Preparing for the Torres del Paine trek

Guanaco in Torres del PaineGuanaco in front of the Torres del Paine

‘O’ Circuit Key Facts

Location: Patagonia, Chile
Distance: 110 km
Days: 9
Camping: Basic campsites
Difficulty: 3/5
Map: Torres del Paine Trekking Map

This is post 1 of 6 about hiking in Torres del Paine, completing a combination of the ‘W’ circuit and the full ‘O’ circuit in December and January.

 

Getting to Torres del Paine

Navimag ferry

Cruising home on the Navimag ferry from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt

Puerto Natales is the most common way to access Torres del Paine. From there regular buses drive to the park entrance at Laguna Amarga, taking about 2 hours. Puerto Natales is a good place to stock up on supplies for the trip. Food and fuel, plus other camping equipment, can be found here – but none of it is cheap. To get to Puerto Natales many tourists fly to Punta Arenas and then catch a bus.

A good option for leaving Puerto Natales is the Navimag ferry which runs from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt several times a week. I found this a great way to relax after completing the hike – three good meals served every day, and else little to do except sleep, wander the deck, and admire the view. I would recommend a private cabin rather than a share ‘dorm’ though – on the ferry I took, the ‘dorms’ were basically just beds in the corridors, with curtains to offer a minimal level of privacy. From Puerto Montt a quick flight can be caught back to Santiago.

Itinerary

I never like to leave areas unexplored on a trip, so my itinerary was based on combining the ‘W’ and ‘O’ circuits into one long hike. I decided to visit the towers first because that would allow me a second chance to visit them at the end of the hike if the weather let me down the first time.

  • Day 1: Las Torres hotel to Campamento Torres and mirador (7.9 km)
  • Day 2: Campamento Torres to Valle del Silencio, return to Las Torres hotel campsite (15.4 km)
  • Day 3: Las Torres campsite to Seron (13.8 km)
  • Day 4: Seron to Dickson (17.8 km)
  • Day 5: Dickson to Los Perros (11.3 km)
  • Day 6: Los Perros, over John Gardner Pass, past El Paso campsite to Las Guardas campsite (10.7 km)
  • Day 7: Las Guardas campsite to Paine Grande campsite (13.5 km)
  • Day 8: Paine Grande campsite, via French valley, to Los Cuernos campsite (13.6 km)
  • Day 9: Los Cuernos campsite to Las Torres campsite (11.0 km)

This itinerary worked quite well for me. One small change I would make if I were to complete the trek again: I would pitch my tent at Las Torres on the first day and set off early up the Valle Ascencio with just a day pack, then return down the same day. With the reduced weight I think this would still give me time to explore the Valle del Silencio.

The other change I would make would be trying to skip out Los Cuernos campsite, although the distances involved mean this could be quite difficult.

Campsites

Camping at Las Guardas, Torres del Paine

Camping at Las Guardas

There are several other campsites reported on various sites: some of these I saw but decided to skip (e.g. El Paso just after the Paso John Gardner, and Italiano at the head of the French valley), while others I never saw any evidence of (e.g. a supposed campsite between Seron and Dickson, somewhat closer to Seron). In more recent reports I have also noticed that Las Guardas is ommitted, so it may be possible that this campsite is now closed (temporarily or permanently). Wild camping is strictly prohibited in the park, and given the recent wild fires caused by irresponsible hikers, it is reasonable to suspect that violating this rule could lead to serious penalties.

Most of the campsites I stayed in charged a fee: Las Torres, Seron, Dickson, Los Perros, Paine Grande/Lago Pehoe, and Los Cuernos. Las Guardas was free. Of the campsites, those in the back country (Seron, Dickson, Los Perros, Las Guardas) tend to be more laid back and I found their environment more pleasant. They all have basic facilities (bathroom).

Of the campsites on the ‘W’ circuit, Las Torres was the most pleasant with a nice grassy area to pitch a tent and plenty of room and privacy. Paine Grande was extremely crowded, and I only just found a place for my tent (there are small grassy areas between the low bushes). Paine Grande does have proper bathroom and even shower facilities. The Los Cuernos campsite felt like it had been an afterthought, squashed in close to the hotel building with gravel pitches for tents. It was very windy and very dusty – if I did the Torres del Paine trek again I would skip this and push on further.

I skipped El Paso because it looked very busy and being right next to the lake I guessed it would be very cold. Similarly Italiano didn’t look pleasant to me – lots of people were there even during the day and the pitches were all in the mud and dirt.

Hotels

There are refugios (hotels basically) at several key points on the ‘W’ trek, including Hotel Las Torres, Los Cuernos, Refugio Paine Grande, and Refugio Grey. They apparently need to be booked a long time in advance. I camped all nine nights so did not use any of the refugios.

Challenges

The Torres del Paine trek is not extremely physically demanding. However, the combination of length, pack weight, and cold do cause some issues:

  • Temperatures can get very low during the night. I took my sleeping bag rated to -20 and found it perfect
  • Rain, and snow can be expected at any time. Good, reliable waterproof clothing and a set of spare dry clothes are essential
  • The areas marked on the Torres del Paine map are extremely windy. In two occasions: once on the way down the Valle Ascencio and once on the walk to Los Cuernos I had to stop and sit down because the wind was blowing me off my feet and pulling my rucksack around in front of me. Extra care really does need taking in these areas.
  • Water in the park is supposed to be safe to drink, as much of it originates in the high glaciers. I drank it straight from streams in the back country and the Valle del Silencio (where I could literally see the glacier feeding the stream). In the busier ‘W’ section I used the SteriPen to sterialize the water, just in case.

Torres del Paine Maps and Navigation

Experience Chile have produced an excellent scalable PDF map of Torres del Paine with all trails, peaks and campsites detailed. It is not topographical, but I strongly suggest you check it out for planning the hike. The Torres del Paine Waterproof Trekking Map is available online (US | UK) and provides more topographical detail, so is better suited for carrying on the hike itself.

Torres del Paine map

The free map supplied on entrance to the national park (click for larger version)

Feeling prepared? Read the next post, about starting the hike with the climb to the famous Torres del Paine towers.

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