Torres del Paine is one of the premier destinations for outdoor enthusiasts. Its name translates to Towers of Paine, where Paine was the old indigenous name for blue. And hiking the W in Torres del Paine is a backpacker’s dream.
If you’re not familiar with the name of the park, you likely know the photo. It’s the quintessential photo of Patagonia. A beautiful, mineral green lake with three stone towers in the back, shooting into the sky.
As a backpacker, I was thrilled with the chance to hike the W, a four-to-five-day route that takes you through several of the park’s highlights.
Through a bit of scheduling confusion, I wound up heading out on my own. But it’s a friendly place and there’s almost no way to get off trail. I found it exceptionally safe.
Probably the hardest part is before you get arrive. Planning the trip takes a lot of coordination.
- Getting to the Torres del Paine
- Day 1 – Starting Your Hike on the W
- Day 2 – Down the Hill Back to the Start
- Day 3 – Mirador Britanico
- Day 4 – Chileno and the Towers
- Day 5 – Sunrise at the Towers
- Tips for Hiking the W in Torres del Paine
Where to Stay
If you’re staying overnight in the park, you must stay at a sanctioned Refugio each night. There’s no wandering off and camping on your own.
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Each Refugio has three options, you can rent a bunk in a shared room, an already pitched tent, or a tent space and bring your own gear.
To make things confusing, there are 3 separate companies that manage the Refugios and there’s no way to complete the trip without having to book with at least 2 of them. On separate websites.
I’ve heard that there are some companies that will handle it for you, but it wasn’t too difficult on my own.
After researching online and planning my route and the Refugios I wanted to stay at, it was time to book. I went to Vertice first and booked my first 2 nights, then I went to Fantastico Sur to book the next 2.
It may take a bit of finagling and you’ll need to be flexible.
For example, if you are staying at Refugio Paine Grande on May 5 which is a Vertice location, you’ll need either Frances or Cuernos to have an opening on May 6 and those are both Fantastico Sur.
It was easier to pull up each website simultaneously and compare what was available side by side. This allowed me to adjust one or the other was booked because you have to time them.
The only issue I had was that I was booking so late that the options were dwindling. Most people book their March trip in November. I got really lucky and was able to line things up, but had to splurge on a bunk at one location because tent sites were all taken.
The Refugios have plenty of food, and alcohol available. You definitely will not starve on the trip.
You can purchase food to cook yourself, but the Vertice locations were better for this option. All sites have served meals you can purchase, or the a la carte menu with sandwiches, pizza, and burgers. The only limit is your budget.
For anyone cooking their own food, Vertice sites had enclosed areas where you could stay dry and protected with access to a sink while cooking and eating. Fantastico Sur sites were geared more towards the “experience” of a relaxing vacation and seemed to push visitors towards the served meals. Their locations had outdoor areas for cooking which wasn’t great if it rained. And it can rain a lot.
Most sites have showers, although some are better than others, and they aren’t always up and running. So while nice, don’t necessarily rely on them.
They all have electricity to help refuel your devices, but you may have to wait and fight for a free outlet.
Getting to the Torres del Paine
The buses to Torres del Paine leave from the main bus station in Puerto Natales. Bus Sur has an early bus that arrives at the park in time for the first ferry if you’re starting from the west end of the W. If this is your preferred option, make sure to purchase a ticket at least the day before.
One very important thing to keep in mind – the bus and ferry do not coordinate.
The bus merely arrives in time for the ferry. If the ferry is full with a guided tour, you may not be able to board. The next ferry is the same boat, making a round trip, at roughly a snail’s pace. You won’t reach the start until around noon if that happens.
As far as things go here when it comes to transportation, be aggressive, be fast, and always be first.
Before arriving at the ferry, the bus will stop at the main entrance and everyone will get off to register and pay the entrance fee. Once everyone is back on the bus, it continues to the ferry location. stop.
Once You’re on the ferry, take a moment to relax. Get a seat up top and enjoy the scenery which is just a taste of what’s to come.
Day 1 – Starting Your Hike on the W
There are two options for hiking the W in Torres del Paine. You can start on the east side by the Towers or the west side by Grey Glacier. I started up the western side of the W and highly recommend doing it this way. It’s a little easier to manage and plan.
You’ll disembark from the ferry and begin your hike near Refugio Paine Grande on relatively flat ground, but it’s rocky and rough. It takes 3 to 4 hours to reach Refugio Grey, your stop for the night. Along the way, you’ll pass incredible views of one of the lakes and your first look at Glacier Grey, one of the highlights of the park.
The colors of Torres del Paine take a bit of getting used to. The mineral green water, the grey to bright blue skies, the green grasses that seem like they have a filter, and the sunsets that blaze with pink and magenta.
Every time you think you’ve got a great photo, another, even better, opportunity shows up. It’s really hard to get used to the light green water. The color comes from the minerals and it’s almost translucent. It’s so clean, there’s no need to filter before drinking.
Arriving at Grey, you can settle in and enjoy the evening. Technically the W ends here, but it attaches to the O which goes all the way around the park. The best views of the glacier are up a little further so you’ll want to catch a part of the O trail. Keep in mind that there are a couple of sketchy suspension bridges involved.
Day 2 – Down the Hill Back to the Start
While you can make it up to the glacier and back down to Refugio Paine Grande on the same day, I recommend staying at Refugio Grey. If you want a better look at the glacier, there’s often fog in the morning and it doesn’t blow off until around noon.
If you stay, you can catch the afternoon sun on the snow and ice before heading down to Refugio Paine Grande, which is right at the start of the trail.
Settle in and enjoy an incredible sunset over the water. But, if you’re camping, buckle down your tent because it gets windy here.
Day 3 – Mirador Britanico
Day 3 takes you from the bottom of the W, up the middle to Mirador Britanico, and then back down to the second side of the W.
On the way, you can stop at Refugio Italiano and drop your pack. The campsite is run by the park itself and only offers tent sites for campers with their own gear. You could stay here instead of Refugio Paine Grande, but Paine Grande is on the water and quite beautiful.
This is, however, a great place to offload your pack so you can make better time to Britanico. Keep in mind though that “dropping your pack” means literally putting it on the ground with everyone else. While it’s unlikely anyone would take your items, to avoid confusion, make it clear it’s yours with something obvious.
When I went, the weather was unusually calm and beautiful. It was actually so warm, people were having to store the cold weather clothing they brought and buy shorts and T-shirts. There is often too much wind and rain to make it to Mirador Britanico.
If the weather holds, I do recommend it. It’s truly breathtaking. You’re literally surrounded by the mountains and the vastness of the area. On the way up, you’ll walk through Frances Valley, parallel to a pale green river lined with snow-covered mountains. You may even get to see small pieces of snow and ice breaking off of the glaciers.
Reaching Mirador Britanico, sit for a while and marvel and being in the heart of the park. You are smack dab in the middle of Torres del Paine, often called the eighth wonder of the world. Take a moment to savor this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
When you’re done, head back to get your pack, then keep going to either Refugio Frances or Los Cuernos. Frances is smaller and, if you rented a bunk, you’ll get to stay in an Eco dome. That being said, the domes are down a steep hill that you have to climb in the morning while the campsites are at the top.
Frances is situated along the lake, and if the weather is good, you can enjoy the evening marveling at the views.
In honesty, I would have preferred Los Cuernos because it’s closer to the towers so a little less hiking in the morning, but Los Cuernos is also almost a city with its tents, Eco domes, bunks, and cabins.
Day 4 – Chileno and the Towers
This is it, you’re heading to the towers. I highly recommend staying at Refugio Chileno for your last night. If it’s booked, you can stay at Torres Norte/Central, but that’s an additional 2 hours of hiking the next day.
Day 4 is going to be the most challenging with the climb. You’ll walk across a cute beach, then climb up a hill and look back to see where you just came from. This stretch can feel a bit lonely and you may experience a sense of “it’s over” as you leave some of the lake views behind.
Finally, you’ll reach the climb up to Chileno. This section of trail will be the most crowded as many people day hike up to the towers and back. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting slowed down on this stretch.
If you reach Chileno early enough, drop your pack and hike the 1.5 to 2 hours to the towers. The weather is iffy and you should take any chance you have to see the towers.
While it’s not high mileage, it’s highly technical hiking. The trail is rocky in places, steep in others, and in one section you’re walking across nothing but a rock field. But I promise it’s worth it.
Once you reach the towers, stay as long as you can to marvel at the site and get a ton of photos.
Head back to Chileno, situated along another green river, and enjoy your last evening in the park. You’re going to get up early tomorrow.
Day 5 – Sunrise at the Towers
Technically this is against the park rules, but just about everyone does it. The park trail leading to the towers closes at 4 pm the day before (or whenever the ranger closes it).
In the morning, many people leave Chileno around 4:30 am and hike, in the dark, to the towers for sunrise.
This is really only for strong hikers as the route is difficult and completely dark. It helps if you went up early the day before so you know the route. The trail markers glow in the dark, but several times you’re just aiming for them with no idea where the trail is.
The good news is that you’ll be with several other people. Make sure you have a really good headlamp and try to stay in a group.
Once you arrive, find your spot and hang out for sunrise.
As the sun begins to rise over the mountains, you’ll see the towers begin to take on their grey and pink hue.
But – and this is important – wait another 20 minutes at least. There’s a moment after the first sunrise where the sun hits just the right spot and the towers turn an orange/bronze color. It lasts for quite a while and you can get amazing photos.
They’ll eventually turn back to grey and pink.
When you can finally tear yourself away, head back to Chileno to grab your gear and head to the entrance by Torre Norte.
You’ll need to get a ticket for the shuttle that takes you to the main entrance to catch the bus to Puerto Natales. The shuttles head out about 15 minutes before the buses are set to leave.
The shuttle ticket is not for a specific time. If you have a ticket for a bus and need to be on a specific shuttle, get ready and be alert. Do what you have to in order to be one of the first people on the shuttle. This isn’t the time to be polite.
I highly recommend staying in Puerto Natales for another day or two. You’ll continually run into the friends you made on the trail, and there’s quite a bit to do here.
Tips for Hiking the W in Torres del Paine
Maximize Your Opportunity to See the Towers
I actually went with friends a couple of days before my trip to see the towers. We booked a night at Chileno and went up, saw the towers, slept, saw the sunrise, then left.
It was lucky we did that. On the day I would have seen the towers for my trip, it was windy and rainy. The views were horrible.
Several people I had hiked with over the 4 days left disappointed that they weren’t able to see the towers.
I highly recommend tagging on an extra day and either going early as I did to see the towers, or starting and ending there. You’ll want to maximize your chances to see them in good weather.
Best Bang for Your Buck with Accommodations
If you’re trying to save money, I recommend renting one of the tents already pitched at the Refugios. It’s less expensive than a bunk but more than pitching your own tent. However, with the weather being unpredictable, you won’t risk heading back with a soaking wet tent that you then need to figure out how to dry in Puerto Natales.
Even if you’re using a Refugio tent, bring your own sleeping bag and sleeping pad. The ones they rent looked filthy and were in bad shape.
Food on a Budget
You can purchase food at the Refugios if you want to save weight. For anyone on a budget, I would pack 2 meals, then purchase something to cook yourself at both Grey and Paine Grande as they had the best selection of backpacker food.
Frances and Chileno did not have anything you could purchase and make yourself.
Don’t be afraid to hike the W solo. I felt very safe the entire time. It’s well-marked, and there’s really nowhere to go even if you wind up off-trail (which I can’t see how that would happen). The park is full so you’ll continually run into people.
You will have times where you’re alone to enjoy the moment by yourself, but if you go more than 10 minutes without seeing another human being, something went wrong.
Booking the Refugios was the most difficult part. Everything else is actually quite easy.
Book early because things fill up quickly. I was there in March of 2020 and, in our little bubble, we didn’t know a pandemic was beginning. People were excitedly talking about how they were able to book their trip “yesterday”, and the Refugios were offering upgrades for low prices.
This is highly unusual and due to the many cancellations that were occurring. Getting reservations the day before your trip is almost unheard of and you cannot enter the park with plans to stay overnight without proving you have a reservation.
The water is drinkable without filtering. It’s some of the most refreshing water you will ever taste.
Even though I keep saying how safe it is, the terrain is rocky and difficult and with all the rain it can be slippery. Accidents do happen and we were reminded of this by seeing the rescue chopper fly overhead at least once a day.
The weather changes in an instant. When I was there, it was unseasonably warm and no one needed a jacket. Heck, we were all in tank tops and shorts. But on the last day, the weather cooled as a storm rolled in. It rained for hours, the wind picked up, and it dropped about 20 degrees.
If you’re even thinking of hiking the W, all I can say is, there’s no reason for anything to hold you back. This is truly one of the most beautiful places in the world.
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