Reaching the park from Punta Arenas, take public buses to Puerto Natales. Other buses leave Puerto Natales several times a day to Torres del Paine National Park.
Note that buses coming from Puerto Natales stop near the park boundary, where hikers must take shuttles to the two major trailheads. A boat shuttles hikers across Lago Pehoé to Paine Grande at the west end of The W route while vans shuttle hikers to and from Torres Central at the east end of The W.
Camping or refuges? Camping is the cheapest way to go. Many campgrounds are free, but some charge $8 a person while offering conveniences such as showers. Refuges offer shelter and food for those who want to hike the routes without heavy packs. Cost: About $80 a night. Reservations advised in peak summer period.
• The W – 46.5 miles. Hiking time: 28 hours or 4 to 6 days
Note: While we did The W in four days of hiking, we recommend taking at least five days (departing the park on the following day) to avoid a couple of long-mileage days.
• Circuit – 93 miles. Hiking time: 65 hours or 7-11 days
Distances and times for hiking between campgrounds and refuges along The W and the Circuit routes are as follows in counter-clockwise order starting from Paine Grande (my preference) and heading east.
• Paine Grande refuge and camp (fee charged) to Italiano Camp (free): 4.7 miles, 2.5 hours
Most hikers would also bag the “western prong” of The W while based out of Paine Grande. The round-trip distance from Paine Grande up Lago Grey to Grey Glacier is 7.5 miles.
• Italiano Camp to French Valley viewpoint: 3.4 miles, 3 hours
Note: Britannico Camp (free) is 2.8 miles uphill in the French Valley from Italiano Camp) Allow at least 5 hours for the 7-mile round trip from Italiano to the viewpoint and back on this “central prong” of The W.
• Italiano Camp to Los Cuernos, refuge and camp (fee charged): 3.4 miles, 2 hours
• Los Cuernos to Torres Central, hotel, hosteria and camp (fee charged): 6.8 miles, 4 hours
• Torres Central to Torres viewpoint: 4 miles, 4 hours (longer with backpacks)
Note: El Chileno, refuge and camp (fee charged) is 3.4 miles, mostly uphill, from Torres Central and Torres Camp (free) is another 1.6 miles uphill from Chileno. Allow at least six hours for the 8-mile round trip from Torres Central to the Torres viewpoint and back on this “eastern prong” of The W.
Hikers can leave the park from here by catching a shuttle at the Las Torres refuge to buses boarding at the park boundary for transportation to Puerto Natales.
Or, hikers can continue trekking the less traveled portion of the Circuit loop counterclockwise as follows.
• Torres Central to Séron Camp (free): 7.5 miles, 4 hours
• Séron Camp to Dickson refuge and camp (fee charged): 12 miles, 7 hours
• Dickson refuge and camp to Los Perros refuge and camp (fee charged): 5.6 miles, 4 hours
• Los Perros Camp to Paso Camp (free): 7.5 miles, 6 hours
• Paso Camp to Los Guardas Camp (free): 3.7 miles, 3 hours
• Los Guardas Camp to Refuge Grey and camp (fee charged): 2.5 miles, 2 hours
• Refuge Grey and camp to Paine Grande lodge and camp (fee charged): 6.8 miles, 3.5 hours
If you go
Guidebooks make great reference reading while traveling on airlines and buses and fill many gaps in info from Web sites. Two Lonely Planet books stand out:
• “Chile & Easter Island,” full of helpful tips for traveling, start to finish. Example: Bring $131 in U.S. currency for reciprocity payment at Chile customs. (Bring crisp, unworn bills to avoid hassles). Lonely Planet Web site offers updates.
• “Trekking in the Patagonian Andes” helped sort trekking options and logistics.
Web sites helpful for hikers heading to Torres del Paine include:
• Personal trip reports from various sites, such as www.virtualtourist.com, are helpful but sometimes iffy.
Refuges and private campsites in the park are operated by two concessionaires. Direct links are:
• Paine Grande and Lago Grey on The W and Dickson and Los Perros on the Circuit.
• Refuges and campsites at Las Torres, El Chileno and Los Cuernos on The W. Note: Chileno is the smallest campground on The W. Reservations recommended.
Logistics to consider
Plan for fees: Puerto Natales is last chance for ATM before heading into Torres del Paine. Personal expenses to consider: bus and shuttle fares (at least $25 total), park fee ($15), catamaran shuttle ($20), concession campgrounds ($8 per person).
Buy fuel (butane cartridges) for stoves and groceries in Puerto Natales, which has a good supermarket. We brought freeze-dried dinners from the USA to help expedite dinners, since we had five people sharing one Pocket Rocket stove. Worked great, since the food options are limited and heavy out of local supermarkets. Also, we found no equivalent to Clif bars in southern Chile. We brought our own.
Water is plentiful: Clean water is provided at concession campsites and pure water is easy to find up valleys off the lowland portions of The W. We used a SteriPEN purifier occasionally.
Wind-worthy tents are essential. Gusts can hit without warning in the middle of the night. Bring cord for every tent and rain fly tie-out. Campsites with any exposure are ringed by 10-pound rocks previous campers used to anchor tents in addition to tent pegs.
Camping solo or outside designated campsites is not allowed in Torres del Paine.
Trekking poles are a handy for handling the elevation gain/loss and stabilizing in the wind.