When I was planning my trip to Patagonia I looked online for information about travelling independently in Torres Del Paine National Park and was surprised to find most resources (blogs, websites, travel guides, etc) suggested that only way to see the park was on a tour.
I try to avoid organised tours at all costs and much prefer figuring out my own way around where possible. After doing a bit of research it seemed it was possible to visit the park independently, and when I arrived in Torres del Paine a lot of other travellers also were. Here’s all the information you’ll need if you’re looking to visit the park independently (but please feel free to leave a comment below if there’s anything I haven’t answered).
Getting to Torres del Paine
The nearest airport to Torres del Paine national park is in Punta Arenas, 350km miles south. From here you can catch a local bus to Puerto Natales, the closest town to the park. Buses originate in central Punta Arenas, come via the airport, then make the journey into Puerto Natales, which takes three hours and costs around 5-6,000 Chilean Pesos (CHP). About three bus companies make the journey; ask at the help desk at the airport for the schedule (I’ve included it below for information). There’s also free wifi in the airport, which is handy.
From Puerto Natales, there are numerous public buses to Torres del Paine, leaving from the bus station (on Avenida Espana) at 7:30am (and 2:30pm in high season, from October) and cost 15,000 CHP for an open return. Buses stop first at La Torres, on the east side of the park, then continue to the Administration, on the west side.
You’ll probably need to stay for a night in Puerto Natales either side of your park visit to pick up camping gear, food and bus tickets (I can highly recommend Tin House Patagonia).
Staying in Torres del Paine
Once in Torres del Paine national park there’s the option of camping or staying in refugios (basic mountain-style lodges). There are also a few luxury hotels on the periphery of the park. The east of the park is privately owned and accommodation here (owned by Fantastico Sur) is more expensive than that in the west of the park (owned by Vertice).
If you’re camping equipment can be rented from tour agencies in Puerto Natales or from the campsites in the park. It’s worth noting that most official campsites don’t open until high season in early October.
If you’re staying in refugios then bring a sleeping bag and towel, as it’s extra to hire these on top of the (already expensive) room rates.
Surviving Torres del Paine
Hiking in Torres del Paine is super easy. You don’t need to bring a map and can pick up a free one on entry into the park when you pay the fee (19,000CHP at the time of writing). Hiking trails are marked with orange posts and arrows and it’s pretty much impossible to get lost, as these are practically the only trails in the park. The main trek is ‘The W’, with an extended version, ‘The O – this site describes a bit more about them (more about these below).
I wasn’t brave enough to camp and stayed in the refugios (in fairness though I visited in September, which is winter, plus I reasoned that by the time I’d hired all the necessary camping equipment I probably wouldn’t have saved much money). The refugios were cold but comfortable and had clean (and powerful) showers with hot water.
It’s worth noting that if you want to cook for yourself (which is advisable, as the food served in refugios is horrendously overpriced – like, around £13 for a dry toast and instant coffee breakfast) then you need to bring your own stove or food that either 1. Doesn’t need to be cooked (eg bread, cured meats, cheese, pancakes, jams) and that will last for the duration of your stay, or 2. Can be prepared by adding just boiling water (eg instant noodles, instant mashed potatoes. Although guidebooks and blogs advise that there are kitchen facilities, refugios and campsites don’t provide cooking equipment, only boiling water.
It’s also worth mentioning that there’s no wifi or phone reception in the park, so sadly you’ll have to wait until you return to Puerto Natales before spamming everyone with your photos.
Hiking the W trek
Most people that visit Torres del Paine complete ‘the W circuit’, starting from the east of the park (Hotel Torres) and finishing in the west (Administration). This can be done in about 4-5 nights (some people do it in less time but in my opinion, visiting the park is a once in a lifetime experience and not something that should be rushed. It’s also possible to hike from west to east and in high season (from October) the ‘O circuit’ is also open, which is roughly twice as long and takes double the amount of time.
What to expect when trekking in Torres del Paine
People I met while hiking in the park likened the trails to those around Chamonix in terms of terrain underfoot. Generally, expect technical mountain trails with stretches with small and large boulders underfoot, as well as scree and loose pebbles.
- The stretch between Hotel Torres and Refugio Los Cuernos is mostly unchallenging, with stunning views over Lago Nordenskjold and a few hills to climb. When I visited a small bridge had collapsed between Hotel Torres and Refugio Los Cuernos, so this stretch involved navigating a small river by climbing over boulders (tricky if you’re hiking with a large backpack).
- Los Cuernos to Paine Grande: mostly flat with a few undulations and great views across Lago Skottsberg.
- French Valley/Valley del Frances: involves a tough trek up rocky mountain trails, but more than worth it for views of Glacier del Frances and Cerro Ostrava.
- La Torres: the hike from the base to the towers involves a steep scramble up rocks, snow and ice, but again, is worth it to see the famous towers.
Gear to bring
I’ll be covering the gear that worked in a separate post.