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Torres del Paine: Trekking in Famous National Park in Patagonia

The three granite towers that gave the national park its name are an icon of Patagonia and one of the most photographed places in all of South America. During the peak season, there are lines at the viewpoint overlooking Lago Torres. You can get here via a one-day trip or a challenging ten-day trek. We chose the golden middle path and explored a simpler trekking variant, named after the shape of the trail on the map, “W”.


The park's name does not translate to “big pain,” as we sometimes hear from exhausted tourists at the main viewpoint, but rather refers to the language of the ancient inhabitants. In the Tehuelche language, Paine means “blue,” while Torres means “towers.” Torres del Paine National Park was established in 1959 and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978. Covering an area of 2,400 square kilometers, it is one of the largest national parks in Chile. It borders Bernardo O'Higgins National Park to the west and Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina to the north. Like other Chilean parks, it is managed by the state organization CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal).

Due to the large number of visitors, movement in the national park is governed by very strict rules. There are clearly marked paths, and it is strictly forbidden to leave them. Access to some parts of the park requires a certified guide, but this does not apply to the frequently traveled W route. Camping is only allowed in designated campsites, and in recent years, advance reservations have also become mandatory. Along the W route, there are plenty of campsites and refugios, operated by various companies (such as Fantástico Sur) or directly by CONAF. The refugios usually also have tents and other equipment for rent. For less adventurous visitors, there are several hotels in and around the park. Cooking on a stove is only permitted in specially designated and secured areas. Making fires is prohibited throughout the park.

The strict rules regarding cooking have their reasons. The national park has suffered many extensive fires with long-lasting consequences. In 1985, a tourist caused a fire that burned about 150 square kilometers of the park, affecting areas to the east and south around Lake Pehoé. In 2005, a massive fire was caused by a Czech tourist due to an accident with a stove. That fire lasted about ten days, affecting almost 6% of the protected area and forcing the evacuation of approximately 100 people. The Czech Republic has also contributed to the restoration of the fire-damaged parts of the park.

When to Go and What to Expect

The best time to visit Torres del Paine is between October and April, as it rains less and the weather is more stable during this period. However, entrance fees are higher during the peak season. The main attraction of the park is, of course, the three towers that give the area its name. Torres del Paine are prominent granite peaks of the Paine Massif. From left to right, they are known as Torre d'Agostini, Torre Central, and Torre Monzino. They reach heights of around 2,500 meters. Another attraction is Cuernos del Paine, a group of rocky peaks reaching up to 2,000 meters, which can be admired on the way to the viewpoint via the French Valley, where one of the most famous glaciers is also found. This area is also home to valleys and rivers, such as the Paine, lakes, and glaciers. Notable lakes include Grey, Pehoé, Nordenskiöld, and Sarmiento. Glaciers, including Grey, Pingo, and Tyndall, are part of the extensive Southern Patagonian Ice Field.

What to Arrange in Advance

Puerto Natales is a city you won’t miss on your way to the national park. Here, you have the last reasonable opportunity to buy supplies or any missing pieces of outdoor equipment. There are many agencies offering activities in the surrounding nature. You will be welcomed by a bus terminal on the outskirts of the city, where all long-distance lines arrive, even from neighboring Argentina. It’s a comfortable walk to the city center. It’s a good idea to purchase tickets in advance during the peak season. Several companies serve the two-hour route to the park entrance, but the buses tend to be quite full. This is even more true for accommodation in the national park and for entrance fees. They vary depending on the number of days you plan to spend there. Don’t be misled by thinking that “there’s always a spot for a small tent.” Both lodging and tent spots, such as grassy patches or wooden platforms in the forest, need to be booked several months in advance; otherwise, you simply won’t have a spot. From experience, it’s easier to rebook a flight than to find a spot for a tent. Most campsites are well-equipped, including a shop and a restaurant with card payment options. However, expect a high markup on all prices. Internet access is also available. In 2024, an hour of Wi-Fi cost around nine dollars. The current weather forecast is usually posted at the reception. Phones can be charged, usually at the reception area.

The gateway to the national park is Torre Central Camp, operated by Fantástico Sur. The camp and Refugio are adjacent to the visitor center, where minibuses arrive from the park entrance at Laguna Amarga, where bus lines terminate. Minibuses are paid for separately, and given the frequent dusty road, it’s worth considering whether to save yourself the 7 km and get a ride. If you start your trek at Torre Central Camp, you can bring food that might not be suitable for the trek due to weight or packaging. You can also reasonably dispose of trash here. There is a restaurant, bar, shop, and souvenir store available. Prices are high throughout the park. Cooking is allowed on wooden tables scattered around the camp or in the shelter near the reception. You can enjoy the luxury of hot water all day. On the way to the viewpoint of Torres del Paine, you will find the smaller Refugio and Chileno Camp. Here, camping is done on wooden platforms because the camp is entirely in the forest. Otherwise, it is fully equipped, including mandatory half-board. Further along the route, you will find Los Cuernos and Francés Camps. Both are in the forest with camping on wooden platforms. Both are fully equipped, including a restaurant. Los Cuernos is closer to the lake, and the main building has a kitchen. In Francés, shelters with seating are scattered in the forest on a slope. Camping Italiano, operated by CONAF, is much simpler. It used to be higher in the French Valley but has recently been moved lower to the junction. At the end of the valley, you will find Campamento Britanico. Similarly, at the end of the W trek and on the O route, there is Grey Camp near the viewpoint of the Grey Glacier. It’s worth using the campsites located on the main route of the W trek, as this way, you only carry your full gear on a part of the route and can enjoy the detours to the viewpoints without a heavy load. The last or first camp on the W trek is Paine Grande Camp, where the catamaran arrives across Lago Pehoé. It includes a hotel and restaurant. Cooking is allowed in the common building, where there is plenty of seating and power outlets. Tents can be set up on wooden platforms or the grassy area around them, and there is plenty of space.

Four-Day W Trek Itinerary

The W route is not a loop, so you can start and end at two different places, and the local transportation is adapted to this. We saved the catamaran ride as a scenic reward for the end, so the route is described from Torre Central Camp. Buses from Puerto Natales most often depart in the morning, and most of the two-hour journey is comfortably on paved roads. The first stop is Laguna Amarga, where we disembark and check into the national park. Tickets purchased in advance have a QR code, making check-in relatively quick. On the other side of the parking lot, minibuses head to the first camp. The fare is paid in cash on site, and you are assigned to the appropriate vehicle based on the number of people. The W route is named after the letter it resembles on the map. It’s more like an “E” lying on its back. You can plan three nights in camps so that you only carry your tent on the main route, and all the “legs,” or detours to the viewpoints, can be done with a light pack.

On the first day, you can settle in the Torre Central Camp, and after the necessary administrative procedures and quickly setting up tents, head to the first viewpoint. The eastern “leg” of our “lying E” is the main attraction of the entire park. Here you will also encounter the largest crowds, as many visitors are satisfied with just a one-day hike for an Instagram selfie. You definitely don’t have to worry about getting lost, which is true throughout the park. With a light pack, you’ll cover 20 km with a 1,000-meter elevation gain. Most of the route ascends gradually through the valley, and the final stretch involves a steep climb over rocks. The reward is the viewpoint of the iconic Torres del Paine rock towers. Don’t expect much privacy here. Start early, as the path closes in the afternoon to prevent desperate tourists from wandering in the upper parts after dark. The return is the same route, so you pass Chileno Camp twice. On the second day, you can comfortably reach the next camp, ideally Francés, with a 16 km hike with a backpack, mostly along Lake Nordenskjöld, with gentle ups and downs. In good weather, this stage offers beautiful views, and you might feel like you’re somewhere on the Adriatic. Along the way, you pass Cuernos Camp, where you can refresh and refill your water.

Alternatively, you can stay at Italiano Camp or get there on the third morning. Then follows another light detour. If you start from Francés Camp, you can leave your backpacks here. At the ranger’s hut, there is a designated space for this purpose. The French Valley is walkable up to Britanico Camp. Some visitors only go halfway to the Mirador Francés viewpoint, which offers the best view of the French Glacier, where ice blocks fall with a thunderous noise. The noise we heard in the evening at the camp wasn’t a storm. The other side of the valley is bordered by the sharp ridges of the Los Cuernos del Paine massif, another cult destination for experienced climbers.

The final camping is located on the shores of Lake Pehoé. Paine Grande Camp is the second gateway to the park, accessible by catamaran across the lake. On the fourth day, we have a light hike. The third “leg” is the detour to the Grey Glacier. Trekkers usually camp at the eponymous refugio, which is typically used by hikers coming from the circular O route.

In the evening, you can take the catamaran to the bus stop at Pudeto and from there back to Puerto Natales. Usually, two boat trips run in the evening, and it’s worth waiting at the pier with a margin because tickets are purchased on board. The line buses usually wait for the arrival of the catamaran, but pre-booking a ticket is almost necessary. The final boat trip offers a beautiful overview of all the mountains and rock masses we passed in the past four days.


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