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Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine in southern Chile is the location of one of South America’s great hikes. Some would go so far as to call it the #1 hike in the world. The writers of this post combed through a number of books which dealt with the topic of “the world’s best hikes” and recorded the frequency with which various hikes were mentioned. According to their calculations, the Torres del Paine Circuit came out on top!
For some background information on how I got to the park, click here.
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The satellite map below outlines two of the possibilities for anyone drawn to dramatic granite spires, the massive glacial end of the Hiele Sur Icefield with El Glaciar Grey, and glacier-fed lakes. What visitors to Chile’s finest national park choose to do will depend on how much time, what sort of equipment and supplies, and how much interest they have.
For some visitors, a walk up the Valle Ascencio to view the Torres del Paine (as shown in the picture above) would be enough. They would have to get to the park entrance from Puerto Natales or El Calafate and then take the shuttle bus to the end of the road in front of the Hotel Las Torres. They could leave the bulk of their stuff at either the Refugio Torre Central (or the Hotel Las Torres, if money is not an issue (rates at the Hotel range from $290 to $540 a night during high season), Then they could do the hike up to the awesome granite towers. There is also another refugio (Chileno) on the way to the Torres where they could bed for the night. If they have tents and sleeping bags, there are tent spots by the Refugio Torre Central , at Refugio Chileno or at the base of the Torres. This visit would take two days.
Option #2- the W
Another option is the W Hike, called this because of the shape of the hike when you look at it on the map. See the satellite map above for a yellow W which looks like it has been scrawled by a drunken scribe and you get the idea! To do the W requires more time than the first option described. A good thing about the W is that it you do not need to have camping equipment; you can make use of refugios each night, as well as have supper and breakfast there. (Please note that TDP is not inexpensive!) There is no one way to do it- you could do the hike up to the Torres del Paine on the very first day when you arrive if the weather is good and then move on to Refugio Cuernos and the Valle Frances. Your last stop would be at Refugio Grey, from which you could catch a boat ride back Refugio Torre Central and transportation out of the park. The W could take four to six days, depending on how driven you are to get from place to place. You will be rewarded with most of the best of Torres del Paine Park.
Option #3- the Circuit
If you have lots of time- that is, a week to ten days- and are equipped to do some camping- i.e. tent, sleeping bag, enough food for at least four days, cook stove, etc- then maybe the Circuit is for you. It was the option I chose- and I am happy I did. It gave me four days of walking the less-travelled part of the park. Perhaps it appeals most to those who are obsessive about going all in when they do anything. A warning however- It could become a real adventure in a hurry if you walk into some nasty weather. If you take it on it is best to be prepared for the worst. Make sure you have the right gear, enough supplies, and an adequate fitness level. In the quieter back stretch of the trail, there will be few, if any, people around to bail you out. Between Refugio Dickson and Campsite Los Guardas, there is only the keeper of the Los Perros Campsite you can count on.
The reward- standing at the Gardner Pass and taking in the view below- was for me the high point of the circuit, along with walking up to the Torres themselves. The image below does not really convey the total “wow” of the moment!
Take a look here if you want to see a fantastic 3D recreation of an eight-day TDP Circuit. It will give you a great idea of exactly what you are planning to do.
Some months are a better bet for a park visit than others. Check here for the historical monthly averages for the particular month you were thinking of going to TDP – but realize that there are no guarantees, even in the prime stretch from November to April!
If you want to get an idea of accommodation options in TDP, click here for a comprehensive list.
What follows below is an account of the seven-day Circuit hike I did – although most of it may be of use to someone contemplating the W, a worthwhile second choice.
I started from the Chilean town of Puerto Natales, the gateway town to the park. The stores in town are used to hikers looking for supplies for their treks- food, gas canisters, etc. so if you have forgotten anything, you can probably find it in P.N. After a night at the Erratic Rock, a budget backpackers’ hostel with very helpful hosts who provide a useful information session on hiking in the park most afternoons, I was ready to go. While I would be doing the circuit on my own, I was not at all apprehensive. Unlike hiking in the Canadian Rockies, for example, there are no wild bears to worry about in TDP! The trails are pretty obvious and on the W section at least there is always someone just behind or ahead of you so there is a built-in safety mechanism. The one section where you need to have a partner is the stretch over the Paso Gardner; it is easy enough to join another hiking group at Camping Los Perros before you head up to the pass.
The morning bus ride from Puerto Natales to the park entrance at Laguna Amarga took a bit over two hours. (Click here for up-to-date info on bus schedules and park entry fees.) Unlike hiking the trails around Monte Fitz Roy, doing the TDP requires an entry fee, currently $38. U.S. for non-Chileans. The park website puts it this way –
The fee for foreigners is $ 18,000 Chilean pesos (USD $38), or $ 5000 for Chileans (USD $10.50) in high season, in low season the fee is $5000 (USD $10.50) for foreign tourists and $ 3000 (USD $6) for chilean people; this is a one-time fee regardless of how long you stay.
By 10:30 I was standing in front of the Hotel Las Torres and ready to start. The usual approach is to do the circuit counter-clockwise, with Camping Seron as the first day’s objective. Given that it was a fantastic sunny day I decided to use the good weather to walk up to the Torres that very day after setting up camp at the base of the final climb; that way a potentially rainy or overcast day a week later would not ruin my chance to see the iconic granite towers. It turned out to be a good decision because it was indeed overcast when I came by seven days later on the trail from Refugio Cuernos.
Crossing the bridge over the Rio Ascencio as in the image above, the trail to the Valle Ascencio goes to the right of pictured mountain (Monte Niete). It is about ten kilometers from the start by the deluxe hotel to the Torres Lookout and took me about three hours with a few rest breaks. It was early March, a bit past prime season, but I was definitely not the only one on the trail!
As you walk up the east side of the valley you eventually come to Refugio Chileno, where you could potentially get a bunk for the night or pitch your tent before you continued up to the towers. The picture below shows my first sighting of the refugio from the trail-
There was also a restaurant at the refugio but my passing by did not correspond to their “open” hours so I opened my pack and got out the water bottle and an energy bar. Then it was up the valley further, crossing back to the east side of the river over another bridge. the trail goes through some lush forest before arriving at a junction, with one trail going up to the Torres and the other going down a bit to the campsite.
I put up my tent at the Campamento Torres and then took my camera gear for the final 45-minute walk up to the “mirador” (viewpoint).
The view below is what greets you as you finally get to the top. It is a grand scene which for some reason reminded me of a natural cathedral with me as the pilgrim! I inhaled the atmosphere for almost an hour on a beautiful afternoon in TDP, occasionally changing seats for a different angle. I now regret not walking all the way down to the laguna and setting up some more original shots. Still, the following images convey a bit of the majesty of the Torres.
I walked back down to the campamento and met some of the other hikers there, had supper, and by nine was enjoying the warmth of my sleeping bag. I had a lot of walking ahead the next day- 10 km back to the start and then 16 km to the next camp spot for a total of 26 k. The plan was to leave early the next morning- i.e.7:30- and get to Refugio Torre Central for lunch (so I could keep the food I had in my pack for an emergency). By eleven I was down at the Refugio, having walked down the valley and back over the final bridge and up to the Hotel Torres. By noon I was on my way to Camping Seron, a 16.5 km walk (fairly flat and easy) from the Refugio Torre Central.
I got to Camping Seron about 4:00 p.m. and as you can see I had company; there were perhaps a dozen tents in all, most with hikers who were heading up to Dickson the next day. The tent you see in the foreground is my Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1, which weighs about a kilogram! It is not the roomiest of tents but it does the job when travelling light is the operative word.
Camping Seron has a food service where you can order something to eat. I think I had a pasta and veggies dish which hit the spot nicely. I had only brought four days of food on the hike so whenever I could I took advantage of food available at the refugios. I must warn you that it is not cheap! If you are really on a budget you may want to buy more food in Puerto Natales- and cook it on the stove you will need to have, along with the fuel, pots, plates, etc. Unfortunately, greater independence comes with a price- i.e. more stuff to carry! I had a Primus Trail stove which weighs 230 grams and screws in on top of a butane canister (which you can buy in Puerto Natales).
Day Two of the classic TDP Circuit (but my third day since i had done the hike up to the Towers right away on the first day), takes you from Camping Seron to Refugio Dickson.
It is a nineteen-kilometer walk through grass fields and bush alongside the Rio Paine; the scenery is pleasant as opposed to dramatic and jaw-dropping. Having mostly walked in the rain at Fitz Roy for four days the previous week, the sunshine was a much-appreciated change.
And finally, after about five hours, the refugio appeared- as in the photo above- seemingly on a spit jugging out into the Lago Dickson. I walked down the ridge to the clearing where the refugio sits. After setting up the tent, I made use of the shower facilities and then rambled around the area looking for interesting photo possibilities.
The refugio itself has a number of beds available dormitory-style, as well as a very cozy eating area where meals are available. I would have both supper and breakfast there; I found the food to be quite acceptable, given where we were and given my vegetarian requirements.
In fact, I was amazed to see the following on the breakfast table. It makes you realize how small the world has gotten in the past one hundred years. What is also amazing is that this would make any economic sense!
At Refugio Dickson I spent the evening chatting with a couple from California who were also heading up over the Gardner Pass the next day. Since you are not officially allowed to go over the pass on your own (although I have no idea how they could enforce that), I asked if I could tag along with them.
We left Dickson at about 8:30 the next morning and about three hours later had walked the nine kilometers up the trail along the occasionally turbulent Rio de Los Perros to the camping site Los Perros.
(Refugio Dickson is at 220 m (above see level); the Los Perros campsite is at 580 m; and the Gardner Pass is 1421 m- so there is some significant gain in altitude as you approach the pass!)
Crossing a moraine at the bottom end of the glacial Laguna Los Perros, I looked back and spotted one of the California duo on the top of the ridge-
I got to the Los Perros campsite about 11:30 and pulled out the stove and pot, as well as the day’s lunch. I would have a hot Thai noodle soup along with a couple of slices of Wasa bread covered with my favourite peanut butter. Water was available out of a tap but I still treated it with my Steripen. Here is a self-portrait while I was getting water at the camp sink-
My fellow-hikers from California soon arrived and we had lunch together in the hut pictured above. Many people stop here and start over the pass early the next morning. Given that it was only 12:30 and we felt fine- and the weather looked good too- we decided to head for the pass and make our next camp site Los Guardas, about fourteen kilometers and six hours of walking away.
We left the campsite together- as per the rules!- but within a few minutes we had all settled into our preferred paces- and mine was a bit faster than theirs. The trail up was initially a bit sloppy thanks to recent rain- at first on the east side of the Laguna Los Perros and then along the Rio Paso.
Eventually the trees are gone and you are walking on exposed moraine and scree. The trail is indicated by orange stakes, cairns, and occasional circular dabs of orange paint. A photo above showed a marker with all three indicators at the same time!
It is all pretty obvious – in good weather. Now imagine what a snow fall or visibility-reducing fog could do to your trail reading skills and you realize that a pretty straight-forward walk over the pass could become a mountaineering adventure in a hurry.
It took about three hours to reach the pass from the Perros Campsite with an altitude gain of 841 m. When I got up there I joined a Chilean from Santiago and a couple of guys from Buenos Aires in the wind shelter. They were amazed that I had started from Dickson that morning – something that didn’t seem that big a deal to me. After fifteen minutes or so of chatting about the trail and our respective home cities, mis amigos moved out and on to Los Guardas campsite.
Standing at John Gardner Pass (at 1241 m the highest point on the trail) was the highlight of the TDP Circuit. Even more so than the lookout by the iconic Towers which give the park its name, the view from the Pass is an breathtaking sight. Looking back, you can appreciate the effort it took to get up here- and looking ahead you see what the image below hints at – the epic nature of the view.
I stayed for a few mintues and chatted with the American hikers- but I was definitely getting chilled just standing around. We had been very lucky with the weather but the wind had picked up in the past hour. We agreed to do supper together down at the Los Guardas camp site- three hours and over 800 meters down.
Along the way I passed the three amigos from the wind shelter. Again, they were amazed at how fast I was moving. The secret? None of them had trekking poles! They were hurtin’ as they made their way down a pretty steep path to the camp site and they got to watch as a guy almost twice as old as them (I was sixty when I did this hike) dance his way down to los Guardas. The poles- and you need two, not just one- make all the difference. Coming up to the pass it made moving over the scree and talus much easier thanks to the massive increase in stability they provided; on the way down they took much of the pressure off my knees and transferred it into my upper body. Trekking poles are the answer!
Los Guardas campsite has room for at least twenty tents on either side of a stream that comes tumbling down through the site. There is a guardian there but no services that I can remember. There is a hiker’s covered shelter which we used to make our supper and replay the day- and then it was off to my tent, tucked into the most-wind proof location that I could find. It had been a massive day with incredible views- in retrospect, the best single day of the circuit- and I slept easy.
The next morning I had a very simple objective- at most, a half-day of walking and lunch at Refugio Grey. To get there you have to deal with a number of ravines- first climbing down into them and then climbing back up and out to the next one. The next couple of pix show just some of the entertainment provided!
It took a bit less than three hours to get to Refugio Grey from Los Guardas. It may only be five or six kilometers but it is definitely a good workout. I cannot image walking the circuit clockwise and having to go up to the pass from Refugio Grey- it is undoubtedly easier from the direction most choose (i.e. from Dickson).
The Refugio Grey has all basic facilities you would expect- bunks, meals, showers, camp sites. I put up the tent at about 11:30- not even noon and I was done! It was my reward for yesterday’s epic march! A quick shower and then the first of three meals I would have at the refugio restaurant- lunch, supper, breakfast. The three meals (but no alcohol) came out to about $50. with tip. There are cheaper options but, all in all, it is what I would pay at home. Chile – and Patagonia even more so – is not Nepal. There are no $1.25 dal bhatt lunches on offer.
I spent a relaxing afternoon and evening watching chunks of the glacier float down the lago while I chatted with hikers from all over the world- more Americans, an Irish couple, a Dutchman- it was like the United Nations “at the end of the world”! The next morning, after a great breakfast in the refugio, I packed up my tent in the rain and set off.
The good weather had ended. For most of the rest of the trip it either rained or looked like it was going to. The morning’s goal was the Refugio Paine Grande, an easy three-hour walk (11 kilometres) from Refugio Grey but without the epic views of the previous couple of days.
After seeing almost no one on the trail since leaving Refugio Torre Central four days previously, I was now in the land of the “W”. It is the shorter version of the TDP hiking experience that most people sign up for. Now there were hikers every ten minutes- and it would only get busier!
After a filling lunch at the Refugio cafeteria- the biggest I had seen since Refugio Torre Central- it was time to move on. My plan was to put up the tent at Campamento Italiano and then spend the afternoon walking up the Valle Frances. Along the way the trail passes by Lago Skottsberg, shown in the picture below-
When i got to the Italiano Camp Site, I found a fairly flat but, thanks to the rain, muddy spot to put up my tent. There were already dozens of campers there. Complicating matters was the fact that the toilet facilities were shut down. This meant that everyone was on their own when it came to basic body functions. Add the rain and the whole thing was not a situation I wanted to be in. Reluctantly, I put the tent up and stashed most of my gear inside.
Then I went for a walk up the Valle Frances, which on a better day I would have made with my pack so that I could tent at the Britanico Camp Site. I made it as far as the entrance of the upper valley as shown in the pix below- even in the mist, it was stunningly beautiful. The walk up the valley and a tent spot site at the Britanico has the potential to rival Paso Gardner for the #1 stop on the TDP hit parade. If I could change one thing about my TDP visit it would be this. Instead, I shielded my camera from the rain, took a few shots, and reluctantly headed back for the mess that was the Italiano camp site.
Check out this photographer’s 360 degree panorama of the valley in autumn and be amazed- Gathering Storm over French Valley 3 . If you’re blessed with better weather than I was and you find yourself at Camp Site Italiano in the morning, do spend the day going up the valley to Britanico and even beyond. You will be rewarded with one of the finest days of hiking in your life! Even better yet, take a tent and sleep up there.
The next day, again a mostly wet and rainy one with unexpected bits of sun thrown in just to completely confuse me, I fled the dirty camp site. This would be my last day on the Circuit- the seventh in all- as I got to Refugio Torre Central by 2:30 or so. On your right all the way is Lago Nordenskjold. I watched the wind as it whipped up the water. For half of the walk the Cuernos del Paine were on the left hand side. Clouds and sun came and went and created endless variations of Cuernos photos for me to contemplate- and even take. For some reason I kept thinking of Lord of the Rings as I walked by. the next time if New Zealand is busy, Peter Jackson could move his gear here for some dramatic film sets.
I arrived at Refugio Cuernos too early for lunch but did sit inside the hostal for a few minutes and enjoyed the view below while I sipped on my powdered Gatorade-enhanced water and second-last energy bar.
Rock and cloud continued to combine in magical ways and I enjoyed the show as I walked by, knowing that it would be a very different kind of enchanting on a bright sunny day.
Seeing Monte Niete again was a reminder that I was almost done. Six days ago I had walked up the Ascencio valley with Niete on the east side. Now I came at it from the west. Soon I saw the view you see in the image below- the collection of buildings belonging to the Hotel Las Torres and the Refugio Torre Central.
Some lines of T.S. Eliot I had memorized as a younger man popped into my head as I got closer to the place where I had started my walk a week before-
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from…
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
What a fantastic walk! Seven days around the mini-cordillera that is the Torres del Paine, with six nights of camping. More time and better weather in el Valle Frances would have made it perfect. And now I sat in the dining area of the massive Refugio Torre Central with some other hikers- Israelis and Spaniards this time. We were all waiting for the 4:30 shuttle bus which would take us to the park entrance where we’d transfer to the bus returning to Puerto Natales. And in the meanwhile, the cooks in the kitchen were good enough to prepare some food, even though it was not yet the official opening time.
If you’re interested, my two previous posts on southern Patagonia can be found here-
More recently I uploaded a post on the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, The Chilean gateway to southern Patagonia for people flying in from North America or Europe. You can find it here: A Traveller’s Guide to Punta Arenas- Gateway To Southern Patagonia.
Still to come is a collection of all the dog pictures I took while I was there. Stray dogs seem to be a bit of a problem in Patagonia and even domestic dogs are allowed to wander around town during the day.
It was the obviously wounded and hurting dogs limping around Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales that really got to me – but I’ll be accused of imposing the cultural values of urban North America where dogs are treated like family members. I kept thinking – “How can they just step over and around these poor dogs?” Then again, I saw upper caste Hindus do the same in India as they paid absolutely no attention to the beggars in rags on their streets and sidewalks. “It’s their karma,” I was told.