The Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia is located 280 km north of Punta Arenas, the largest city south of the 46th parallel and about 1,960 km south of the capital, Santiago de Chile. The park, run by CONAF (a state agency) and declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978, is named after three of its most iconic and spectacular summits, gigantic granite monoliths carved by ice, ‘paine’ being an indigenous word for ‘blue’. The central tower (2800m) was first scaled in 1963 by British climbers, Chris Bonington and Don Whillans.
A 1:50.000/1:100.000 map (3rd edition, 2013) of the park showing all the trails with approximate times and distances can be obtained from TREKKINGCHILE.COM which proved to be very useful. Cicerone also publish a book on trekking in the Torres del Paine and we found a Kindle version downloaded to a smart phone to be valuable. However, we still found it difficult to obtain good quality information in English about the logistics, timetables and prices of trekking in the park, so here we provide a full description to help fellow MVers who might wish to visit.
You need to factor in plenty of time to get to Torres del Paine, which is a long way from anywhere. Getting there from inside Chile typically involves a flight to Punta Arenas (from Santiago de Chile) and then catching a 3 hour bus ride to the town of Puerto Natales. It is also possible to make the journey to Puerto Natales overland from El Calafate in Argentinean Patagonia. We decided against this as, unbelievably, it was cheaper to fly cross border to Punta Arenas than to fly inside Argentina to El Calafate from Buenos Aires. Bus tickets, which are very reasonably priced, can be purchased relatively easily once in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales (there are a wide choice of companies plying the routes; our B&B arranged tickets for us at no additional charge). The new bus station on the outskirts of Puerto Natales is the hub for the 90 minute journey to the park entrance.
Both towns are well stocked with excellent climbing shops where it is possible to buy all the leading brands of clothing and equipment as well as vital supplies such as freeze dried food and camping gas. Additional supplies can be bought in a local supermarket. Several companies actually hire out camping gear if you don’t have your own. We opted to camp and carried about 24 kilos comfortably between us in Osprey 65 and 70 litre rucksacks, including our über-lightweight (1.5kg) 2-man Terra Nova tent, down sleeping bags, insulated sleeping mats and enough food for 3-4 days. The water is apparently safe to drink from streams, but we used a Steripen to be on the safe side. Several refugios owned and operated by either Fantastico Sur or Vertice (book online at www.fantasticosur.com/en/ or www.verticepatagonia.com) are found within the park where hot meals or a welcome beer or bottle of wine can be purchased, but expect a hefty bill! Indeed, staying at the refugios will set you back 60-70 euro per person full board (with a bed and sleeping bag provided), whereas camping (CONAF sites are free), costs a maximum of around 7 euro per person. Park rules are strictly enforced and include not feeding animals, staying on the trails at all times, not lighting fires anywhere and only using a gas stove in designated cooking areas in official campsites (no wild camping is permitted). Camping not only reduces the price but also maximises the time, as some refugios are not in optimum locations.
We opted to tackle the ‘W’ route (west to east), so called due to its physical shape (there is another longer, circular route called the ‘O’ that takes around 9-10 days to complete). The ‘W’ is just shy of 80 km and can be trekked in three and a half days by the fittest and most experienced hikers, or extended to 5 days plus if you want a more leisurely experience. The trails are fairly rough underfoot, but should pose no problems to hardened Irish hillwalkers, and pass through terrain that varies from open grassland, exposed mountain slopes, to quiet shady woods. Besides the occasional boardwalk over boggy sections and bridges spanning rivers that are tricky to cross when in spate, the paths are not engineered at all, providing a wilderness feel. Expect mud, boulder fields, loose scree, rocky river beds, and rock outcrops that are slippery when wet. The trekking season lasts from late spring (October) through summer to early autumn (April) - our winter in the northern hemisphere, with the busiest time being December to January when the most popular trails can get quite busy. The weather is notoriously unpredictable and can border on extreme, especially due to the ferociously high winds which can make temperatures feel sub-zero. Just like here in Ireland, it is not unusual to experience 4 seasons in one day! Full waterproof gear, sturdy Gore-tex boots, woollen base layers, a fleece and/or primaloft pull-on, warm gloves and a hat are therefore essential.
At the park entrance at Laguna Amarga you pay the park entrance fee (about 25 euro for foreigners: make sure you have your passport with you). Here you watch an introductory CONAF film about the park and its myriad regulations and receive a visitors’ card which must be kept on you at all times and stamped by park rangers when starting each trail. If doing the ‘W’ west to east, a shuttle bus runs to the Pudeto catamaran dock (the Hielos Patagónicos leaves twice daily; a single ticket, bought onboard, costs about 17 euro). The 45 minute scenic journey across Lago Pehoé takes you to the Lodge de Montaña Paine Grande, which has a good campsite with hot showers and flush loos (paper supplied), indoor cooking and eating facilities (with gas hob) and a small shop. There is a well stocked bar inside the lodge! As we arrived late in the afternoon, we camped here for 2 nights, hiking up to see Glaciar Grey the next day, a route that is exposed in places and very prone to high winds. One benefit of this is that you can leave all your gear (lockers are provided for valuables, but remember to bring along your own lock!!!), and just carry a small day sack for the 25 km round trip. It is possible to stay overnight at Refugio Grey or its campsite if you want to spend more time at the glacier where there are a range of activities on offer. Food and drinks are available at the refugio for non-guests. The trail rises a gentle 175 metres to the Glaciar Grey viewpoint where you might be lucky enough to see the glacier calve huge splinters of ice into the lake, backlit by the immense Southern Ice Field.
Day two took us along a fairly flat trail rising to only 170 metres, past the shores of Lago Pehoé and Lago Skottsberg and across a suspension bridge to Campamento Italiano (no fee for camping), a distance of 7.5 km. You should be able to hike this comfortably in a couple of hours. The toilets and cooking facilities at Campamento Italiano leave much to be desired, but the location of the site is beautiful in a wood above a raging river where we took water that had come straight from Glacier Francés up the valley. Remember the DEET, as midges are a nuisance here. After setting up our tent and eating lunch, we hiked the 5.5 km trial up the Valle del Francés to the scenic viewpoint above Campo Británico (where Bonnington and Whillans made camp). The gradient is fairly steep in sections and the trail which ascends 800 metres up into the ribs of the Paine Massif is pretty rough, but the scenery is majestic. Massive hanging glaciers are set into vast swathes of granite, the remnants of a solidified magma chamber pushed up to the earth’s surface millions of years ago. Every so often a loud crack followed by a deep rumbling and a strident hiss reverberated around the valley, as great slabs of ice crashed down from the glaciers.
Day three is the longest section of the ‘W’ if you trek all the way to Campamento Torres like we did, a distance of over 23 km carrying all your gear, which took around 11 hours with stops. The scenery is jaw droppingly beautiful along this section of undulating trail. The deep green of the beech leaves and the flaming red blossom of the Chilean Firebush trees added a splash of surreal vibrancy, contrasting startlingly with the deep turquoise water of Lago Nordenskjöld which has something of a Mediterranean feel to it. We enjoyed wandering along the shore of a pebbly beach with a refreshing breeze in our faces before arriving at Refugio Los Cuernos (named for the ‘horn’ like rock formations of the snow covered mountains behind). This is probably the most attractively set and pretty of all of the refugios and campsites where you can stock up on high carb snacks and water if necessary, as it’s the last stop for well over 15 km. After a further 11 km hiking, a 4.2 km shortcut takes you across an exposed grassy mountainside to the pass above the Río Ascencio. From here the trail undulates down the valley to Refugio Chilenos, passing across a very exposed scree slope where caution must be exercised in high winds. After refuelling on beer and (very expensive) pizza at the refugio, we hiked the final 3.2 km trial which ascends to about 600 metres through delightful lenga forests to Campamento Torres (a free site).
This is base camp for the very steep 45 minute final climb up through beech forests and then a boulder field of moraine and the somewhat perilous Paso del Vientos (Pass of the Winds) where you have to traverse a windy cliff, to reach the most famous viewpoint in the park. We intended to tackle this pre-dawn in the hope of a memorable sunrise over Torre d’Agonsti (2850 metres), also known as Torre Sur, Torre Central (2800m) and Torre Norte (2600m), also referred to as Torre Monzino, which, in the right conditions, glow blood red or rosy pink. It was absolutely freezing as we left the warmth of our sleeping bags and began the ascent in the dark. When we arrived at the viewpoint, snow began to fall from a capricious grey sky that completely swallowed the view of the towers perched high above a green glacial lake. Then, as the sun rose, the churning cloud turned a faint rose pink. The towers mysteriously took shape in the greyness, only to disappear moments later, and then to reemerge, mirage-like. This kaleidoscopic display was both magnificent and memorable.
Returning to the campsite and breaking camp, we retraced our route past Refugio Chilenos to the top of the pass, then, allowing gravity to help, moved as quickly as possible down the 4-5 km section to spare our knees, towards Hotel Las Torres. Here, a bus leaves at 2.00 pm for the Laguna Amarga entrance to allow you to catch the 2.30 bus back to Puerto Natales. Allow yourself time to satiate your thirst and celebrate completing the ‘Big W’ with some fine Patagonian beers in the tastefully decorated bar of this old ranch turned luxury hotel. We were very lucky with the weather, with a half day of light rain when hiking up the Grey Valley, no really high wind, a fleeting snow flurry at the towers which added to the atmosphere, and lots of sunshine on all days. In all, a very worthwhile hike at the far end of the world and one we would heartily recommend to fellow MVers seeking a bit of adventure.