Torres del Paine is a hard place to get to. Perhaps that’s what makes it so magical. Or maybe it’s the turquoise lakes. Or the knife-like granite Torres rising from the earth. Or the snow-capped peaks in the distance.
After a few weeks traveling around Argentina, the grand finale of our trip was still to come. After three flights and more than 36 hours of nonstop travel, we had another seven hours of bus rides, a border crossing and a water crisis ahead of us before we reached Chilean Patagonia. But I would do it all over again to spend more time in Torres del Paine.
Here’s a brief reflection of the highs and lows during my seven-day hike on the W Trail.
The W Trail in Torres del Paine
The four- to five-day hut-to-hut trek, known as the “W” for the shape of the route, is one of the more popular multiday treks in Patagonia. The W’s direct route averages six to eight miles a day, but everyone detours to the Torres, the French Valley and Glacier Grey, which Hikers can rough it by carrying all their own gear, or pack light and stay at a refugios, complete with meals and a bar. To save money, you can rent tents and sleeping bags at each location and pay for daily meal packs.
Day 0: A Water Crisis and an ATM Crisis, but Great Views
We had less than two hours to make our bus connection in Puerto Natales or we risked missing our campsite for the first night. But after a five-hour bus ride from Argentina, our border crossing took longer than we had planned, and we arrived in Puerto Natales to discover the town had been without water for several days due to a recent storm.
We were planning to buy groceries for our next three meals, but all the stores and restaurants were closed. We couldn’t reach an ATM and had no Chilean pesos and a dwindling supply of emergency U.S. dollars. So we boarded our bus with a few bags of ketchup-flavored chips.
We arrived two hours later, and the park was beautiful. The Torres rose up from the mountain range. Packs of guanacos roamed the barren landscape. The jagged mountains were covered white from a recent storm, but the sky was deep blue and the sun was warm.
We had made it to Patagonia.
Day 1: Off the Beaten Path
The W trail can be overcrowded in peak season (December through March). Fortunately, we were on the early side of the season and somehow snuck our way in between a snowstorm that closed the roads and an airplane strike that would have left us stranded in Buenos Aires.
Our destination was Campground El Chileno, about four miles away and nestled in a valley below the Torres. Since our hike that day was short, we decided to take a detour up a nearby mountain.
The first peak offered breathtaking views of the Torres. We could also see the packs of day hikers along the trail we would later hike.
In the afternoon, we arrived at the campground, where we would camp on a steep hillside in a treehouse community supported by platforms. I decided to capture some photos of the Torres in the late-afternoon light and scout the route for our sunrise hike the next morning. I used my Garmin Forerunner 910XT to mark out a few waypoints for different sections of the hike.
As I snapped my photos, a ranger informed me the summit was closed for the day and I had to turn back, but he told me how to pace our hike the next morning so that we could catch the sunrise without arriving too early.
Day 2: Sunrise Hike to the Torres and Getting Muddy
The next morning we left at 4:15 a.m., which gave us two hours until sunrise. Other people left at 3:30 and had to wait at the top in subzero temperatures for more than an hour before the sunrise. We had to wait only 15 minutes.
The sunrise was magical. The tips of the Torres glowed bright orange, while the shadow from a nearby mountain moved slowly across the base. We enjoyed the performance for 30 minutes before our frozen fingers told us it was time to head back down.
Back at camp we warmed up with coffee and took a quick nap before setting out on the trail toward Campground Los Cuernos.
This time of year, when the snow melts, the trail is better described as a river. After avoiding mud patches and pools for the first two hours of our hike, we found ourselves trekking across an ankle-deep section of water.
Our reward: a gorgeous view of the milky blue Lago Nordenskjöld with snow-covered peaks in the distance. Later, after a hearty stew and a bottle of wine, we were fast asleep in our platform tent.
Day 3: The French Valley Amphitheater
For many hikers, the French Valley is the highlight of the trip. The sheer number of incredible mountains in a 360-degree panorama is hard to beat.
We enjoyed lunch at the first viewpoint as we watched a couple of minor avalanches on the mountain across the valley.
We were warned of afternoon rains, but the skies were clear and we cautiously ventured on. I estimated our return time back to our detour point with my Forerunner 910XT in case we had to hurry back. With several miles of hiking before Refugio Paine Grande, we didn’t want to arrive after dark.
We made it as far as the Mirador Británico, offering 360-degree panoramas of the massive granite cliffs.
On the rest of the trek, we passed a depressing section of the trail where a few years ago strong winds spread an illegal campfire started by a hiker. Effects of overpopulated trails and campgrounds can have a long-lasting effect.
We fought strong winds on the ridge as we approached our final campground, fortunate that tonight we were staying in a warm refugio instead of attempting to set up a tent in the gusty winds.
Day 4: Ferries and Farewells
On our final day, we skipped the hike to Glacier Grey and to catch a ferry across Lake Pehoé to see more of Puerto Natales. The views were the perfect recap of our time in the park.
Now just two buses and three flights to get back home.
The story and photographs are provided by Chris McCarty
Chris McCarty is an avid traveler who enjoys globetrotting in search of adventure and documenting his experiences through photography. He is a travel specialist for kimkim.com and offers itinerary advice inspired by his adventures, such as the W Trek in Torres del Paine, Chile.