Torres del Paine Trek: 6 Days, 6 Lessons, Many Photos

Most articles we read about Torres del Paine National Park in Chile focus on Patagonian meadows, turquoise lakes, and rose-tinted granite towers in sunrise.

We’ll allow our photos to do that bit for us.

Torres del Paine Reflections - Chile
Torres del Paine Reflections

Instead, we’ll take a different tack and share some of the lessons –- about yourself, your marriage (if you have one), Patagonia, expectations, life, and travel – you might learn from trekking in Torres del Paine.

Lesson 1: Indulge in Small Victories. They Are Good for Your Marriage.

On the first day of our trek, we teamed up with a group of other trekkers and began the 17.5 km (10.5 mi.) walk from the trail-head fully laden: enough food for 6 days, a tent, sleeping bags, copious layers and various camping and trekking bits and bobs.

“The extra weight for camping gear isn’t too bad,” I remarked to Dan halfway down the trail.

He glared back; turns out he was carrying the tent and the bulk of the food. As easy as this opening terrain was, this was the first of our trekking days. Our energy was high, but we were out-of-shape and stiff and we needed to be broken in.

Turquoise Lake Pehoe - Torres del Paine, Chile
Turquoise Lake Pehoe – Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

By the time we arrived at our first camp, Paine Grande, we melted across the wooden benches in measured avoidance of our first test: put up the tent.

Praise to the gods of all religions large and small that the shop that rented us our tent insisted that we assemble it before we left the store. Fortunately, there was no candid camera to capture that those moments of suspended fruitlessness. I think we were there for 30 minutes, maybe 45. And we had to go inside to consult the prepared tent twice to figure out where all the sticks and stabilizers belonged.

But such preparation paid off. When time came to assemble the tent for real at our first camp, it took maybe five or ten minutes.

Our Tent at Paine Grande Refugio - Torres del Paine, Chile
Victory with our tent!!

But something nagged. The rain and wind cover didn’t really look right and flapped in the wind.

Ah, so what. The tent is up.

In a merge of simple pleasures and life’s small victories, we stood back in the glow of our assembled tent and watched the sun set on a nearly perfect day.

Lesson 2: Wind Blows

No winds howl, rush and change direction like those that blow through Patagonia.

Nature's Harshness - Torres del Paine, Chile
Windswept Vistas at Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

What was supposed to be a quick 3.5-hour trek up to Gray Glacier on the following day turned into an exhausting five-hour haul in the face of howling Mother Nature. At the exposed mountain pass viewpoints, winds were powerful enough — easily in excess of 70 miles per hour — to knock us to the ground, packs on.

When you are forced to grab random strangers and defensively fall into picker bushes, you know you are in trouble. In these conditions, a 100-yard walk took about 45 minutes; it was exhausting.

Lesson 3: Take estimated hiking times on trail maps with a grain of salt.

After clearing the hellish and windy pass, Gray Glacier — our day’s destination — lay ahead, visible.

It can’t be much longer,” we muttered to each other in hopes that repetition of this phrase might make it reality.

Hamming it Up at Gray Glacier - Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Finally arrived at Gray Glacier.

Ah, the mantra of the Torres del Paine trekker facing a map with grossly underestimated hiking times and a fully laden backpack.

We are convinced: the people who documented the Torres del Paine trekking maps never actually trekked Torres del Paine. The national park staff calculated hiking times assuming perfect weather, wind at the back, no packs and an average speed of Israeli trekkers straight from military service in full sprint.

Hiking Torres del Paine National Park - Chile
A beautiful day for trekking, Torres del Paine National Park.

Lesson 4: Much like life, trekking is a continuous exercise in expectation management. Your satisfaction may be aided if you expect the worst, for you reduce the risk of being disappointed.

We dreaded the return from Gray Glacier through the previous day’s wind tunnel. We braced ourselves for the worst and battened down our backpack hatches, but the weather had changed for the better and our return from Gray Glacier was pleasantly uneventful, save a rainbow or two.

Condor and a Rainbow - Torres del Paine, Chile
Condor flies into the rainbow.

That evening at Italiano campsite, we joined the other trekkers and sought refuge from the cold in a cooking shelter leanto. The night’s menu, an array of packaged foods: soup, pasta, rice, mashed potatoes. It didn’t appear hopeful on the culinary front.

But expectations be damned — camping cuisine reached new heights that evening. Collin, our fellow trekker, fashioned a new culinary masterpiece in ultimate comfort food: instant mashed potatoes blended with beef soup mix.

Surprisingly delicious.

Lesson 5: There’s freedom in the truth, even if it happens to be delivered by a guy in white sweatpants who says in the next breath, “Is it OK if I wear jeans hiking so long as they are not too tight?”

As the wind and cold drizzle drove us to huddle in the cooking shelter on that third night, Assaf, one of the least experienced but perhaps most astute Israeli trekkers, observed, “Why do people do this to themselves? Look at them — they are all suffering.

We laughed so hard. While at first I thought he was joking, a cursory look around revealed the cold, dark, damp and challenging truth in his words.

Lesson 6: A day that begins with a swollen face and mouse turds can end well.

When I awoke on day four, my left eye was swollen shut from a bug bite and mouse turds were scattered around the tent. As I tried to imagine what transpired overnight, I wondered whether I’d have to quit the trek and find a hospital.

Fortunately, as breakfast unfolded (unfolded? we had oatmeal with dulce de leche every morning – a delicious combination, by the way), the swelling in my eyelid and face subsided.

Camping Comraderie at Los Cuernos - Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Chatting over meals.

During breakfast, everyone’s gaze was diverted from me and each shared his story of mouse frustration from the night before.

“They ate a hole in my tent.”

“They ate through my backpack.”

“They ate half our food.”

“They pooped in my shoe.”

These mice were relentless. Cooking gas containers had teeth marks on them. Even the nature-loving Canadian park rangers couldn’t abide these bold rodents and were driven to crushing a mouse in their tent in the middle of the night.

After a hike up the French Valley that delivered a smorgasbord of both weather and views, our motivating force to continue: wine in a box, rumored to be available at Cuernos, our next campsite.

Fisheye View from Top of the French Valley - Torres del Paine, Chile
Fisheye View of the French Valley

That evening, Collin’s mashed potato masterpiece was outdone by Vlad’s onion, salami and cream sauce pasta that he shared with everyone. And never had boxed wine tasted so good.

Besides what nature has to offer, this what a social trekking experience is all about: eating, drinking, laughing, sharing. Each has his own pace during the day, but everyone meets together in the end to share in life’s many simple pleasures.

For many, seeing the sunrise over the torres, the towers for which the park is named, is the highlight of their trek.

Cooking Tea at Sunrise - Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Sunrise at the Torres.

For us, the highlight was the beauty in the progression of nature and the camaraderie of other trekkers to enjoy it all.

——–

There’s no denying, Torres del Paine National Park is beautiful. Take a look at the photo slideshow below if you don’t believe me.

However, we are going to buck the trend (of travel blogging and more specifically of coverage of Torres del Paine) by offering the trek a measured “Thumbs up.” We had read so many reviews and recommendations of this as one of the top treks in the world, so we were expecting a lot. We believe it might be better considered “a nice trek” rather than a trip of a lifetime. Again, much in life goes refers back to lesson #4: expectations.

Photo Slideshow: Torres del Paine National Park

If you don’t have a high speed internet connection or you would like to read the photo captions, check out our Torres del Paine photo essay.

Practical Details: How to Trek Torres del Paine Independently

Puerto Natales in southern Chile is the common jumping off point for Torres del Paine treks. There are early morning (7:30 AM) or afternoon buses to the Torres del Paine National Park for around $24 round-trip. Entrance into the National Park costs $30.

Camping vs. Lodges: We belabored the decision because we didn’t have any camping gear, nor did we have much experience camping independently. For us, the cost of the lodges ($50-$80/night/person) was prohibitively expensive, and the flexibility that camping allowed moved us to rent camping gear (something we had never done before). We highly recommend camping the entire “W” trek as this avoids more backtracking and allows you to camp closer to the main sights. The cost of camping per night varies between free for a few of the public campsites to $8-$10/person at the private campsites.

“W” Trek vs. the Circuit: We decided to do the “W-plus” trek, meaning that we began at the Administration building, which means we added an extra day to the trek (i.e., 6 days total). We really enjoyed the first day and the panoramic views it provided, so we recommend it.

Our decision to trek the “W” rather than the circuit was initially based on time considerations. If we had more time, perhaps we would have chosen to trek the full circuit (8-10 days), which adds the back side of the park to the “W”. It also reduces backtracking. Even in retrospect, we were done with camping after about six days so we didn’t have any regrets about ending our trek when we did.

Renting Camping Gear: The ideal situation is to have your own gear. However, everything you need can easily be rented in Puerto Natales the day before your hike. Erratic Rock offers great, free information sessions daily at 3 PM that provide information about the route, the gear you need and what to pack. They also rent gear. This is where we rented all our camping and trekking gear (e.g., tent, mat, sleeping bag, cooking kit, waterproof pants, waterproof jacket). However, it’s not cheap (e.g., $25-$35/day). We recommend to rent sleeping bags from Erratic Rock since they are comfort rated to -10 C (do not skimp on the sleeping bag!) and rent the tent and other gear from other local joints with more favorable prices.

When to go on the Torres del Paine trek: The high season for the Torres del Paine trek is December to February. We did our trek in mid-late March shoulder season. The positive: the trail and campsites were less busy and the leaves were changing to shades of yellow and orange. The downside: the weather was perhaps a bit more erratic and cold. We usually enjoy trekking in the shoulder season (we did the same for the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal) so this worked for us.

Our route on the “W” plus trek: Day 1: Administrative Building to Paine Grande campsite; Day 2: Paine Grande to Gray Glacier; Day 3: Gray Glacier to Italiano campsite; Day 4: French Valley to Los Cuernos campsite; Day 5: Los Cuernos to Las Torres campsite; Day 6: Sunrise view of the torres and return down to catch a bus out of the park and back to Puerto Natales.

Where to eat in Puerto Natales: La Picada de Carlitos restaurant (corner of Blanco Encalada and Esmeralda streets) is a large place usually full of locals and travelers. The food isn’t particularly gourmet, but it is hearty, tasty substantial and relatively inexpensive. The crab-stuffed cannelloni ($8) was our favorite dish. And no, it wasn’t crab substitute; nor was it skimpy on the crab. The grilled salmon was also substantial and tasty. An ideal end to a long walk through the woods.

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Comments

  1. says

    I’m a bicho raro (strange bug) who has actually been to TdP (as I like to call it) three times. The first time for a lightning-quick entry to go up and back to the Torres while my mom waited at the hostería, another time to hike the W, and a third time just to get a decent view of the torres when I had a couple of days to kill in Punta Arenas. And I can tell you that the weather is unpredictable at any time of the year. I was snowed on on New Year’s Even at the refugio closest to the torres (Dec 31st is roughly equivalent to June 30, that is the height of summer.) The hiking times are, as they say, relative. A headwind or a heavy pack can slow you down, and some hikers are slower on certain kinds of terrain. The rocks up to the actual torres I made mythically slow time, but then on other parts I was faster than the posted time. I figure it all works out. And if you move slowly, and you know it, you just get up and out earlier! (I know I do!)

    I’m glad you liked it, and I have to agree, it’s a bit overhyped. It’s also less well-rangered and explained than relatively close by Mt. Fitzroy in Argentina. And the cameraderie (and food/drink sharing) is mythic. I learned about drinking hot koolaid before bed to warm up. Sounds vile, and it might be, but it was also so, so good! (replace koolaid with local variants Zuko, Sprim, etc).

    If you’re not done hiking by the time you get here I can point you in some good directions around Santiago!

  2. says

    This is good stuff, what you shared. Thanks, I’m stumbling this page for reference, in case I decide to trek Torres del Paine. You pics are lovely, I guess it’s hard to take a bad photo there.

  3. says

    Thanks for the honest look at the trek – I initially really wanted to do it but decided not too because of timing, weather and financial considerations. You’ve made me feel a bit better that we missed it! The photos are beautiful though.

  4. says

    Ha! My favorite part was when you looked at your husband and commented at how light the added gear was :) That would totally be me and my wife!

    Nice photos and I enjoyed reading about your trip. Sounds like a good hike.

  5. Pete De Ritter says

    Your mouse turds reminded me of a camping trip years ago. We got in our tent for the night and thought it was raining. When we got up in the morning we found out it was the sound of gypsy moth crap falling on the tent. It was difficult getting psyched up for breakfast.
    Once again great photos and story.

  6. says

    Naturally, your photos are stunning :-) Love that you guys told the story through lessons and thoughts – a great way to relate to your journey – it’s so true that it’s the people who you’re sharing the treks with that help contribute to a great experience, sounds like you guys had some great camaraderie on the trail!

  7. says

    Loved your article and the pictures. I intend to bookmark it for reference purposes as I have wondered about doing the W trek versus the loop trek. I guess a week without any wind would be a minor miracle. Kudos for surviving 6 days on the trail.

    So a nice trek versus a stunning trek hmmm…. There are so many stunning treks to consider.

  8. says

    @Eileen: I completely get how good hot koolaid would be before going to bed in a tent! I wish I had known that trick for our trek.

    I met a guy from Santiago who had trekked in TdP 12 times! He also had crazy stories of snow storms in the winter and 30 degree celsius weather in the fall. The weather can change so drastically from hour to hour. You are right that the trails near El Chalten (Mt. Fitzroy) are better maintained with good signage. And, that park is free! We’re not quite sure what the TdP National Park spends the entrance fee ($30/person) on, but a few more signs and lockers at the campsites to protect food against mice would be nice!

    By the time we get to Santiago this weekend, I think we’ll be more up for some city, wine & food exploration. But, if there is something close to the city we would be up for a day hike.

    @Jen: Hope this post and its information proves useful to you in the future. If you have any other logistical questions, just ask!

    @Erin: We wanted to be honest about our Torres del Paine trek since the comments we heard from other trekkers seemed to match our perspective, but everything we read online before was all superlatives regarding how amazing it is. That said, we’ve been really fortunate to have gone on some incredible treks during our round-the-world journey. We also generally prefer treks that have engagement with local people (i.e., sleeping in villages, hiking through inhabited areas, etc.) in addition to beautiful nature.

    @Josh: Oh, I heard lots about all the extra weight he was carrying! The next day I redistributed some of the food, but Dan still bore most of the weight burden. Fortunately, our bags got lighter with each day as we ate more and more food.

    @Pete: Gypsy moth crap mistaken for rain? Oh, that sounds nasty. Must have been fun cleaning off your tent after that! By the way, we’re headed to the North Carolina area in late May to visit my grandparents.

    @Shannon: Glad you liked this approach! I started to write this as a day by day description, but easily got bored. I realized that my memories were related to these odd experiences and lessons. I had never had my eye/face swell up like that, but I was determined not to let my hideous face keep me back!

    @Leigh: A week without wind at Torres del Paine would be a miracle! If you have some flexibility in your schedule, my suggestion would be to check the wind reports when you’re in Puerto Natales and plan your trek when you have the most days with low winds. Good luck!

  9. Dee Dee says

    The pictures are incredible! The wind sounded horrific. Gotta do it when you’re young.
    Your camping experience reminds me of the
    time years ago when we took our 5 young kids and dog — and my sister, her husband and her 2 kids — camping in the “Grand Canyon” of Pennsylvania.
    We got there and had to set up tents in the pouring rain! Fun time.
    Even had a visit from a snake. Be thankful there were only 2 of you and, of course, a couple of rodents — wild life is always nice (;-).

  10. says

    I appreciate your honest evaluation of the famous Torres del Paine hike. I’ve got to say, you guys look cold, wet and miserable in that photo at the picnic table. No fun.

  11. says

    Great post…

    This really is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the pictures do all the talking in regards to that. Your explanations on hiking and what to expect hit it right on the head!!! Very good read! Thank you!

    Brendan v.

  12. says

    @Dee Dee: Camping with 5 young kids?!! I really can’t even fathom that. And, to add snakes into the mix. No wonder you’re such a strong woman today!

    @JoAnna: Glad you appreciate our honest look at this hike. It’s tough to stay balanced since we have been fortunate to have gone on so many amazing treks before this. The guys at the table are our trekking mates after a liter or so of boxed wine. But, we were in a similar state :)

    @Brendan: Thanks for your kind words about our photos and description of what to expect on the Torres del Paine trek!

  13. says

    Great! I learn some lesson on this post. Very interesting and informative, the photos of Torres del Paine trek are really beautiful. Thanks for sharing:)

  14. says

    @Arielle: Glad you learned something from this post and enjoyed the photos!

    @Eva & Jeremy: Like we hint at, we have had some other trekking experiences (e.g., Annapurna Circuit in Nepal) that we found to be more amazing. But, trekking in Torres del Paine was still a good experience and this is beautiful part of the world.

  15. says

    I haven’t done this trek but from an experience in the High Atlas mountains I share your thoughts that in addition to the natural beauty (and for me a major sense of accomplishment reaching the summit!) the truly best part was sharing it with my fellow trekkers and meeting new ones along the way. We instantly bonded based on the shared experience which made the trek that much richer and we were lucky to have the camaraderie extend past the base of the mountain. Thanks for sharing, Laurie

  16. says

    @Laurie: Thank you for your comment. On any trek, hopefully the natural beauty, sense of accomplish and trekker comraderie is always present. What we were trying to do in this piece is contrast Torres del Paine to some other treks (for example, the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal) where the cultural dimension proved both exceptionally rewarding and essential to the experience.

  17. says

    I always love visiting and being inspired by your blog. This trekking post is definitely a new favorite. The photos are so amazing, I can feel the mountain places there. Where are you trekking next?

  18. says

    @Sonya: Glad this post serves as inspiration! We don’t have any big treks planned for the moment, but we will be writing and posting photos soon from our treks around El Chalten in Argentine Patagonia and Chiloe Island in Chile. Stay tuned!

  19. Pam Klingler says

    We were scheduled to hike last year but the earthquake put it on hold till 2011. We leave Jan 10. So glad for the insight. Still anxious to see the sights. Were also going to head to Mt Fitz Roy nice to know the trails are taken care of.

  20. says

    @Pam: I’m so glad you were able to reschedule your trip for this year. The weather should be a little more reliable in January. I’ve heard from people who trekked in the last months that the camp sights now have better storage for food so there isn’t so much of a mouse problem. Let us know how it goes!

  21. says

    Love your pix & fascinated by your odyssey. We visited Torres del Paine several years ago but stayed in an eco-camp’s dome tents. I had just started my travel blog & had only sporadic (and always slow) Internet connections in Chile, so http://j.mp/w03FN1 was the best I could do.

    Re. your comment about hiking times being way longer than estimates, we trekked the summer Haute Route in Switzerland some years ago and decided that the sign-makers hadasked the youngest, strongest hiking guide in each village how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B. If he said, “two hours,” that’s what was painted in the sign — and it would take us, maybe, 2 3/4 hours. But the memories from some experiences are unquenchable, aren’t they!

  22. says

    @Claire: I’m laughing at your story from Switzerland – sounds very familiar not only to Torres del Paine, but to some other places where we’ve been hiking. The key is not to get caught up in the times, but just enjoy the walk like you said.

  23. says

    Loved this post and your photos, once again, are outstanding…You seem to get better and better with your photography….
    Hoping to do some of my own backpackin’ and trekking come the first of this new year…..
    Take care and keep up your wonderful posts and photos….
    crazychefpatti Somewhere in world

  24. says

    @Arthur: Thanks for your kind words about this post and photos. Photography is definitely something that gets better with time and dedication to it. And, Torres del Paine was a beautiful backdrop to experiment.

  25. says

    hihi – just published my video from there a few minutes ago and stumbled upon this by doing some research.
    We have to talk about your experience next time sided by some künefe or pisco sour :D

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