During our initially planning for our hike on the W in Torres del Paine, I spent hours sifting through material about the park, the hike, gear lists etc. This post by World Travel for Couples was incredibly helpful for us and contains a whole wealth of information.
I was nervous because we aren’t generally big hikers and I wanted to make sure that we were totally prepared. I stressed about the route, and then I stressed when we realized we’d have to change the route. I stressed over what clothes to bring, what kinds of food we would need and how much food to bring. Now that it’s all said and done I can honestly say that I could have spent that time doing other, more productive things.
I had pictured the trail as a great wild wilderness, where we would be out on our own, miles from nowhere, reliant on only ourselves for survival. While the park is a great wilderness to some extent, it’s also incredibly heavily travelled. Puerto Natales, where you will stay to base yourself and leave most of your regular travel gear, has built a huge industry around supplying trekkers for this area. You can buy or rent everything, and I mean EVERYTHING you need in this town. If you do forget something, the refugios along the way have everything you might need, for a higher price of course.
There is no chance of getting lost, the trail is like a backpackers super-highway, and while there were plenty of times when we were alone, there was always someone just a few minutes behind. The trails are very clearly marked with signs telling you where you are, and often, how far you have to the next stop.
The refugios that you will come across on the ‘W’ portion of the trek have bathrooms with flushing toilets. Inside they have hot water available for you to use for free. If it’s cold and raining you can sit in the dining area next to a fire and play cards, or buy boxes of wine and warm meals. Occasionally you can find an open electric socket to charge a camera battery.
By the time this post goes up the free sites with the pit toilets will be open for use, and those will provide a considerable amount more of the “wilderness” feeling, but we hear that they too can get really crowded during high season so you’ll never really have to worry if you run out of toilet paper or need an extra package of crackers.
If you want to undertake the 10-day trek you will need more careful planning as the back half of the circuit lacks the amenities of the ‘W’, but as a novice, the ‘W’ circuit is challenging enough to make you proud of yourself, but not so wild as to require any knowledge of how to tie your food up into the trees or start a fire with nothing but a piece of flint and some dried grass. In fact, you can even decide to just trek with the clothes you need since you can buy full meals from refugios, and if you arrange it in advance, you can rent tents and sleeping bags at specific campsites so you don’t have to carry your own. One woman we trekked with decided her sleeping bag wasn’t warm enough for her, so for the second and third nights she rented one from the campsites we were at and returned it in the morning. If you really feel like blowing some cash, you can even sleep in dorm rooms inside the refugios.
At the end of the day, what it all boils down to is this – if we can do it, you can do it.
Here are my personal top bits of advice if you are planning a trip to the park:
* Even if you don’t stay at the Erratic Rock, you MUST attend their daily ‘3 o’clock talk’. It is chalk full of info, in English. If covers what to bring, routes to take, where to buy any food or gear supplies you need, and generally what to expect regarding trail conditions in the moment. These guys are experts, they spend a lot of time in the park and they know what they are talking about. You can rent all the gear you need from them (or a variety of other places in town).
* Bring, or rent hiking poles. I have never in my life hiked with poles, but I swear, with a huge pack on your back they will save your knees on the down-hills and help you balance if you get hit with giant gusts of wind. They also really help distribute the weight going uphill…”4 legs good, 2 legs baaaad.”
* Think about what will fuel your body. We met some guys who, I kid you not, brought 4 loaves of white bread, a huge jar of dulce de leche, and a bottle of whiskey for their 4 day hike. Yeah, they survived, but still…give your body something to work with. We found it easier to deal with mealtimes once we portioned our food out per meal ahead of time. We had a huge ziplock bag for each day, and inside was all our food for that day – oatmeal with chocolate and raisins for breakfast. Trail mix, chocolate, granola bars and dried fruits for snacking while hiking. Noodles or rice and meat sauce in foil bags for dinner. We also had some random cheese, sausage, and apples that we ate along the way.
* Speaking of fuel, if you plan to stay at the pay campsites, you don’t need to buy a whole new canister of fuel for your campstove. Simply root around the “almost empty” bin at the Erratic Rock and pick out a canister or two that feel about half full. You can use the already near-boiling water supplied by the refugios to get you started and you’ll end up using very little gas.
* You only need one Nalgene bottle. The water from the streams really is drinkable. Growing up in Colorado I was instilled with a healthy fear of getting Giardia from drinking mountain stream water. Well, I swear, it doesn’t exist in Torres del Paine. All the water you encounter is fresh, cold, and perfectly healthy to drink.
* Bring two sets of clothes – one to hike in, one to sleep in. When you take your hiking clothes off, hang them outside for a while if you can because, well, they stink. Does it suck to wear stinky, dirty, damp clothing for four days in a row? Not gonna lie here, it totally sucks at first, but once you get moving in the morning you just forget about it. That shower on the fourth day will feel like heaven.
* Blister band-aids. If your feet don’t thank you for these, I promise you’ll run across someone who will.
* Bring a spare camera battery. We met a few girls who only had one camera between them, and the battery had died. They were on their way up to the Torres and had no way to capture the moment. Super bummer.
* Go to the ‘3 o’clock talk’. I have to put it one more time because really, you’ll get all the info you need from them.
At the time of writing….
- To get to the park there are multiple busses that all leave from Puerto Natales and take you as far as the entrance to the park. Your hostel can probably sell you a ticket. They tend to leave twice a day – around 7am and 1 or 2 pm, and return from the park twice a day – around 1pm and 5pm. Cost – 12,000 – 14,000 per person, round trip ($25-30, depending on the company)
- Entrance to the park for foreigners is 15,000 Pesos, which is about $30 depending on the exchange rate.
- From the park entrance, you can walk, or take a shuttle for about $5 to the Hosteria Las Torres, which is where we started the trek. If you prefer to start at the other end of the W you’ll need to take a catamaran across the lake to Refugio Grey, which costs more. If you start where we started you will end up taking the catamaran back across the lake at the end. Check for current catamaran pricing, it’s not cheap.
- Camping in the park is free at some sites, but not at others. In January 2012 we paid 6,000 Pesos (about $13) per person for the Los Cuernos site, and 5,000 Pesos (about $11) per person for the Chileno site. Prices change though, so check out the website for each of the major refugios before you head out – Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia