chayes 7 writes about Chile and has done trekking in Torres del Paine National Park.
Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia has some of the world's most spectacular and challenging trails. They range from short day-treks to lagunas and glaciers to week-long hikes past granite spires, hidden valleys and the third-largest ice field in the world.
Most people hike either the Torres del Paine W or the longer more demanding Torres del Paine Circuit, but there are also other less-known treks.
This brief comparison should help you decide which one to do.
1. Torres del Paine Circuit Trek
This 93-mile, 10-day trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia is one of the world's best—especially if you like ice. The Patagonian Ice Cap, three massive glaciers and iceberg-clogged rivers and lakes are among the highlights. Others include a spectacular mountainscape rising abruptly from vast plains, ancient forests, wind-churned lakes and remote flower meadows.
Trekking Distance: 150 km (93 miles)
(including side treks to the French Valley and The Towers—i.e., the W)
Trekking Hours: About 63
Days: 6 to 11
Circuit Hike Highlights
- Vast meadows of wildflowers
- Unforgettable views from the John Gardner Pass over the Southern Patagonian Ice Field
- Close-up views of Grey Glacier
- The Towers—the three granite spikes after which Torres del Paine (Towers of the Paine) is named.
- The French Valley—a granite cirque encrusted with hanging glaciers
- Mirror-top turquoise lakes—Lago Pehoe, Lago Skottsberg and Lago Nordenskiold.
This is also considered by many to be Torres del Paine's most difficult trek, and challenges include:
The John Gardner Pass on the Circuit is above the snow line, and it can also be extremely windy. If the weather is very bad, you will have to wait at Dickson Refugio or Grey Refugio for it to improve.
Sections of deep bog are impossible to avoid, so unless you carry a change of footwear, hiking with wet feet will be another challenge.
Carrying a Tent
There are no refugios on the John Gardner Pass, and while it's possible to trek it in a day, there's always a risk that you'll get caught out by the weather, making a tent essential.
That said, speaking as an occasional trekker who has completed the Circuit, it's really not as difficult as it sounds unless you're very unlucky with the weather. The climb up to the Pass isn't particularly steep, there's no altitude sickness to worry about and you don't have to carry water as you can top up from the rivers. Yes, it is cold, and the wind can be tiring, but I actually found the Torres del Paine W Trek more demanding, as the climbs are steeper.
Circuit Hike Refugios and Campgrounds
If hiking anti-clockwise from Refugio Torres Central or Norte, you will reach campgrounds and refugios as follows:
9 km, 4 hrs from Torres Central
Refuguio and Camp Dickson
19 km, 6 hrs from Camp Séron
Camp Los Perros
9 km, 4 hrs from Camp Dickson
Camp El Paso
12 km, 6 hrs from Camp Los Perros
Camp Los Guardas
6 km, 3 hrs from Camp El Paso
4km, 2 hrs from Los Guardas
Paine Grande Mountain Lodge
11 km, 3.5 hrs from Refugio Grey
From Refugio Paine Grande Mountain Lodge, the Paine Circuit follows the same trail as W Trek, with the next camp being Camp Italiano (see below).
2. Torres del Paine W Trail
This W-shaped trek in and out of the ribs of the Paine Massif takes in all of Torres del Paine's wonders except the John Gardner Pass.
Trekking Distance: 75 km (46.5 miles)
Trekking Hours: 28 hours: 3 to 6 days
W Hike Highlights
- Torres del Paine Towers
- The French Valley - secret glacier-clad valley deep in the Paine Massif
- Lakes of many colors - turquoise, aquamarine and milky blue
- The immense ice wall of Grey Glacier
W Refugios and Camps
The refugios and camps if hiking west to east from Paine Grande Mountain Lodge are as follows:
7.6 km, 2.5 hrs from Paine Grande Mountain Lodge
5.5 km, 3 hours from French Valley Mirador
1 km, 15 minutes from French Valley Mirador
4.5 km, 2.5 hrs from Camp Italiano
Refugio Los Cuernos
11 km, 2.5 hrs from French Valley Mirador
5.5 km, 1 hr from Campo Italiano
Refugios Torres Central and Norte
11 km, 4 hrs, from Refugio Los Cuernos
Refugio El Chileno
5.5 km, 1.5 hrs from Refugios Torres Central and Norte
2.5 km, 2 hrs from Refugio El Chileno
Hikers then head back to the Torres Refugios where they can catch a shuttle to the entrance to Torres del Paine. Hotels range from the swanky Hotel Salto Chico to the low-key and friendly Hosteria Pehoe.
Other Treks in Torres del Paine
Looking for peace and quiet? Try the Valley of Silence, tucked away behind the much more famous Towers. Want a campsite to yourself? Try the Pingo Zapata Circuit.
3. Valley of Silence (Valle del Silencio)
Hike from Camp Torres through ancient Patagonian forests to the Valley of Silence, a spectacular valley hidden around the back of the granite walls of the Paine Towers.
Trekking Distance and Time
12 km, 7.5 miles each way
About 4 hours each way
4. Pingo Zapata Circuit
This is an uncrowded trek from the Administration Centre to Zapata Glacier via Pingo Valley and back.
- Zapata Glacier
- Remote Camp Zapato, which you may well have to yourself
Trekking Distance and Time
- 72K, 45 miles
- About 23 hours trekking
- 4/5 days
Costs in Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine is not cheap. Camping costs around $9 a night at manned campsites and refugios cost from $35 a night for a bed in a multi-occupancy room, or about $80 including full board. If you want to push the boat out, Hosteria Grey (www.lagogrey.cl/), on the other side of Grey Lake from Grey Refugio, which has doubles from $120 per person, is close to both the W and Circuit Treks.
It's also a good idea to bring your own food. Remember that food has to be carried in on horseback to some of the more remote refugios (and rubbish back out), and prices reflect this. So if you must have Coca-Cola, take it with you, or you'll pay the price.
Top Tips for Trekking in Torres del Paine
Take hiking poles. A steep muddy bank between the John Gardner Pass and Camping El Paso makes poles especially useful for hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit.
Take a change of footwear. Many trails, especially parts of The Circuit, traverse deep bogs. A change of footwear means not having to hike with wet feet.
Hike the Circuit anti-clockwise. Patagonia's winds are notorious, especially on the Pass. Hiking anti-clockwise means not having to walk into them.
Take insect repellant. Despite Patagonia's and Torres del Paine's coldish climate, mosquitoes can be a problem. Often the wind keeps them at bay, but when wind speeds drop below about four miles an hour, they can be a nuisance, especially near rivers and bog.
Wear layers. The weather in Patagonia and southern Chile is unpredictable. Even in summer, high winds, snow and sleet are possible, and temperatures may drop 15 degrees Celsius in minutes. Wearing layers means you are always prepared.
Don't hike alone. You are now allowed to hike alone in Torres del Paine, but hiking alone out of season, when no one's about, or hiking the John Gardner Pass alone, are probably not good ideas. You should be able to find hiking companions in Puerto Natales, or at the Park's refugios.
Buy supplies before entering the Park. Although there are stores and kiosks at many of Torres del Paine's campsites and refugios, they tend to be expensive.
Don't leave food out. Mice can be a problem in both refugios and campsites in Torres del Paine.
Don't light fires outside campgrounds. A fire destroyed 1500 hectares of Torres del Paine in 2005, and the damage is still visible. Then in 2012, another fire did even more damage. Both fires were caused by camp fires lit by tourists outside a campground. The Chilean government later sued and prosecuted the culprits, so be warned. Wild campfires are strictly prohibited in Torres del Paine.
Don't buy bottled water. The water in the Park's many lakes and rivers is safe to drink.
Carry a tent. A tent is advisable for hiking the Circuit, and although the W can in theory be hiked from refugio to refugio without one, this means some very long days. (In theory, tents can be hired for Los Perros camp at the foot of the John Gardner Pass.)
Staying only in refugios also means missing out on some of the least populated parts of the park. Plus, the dormitories can be noisy.
Timetable for Bad Weather
The John Gardner Pass will be closed in extreme weather, which means waiting at one of the refugios or campsites for it to clear. A wait of a day at least is not unusual. In winter, other trails also may be impassable, as well as the road into the Park.
If Your Time is Limited, Hike the W
The Paine W can be completed in three days at a push if you're fit and you have good weather, whereas the circuit takes at least six. While the W misses out on the John Gardner Pass, it does include other park highlights such as the French Valley and the Towers.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Tony Fullini from Miami, Florida on June 08, 2014:
I went last year and it was spectacular. Unfortunately we got caught in a snow storm (the day before it was 65 degrees) at camp Los Perros and had to wait a day. When we tried to cross over the pass the next day, it was still snowing and the winds were horrific. So we never made it over the glacier pass and had to trek back to Dickson. But we did get to go to the "W" and it was worth it all the way. By the way, great article, very accurate!