The Torres del Paine National Park is a sight to see for any tourist on the southern tip of the South American continent. Photos of this National Park are used with great effect to lure tourists to the wilds of the south. Whilst located in Chile, the geography of the area leaves it isolated from most of Chile except by plane or boat. Puerto Natales, a 2 hour drive from the national park is the only place near enough to stay and whilst pleasant enough, is not a place to make you loiter long. Most tourists will catch busses here from Argentina, either Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego or nearby El Calafate. Because Puerto Natales is the gateway to Torres del Paine, there are plenty of places to pick up warm clothes or dried food, but not much else to do part from that.
The great attraction of Torres del Paine, apart from its spectacular scenery is the “W Trek”, a 4 or 5 day hike in a roughly W shape through the park taking in all the best sites it has to offer. Despite the hype this trek is precisely what Lauren and i decided not to do. The W trek appealed to us whilst we sat in the warmth of Buenos Aires reading others blogs about it in the summer months. However as we sat in Ushuaia in the cold on the cusp of winter we had a rethink and thought “Maybe this isn’t the best idea for us”
To W or not to W
Here’s why we didn’t do the W trek
- The weather was awful. Torres del Paine has weather that is incredibly unpredictable, the phrase that you’ll hear a lot is “4 seasons in one day”. Looking at the weather forecast the only season we’d be getting was the bad one. Gales, sleet, snow, torrential rain and cloud were our options. The idea of trekking for 4 days in those conditions and potentially not seeing much due to inclement weather wasn’t a good selling point.
- It’s actually quite expensive. The W trek wasn’t something we’d planned on doing when we left London but we thought how expensive can it be? Even if you do it on your own without a guide it costs about the same as the Inca Trail. The accommodation options are camping, which would mean hiring gear, or staying at the refugios which are $40-70 each a night. Add food, equipment, park entrance fee and bus to the park, it really does add up.
- We just weren’t that fussed. As the trek wasn’t one on our to do list of South America, combined with cost and bad weather, we really didn’t feel motivated to do it, despite other backpackers relentlessly telling us we had too! The weather could have cleared up but we decided we’d rather save the money for something we really wanted to do and see the sights on a day trip instead.
- Low season. Despite it being low season many of the refugios were booked up so we couldn’t have our first choices of accommodation, which would mean longer hikes than we hoped for. Also due to the time of year the bus services to the park only ran in the morning. This meant a day hike just to see Los Torres wasn’t an option for us.
Our advice…if you really want to do the W trek then you’re going to have a great time because the backdrop is spectacular even in the driving rain. If the weather is even half decent, or if it’s high season when all the refugios are open/camping would be pleasant option, and you’re up for the challenge then go. However if you don’t fancy the 4 day hike but still want to stretch your legs that’s not a problem.
Short Treks in Torres del Paine
We found that so much advertising goes into the W trek that it’s hard to work out if you can do shorter trips. You can. During high season a 1 day trek is easily possible to get to Base Torres and see Los Torres (the towers) up close. Another option is to catch the boat across Lago Peheo and hike up Valle del Frances staying at the refugio and heading back to Puerto Natales the next day. You can trek as much or as little of the National Park as you want, just remember to book your refugios (through FantasticoSur) far enough in advance as during the summer they fill up fast.
Just because we didn’t do the W trek doesn’t mean we didn’t get to go to Torres del Paine. 1 day bus tours can be easily picked up from Puerto Natales and you’ll still get to see some incredible sights. The forecast had said we’d have sun but strong winds for the first 2 hours of our trip, getting worse after that for at least the next week. That was a narrow window for us to try and see some of the views. Leaving at 7:30am we drove the 2 hours to the park, stopping to see large groups of condors on the way.
Just before you enter the actual park there is a lake and viewpoint that give you amazing views of Los Torres! Unfortunately, as we’ve said the weather was getting worse so we managed to snag this impressive shot of the world famous towers…
Even with low cloud and a freezing wind the views were really impressive, the huge mountains entwined with glaciers are awe inspiring no matter what the weather. What’s more the glacial blue waters of the lakes more than made up for the lack of blue skies.
The southern species of Llama the Guanco can be found all over the park, in large herds of individually, and as with all the best animals are very keen to pose in front of the great scenery.
The last stop of the day was Lago Grey to see the icebergs that had broken off Glacier Grey. Just a quick 20 minute walk in the rain to see these huge chunks of ice as they drifted past.
Undoubtedly even in bad weather the views in the national park are probably worth a trek, but considering the temperature and rain we were glad we had a warm minibus to get back on after each of our photo stops.