Trekking the “W”
Torres del Paine is South America’s most visited National Park, with more than 200.000 visitors per year. It covers an area of 181.000 hectares and is on every tourist’s itinerary who is visiting Chile or southern Argentina.
Why? The geological make-up of this place is very special: bizarre rock formations, uniquely coloured rocks, a string of lakes each featuring a different colour of green, waterfalls, streams of all sizes fed by icy glacier water, snow capped mountains and glaciers looming behind every turn. It could not be more scenic. Since the area is notorious for its unpredictable weather we hardly dare to mention we had almost three days of sunshine.
There are numerous treks, but the most popular one is the famous “W”, a four day hike covering the three highlights of the National Park:
- Mirador Las Torres, where you have a full view of the three “Torres” or granite spires, plus the lake at its bottom;
- Valle Frances;
- Glacier Grey.
The “W” is a very good image to describe the course of the trek: up /down three valleys that separate the massive rock formations of Los Cuernos, Pains Grande and Torres del Paine, thus resembling the letter “W”. The more ambitious and experienced trekkers do the entire “Circuit”, a six to eight day extended version of the “W”. Sticking to this image, it is the route that connects the two “outside legs of the W“, thus walking the backside of Paine Grande, Los Cuernos and Los Torres.
We found it all rather confusing in the beginning when people talked about the “W” and the “Circuit” and whether is was better to start from this end or the other end. Once we finally got to see a detailed map of the area, it became crystal clear.
First thing we did upon arriving in Puerto Natales was to head for Path@gone to book the three nights in the “Refugios”. These are hostals which offer dorms with six beds for a hefty 35 USD a bed, with shared bathrooms! Although to stay and eat in these refugios is pricey (add another 30 USD for three meals), it allows you the luxury to hike just carrying a small day-bag. Talking about costs: we dished out another 9 USD for renting a sleeping bag per night, 24 USD for the transfer between Puerto Natales and the National Park and 34 USD for the catamaran on Lake Pehoe. In total we paid 800 USD for the two of us for four days! To stay in tents and bring your food is definitely a much cheaper option.
The first night we stayed at Refugio Los Torres, which is near the entrance of the park. From there we walked up to the Mirador Las Torres, which took us eight hours round trip, the last stretch, climbing the moraine, was the hardest bit. Unfortunately, the three Torres were partly covered by clouds, but there seems to be a microclimate around these towers, because even when the sun was out these clouds never lifted.
The second day we deviated from the standard “W” and took the bus and catamaran to the other side of the “W”, to Refugio Paine Grande, where we stayed for two nights. This became necessary because the refugio to spend the second night, Refugio Los Cuernos, was full.
From there we trekked up to Glacier Grey, a 7 hour trek, and the third day to Valle Frances, another 10 hour trek. Heidi preferred the trek to Glacier Grey but Gilles definitely considered the Valle Frances as the highlight of Torres del Paine, even though it is a very long day, especially since one feels the fatigue of the previous days walking.
We actually had planed to do the standard “W”, but the way we actually did it suited us much better. First, all the travellers we met told us the second day, going from Refugio Torres Central to Refugio Los Cuernos is not interesting. We skipped this part, doing this bit by bus and catamaran. Second, by doing so we never had to carry our backpack during treks, which is very pleasant. And third, we got to see all the highlights of the “W” in even shorter times.
The night before and after the trek we stayed in Puerto Natales at Hostal Lilly Patagonicos, a very homely, warm place, with kitchen use, WiFi-Internet. We paid 15.000 Pesos or 30 USD for a double room with private bath, a bargain for Chile. The place was full with other travellers, and we enjoyed every minute exchanging travel stories till late into the night.