All the answers to your questions on a self-organised W Trek in Chilean Patagonia
In 2017, I quit my full-time job to travel. But where? So many amazing places in the world and so little time. The truth is that I had the answer to the question “Where?” long before I made the decision to quit.
Since the first time I watched The Motorcycle Diaries, this movie made me fall in love with the idea of backpacking through South America. But in 2016, I watched a BBC documentary called Wild Patagonia and visiting those wild landscapes had been my dream since. For this reason, when I quit my job, I knew exactly where I was going to go.
Fast forward a few months and here I am. We finally slowly made it to Chile and that dream of exploring Patagonia is about to come true.
Due to high prices, lack of organisation and last minute decisions you have to make when you are backpacking, a lot of people travelling we met along the way, decided to skip it.
Although it’s true that Patagonia is more expensive than other places in South America, it’s definitely worth exploring! And hopefully this post will give you some insights to help you organise your self-guided Torres del Paine adventure.
In this post you’ll find information on:
- Getting there
- Getting started – where to find information and rent gear
- Transport to the park
- National Park Fee
- Accommodation, Refugios and Campsites
- When is the best time to go
In my upcoming posts, you’ll find more information on organising your trek, including:
- Distances and difficulty levels
- What to bring with you
- Day Hikes from Puerto Natales
- Our itinerary
Getting there and getting started
To start the most popular Patagonia trek in Torre del Paine – the W Trek – you have to base yourself in Puerto Natales, a small town in the South of Chile. To get there, we flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas. Usually there are two airlines servicing this route and they both leave very early in the morning (5am): Latam and Jet Smart.
An alternative to this, would be to fly or get a bus to Puerto Montt and get a tourist boat along the fiords along the coast all the way down to the South. The bus between Santiago and Puerto Montt departs several times daily and it takes approximately 12 hours.
There is no direct bus from Santiago to Puerto Natales, but you can also get a bus to Osorno, then to Punta Arenas and finally to Puerto Natales.
After you land in Punta Arenas you need to get a bus to Puerto Natales, which costs 8,000 CLP. Since there is no centralised bus terminal in Punta Arenas, you would need to go directly to the offices of the transport company you want to use.
Therefore, the best option is to get the bus directly at the airport. There are several companies servicing this route and we used Bus Sur. You can book a ticket online, but there are a few buses going there throughout the day and, especially if you are not sure about what time you land, you don’t need to pre-book it.
However, beware of taxi drivers and the tourist information desk in Punta Arenas airport! When we landed in Punta Arenas, we went to the information desk to ask where to get the bus from and they told us that if we hadn’t booked it online we had to go to one of the bus companies offices in the city centre and pay a taxi fare of around USD$15 to get there. At this stage, a taxi driver was already there, ready to take our bags in the car. As we saw the bus approaching, however, we told the taxi driver to wait and I went to ask the bus driver if we could pay for the ticket directly on the bus, and the answer was that we could.
Getting started – where to find information and rent gear
Once in Puerto Natales, there are a few nice hostels where you will be able to gather information about the hikes, mainly from people who have just come back from the trek and will share their experience with you.
Erratik Rock Hostel hold a free backpacker talk every day at 3pm, and it’s also one of the best places to rent good hiking and camping gears at a reasonable price. The talk is very useful and it’s a chance for you to ask as many questions as you want to these people who have hiking there for the past 14 years.
If you can, rent hiking sticks. They were so helpful for us and couldn’t have done it without them, especially when walking downhill, on rocky/muddy paths with very strong wind. We rented them from Erratick Rock for 3,500 CPL per day. You can also rent proper gloves for 1,500CPL, a tent for two for 4,500CPL, sleeping bags for 3,000CPL and other useful stuff like head lamps, cooking kits, etc…
Transport to the park
From Puerto Natales you need to get a public bus to get to the Torre del Paine National Park. You should be able to book a ticket through your hostel and, even though you can potentially get a ticket on the same day, buses get pretty full so it is better to book it the day before. The cost for this bus is 15,000 CLP return (or 8,000 one way).
There are several buses servicing this route with the exact same schedule. The buses depart from Puerto Natales at 7.30 am and arrive in Torres del Paine at 7.45pm.
You will arrive in the National Park at around 9am, where you have to get off the bus to pay the park fee (see next section). After this, you have two options. If you decide to start your hike from Base de Las Torres and hike East to West, you need to get a van that will bring you closer to the starting point of the hike that takes approximately 15/20 minutes and costs 3,000 CLP one way, which you can pay directly to the driver. If you want to hike West to East (the most popular route), you need to go back on the bus you came on from Puerto Natales until you get to Pudeto where you need to get a Catamaran across Lago Grey to reach Paine Grande. The catamaran costs 18,000 CLP one way or 28,000 return. During high season, from December to March, the catamaran leaves four times daily, at 9am, 11am, 4:15pm, and 6pm from Pudeto and 9:35am, 11:35am, 7pm and 6:35pm from Paine Grande), but during low season, it only leaves twice daily.
You will arrive in Pudeto at around 10.40 am and the catamaran is supposed to leave at 11.00. However, some people had a bad experience getting on the catamaran, as it left before the scheduled time. So, given that it’s not so reliable, it’s better to run straight to the catamaran leaving point to avoid being left in Pudeto with no way of getting back until 7 pm, when the bus to go back to Puerto Natales leaves.
National Park Fee
When the bus arrives at Torres del Pain National Park, you will need to get off the bus, fill in a form with your details and pay the entrance to the park. This is 21,000 CLP for foreigners and 6,000 CLP for Chilean residents. Once you purchase your ticket, it will be valid for three consecutive days if you go in and out the park every day, or, if you camp there overnight, it will remain valid for the whole length of your stay, no matter how long it is. After you pay the entrance fee, you can go to the next desk where you receive a map and you can get a special National Park passport stamp, if you collect them! The final step in this stage is watching a video about the park main rules.
Accommodation, Refugios and Campsites
To be able to stay in the park, you need to reserve your accommodation in advance. This is quite expensive and, if like us, you don’t book it too much in advance, only the most expensive places will be left.
There are two free campsites, Campamiento Italiano and Paso, that you can reserve online on the CONAF website. Obviously, being free, they are almost always all booked out. They are free because they are just a place to set up your tent, but unlike all the other camping sites and refugios, they don’t have toilets, showers or a place to buy water or food.
Mid-range places are Grey, Chileno and Las Torres. You can book them through Vertice Patagonia or Fantastico Sur. They have both camping spots or dorms, cold showers and small shops. Here prices for a spot in the Campsite go from 16 USD in Sep/Oct and April to 21 USD from November to March, whereas a spot on the campsite including a tent, sleeping bag, liner and sleeping pad range from 42 USD to 49 USD. A fully made bunk bed or a single bed with a sleeping bag in a six-people dorm goes from 95 USD to 116 USD.
Finally, there are the more expensive ones, like Paine Grande or Frances, that have warm showers, bars and a minimarket and you can book on Vertice. Due to our lack of organization, we ended up having to stay in Paine Grande for one night, since it was the only one available. Prices for the dorm were of 55 USD for a “cama simple”, or a bed with no blankets, and 85 USD for a “cama armada “, a bed with sheets and blankets. The price was very high, but we were very lucky since we checked in very late and they made a mistake with our reservation, so at that point the only free room they had available for us was a private room (that would otherwise have costed us over double the price we paid).
The most expensive refugio is Frances: when looking up prices, we read that it was 380USD for a camping spot!
Don’t forget to bring your passport and your immigration paper, since you will need both when checking in the refugios.
From May to August, all refugios are closed.
When is the best time to go
October through March are the best months to hike Torres del Paine. During the summer, which goes from December to February, you will be able to enjoy longer days and good chance of sunshine, so it’s no surprise that this time of the year is the busiest for the National Park. What this means is that trails are more crowded and accommodation, both in the park and in Puerto Natales, tend to book out early. November to Mid December are less crowded but the weather is still nice, as it would be spring there.
If go from mid-March to late-April, you’ll be visiting the park in its autumn months. During time, when I visited the park myself, you’ll see spectacular autumn colours and breathtaking sunsets. Trails aren’t too crowded, but most accommodation in the park was booked out.
In the winter months, from May to the end of August, some parts and trails of the National Park will be inaccessible because of the snow and most of the refugios and campsites will be closed. While it’s still possible to visit the park over the winter month, you can only do so with a certified guide and there will be no park ranger from CONAF monitoring the trails.
Is there anything else you’d like to know about hiking the W-Trek? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll try to add it to my next post.
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