The W-Trek is the most popular trek in Torres del Paine National Park located in the Chilean Patagonia region. Patagonia refers to the southern-most tip of South America shared between Chile and Argentina. The Chilean side of Patagonia boasts huge glaciers and sky-piercing mountain peaks. We opted for the Chilean side for out-of-this world miradors (the Spanish word for viewpoints). With little prior hiking experience, we were able to complete (albeit questionable) this hike without a guide in 4 nights/ 5 days. There are so many different options for hiking we’ll present most of them here and how we decided on what I think is the best way. First, we decided to do this trip without a guide for a more budget-friendly experience. If you prefer a guide the best company to go through is Fantastico Sur, with tours starting at $710 USD. Fantastico Sur actually owns half of the accommodations within the park. The advantage of going through is a guide is they handle all of the logistics and planning. Not to worry, below we provide everything you need to know for booking your own epic adventure.
Different hiking trails
The very first step in tackling Patagonia is that you need a plan. I suggest using this post as a guide and also pull up an Excel file. Feel free to download our exact plan in Microsoft Excel below. If you prefer, continue scrolling and I’ll get into all of the details below.
Hiking the W-TrekNow that you’ve kept reading and decided to hike the W-trek, now you must decide which direction to hike. Since it is a thru-hike, you’ll end your hike in a different location from where you began. We chose hike westward which means we went to the towers on the first day. It is the steepest climb in all of the trek, but we figured it was best to get the hardest part over with on the first day when morale is highest. Because the towers are the main attraction in the whole park, many people choose to save the best for last. Now that we’ve done it, I think hiking from east to west is easiest in terms of gaining elevation. The first day is the most difficult. On the last day is the view of the glacier. This would also be ideal if you plan to go glacier hiking on Glacier Grey or kayaking in Lago Grey (Lake Grey).
Best time to visit PatagoniaBecause Patagonia is located far south, the only times to visit the Park is October 1st thru April 30th. During winter, the weather can be treacherous and hiking can be dangerous. The refugios aren’t open outside of this window. The weather is so unpredictable, I don’t think anyone would want to tough it out in the winter.
How to get to Torres del PainePatagonia is located at the end of the world and getting there is difficult and long. We flew from Santiago International Airport to Punta Arenas Airport. Now, Punta Arenas isn’t the biggest or best airport ever but there is one Priority Pass lounge, Salones VIP Pacific Club located after security directly in front of Gate 2 that is open 24 hours. The wifi is strong and the refreshments are free. That’s really it. There are only 3 gates so you will definitely see it. There is one restaurant before security with WIFI for customers only. We purchased the most expensive and driest sandwich. The best thing to do would be to spend time in the lounge and skip the restaurant. The lounge offers free water, coffee, and basic snacks. There are a lot of early morning/ late night flights out of the airport so often the seats are filled with travelers laying across the benches before/after those flights. Once your flight lands in Punta Arenas, you’ll need to take a 3-hour bus to Puerto Natales. The two companies that have airport pick-up are Bus Fernandez and Bus Sur. Both bus companies have bus pick-ups leaving all day and are priced competitively. We paid about $10 USD per person, one-way. The best option is booking in advance for the time you would like because everyone flying into Punta Arenas is on their way to Puerto Natales and some busses are full. After the comfortable and scenic bus ride, you’ll arrive in Puerto Natales bus terminal, the gateway to Torres del Paine. I recommend a hostel close to the bus terminal because you need to conserve your energy for the huge hike coming. Red Patagonia was our hostel of choice. The vibe was extremely friendly, and the staff was very helpful with tips and advice. They even offer day trips and tours leaving from Puerto Natales. We met people from around the world (many couples on a gap year!). There is not much going on in Puerto Natales but we stayed for two nights because we needed enough time to go buy food for the trail and attend the info session hosted by Day Zero. There are several grocery stores in Puerto Natales full of tourists getting trail food. Because we purchased our meals with our accommodation inside Torres del Paine. We packed enough food for 3 lunches and snacks to eat while hiking. If you are looking for granola bars, the only place we found that carried them is Super Frut Market on Manuel Bulnes Street. This is also a locally run supermarket that is always great supporting local communities, especially in small towns. There is a big Unimarc grocery store also available. We always try to spend money locally rather than big chains. The info session hosted but Day Zero was phenomenal. The info session is held daily at 3 pm. It is very popular and gets crowded so arrive at least 10 minutes before 3 pm. Our host started promptly at 3 pm and talked for about an hour. The tips were really great except most of them were things you would’ve needed to know before arriving. (That’s why I’m writing this guide so you will be prepared.) The main tips we’re about the park and what to expect on the trails from someone who lives this stuff! His intimate knowledge is impressive, and I encourage you not to miss it. It’s also a good place to meet other travelers who are joining the trail alongside you. For all solo travelers, this is the perfect opportunity to find a hiking buddy with the same plans as you.
Book Accommodation Far in Advance!As soon as you decide to undertake this other-world adventure, (It really feels like another world, see our pictures here on our Instagram) you need to book your accommodations. We met a couple who started searching for campsites and rooms in October for early December dates and couldn’t find any availability. It’s safe to say that in high season (November-January) it will be very difficult to find a campsite or room. Keeping in mind that there are several campsites but if you are hiking in a specific direction, the campsites need to match your daily hiking distances in the specific order of arrival. We booked ours with our schedule and campsites in July for early December. Our accommodation and hiking schedule were a natural fit based on the map of the park. Most days consisted of hiking 6-7 hours per day. Two companies basically split the park in half on where you can stay, Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia. Fantastico Sur owns the eastern campsites/refugios while Vertice Patagonia owns the western campsites/refugios. You can’t wild camp within the park and you must have reservations. Park staff ask your reservations when entering the park if you plan to spend more than one day. Doing 4 nights on the trail will have you on an even split between the two companies. In order, we chose Refugio Chileno, Camping Frances, Paine Grande, and Paine Grey operated by Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia respectively. Although we later made adjustments, these 4 campsites would work perfectly based on hiking distance and lookout points.
Patagonia: Day 1When we boarded the 7 am bus from the Puerto Natales bus station (There is only one bus station – very easy to find), we arrived at the park entrance approx. 2 hours later at 9 am. At the entrance is where the entrance fee must be paid (makes sense right?) with cash only. Tip: Purchase your park entrance ticket in advance at the CONAF booth at the bus station the day before you leave. The bus station is open from 6 am-8 pm daily. It will only take a few minutes and the line is significantly shorter than waiting at the park entrance. As an added bonus, you can even pay with a credit/debit card at the bus station. To get to the trailhead we boarded a shuttle bus that costs CLP $15,000 per person for one-way cash-only. The bus was only about 10 minutes to take you to a small store that sells Patagonia clothing and small snacks. The hike to Hotel Las Torres is about 15 minutes from this starting point. Refugio Chileno is 3 hours from the shuttle stop. After Hotel Las Torres, the hike is all uphill. It is quite difficult with little to no shade. Once you reach Chileno, there are picnic tables, a small store for snacks, and a full restaurant serving lunch. Plan to eat lunch at Chileno (either purchasing or eating your own). We made it to Chileno by 1 pm. This is the closest campsite to the towers so if you plan to visit the Torres, you can take the 2-hour hike to the viewpoint. Check-in for the camping spots begins at 3 pm. The check-in process was very straight-forward. You must provide either a screenshot of your reservation on your phone or a printed copy. Better safe than sorry – we printed all reservations in Santiago and had a screenshot. In addition, you must show your passport and white immigration card. Tip: When you enter Chile, the border protection agents will give you a small white receipt for entering the country. They don’t say that this slip is very important and that you need it but you will NEED it. If you lose it, you must visit a police station and fill out forms for a replacement. We heard this is a quick process, but it can through your plan off if you lose it. When we check in to our campsite, we were given a tent number and a dinner time slot. We were assigned tent #22 and 7:30 pm dinner. There are so many tents and there are spots for people who bring their own tents. Our tent was near the far end of the tents and very quiet. I’m not sure how they assign tent numbers and dinner slots. We were satisfied with what was assigned. If you have dietary restrictions, you would tell the receptionist at this time. Dinner was served promptly at 7:30 pm and every seat was filled. We arrived about 10 minutes early and were able to pick our seats while those who arrived later had little choice in a seat. A basic salad was set on the table to be served family-style. Then, the staff placed a bread basket on the table to also be shared family-style. For the main course, they served pork ribs and black beans. The portion was large but not very tasty. The ribs were mostly fatty and unseasoned. At the end of a long hike, hot food is much appreciated so we devoured our meals. For dessert, there was a slice of cheesecake. After dinner, we talked with others nearby but because there is another dinner service beginning at 8:30 pm, we were asked to leave. We enjoyed the rest of the night in our tent.
Patagonia: Day 2The next morning, we woke up at 7 am and planned to begin our hike from Chileno campsite to Camping Frances at 8 am. We packed our backpacks and ate our trail mix for breakfast and hit the trail by 8:15. The hike started flat and breathtakingly beautiful. For the first two hours, it was flat with small rolling hills. The next two hours were mostly downhill and rocky but mostly appreciated after the steep incline of the previous day. There are many beautiful spots for lunch breaks. After about 6 hours, we were very tired from not eating enough. Our last 3 hours felt mostly uphill, but we admittedly were exhausted. We had never hiked for more than 4 hours. It took us 8 hours to get to Camping Frances. The last 30 minutes of the hike is all incline. We arrived at our campsite by 4 pm to check in to our tent. Our tent was #3 and dinner at 7:30 pm. Thankfully, our tent was located immediately behind the check-in station. We were so happy to have a tent already pitched. We settled in then prepared for dinner. Camping Frances is huge compared to Chileno. The restaurant is 500m downhill from the tents and the bathrooms are located about halfway. This was especially challenging for my jelly legs but a hot meal was the perfect motivation. Dinner was served at exactly 7:30 pm and we arrived right on time (the walk from the tent was veryyy slow). This was the best dinner of our entire stay. Dinner started with a salad and bread shared family-style. The main course was salmon with roasted potatoes in a cream sauce. There was no seasoning in sight but the meal choice was better than Chileno. We purchased a beer each to go and retired back to our tent promptly.
Patagonia: Day 3The next day was a blur. I was getting tired of long hiking days on end and our stash of trail mix was nonexistent. We began the day around 8 am. The journey from Camping Frances to Italiano was about 20 minutes. Italiano is a free campsite with no amenities but the closest to the French valley. At this point, most hikers leave their large backpacks to hike to the mirador and back. Since the trail is shaped like a W, this was a section that required down and back travel. The lookout point is 3 hours from Italiano. Based on our lack of food, we skipped the French valley and headed straight to Paine Grande. We’ve heard that this is the most beautiful part of the entire hike. We hiked the remaining 3 hours to Paine Grande site instead. This hike was mostly flat and the least crowded. However, this section was extremely windy. We almost bumped into two people running the trail (One woman we met up with later told us that she ran the entire trail in 8 hours). We laughed at these superhumans and keep it pushing. When we arrived early to Paine Grande and was able to check in right away. The receptionist assigned us to tent #3 situated towards the front of the campsite. We settled into our tents until dinner time. Upon checking in, we were able to pick our dinner time. We selected 7:30 pm for consistency. However, no one verified our arrival time. Dinner was cafeteria style with a varied selection. The options included bread with butter, chickpeas, rice, black beans, beef, chicken, and mixed vegetables. I think this would accommodate most dietary restrictions. There was also a decent salad bar. In particular, there is a spicy garlic dressing that aided in the lack of seasoning. We spent a lot of time in our tents.
Patagonia: Day 4By day 4, we were running on empty. This was also the only day where the weather was terrible. We woke up to heavy rain. As we made our way to the cafeteria for breakfast, we ran into friends who attempted to continue hiking to Paine Grey but couldn’t make it due to the rain. That was the only excuse we needed to avoid hiking for 4 hours in the downpour. We decided to skip the hike to Glacier Grey and instead spend the day at Paine Grande. There isn’t much to do in Paine Grande except enjoy the scenery and relax. It was very serene to spend a day relaxing unplugged from the rest of the world. Paine Grande sits right at the edge of the lake and the views of the lake were unmatched. Since Paine Grande and Paine Grey are operated by the same company, we asked to move our reservation to spend another night in Paine Grande. The food left much to be desired being that they are so remote so we dint expect the best culinary experience. Breakfast was bread and scrambled eggs. Lunch was a boxed cold lunch consisting of a roast beef sandwich with a granola bar and trail mix. Dinner was the same extensive cafeteria-style menu.
Patagonia: Day 5The last day, we planned to take the catamaran to Pudeto for the bus ride back to Puerto Natales. We took our time in the morning getting ready since we were only boarding the boat to take the busses back. That morning, we ate the same breakfast option then hopped on the 10:30 am catamaran. It costs CLP $23K ($35 USD) for the catamaran and is cash-only. The short ride on the lake was absolutely gorgeous! The best panoramic views. The top level of the boat is completely open and is the best for taking pictures and soaking it in before you leave the park. When we arrived at Pudeto, all the bus companies had a bus waiting for everyone to disembark from the boat and board the 10+ busses. Once most people found their bus, the busses took out. Our bus schedule said that it leaves at 1 pm but left a little early since the only passengers just arrived on the boat. The bus from Pudeto to Puerto Natales was about an hour with really good views along the way (views within the entire park are spectacular)
5 Best Hiking Tips in Patagonia
- Bring enough food! The advice we were given was to eat a snack (granola bar, a handful of trail mix, etc) every 15 minutes to maintain higher energy.
- Hike your own hike. Cliché? Sure, but we are new hikers and my best advice would be to go at your own pace.
- Hydrate. Hydrate. The water sources in the park are safe to drink so you will have many options.
- It’s challenging for everyone. We met so many people of various hiking abilities that all agreed that it difficult.
- Trekking poles are the best! I don’t think I’ll ever hike again without trekking poles. It was our first time using them but definitely not the last. They are great pulling yourself uphill and stabilizing your way downhill. I have a new love for trekking poles.