I couldn’t find many tips on hiking the W trek before I set off. I’d heard there’s a great, informative talk at the Erratic Rock hostel in Puerto Natales, daily at 3pm, but we arrived later than this the day before we were due to set off. I hope this post will help fill anyone short on time in on the essentials.
CAMPING VS REFUGIOS
For me, this was a no brainer. Refugios, although very nice, cost about US$50 a night. If you camp, you can hire gear in Puerto Natales for next to nothing. Some of the campsites are free, and the others are around the CH$4000 to $8000 mark. Sure, you will have to lug food, a stove, gas, your tent, a sleeping bag and a roll mat around with you, but surely that’s part of the challenge? Also bear in mind that you can leave your bags in campsites and hike come sections with just a day pack. It’s also possible to use the facilities at the refugios. One night, we treated ourselves to a 3-course meal for CH$12,000.
HOW MANY DAYS?
We did it in 5. If you’re up for some long distances each day, it’s possible to do it in 4. Spreading it out gives you more flexibility though, which makes it more likely you can coincide the best views with the clearest skies.
Before I’d researched the W trek, I assumed you’d get dropped off at one end and hike a wiggly line, getting picked up at the other end. This isn’t the case. If you go west to east (saving the Torres del Paine until last), you actually get a boat to the bottom of the first slant of the W. This was our route:
The bus transfer to the park entrance (Laguna Amarga) left around 7am. Two hours later, we paid the park entrance fee and continued by bus to the ferry port at Pudeto. We had one hour to check out a nearby waterfall, then took the catamaran to Refugio Paine Grande. After a quick lunch, we walked up to Refugio Grey (CH$4000 a night), set up camp and strolled further north for better views of Glacier Grey.
Retracing our steps, we returned to Refugio Paine Grande, had lunch in the covered cooking area for campers, then hiked to campsite Italiano (free).
Leaving all our camping gear behind, we spent 6 hours hiking up into the stunning French Valley. The views are incredible, so if you can time this so it’s sunny, you’re quids in. After packing up our gear, we walked the 2-hour path to Refugio Cuernos (CH$8000).
Thinking this would be a massive slog, we set off early and hiked towards the Las Torres campsite and refugios. Before you get there, there’s a short cut that heads up the mountain towards the Torres del Paine. It doesn’t cut out anything spectacular and I’d advise you to take it. It’s well signposted. The path leads up to Refugio Chileno, where we had lunch at about 1pm. Afterwards, it was a short climb (about 1 hour) to Torres campsite (free). The whole hike took just over 5 hours (stops not included), which was way less than the map suggested.
We got up at 4am and set off up the path to the Torres del Paine viewpoint so we’d be there by 5:30am (sunrise). We sat on our roll mats and waited for the mist to clear. Returning to camp, we had a leisurely breakfast and walked back down the mountain to Refugio Las Torres, where a transfer bus takes you back to the park entrance for CH$2500. If you think this is a bit steep, you can walk it in about 2 hours, or risk being able to thumb a lift with the park rangers, as we ended up doing! The bus back to Puerto Natales left at 2pm.
WHAT EQUIPMENT DO I NEED?
Tent, sleeping bag, roll mat, stove, gas, food, plates, cups, spoons and appropriate clothing. Optional items include walking poles (not really necessary), waterproof trousers (it tends to spit rather than bucket it down) and a camera with charger (there are some opportunities to recharge your batteries in the refugios, even if you’re not staying in one).–
To ensure that you have the ability to keep all of your electronics charged for the duration of the trek, you should definitely look into the RokPak. It’s a solar charged waterproof charging unit compatible with virtually every USB device. It can withstand temperatures from -20 to +80ºC, and it comes with nifty features like a flashing LED to tell you when your phone has a notification.
WHAT WILL THE WEATHER BE LIKE?
Your guess is as good as mine! I went in December – Chile’s summer. We had glorious sunshine, battering winds that knocked us off our feet (see above), rain, sleet and hail. It could change from one minute to the next. Come prepared for every eventuality, and wear sunscreen even if it’s cloudy.
HOW MUCH FOOD SHOULD I BRING?
The main supermarket in Puerto Natales is no ordinary supermarket. It has rows upon rows of dehydrated food. This is what 3 of us chose to take for 5 days (with one meal in a refugio):
- Cuppa soups, tea bags and coffee
- 24 hard boiled eggs (a Godsend, even if we did get funny looks from people who thought we were carrying them raw!)
- Porridge mix
- A pack of cheese slices
- Four bread rolls each
- A pack of Triton biscuits each
- Some Old English toffees and bags of raisons and nuts as snacks
- Two bags of pasta (enough for 2 meals for 3)
- Two cartons of tomato sauce
- One can of tuna for the first night to go in the pasta
- Dehydrated potato ‘smash’ and gravy powder
WHERE CAN I STOCK UP?
Most of the campsites have a left food shelf, where you can also usually pick up unfinished gas canisters. There are also shops at Regugio Grey, Refugio Paine Grande (does not sell gas), Refugio Cuernos (very limited supply of snacks and wine), Refugio Chileno, and Refugio Las Torres. The free campsites (Italiano and Torres) do not sell anything so plan ahead.
ARE THERE SHOWER FACILITIES?
The only places we stayed where we could shower were Refugio Grey (only hot water in the evenings) and Refugio Cuernos (long queues but very worth it!). The toilet blocks at the campsites are generally just toilets and not very clean. If you need to use the bathroom while hiking, they ask you to bring the paper back with you or bury it. DO NOT BURN IT! A guy who did this last year set fire to most of the park and the damage is clear.
- When you board the ferry, get on last. They pile everyone’s bags on top of each other. You want to try to get off first with your stuff still intact
- Take your roll mat to the Torres del Paine so you’re more comfortable as you admire the view
- Plan ahead where you might stay and figure out where the nearest Refugio is to your campsite so you can pick up treats on the way past (ie, the boxed wine!)
- Avoid paying for the final transfer to the park entrance by hitch hiking (possibly a risky strategy if you can’t face the hike)
- Travel with interesting people. My friends were a constant source of entertainment, from one of them tearing her trousers trying to demonstrate the ‘David Brent’ dance, to the other thinking the shit rock to the right of the lake was the Torres del Paine. When the torres actually started to appear from behind the mist, she pointed to the top and said ‘It’s the moon!’ The look on her face when she realised her mistake was priceless. I’ve never laughed as much as those 5 days
FIND ACCOMMODATION DEALS
I’ve recently started using HotelsCombined to search for accommodation as I travel. It’s become one of my favourite tools because it aggregates the results of online searches from over 40 travel sites to bring you the best deals much faster than if you had to look them up to compare them separately.