The Torres del Paine Circuit, nestled deep in the Chilean Andes, is one of the world’s most beautiful hikes. I recently completed a 7-day circuit hike on the “Q” route, a longer version of the classic “O” trek that is often described as one of the world’s best. Here’s the story:
My companion for this Chilean adventure was Austin, an American lawyer who’d outgrown the grind and left his law firm to travel… Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Needless to say, Austin and I had plenty to talk about.
We met in Buenos Aires, where Austin talked me into a quick excursion to Uruguay while I waited for my replacement Arc’teryx Zeta AR to work it’s way through the labyrinthine Argentinean postal service. I turned the tables after our Uruguayan beach adventure and invited him to join me at Torres del Paine as I made my way south toward Ushuaia.
Once I had my jacket in hand, along with some goodies that my mom snuck into the package and that I barely rescued from Argentinean customs, we bolted from Buenos Aires like we’d robbed the place.
We rose at 3:45am, had a quick scuffle with our cab driver just to get the blood flowing (we were caught off guard by a fare increase that had gone into effect at midnight that night), then snuck into the airport just in time for our 6:35 flight.
The flight stopped briefly in Bariloche before continuing to El Calafate, Argentina. A mad scramble ensued as we bought bus tickets to town, then got an offer of a ride into town from my seatmate on the plane (an Argentinean name Rudolfo, who was being picked up by his brother), hustled back to ask for and (miraculously) receive a refund on our just purchased bus tickets, then returned to join Rudolfo and his brother for the half-hour ride to the main bus terminal in the city center.
Our luck continued as Rudolfo and his brother escorted us inside the bus terminal and interrogated the attendants at every counter until they found the only bus leaving that day for Puerto Natales, Chile, which is the main departure city for treks in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine and our ultimate destination that night.
Tickets in hand, we bid a fond farewell to the pair and went out to wait for our bus. We snacked as we waited on the terminal steps overlooking town on a quick lunch of homemade spiced nuts and Trader Joe’s Dehydrated Mangoes, snacks from my package that we were afraid wouldn’t make it across the Chilean border. Those concerns turned out to be overblown and we reached Puerto Natales at 10 that night without losing any food.
Our first choice of hostel, Erratic Rock, was fully booked so we wandered around town until we found two open beds. We threw down our bags and sprinted back to Erratic Rock to square away rental hiking gear for Austin; reserve a night at the hostel for when we returned from the hike; arrange storage of our non-trail gear during our time on trail; buy tickets for the 2:30pm bus to the national park the next day; get info on where to find an ATM, methylated spirits, groceries, and some gloves; and finally scarf down a dinner of pizza and a beer before stumbling back to our hostel like zombies.
We ate a quick breakfast the next morning, made sure the electronics (phones, cameras, backup batteries and GoPro) were charged and ready, then scrambled to get our gear organized before rushing into town to grab provisions.
Despite visiting numerous supermarkets, pharmacies and a pair of (closed for siesta) hardware stores, I never found methylated spirits. We would be forced to make do with a mostly empty bottle that someone had left at Erratic Rock. Fortunately, my Fancy Feast stove isn’t very thirsty and the dregs in the bottle would last at least five, maybe even six, meals for the two of us.
We eventually raced to the bus terminal to catch our bus with just minutes to spare. With us safely aboard, the bus pulled out of the lot and joined a fleet of other buses headed toward the national park.
The hours to the park passed uneventfully, except for the unfortunate moment when our bus driver pulled over the bus in front of us to say that someone’s luggage had fallen out and was now lying in the middle of the road.
Three stops later, we stepped off the bus at Administracion (Park Headquarters) ready for an adventure on Torres del Paine’s slightly less famous Q route.
The map showed five hours from Administacion to Paine Grande, the large campground that marked the end of the tail of the Q and the beginning of the Circuit, or “O” route. It was 6:30pm and Paine Grande was a bit of a stretch goal given the late hour. Carretas, a much smaller camp, lay near the midway point so we had a fallback option if we decided to cut the evening short.
We made great time as the trail started off through a wide open meadow with expansive views of the Paine Massif off to the north and reached Carretas in under 1.5 hours. Still fresh, we continued on along the banks of the Rio Grey hoping to make Paine Grande before dark.
A brilliant, golden late evening light played on the granite flanks of the peaks throughout our long approach to Paine Grande. Summer this far south means extremely long days and the sun stayed above the horizon until the clock neared 10:00pm.
Paine Massif Overlook
We finally reached camp at 10:30 and threw up the tent amid a score of others. We wolfed down a cold dinner of crackers and nuts, then drifted off to sleep to the not-so-soothing sounds of what had to be a pair of honeymooners in a tent next door. Fortunately I remembered to bring earplugs.
Our first full day on trail was short. It was just a few hours to Camp Italiano from Paine Grande, so we treated ourselves to a lazy morning (“lazy” only by my militaristic trail standards, according to Austin).
We eventually decamped and knocked out the easy 1 hour, 45 minutes to Camp Italiano. It was a gorgeous stretch of trail along the gleaming shores of Lago Nordenskjul.
We reached Italinano and found a spot at the far end of the busy campsite to set up. The second half of the day would be a pack-less day hike up to the Britannico viewpoint deep in the recesses of Vallee Frances. We wanted to wait for the day to cool off, so we settled down for a quick nap.
We woke several hours later, shook off the cobwebs, and began the climb up the valley. Two hours in we reached Britannico, a small outcropping in the valley center that gave us panoramic views of the sharp peaks that surrounded us on three sides.
We spent an hour soaking in the amazing scenery before heading back to grab dinner and crash for the night.
Day 3 covered the second half of the very popular “W” trek. The trail was jammed with hikers as we traversed once again along the edge of Lago Nordenskjul. As the temperature climbed, we decided to beat the heat with a long lunch and then a quick dip in the frigid glacial lake.
We continued on to Camp Chillenos, making a long, hot ascent to the bustling camp and refugio tucked alongside the Rio Ascencio deep in a high-walled valley. We immediately tucked in for a nap and then spent a pleasant evening chatting with other hikers outside the refugio.
Take a look at my first Torres del Paine post for detailed information on how you can hike this spectacular trek in the Chilean Andes. Plus, check back in soon for the third and final installment of my Torres del Paine adventure.