The Torres del Paine (“TDP”) Circuit is a stellar hike boasting stunning vistas of the majestic Torres Massif. Beyond inspring views, the trail is also notable for the intense weather that lashes the small range at the southern reaches of the American mainland. For hikers approaching the Circuit for the first time, the trail carries a weighty reputation as a challenging, beautiful, and essential hike.
Distance: 90 miles (“Q” Route)
Total Days: 7
Location: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile
Peak Season: Jan-Feb
Finish: Paine Grande
Treks in Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine have achieved an almost mythical place in the pantheon of the world’s great hikes. Rave reviews of the TDP roll in year after year, from the cover of National Geographic’s “The World’s Most Beautiful Places” issue to nearly every “Best of” list out there.
Those kinds of expectations are hard for any place to bear and, in this case, reality suffers under the weight of the such hyperbolic acclaim.
All three routes in the National Park – the short “W” Route, the classic “O” Route, and the longer and increasingly popular “Q” Route – are easy tourist hikes that, in my opinion, receive such ebullient praise in large part because of their painless accessibility to even the most novice trekker seeking to experience the “great outdoors.”
For true fans of backcountry adventure, the TDP is (in good weather) a lightweight that offers some undoubtedly world-class scenery scattered among days of nice, but minimally challenging and hardly elite, valley walks. In short, the hike is beautiful and worthwhile, but does not stack up to many of the other, more well rounded hikes vying for the title of world’s best.
As noted above, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine offers three common hiking routes:
W Route: The easiest of the three. This 3-5 day route begins with a ferry ride to Paine Grande. From there, an out-and-back walk sans pack along Lago Grey brings hikers to Glacier Grey. The trail returns to Paine Grande before skirting eastward near Skottberg Lake to reach Camp Italiano. Ditching packs once more, the trail heads up the Frances Valley to the Britannico Lookout. The trail continues back to Italiano to begin the second half of the W – a curving section on the shores of Lago Nordenskjold that arrives at Camp Chillenos. Leaving the packs a final time, the W heads up valley to the Base de la Torres viewpoint for a close up inspection of the park’s namesake before returning down to end at the Las Torres Hotel.
O Route: The classic 6-8 day Torres del Paine route completes a circuit around the entire Paine Massif. This route commonly starts at the Las Torres Hotel and heads anti-clockwise. The trail passes through Camps Seron, Dickson and Perros before reaching John Gardner Pass (the trek’s high point) and its incredible views of Glacier Grey. Descending quickly, the trail follows the glacier until it becomes Lago Grey, passing Camps Paso and Grey along the way. From this point, the O follows the same route as the W described above.
Q Route: The 6-10 day Q Route begins at Administracion with a 10 mile/16 kilometer hike to Paine Grande. At that point, it covers the same ground as the W and O routes described above.
Maps and Guidebooks
Navigation does not come easier than on the TDP during the high season. The trails are wide and clear, signage is plentiful, and the crowds of fellow hikers nearly omnipresent.
All park visitors receive a basic, but serviceable, map when entering the park. The complimentary map covers all the trails of the W, O, and Q Routes, and is sufficient to get you around the trail. It does not provide topographical detail, but does include approximate hiking times between camps and refugios.
A 1:130,000 scale topographical map from Sig Patagon is readily available in Puerto Natales if you want to satisfy your curiosity about the small elevations involved or prefer more detailed navigational assistance,
As with detailed maps, guide books are optional for the TDP. The most common book is Cicerone’s “Torres del Paine: Trekking in Chile’s Premier National Park.”
Fees, Permits and Reservations
Entrance into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine costs 18,000 CLP. This is typically paid at the Laguna Amarga park entrance as hikers enter via bus from Puerto Natales.
All TDP trails are heavily regulated. Free camping is not allowed anywhere in the park, nor are you allowed to walk off trail. Hikers are expected to register at their starting trailhead and then to sign in at the ranger stations located at each official camp.
Most campsites on the trail are pay sites operated by CONAF that will take all comers without reservation. Payment is made at the sites on arrival and ranges between 6,000-8,500 CLP.
Camp Italiano and Camp Torres, the two exceptions, are both free and subject to reservation. Reservations are made in Puerto Natales, or on entry to the park at Laguna Amarga or Adminstracion.
When to Go
The TDP is nearly schizophrenic, with the peak and off-peak seasons offering vastly different experiences. Peak trekking season is January-February, when the weather is relatively warm and dry. The nicest days can even be considered warm (mid-30’s C). This narrow window of moderate weather understandably draws massive crowds of (often inexperienced and frequently unprepared) hikers that swamp the trail, especially on the more touristy “W” route.
The trails are open for several months on either side of the summer season and the weather is far less kind outside of the peak season. The non-peak months make for less comfort, more of a trekking challenge, and increased odds of delay due to severe weather, but the number of trail users is said to drop precipitously so life on the trail may actually be more enjoyable.
Many have recommended tackling the TDP during the off-season due to the vast differences between the peak and off-peak alternatives. I add my voice to those and recommend that experienced hikers avoid the frustration that comes with navigating the heavy TDP traffic (both on trail and at the camp facilities) in the high season.
Puerto Natales, Chile is the primary point of entry to the Torres Massif. Mass transportation to and from the park is managed by a cartel of bus operators that offer similarly high prices and average quality.
All bus companies offer daily departures to the park at 7:00AM and 2:30PM for 7,500 CLP one-way or 15,000 CLP round-trip. Return tickets are open ended, so you can hop on the first bus that leaves after finish your hike.
The buses stop at three locations: the Laguna Amargo Entrance, Pudeto (for transfers to the ferry), and Administracion. Buses reach Laguna Amargo in about two hours, while Administracion takes an additional 1.5 hours.
Hikers tackling the Q Route have the option of either hiking back out the tail of the Q, which would deliver them to the buses that stop at Administracion, or taking the ferry from Paine Grande to the bus stop at Pudeto. Ferry tickets cost 7,500 CLP (or 15,000 CLP round trip) and are purchased on the boat. Ferries depart Paine Grande between 10:00am and 6:30pm.
The national park can also be reached directly from El Calafate, a larger Argentinian town several hours north of Puerto Natales that is an easy flight from Santiago or Buenos Aires. Buses depart sporadically and can be arranged at the main terminal in the center of town, a half-hour and 120 ARS bus ride from the airport that lies well outside of town.
Puerto Natales has everything you’ll need to provision your trek. The main supermarket is UniMarc, while Don Bosco offers a smaller alternative. A little store stocked with a selection of nuts and dehydrated fruits is just down the street from Don Bosco. The town also has numerous pharmacies and a hardware store to take care of any other trekking needs.
In addition to the food available in town, stores located at the campsites on the trail offer a range of packaged foods and drinks. Some on the “W” even offer made-to-order meals. These stores can help reduce the weight you carry on the trail, but expect to pay unsurprisingly exorbitant prices.
Water in the park is clean glacial melt. You can drink straight from streams without filtering or drops.
Gear and Equipment
The TDP is an emminently customizable experience. You can hike your own hike, whether that means going tentless and relaxing in the beds offered by the W Route refugios or carrying your own gear while roughing your way around the Q.
Puerto Natales has dozens of gear rental shops and a number of outdoors stores to meet your needs. These are scattered throughout the main section of town, near the intersection of Manuel Baquedano and Bulnes Streets. One of the most popular gear shops is Erratic Rock, a combination hostel/bar/rental and guide agency that is a popular watering hole for both locals and tourists.
Safety and Security
The Torres del Paine hikes are some of the safest around, especially during the high season. You are never far from a helping hand due to the heavy presence of park rangers and the large numbers of trekkers.
No wild plants or animals are likely mar your visit. Pumas do inhabit the park, but they are shy and solitary and tend to avoid people if possible.
The biggest concern is the weather, for which the park is so notorious. Even here, though, the park has taken great pains to prevent harm to hikers. Weather reports are available daily at the ranger stations located along the circuit and, below Paso John Gardner, the rangers will even prevent hikers from ascending to the pass if the weather promises to be too dangerous.
For more info on planning your Torres del Paine trek, check out:
- Besthike.com‘s impressively comprehensive Paine Circuit page.
- The Hiking Life‘s older but still useful Torres del Paine Circuit page.
For more information on other incredible trails around the world, you might enjoy Hike The World: The Guide to the Planet’s Best Trails, my new guide book to the best multi-day trails in the world. Explore thirty incredible hikes, five on each continent, that will take you to the most beautiful, iconic and remote places on the planet. Find all the information you need to start your own amazing adventure!