Torres del Paine National Park: The Complete Guide

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Torres del Paine National Park

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Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica, Chile

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (Torres del Paine National Park) stretches 598,593 acres across the Chilean Patagonia landscape of horn-shaped mountains, glacial lakes, and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Hikers from around the world trek the W and O, crossing paths with pumas, condors, and guanacos. Founded in the 1950s and now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it’s managed by the National Forest Organization of Chile (CONAF), and named for its three prominent granite torres (towers). The paine portion of its name translates to “blue” in the indigenous language of the park’s first residents, the Aonikenks, or Tehuelches, the nomadic people also called “Patagones” for whom all of Patagonia was named.

Located in the province of Última Esperanza, it's one of the largest and most famous of Chile’s national parks. For this reason, the peak season of December through March sees heavy foot traffic on the main trails, and those wanting less crowded routes should come in the shoulder months of November and April. If hiking the famous treks, book lodging and accommodation in advance, as you must show proof of a booked campsite or "refugio" (mountain hut), to access certain parts of the multi-day treks.

Things to Do

Hiking the the W and O treks at Torres del Paine are the star activities, but the park’s iceberg filled lakes, flowering fields, and evergreen forests lend themselves to plenty of other worthwhile activities that don’t involve strapping on a pack and woofing it for miles. Kayak past icebergs in Lake Grey to the face of Grey Glacier or paddle and wild camp on a multi-day trip down the Serrano River. Various groups offer ice hiking on Grey Glacier (with no prior glacier walking experience necessary), and those who would rather see the glacier on a 3-hour tour from the comfort of a catamaran, with a pisco sour in hand, can book a spot on the Grey III.

This area has a long history of ranches and sheep farms, some of which have become estancias, offering stays and horseback excursions. Not only can you see some of the same stunning views of the Paine Massif via horseback as you would hiking, your hosts will most likely prepare an asado (barbecue), and might even give you a sheep shearing show.

Other activities include mountain biking along the Laguna Azul and Cañon de Perros trails, rock climbing, and fly fishing. While rock climbing and fishing can be done independently, both require permits. The rock climbing permit must be applied for several days before in Santiago at the Dirección de Fronteras y Límites, or you can pay a company, like Antares, to obtain the permits for you. To avoid the hassle, book a guided rock climbing trip.

Best Hikes & Trails

While the W and the O are the most popular treks in the park, Torres del Paine contains more than 50 hikes. Varying in length from under an hour to more than 9 days, you’ll be able to choose one to fit your time frame, budget, and endurance with a little planning in advance.
See a map with estimated hiking times here.

  • The W: The W, the most famous trek of Torres del Paine, zigzags for 50 miles past the Torres, Grey Glacier, and Frances Valley. Starting at Refugio Las Torres and ending at Refugio Paine Grande, it takes 3 to 5 days to complete. Rated as hard, it is both rewarding and highly congested in peak season.
  • The O: Covering the same ground as the W and then some, the O's known as “The Circuit," as it takes trekkers in a giant counterclockwise loop around the Cordillera del Paine. A trail of 68 miles usually trekked in 6 to 9 days, it’s harder than the W, but far less crowded. The start and end point can be at the Laguna Amarga ranger station or Refugio Lago Pehoe.
  • The Q: The same route as the O but with an additional leg between the Serano Visitors Center and Refugio Paine Grande. Covering a distance of 95 miles, expect to spend 8 to 9 days on the trail. Also rated as hard, it sees even less traffic than the O.
  • Mirador Cuernos: An easy hike of 2 to 3 hours, Mirador Cuernos is like a tasting platter of what the park has to offer: lakes, mountains, valley, waterfalls, and rivers. Lake Nordenskjöld and the French Valley are two of the highlights on the nearly 4 mile-long out and back trail. Begin and end at the Pudeto ferry station.

Where to Camp

Torres del Paine has three types of campsites: refugio, free, and wild. Most campsites open from mid-October to mid-March, though some have shorter seasons starting in November.

  • Refugio Campsites: Located around the park’s refugios, these are the most comfortable camping option, as the cost of renting them includes a tent, insulated sleeping bag, and meals prepared by the staff. The camping fee includes use of the toilets, showers, and kitchen. You can also pay extra and stay in one of the dorm beds of the refugio itself. Some of the refugios are: Las Torres, Chileno, Cuernos, Paine Grande, Grey, Dickson, Seron, and Camp Pehoe. Reserve your spot via Fantastico Sur, Vertice Patagonia, or through the park’s official website.
  • Free Camping: Managed by CONAF, these sites are more basic than the refugio campsites and have a one-night camping limit. They do not rent tents or sleeping bags. A cooking hut and long-drop toilets are among the few amenities offered. Book in Puerto Natales at the CONAF office or in the park at the Laguana Amarga entrance or the Campamento Italiano. They have an online booking system, but it is not always functional. Campsites managed by CONAF are: Campamento Italiano, Campamento Paso, Campamento Británico, Campamento Torres, and Camping Guardas.
  • Wild Camping: You must make a reservation to wild camp. They have no amenities, limited pitching areas, and require a guide to reach. Wild campsites include: Japones, Pingo, Bader climbers camp, and Zapata. The easiest way to go is to hop on a multi-day trek with a tour company like Ditmarr Adventures or Swoop Patagonia.

Where to Stay Nearby

Torres del Paine has standard hotels, estancias (traditional ranches), luxury hotels, and glamping in and around the park. All serve as comfortable bases for short day hikes, puma trekking, and horseback riding in the park. If you drive, you’ll have even more options, as some of the lodgings are fairly far flung.

  • Hotel Lago Grey: Open year-round with a prime spot on Lake Grey, this mid-range hotel’s floor-to-ceiling windows offer views of Grey Glacier. Icebergs float by the onsite bar and restaurant, and nearby a ferry goes to the glacier itself. All rooms have central heating, WIFI, and satellite TVs.
  • Estancia Tercera Barranca: This family-run estancia just outside of the park limits in Laguna Azul offers seven simple rooms in a converted farmhouse. Some rooms have private bathrooms, and all have heating. Horseback riding excursions and activities sheep farming are the main activities.
  • Tierra Patagonia: Hot tub next to Lake Sarmiento, or get a body wrap after a long day of hiking at this sustainable luxury hotel, located just east of Torres del Paine. Suites, superior, and standard rooms have large windows, central heating, and deep-soaking bathtubs. The onsite restaurant prepares classic Patagonian stews with meat sourced from surrounding estancias, while the bar makes signature cocktails like the Calafate Sour.

How to Get There

The closest town to Torres del Paine is Puerto Natales. From November to February, two buses run daily, departing at 7:30 a.m. and 2:30 pm. They take 8 to 9 hours to reach the Laguna Amarga park entrance. Flying is the most direct way to get to Puerto Natales from Santiago, but flights only run from November to March. Outside of that time frame, you can fly to Punta Arenas, then take a bus.

Another option is renting a car and driving from Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales via Route 9 to the Sarmiento and Laguna Amarga park entrance. From Puerto Natales, you can also drive Route Y-290 to the Serrano park entrance. If coming from Argentina, taking a bus, flying, or driving from El Calafate is possible. Hitchhiking from there is yet another option, though there’s more traffic going from Puerto Nateles to El Calafate than the other way round.

Accessibility

The first person in a wheelchair to complete the W trek did so in 2016. The same team who accomplished this began the inclusive travel company Wheel the World. The W can only be accessed with a Joëlette wheelchair. If you do not have one, you can use the one left at EcoCamp Patagonia by the original trailblazing team. Use of the chair is free, even if you are aren’t a guest at EcoCamp. Booking before is required, as well as having volunteers who have been trained to support hiking in a Joëlette.

In 2018, a group of 20 people with various forms of disabilities, including vision, hearing, and cognitive challenges completed the O circuit, the first group of its kind to do so. While strides towards inclusive tourism in the park have been made, those with hearing and visual impairment will still most likely need a guide to access it trails.

Tips for Your Visit

  • A park entrance fee of $47 is required for all foreign visitors.
  • Take out or exchange money in Puerto Natales, as there are no ATMs or money changers in Torres del Paine.
  • Pets are not allowed in the park.
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Torres del Paine National Park: The Complete Guide