguna Amarga to Puerto Natales was 2:00pm the day we departed. But the Las Torres shuttle was scheduled to take passengers from the hotel to Laguna Amarga at 9:00 am. We boarded the shuttle at 9:00 am, rolled the dice, and won: Laguna Amarga was full of buses, and one of them allowed us to board for the ride back to Puerto Natales around 10:00 am for the regular fare (in cash). We were the only three people on the bus.
- Buses, hostels, and hotels were all pretty flexible. We built in an extra ‘buffer’ day on the end of our hike in case we wanted to spend an extra day climbing the Torres again. We decided we’d seen enough of the park, so we left a day early. After a few phone calls and in-person visits, our hostel in Puerto Natales, the bus company, and our final hotel in Punta Arenas all accommodated a the one-day shift in our itinerary without complaint!
Travel Lessons Learned
Nobody will help you in the airport. Airline employees, airport employees, and customs officials don’t know what’s going on — even if they seem really confident. So when in doubt, try to check things yourself.
- Save the PDI paper from immigration! After your passport is stamped, the immigration officer will hand you a piece of paper. Save it. You need one of these to get out of the country on your way home. If you’ve lost yours, there is an office in Puerto Natales of the Policia de Investigaciones de Chile (PDI) where you can get a replacement. You can also get a replacement in the Santiago airport.
- Your bags do not follow you all the way to Punta Arenas. When you first arrive in Chile (probably Santiago), go to baggage claim, find your luggage, take it through customs, and re-check it for your next (domestic) flight to Punta Arenas. The airline, the flight attendants, and the customs officials all told us the opposite of what actually happens.
- You probably don’t need to declare any trekking food you packed in your luggage. In Santiago, they ask you to complete a paper customs card, where you can declare whether you’re bringing in any food items. You then hand that card to a customs officer who places it into an untidy stack among hundreds of other cards without even looking at it. They then run your pack through what appears to be a metal detector, and send you on your way into the airport. I declared the Mountainhouse meals I had in my pack. Some other travelers did not. Nobody seemed to care either way.
Rules are really strict … but rarely enforced. Reservation confirmations, signs, and people all made very strong claims of strict rules.
- “You MUST print out the bus ticket onto paper!”
- “You MUST show your campsite reservations to every single campsite!”
- “No changes or modifications to this reservation allowed!”
In reality, many passengers got onto the bus by displaying receipts on phones, a good portion of campsites didn’t really care a whole lot about the reservation system, and when we wanted to change things, most folks were accommodating.
Chile and Patagonia are relaxed places, with mostly relaxed people. If you’re friendly and cheerful, you can probably (but not definitely!) wiggle your way into, or out of, situations where the stated rules seem prohibitively strict.
Photography. Well, my poor father probably tried a hundred times to teach me about how to take pictures. He’s really good at it. I’m clearly not a good listener. He did very generously lend us his digital SLR and lenses to take with us, but it took us a little while to figure it all out.
- Apparently the subject of your photograph should be well-lit.
- And also in focus.
- And maybe if you happen to be the subject of the photo… keep your eyes open? (Laurel and Doug are both particularly good at this; we could make an album exclusively of the two of them smiling, eyes closed.)
Campsites are managed by three different organizations: Vertice Patagonia, Fantastico Sur, and CONAF, the Park Service. Vertice and Fantastico charge around $10/night/person for each campsite, though prices vary. CONAF is free. You must camp at one of the designated campsites. All three have offices in Puerto Natales.
Camping reservations are required for all campsites. “Required” is a loose term, especially because 2016 was the first year that this was the case. We booked our campsites in October/November, and our itinerary was largely based on what was available to book at the time we made our reservations.
We were stopped at a Ranger hut between Campamentos Seron and Dickson and required to show our reservations before continuing on. At each campsite, the officials typically require you to sign the guidebook and present your reservations. You could probably sneak into a couple of the sites without doing so; but do this at your own risk. We had a few reservations for only one person that we presented, without saying anything, and they’d wordlessly let two or three of us through. We were yelled at quite loudly (and all in Spanish) by the Ranger at Italiano for only having one reservation for three people, but he let us stay there. It’s unclear what punishment, if any, they hand down to someone who doesn’t have a reservation.
Recommendation: book well in advance. The reservation system and inconsistent enforcement was a cause of anxiety for us, even though it all worked out in the end. If you book far enough in advance, you can probably get a night at the elusive Campamento Torres, only a 30m hike from the Torres summit, well within striking distance for a sunrise hike. Our Torres experience began at Camping Central, a good three-and-a-half hour trek to the Torres summit, all but eliminating the possibility of seeing the sunrise.
Cautionary note: reservations are per person, not per tent. That means even if you share a tent with someone, like we did, you need to pay for however many people are there. We learned this the hard way; luckily we were able to convince Vertice Patagonia to let us pay for an extra person even though they were completely booked. We got last minute reservations online for the Fantastico Sur sites. CONAF mostly didn’t care.
We were incredibly lucky to have bright sunshine and warm weather throughout most of the trek. Certain sections, like at the John Gardner pass, challenged us with hurricane-force winds. Atop the famed Torres, we got rain, clouds, and near-freezing temperatures. In Campamento Paso, we got rained on for a morning. At the summit of the Torres hike, it was freezing cold and rainy, but otherwise the day was pleasant.
Other than that, most days were gorgeously warm and sunny — probably averaging around 65–70F. Nights were certainly cooler, perhaps near 40F. It drizzled rain for a short period most nights. The wind was variable, and largely depended on whether or not we were in open space.
Other trekkers we spoke with did not fare so well. We heard stories of four-day-long spells of torrential rain, and much colder conditions. As with most things, we prepared for the worst , packing lots of rain gear, and hoped for the best. This time, our hopes were rewarded!
Dehydrated meals, pasta, cured meats, nuts, dried fruit. All are available in abundance in Puerto Natales’s supermarkets and outdoor goods stores.
Otherwise, Chile’s food culture, if they have one, is not particularly exotic. I can strongly recommend Austral beer, brewed in Punta Arenas and served throughout the country. The seafood is delightful, and some restaurants off-the-beaten path in Punta Arenas (recommended by our hotel staff) can provide sumptuous meals. But mostly you’ll find hamburgers, sandwiches, and the (in)famous completo Italiano. Which, let’s be honest, is one of the most delicious things ever created.
Language Barriers, or lack thereof
In the last year, Laurel and I have been to Mexico City, Chilean Patagonia, and Puerto Rico. Of the three, Mexico City was the most difficult language barrier to cross; Puerto Rico was the easiest. In southern Chile, locals — like the folks who work at the supermarkets — may not speak English but they may understand a bit of it. If they don’t (and like us, you don’t speak Spanish), pantomiming works surprisingly well. Tourism is a huge industry in the area and you’re bound to find many English-speaking Chilenos, as well as foreigners from all over the world.
That being said, Spanish is certainly an asset. We’re not Spanish speakers. It was difficult at times, especially with uncommon phrases and language, for example, when trying to find lost luggage at the airport. We bought a guidebook in the airport that was extremely helpful for these and other situations, and common words and phrases are fairly easy to pick up when you’re immersed in a predominantly Spanish-language setting. We recommend at least trying to converse in Spanish as much as possible.
This trip was incredible, perhaps once-in-a-lifetime. It was challenging and exciting, exhausting and gorgeous. We’d probably do it again if it hadn’t 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.
Especially with the amenities afforded in Refugios and the ‘W’ trail, Torres del Paine is accessible to just about anyone. But if you enjoy trekking through the outdoors, try the ‘O’. You won’t be disappointed!
If you’re interested to see more photos, and see our day-by-day itinerary, check out the first post here.