Monday, December 16, 2013

Planning your trip to Torres del Paine

About Torres del Paine

National Geographic Special Issue
featuring Torres del Paine on the cover
On the cover of the 2012 special issue of National Geographic issue listing the "100 most beautiful places in the world" (Torres was ranked 5th) and named the 8th Wonder of the World by voters on Virtual Tourist, everyone agrees: Torres del Paine is spectacular. It offers visitors stunning vistas of glaciers, cobalt blue lakes, massive carved walls of granite (and fossil-laden Cretaceous sedimentary rocks), as well as condors, guanacos, and expansive fields of wildflowers in the spring.

It is possible to enjoy the beauty of Torres del Paine without putting on your hiking boots (see recommendations below). However, most of the people who swarm to the park are there to trek.

The most popular trekking route is the "W", so-called because of the shape it takes with three out-and-back legs to see the three most spectacular views of the park: Baso Torres, the Valle Frances, and Glacier Grey. Trekkers with more time can do the "O" which adds a hike along the quieter backside of the park with its sweeping vistas. If you're really in love with the park, there are plenty of other hikes to do, such as the "Q" or day treks out to Laguna Azul, Laguna Amarga, or Lago Sarmiento, from which you can get spectacular views of the Torres massif.

Detailed park map (from CONAF)
The W (red) and O (yellow) trekking circuits

Planning your visit

Note: Prices quoted were for the Summer 2013 season and are in Chilean Pesos unless otherwise noted.

If you're looking for info about Southern Patagonia more generally, check out my post "Travel tips for Southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego".

Getting there

You can rent a car and drive into the park, but bus service from Puerto Natales is readily available (but gets full, book your bus tickets as early as possible) and can be booked at the bus terminal or, in many cases, directly from your hostel. Check with your bus service, but many take passengers to the Porteria y Guarderia Laguna Amarga (marked as a large blue dot in the trekking circuit map above) as well as to Hotel Las Torres and/or to the Lago Pehoé ferry terminal (from which you can catch the scenic ferry across Lago Pehoé that goes to and from Paine Grande).

To enter the park, each person will have to pay a one-time $18000 peso (~$35 USD) fee for foreigners ($5000 pesos for Chileans) in high season. This lets you back into the park for 2-3 days, depending on who you talk to. If you leave and think you might come back, talk to the rangers to figure out what the deal is. Also, if you enter the park before the ranger station opens or after it closes, there is no entrance fee. But given that the money goes towards maintaining this treasure of a park, if you can afford it, be a good person, pay.

Paperwork and receipts at the park entrance

Hikes and activities

There are so many facilities in the park that it is possible to do the circuit--especially the W--in pretty much any style you want, be it sleeping in your own tent and cooking your own food every night like a real swampbeast (me), sleeping in tents that are set up in campgrounds so you don't have to carry your own, sleeping in refugios and eating food you pay for, or sleeping in nice huts/lodges/domes and having porters carry your gear from spot to spot. Services in the park are expensive, though, so budget may decide which of these options are really available to you.

This is what I recommend you do if you...

...are short on time

If you are fit and can handle a good climb, get to Las Torres and hike up to Base de las Torres (depending on your speed, this will take you anywhere from 4.5-10 hours) and get within hugging distance of the Torres spires.

Base de las Torres


Alternately, get to Paine Grande and walk out to the Glacier Grey Mirador (about 2.5-4 hours round-trip from Paine Grande...you do not need to go all the way to Refugio Grey to get spectacular views of the glacier, you'll know the view when you get there).

View from the Glacier Grey Mirador


If you base yourself out of Paine Grande, you can day hike up to Paso John Gardner and back one day (a long and strenuous hike, but the views of the glacier rock) and out to the Valle Francés (more spectacular views) and back another day.

For 300° views of OHWOWMOUNTAINS, head up the Valle Francés


If you base yourself out of Las Torres (see options listed below), the views from Laguna Amarga and between Laguna Azul and Cascada Paine are arguably the best in the park. Getting to these places is easiest if you have your own vehicle or someone who will shuttle you (e.g. through a lodge).

Park panorama from a trail from Laguna Azul to Casada Paine


The catamaran ferry from Paine Grande across Lago Pehoé ($12000 pesos, 3 boats per day in summer leaving from the Pudeto parking lot for Paine Grande at 9:30 am, 12:00 pm, and 6:00 pm, arriving/departing Paine Grande 30 mins later for the return trip to Pudeto) gives you stunning views of the Torres and is absolutely worth taking. If you do nothing else in the park, do this. Buses go between Pudeto and the Laguna Amarga park entrace, and well as to and from Puerto Natales.

...are not a hiker

Take the ferry from Paine Grande across Lago Pehoé (see above). If you want to see Glacier Grey, there's also a ferry run through Hotel Grey (~$100 USD round trip).

My friend Serena enjoying the views from the Lago Pehoé ferry.


There are three major lodging options in and around the park:

  1. Park-operated, hike-in, free campgrounds with limited services.
  2. Campgrounds that include refugios/lodges, some of which are associated with hotels or "glamping" options, on the trekking circuit.
  3. More traditional hotels off the trekking circuit.

All of the lodging options in the park that I am aware of have awesome views and either offer or can arrange sightseeing tours, guided hikes, horseback riding, and other excursions. The list below is pretty exhaustive, but there may be others out there (let me know if you find any!).

Options on the trekking circuit:

  • Hotel las Torres at Las Torres (the "start" of the circuit)
  • EcoCamp at Las Torres (my parents stayed here during their park visit and it was awesome, the views from the camp are incredible)

Domes at sunset at the Las Torres EcoCamp



Options off the trekking circuit:


...want to hike, but are not into hauling a pack or not keen on sleeping in tents

You're in luck! The network of lodges, refugios, restaurants, shops, and tents-for-rent already set up at the campgrounds in the park mean that you don't actually have to carry a pack (except for stuff like water, snacks, and your sunscreen and rain gear) if you don't want to.

If you want to sleep in refugios, lodges, or domes, you're limited to the W. If you're willing to sleep in a tent, you can do the full O with a porter.

Many trekking excursions organized through agencies in Puerto Natales or run through lodges or vendors in the park also include porters who carry most of your gear for you (ask). The company my parents used during their stay in Torres del Paine was Eco Camp Patagonia which offers everything from full circuit treks with porters to stays at their beautiful and unique dome village with day excursions to park highlights. Not cheap, but the staff is excellent and the setting of the camp really couldn't be any better. A list of other lodges is above. The two main vendors in the park are Vertice Patagonia and Fantastico Sur, which also offer guided tours.

What? This doesn't look like fun?

...are totally down with carrying a pack--this is trekking after all

Do the W if you are short on time (my group did it in 3 days, Lonely Planet recommends 4-5), the full O circuit if you have plenty (Lonely Planet recommends 7-10 days, but if you like long days you can do it in 5). When planning, add in at least two half days for transport to and from the trail from Puerto Natales.

There are two places to start:

  1. From Las Torres (take a bus from Puerto Natales to the Laguna Amarga ranger station from which point there are little transfer shuttles to Las Torres)
  2. From Paine Grande (take a bus from Puerto Natales to the Lago Pehoé ferry terminal, then take the ferry to Paine Grande)
Both treks can be done in either direction. There are arguments as to which way is best. For the W, I don't think it matters. For the O, the major difference is that you'll either be hiking up the extremely steep W side of Paso John Gardner with the glacial views to your back, or sliding down it with the views the whole time. Most people prefer the slip-and-slide with the glacier views. To avoid too much "I got used to hiking alone and what the hell is up with all these people now?" shock, do the W part of the trek first (I would recommend starting at Paine Grande and going counterclockwise).


Camping is only permitted in designated campsites, so plan ahead knowing your reasonable hiking limits. There are several free CONAF campgrounds, and if you are willing to hike long hours you could almost do the whole circuit staying only in free sites: Paine Grande (arrive and start hike same day) -> Campamento Italiano -> French Valley and back to Italiano -> Campamento Torres -> Refugio Dickson (not free) -> Campamento Paso -> out via Paine Grande.

The CONAF campgrounds do not require (and most do not take) reservations, just show up, they won't turn you away. Reservations can be made at the other sites, but they are not necessary if you are hauling your own tent. All have water and pit or composting toilets.

Bring plenty of cash in pesos in case you don't make your free campsite and need to camp in a pay site. And bring plenty of cash in pesos to buy yourself beer ($2000 pesos/can of Austral) at the refugios when you pass them. There are no fires allowed in the parks and cooking stoves may only be used in designated campsite spots.

Stressing out about how to pack for your trek? Check out my "How to Pack for a Trek to the End of the World" post, keeping in mind that Torres is so well-supported that you won't need a lot of things listed.

Drinking a bottle of wine that my friend Anneke surprised me with
alone in my tent on my 30th birthday in the middle of a rainstorm.
Special times.

...want a true wilderness experience

Go somewhere else. Torres del Paine is spectacular, but a zoo of humans. There's a lot of truly wild land in this part of the world. Get dropped off somewhere remote and enjoy knowing there are no other people as far as you can see, like I did when I wandered south of the Dientes del Navarino circuit on Isla Navarino.

Not another human in all this view. In stark contrast to busy Torres del Paine, where I didn't go a day without seeing at least 30-some people (and that was in the "quiet" backside...on the W it was more like hundreds).

...are a geobiology nerd (like me!)

There are microbial mats and microbialites (including some huge thrombolites) on the shores of Laguna Amarga and Lago Sarmiento. Pretty much the coolest shit I'd ever seen.

Me, pawing a lovely thrombolite on the shore of Lago Sarmiento

The campgrounds (in clockwise order from Torres)

Prices are for a tent site, per person, in Chilean pesos at the time of writing (December 2013).

There are two types of campgrounds:

  1. Free CONAF campgrounds. These campgrounds have limited services, but always have some sort of toilet facility (either flush, composting, or pit), water, and a ranger watching over everything.
  2. Pay campgrounds run by either Fantastico Sur (F) or Vertice Patagonia (V). All pay campsites have toilets, showers, and rental equipment/mini-stores (e.g. sleeping mats, sleeping bags, tents, fuel, stoves, beer...), and refugios/lodges where you can rent a bed (with or without sheets/blankets), pay for meals (which you may need to reserve in advance, full board runs around $50 USD) unless otherwise noted.

For refugio and lodge reservations and prices (which run about $50 USD pp/night and up without board, full board is an additional ~$50+ USD), contact Fantastico Sur (F) and Vertice Patagonia (V).

Note that campgrounds (particularly the CONAF campgrounds) may close without notice. Inform yourself when you enter the park and plan accordingly. Be prepared (with energy, time, and cash) to go to the next or return to one you just passed in case you find one closed. Camping outside open campgrounds is forbidden, and you can be fined or even imprisoned for not following park rules.

A friendly Zorro wandering through the edge of one campsite.


The first ten campgrounds are on the W trek. Prices listed are for tent sites.

  1. Las Torres (F) - Refugio and pay campground ($6000 pesos/person/night for tent site) with showers, flush toilets, and awesome views. There are also hotel and lodge options here (Hotel Las Torres), and the EcoCamp that my parents stayed at that is like staying in a hobbit village and absolutely charmed my pants off...not literally, I behaved and kept my pants on except in the privacy of my tent, but I was thoroughly charmed.
  2. Campamento Chileno (F) - Pay campground ($6000 pesos) with a restaurant on the side of a creek on the way to Base de las Torres. If you don't need restaurant access, continue up the hill to Campamento Torres.
  3. Campamento Torres - Free CONAF campground in the woods with running water/toilets. Best place to camp if you want to watch the sunrise at Base de las Torres.
  4. Campamento Japonés - You need special permits to go here, base camp for climbers. The normal "W" route does not go this far.
  5. Los Cuernos (F) - Pay campground ($8000 pesos) with a restaurant, refugio, and dome/lodge options.
  6. Valle Francés (F) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) with toilets and showers, no cooking or rent-a-tent facilities yet, check if open.
  7. Campamento Italiano - Free CONAF campground in the woods with composting toilets and a stream for water.
  8. Campamento Británico - Free CONAF campground that was closed when I did the trek.
  9. Paine Grande (V) - Pay campground ($4800 pesos) with flush toilets, showers, a cooking gazebo with stoves, and breathtaking views. The campground can get very windy. The Paine Grande lodge has a restaurant, bar, internet cabins, refugio, and lodge in a beautiful spot at the shore of Lago Pehoé. The Lago Pehoé ferry leaves from here at 9:30 am, 12:30 pm, and 6:30 pm. Don't miss happy hour at the bar from 5-7 pm (2-for-1 $3500 peso pisco sours when I was there).
  10. Refugio Grey (V) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) with a restaurant, refugio, showers, etc. in a field not far from views of Glacier Grey.
The campground at Paine Grande (Lago Pehoé)




The rest of the sites are on the "backside" on the "O" route, continuing in the clockwise direction from Refugio Grey:
  1. Campamento Paso - Free CONAF campground in the woods with pit toilets and creek water. The steep and windy Paso John Gardner is between this campground and Campamento Los Perros.
  2. Campamento Los Perros (V) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) in the woods with a little store and refugio, close to the Mirador for the Los Perros glacier.
  3. Refugio Dickson (V) - Pay campground ($4000 pesos) with a little store, showers, and refugio in a breathtaking spot with views of the glacier at the end of Lago Dickson.
  4. Campamento Serón (F) - Pay campground ($6000 pesos) in a field with a little store and refugio.

Refugio Dickson. The views were...umm..."pretty baller".


Miscellaneous information about the park

There are streams practically everywhere and at the time this was written, the water was safe to drink, so you do not need to bring filtration or treatment equipment or a huge water bladder--a 1L (or even 0.5L) bottle that you refill along the way is plenty.

There are refugios and lodges dotting the trail that sell food and basic equipment like gas canisters and beer. So if you have cash to burn, you can save yourself some pack weight.

The weather can change rapidly (be prepared for rain) and the winds get very strong (two of the members of my hiking party--myself included--had their ponchos shredded in a rainstorm with heavy winds...so don't count on ponchos to save you; I also lost my pack cover to a sudden, strong gust). The sun, when out, can be intense. Come prepared with layers, rain gear, sunscreen, and good sunglasses to protect your eyes.

This should go without saying, but bring a camera. It's only, like, the most beautiful place on Earth.

Carry cash in pesos. Some of the lodges (e.g. Paine Grande and Hotel Torres) accept credit cards or USD, but the refugios and campsites do not. Wouldn't you be sad if you spent all day while hiking in the rain dreaming of a lukewarm beer at the end of your hike only to realize you were a few pesos short? That is the stuff my nightmares are made of.

Throwing together all of our change to try to
buy beers at Paine Grande.


Resources

In addition to lodging, Erratic Rock Hostel in Puerto Natales offers daily park talks at 3 pm (open to all), gear rentals, guide services, etc. as well as an excellent website full of info to help you plan your trip to the park. They also have a pub. Check them out.

Another website with lots of information about the park is TorresdelPaine.com

The Wikitravel page has fairly up-to-date info.


Got additional tips or corrections? Please post them!