All you need to know to visit Torres del Paine

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Why go?
It’s the undisputed icon of Patagonia and it’s the best place to see the wide range of landscapes and ecosystems that are concentrated in that region (grasslands, forests, glaciers, mountains, lakes, rivers, etc.). In addition you can observe a large amount of wildlife. Because the animals don’t feel threatened by people they don’t run away and you take pictures from only a few meters away. 
Is it for me?
As a selling point many try to hide one of the most relevant characteristics of Patagonia: it is CHALLENGING. Don’t be misled by this! Patagonia has a varied climate, often cold, windy and always changing. In the same day you might take off and put on your jacket some 30 times. In midsummer at high altitudes it can snow. Patagonia has roads in poor condition, communication can be difficult and total solitude is a constant in many places. Torres del Paine is no exception, especially if you do the long trekking circuit. There are dozens of alternatives for getting to know Paine depending on whether you want something more complex or less difficult. The important thing is that you are honest with yourself and evaluate your physical condition and equipment before deciding on a route.  
Where is it?
Located in Chilean Patagonia, about 400 km north of Punta Arenas. First you need to get to Punta Arenas, from there continue northward to Puerto Natales and then farther north to reach the park. It is important that you take note of where you are: the access points are from the south to the north, to the west are ice fields (Grey Glacier) and forested areas. To the east and north are steppes. You can see a map here.
By car or by foot? 
By car. It is an unusual way to do it, but can be ideal for seeing a lot especially if combined with easy walks. Take into consideration that you’ll drive on gravel roads and have wind gusts of up to 100 km per hour. To arrive there are two roads from Puerto Natales (remember that you are going from south to north): the old one, which Is 154 km (60 km of it paved), and the new one that extends about 80 km and is entirely gravel. Before choosing the path of entry and exit, it is a good idea to check the weather. Why? Very simple. The western side of the park is an ice field and to the east and north are steppes.  From the old road you can access the Laguna Amarga, which leads to the steppe zone where rain is scarce. In contrast, the new road leads on to Porteria Serrano, which is close to forested areas and the Southern Ice Field where the rain is much more abundant.  If you have good weather, you’re lucky, and should start out immediately for the west. If not, it’s better to wait it out in the grasslands, taking photos of wildlife like guanacos and nandus. 
On foot. If you're accustomed to trekking, you don’t need any other recommendation than to buy your bus ticket Puerto Natales-Paine, and, if you intend to use shelters along your trek, book well in advance. Others in poor physical condition should know several things: Neither the "W" nor the "O" (the longer trail circuit) are easy, the estimated hours of walking on the maps are calculated for trekkers. Add a few hours or so depending on your level of conditioning.  And yes, it is exhausting and takes more than just perseverance and desire if you want things to go well. Anyone who says they aren’t dead by the time they reach the base of the towers is a liar. Ideally, you should do some physical training in advance. 

A good idea if you don’t like carrying many kilos on your back is to do the W via base camps. Sleep at the camp Las Torres, go up the base of the towers, take the catamaran across Lake Pehoe, leave your tent at the camp Paine Grande and use it as a base to go to the French Valley and Grey. That means leaving your backpack inside the tent (close everything well) then walk there and back (about 8 hours if you go to Grey, about 12 for French Valley), but you’ll be traveling lighter. Do not forget to carry your valuables like your wallet and bring things like chocolate as a snack. Water is not necessary because you can drink from the rivers- they are so clean they don’t need filtering. 
Equipment.  First thing you must have is a good map to know where you are and to start familiarizing yourself with key terms like Torres Base, Camp Pehoé, Portería Serrano, etc. For the "O" you need quality technical equipment, dress in three layers, use Gore-tex, a wind-resistant tent, a warm and light sleeping bag, and an ultra light foam or inflatable sleeping pad. For the "W" ideally you should have the same if you want to have fun but you have a little more leeway if you sleep in shelters or establish a fixed camp and leave behind dry clothes. At the absolute minimum you’ll need a tent that can withstand wind, a good pair of broken-in boots (don’t try to break in new boots in Paine!), a fleece shirt, warm hat and water resistant rain gear. If you drive, the minimum you will need is a fleece shirt, warm hat and change of clothes.
How long to stay? 
Do not go for less than 3 days, if you do you’ll likely be frustrated as in the park the weather is very unstable and its incredible mountains (Cuernos del Paine and Torres del Paine) have a way of disappearing with the first cloud that appears. The “W” takes about 4 to 5 days. And the “O” 7 to 9 days.
When to go? 
Most tourists go in summer because of better weather but you can visit all year round. In winter, although there are few hours of light and very low temperatures, there is also less wind. In December (summer), the light lasts almost 20 hours! 
Where to stay? 
Torres del Paine has 5-star hotels, luxury camping (“glamping”) and then immediately the offerings go to shelters with shared rooms and bathrooms, and normal camping. There are no cabins. Most campsites are very good, with hot showers, electricity, even cooking sites. An excellent example is Camping Pehoe.  The most rustic and least comfortable ones are in the "O" trek where there is limited availability of flat sites. It’s recommended you start walking very early so as not end up sleeping on a hillside. For hotels, shelters and camping at Pehoé, you need to book a reservation in advance. 
Do not miss..
  • Exploring Glaciar Grey 
  • Watching the sunrise overlooking the famed rock towers of the Torres del Paine (it has a spectacular shade of red) 
  • Sitting on the shores of Lake Nordenskjold and enjoying the view of the towers and the movement of the clouds. 
  • Making the drive by car between Laguna Amarga and Laguna Azul: a landscape of grass fields, lots of wildlife (guanacos, ñandus and flamingos) and good views of the towers. The best time is at dusk. 
More information here: 

Evelyn Pfeiffer is a deputy editor of Patagon Journal and an independent journalist, photographer and untiring traveller. Visit her personal website for more info. 

Photo by Francisco Negroni for Patagon Journal