[Patagonia] Torres del Paine: Planning Your Trip
Torres del Paine in the South of Chile has been ranked one of the most beautiful places in the world and known for its great trekking. From massive glaciers to mirador outlooks, condors, expansive fields of flowers, and the almighty Las Torres, Torres del Paine definitely lives up to the hype. However, it might be a bit daunty trying to plan your trip, especially with the chaos of the new reservation system, so I hope this post (and others to follow) will clear this up for you.
How to get there
To Puerto Natales
This is the closest city to the park and where most people will travel to before and after their trek through TdP.
Plane: There is a small airport in Puerto Natales but flights are usually pretty expensive unless you are able to book way in advance. The better option would be to fly into Punta Arenas, the city a few hours south of Puerto Natales, because it has a much bigger airport and offer cheaper flights. From there you can either bus to Puerto Natales for about $7,000 CLP ($111 USD) or rent a car to drive up. Others will even fly into El Calafate, stay in the city for a couple days to visit the famous Perito Moreno Glacier then either rent a car or bus down.
Bus: This would be the most common option for those traveling from either the north or south. There are daily buses from El Calafate or Punta Arenas. From El Calafate, the city about 5 hours north, the bus will cost about $20 CLP ($30 USD) but will need to be booked a day prior because it's a popular route and since it takes about 5-6 hours, buses will only run twice a day. On the other hand, from Punta Arenas, buses will run almost every other hour.
A lot of people will even bus from Santiago and visit a few cities as they make their way down south to hit Puerto Natales. There are frequent buses but will not be cheap but these part of the country is widely overpriced. For example, my bus from Bariloche to El Chalten, a 25 hour bus ride, costed me about $120 USD.
Car: If you are traveling in a group and will be coming back to the city you rented the car from, this might be the best and cheapest option to get around. Car rentals are about $60 USD a day and you are on your own schedule. The only gimmick is that you have to return the car to the same city or else they will tack on a huge one-way fee (about $1,000 USD).
Hitchhiking: As crazy and scary as it sounds, hitchhiking is extremely popular in Chile and Argentina and not looked down upon at all. It's actually pretty encouraged by other travelers because you can save money, meet other people, and have a sense of adventure. I hitchhiked a few times in Argentina and Chile and really enjoyed all of my experiences.
To Torres del Paine National Park
Bus: The most common way to get to the park is via bus, which costs about $13,000 - $15,000 CLP for a round trip ticket. The bus takes around 2 hours to get to Lake Amarga, where you pay for the park entrance fee of $21,000 CLP. The buses leave from the bus station in Puerto Natales at 7:30am or 2:30pm.
From there, you can either take another shuttle to Las Torres Hotel for $3,000 to start your trek to either Campsites Central, Chileno, Torres, or Seron. Or if you are taking the catamaran or camping at Pehoe, you'll get back on the bus after you have paid to continue further into the park. The catamaran costs $18,000 one way or $28,000 for a return ticket. During high season the boat leaves from Pudeto 09:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. and will take around 30 minutes – the other way it leaves at 10:00 a.m., 12:30 p.m. (bus connection) and 6:30 p.m. (bus connection). For more information: catamaran info website.
Bus companies who offer daily services are: Buses Gomez, Buses Fernandez, Buses Maria José and Bus Sur (offers also a connection from Punta Arenas).
*If you are taking the bus back from TdP to Puerto Natales, you need to be waiting for the shuttle out 30 minutes before. The first bus out is at 2:30pm so you need to wait for the Las Torres Hotel shuttle at 2pm.
**You can buy it ahead of time or just show up at the bus station and buy a ticket at any of the booths but come a bit earlier around 7am to ensure you get your ticket and on the bus by 7:30am.
Car: Again if you are in a group, it might be more cost effective to rent a car especially if you are not planning to stay in the park for a long time, either a couple days or just doing day hikes. You can go at your own time and not have to depend on the bus schedules.
Hitchhike: You will find a lot of cars heading to the park or leaving the park and you can get picked up really quickly. It only took me about 10 - 15 minutes to get picked up from the park and taking to Puerto Natales.
Picking your route: W, O, or Q
There are different traditional routes to see Torres del Paine: W, O, or Q.
W: Highlighted in Red; Avg. 4 - 5 days
O: Highlighted in Red & Blue; Avg. 7 - 9 days
Q: Highlighted in Red, Blue, & Yellow; Avg. 8 - 9 days
When deciding which path to trek the park, you should take into consideration your physical ability, whether or not you will be able to trek with all of your stuff for only a few days or for a week or more, how much time you have, and since October 2016, what your reservations look like, and how relaxed you want your time in the park to be.
I think the park is beautiful and definitely worth spending as much time as possible there because you paid a pretty expensive entrance fee, drove/bussed in over 2 hours, and I don't think you would get the full experience of the park without spending at least a few days there.
The advantage of hiking the O or Q is that you will get the see half of the park that most will not get to see. With less people, you can truly enjoy the full beauty of TdP. But now with the new reservation system, they a limiting the number of people allowed to book in the backside of the park. However, when I went during high season, there were only about 15 people at the campsites even if they say it's full online, but I will go more info this in the next section.
With the new reservation system, you might have to get a bit creative with the way you hike around the park because you might not be able to get consecutive nights at different campsites to fit your intended route. So keep that in mind as you go into your planning of the route but I will provide some tips on how to handle the new reservation system.
Dorm type rooms are available in refugios along the W and range from $30 to $150+ USD. The cheapest room will be just a basic bed and you need to bring your own sheets or sleeping bag while the more expensive ones will include sheets and full board. These accommodations will have everything to live pretty comfortably with a warm indoor area, bar, restaurant, wifi, grocery store, hot showers, outlets, etc.
This wouldn't be something I recommend because you will miss out on the true nature, literally pun intended, of being in TdP. However, if you don't want to carry all of your camping gear with you, which I can definitely understand, this is a good option for accommodation. However, they are only available on the W so if you are doing the O, you will need to camp.
You can find refugios/domos are Grey, Paine Grande, Frances, Cuernos, Central, and Chileno.
Since October 2016, reservations for campsites are now mandatory at the park. They are no longer first come first serve like it used to be due to water contamination and other harm to the park. But since it is relatively new, the whole system is very chaotic and not well organized at all.
There are three companies that run campsites in the park:
CONAF: Paso (part of the O, between Perros and Grey), Italiano (at the bottom of the French Valley, between Paine Grande and Frances), Torres (45 minutes from the base of Las Torres and after Camp Chileno).
These are free campsites through the national park organization but they are booked out way in advance so the likelihood of getting anything here is slim to none so I would put most of my energy into getting spots with the other two organizations.
Vertice: Dickson (part of the O, between Seron and Perros, camping only), Perros (part of O, between Dickson and Paso, camping only), Grey (Between Paso and Paine Grande, refugio and camping), Paine Grande (between Grey and Italiano; Refugios and camping)
Fantastico Sur: Frances (between Paine Grande and Frances, camping on platforms and domos), Cuernos (between Frances and Central, camping and refugio), Central (between Cuernos/Los Torres Hotel and Chileno, camping and refugio), Chileno (between Central and Torres, camping on platforms and refugio), Seron (part of the O, between Central and Dickson, camping only)
Especially during high season, December to March, it is almost impossible to book anything online last minute. You will have to do it months in advance in order to secure the specific dates and route you want, if not you will be stuck with being a bit creative.
What to do if you can't get reservations
I have a few recommendations for those struggling to find reservations but are willing to do things a bit unconventional (I just went Jan/Feb 2017 and this was how it was but could change and they improve the system and these are not official recommendations from the park so take them with a grain of salt).
Visit the offices in Puerto Natales
The Vertice, Fantasico Sur, and CONAF offices are all in the small town of Puerto Natales and they usually have the most up-to-date reservation availability. So if you are not able to get any online, you should head to the offices right when you get into town. They will have open spots that will be listed as full online.
I was really lucky and was able to book most of my circuit when I got into town. About 3 weeks prior, I was only able to book 2 out of my 6 nights online and wasn't even sure that I would be able to do the W, let alone the O. When I got into P. Natales on January 27th, I walked to the Vertice and Fantastico Sur offices and were able to book the rest of the nights except for one. It might have been that I was alone so if you only have 1 tent among 2 or 3 people, I would have 1 person go and try to get a reservation for 1 person. The reason for this is that the only identification of having reservation is a sticker on your tent so it doesn't really matter how many people are inside because they aren't able to tell if you are inside your tent.
Wing it and come with bribes
The park rangers and those manning the campsites don't really care about who's there and whether or not you actually have reservations. Again, the system is very chaotic and there isn't a proper way for them to keep track of everyone in the park and at the campsites. All of the campsites, especially the paid ones, are massive and were half empty when I was there during high season. A lot of spots get overbooked or people don't show up and there's no way of cancelling so reservations may say full but in reality every campsite is pretty empty.
So my suggestion is to just show up at the campsite and pitch your tent. They warn you that they will be walking around at night checking for the reservation sticker on your tent but they don't. I didn't have the right sticker on my tent for 3 of my nights and I was never woken up or asked about it. If they do check, they are not going to make you hike out of the park in the middle of the night and the worse that can happen is that they make you pay for the campsite, which was what you were willing to do anyway. However, I honestly don't think anything will happen.
But let's say a ranger does stop you to ask for your reservation, how do you get out of that? Bridge 'em! I was able to stay for free one night at Camp Frances by giving them 2 snickers bars. I met other people who bribed them with weed, alcohol, cigarettes, and snickers. If you come prepared, you can definitely work the system this way.
Again, I want you to take my suggestions with a grain of salt and I can't be blamed if they don't work out. It worked for me and other people I have met but I can't guarantee that it will work every single time because you might run into a ranger who won't take bribes. But if you don't have any other options, I definitely think this is the best way to get around the park. You just need to be confident and okay with being a bit unconventional and adventurous. If you try this, please let me know how it goes for you!
Gear: to bring, rental, storage
Once you have decided on whether you will be staying in refugios or camping, you can figure out what type of gear you'll need to bring with you. If you are staying in refugios than you won't need to worry about having a tent, sleeping bag, or sleeping mat.
Due to strong winds and unpredictable weather in the park, it is recommended that you have a sturdy multi-season tent to withstand those conditions, such as a MRS tent. Most or all of the tents you can rent in Puerto Natales will be ones you can use in TdP. They will range between $3,000 - $4,500/night. Most places only rent out 2 person tents but I was able to find 1 person tent at a hostel on Manuel Baquedano and O'Higgins (it has a lime green hostel sign dangling) for $4,000/night.
It gets pretty cold at night so they recommend a 0 degree sleeping bag. Again, gear rental places will have them available but prices will vary between $2,000 - $4,000/night. The cheapest place I found them for was at "W Circuit - Treking in Patagonia" for $2,000/night.
Depending on how long you will be in the park, your backpack size will vary due to the amount of food you will have to carry. For my 7 days, I was able to fit everything in a 55L Osprey bag. You can go for smaller such as a 45L for 4 days or bigger for longer days. Places will also rent them out if you do not have your own. However, the most important part is to have a backpack that fits you well. Since you will be carrying everything on you, you need one that fits your torso length and sits nicely on your hips. Make sure if you are buying a new one or renting one you have them fill it with about 20 - 25 pounds so you can see how it fills on your shoulders, back, and hips. Without a well fitting backpack, those long trekking days will be a nightmare.
I have never hiked with trekking poles until TdP but I was so glad I had them. They were great for steep slopes and downhill. Renting them will range from $1,000 - $2,000 for one for $2,000 - $4,000 for a pair.
Bring a small portable one that is relatively lightweight and small. Don't bring those huge stovetops because they will be a pain to carry around. You can rent them along with cooking supplies such as pots, utensils, cups, etc, for $2,000 to $4,000. I opted in buying a cheap pot because that was all I needed since I had my own utensils, and rented a stove for $1,500. I saw other places that rented them out for $1,000 as well.
For 7 days, I didn't use a full can of gas and I honestly could have gotten away with getting free half empty ones that people throw away in Puerto Natales and if I ran out, taking ones that people threw away in the park. I saw a few campsites that had areas to put your unwanted gas canisters.
*I rented gear from different places to get the best combined value. I walked around the city for over 2 hours going into like 15 different rental stores to compare prices. Yes it was a hassle but I recommend it in order to save some money especially if you are going for a longer period of time.
Many hostels will have storage closets for you to leave your stuff there while you head into the park. The one I stayed at, Erratic Rock, was able to store my stuff for free. I'm not sure if other hostels charge a fee or not but double with them. Make sure it's a place you will be returning to after your trek
Weather conditions & what to wear
The weather in Torres del Paine is very temperamental and unpredictable. Even in the "summer" you can expect snow, wind, rain, cold temperature, etc. The park has all four seasons depending on where you are. One part of the park might be snowing while the other is sunny. This means you have to be prepared for anything. This is the number 1 question that gets asked by everyone: "What is the weather going to be like?" and to be honest, no one can answer this question accurately. There can be an educated guess that the summer months of December - February will be better than the winter months of June - August but day to day, there is no guarantee of sunny blue skies. So don't let the weather forecast or what you experience in Puerto Natales stop you from heading to the park.
I was very lucky and the all 7 days was beautiful and I only experienced light rain for a bit on night and one gust of strong wind on the John Garner's Pass but nothing as I was expecting.
What to wear
There will be a more detailed packing list in another post but in general, you have to be prepared but don't overpack because you will fill it in your shoulders during those long days of trekking. For the summer, I had 2 sets of clothing - one for trekking, one of camping. For trekking, I wore a quick dry long sleeve with a t-shirt on top and a waterproof windbreaker with waterproof hiking pants. For camping, I wore a long sleeve cotton shirt with a fleece and long pants. You really don't need anymore than this. It will be tempting to bring extra clothes to change into half way through but if you are already dirty, and will get dirty and sweaty again the next day, there is no need to put on a new set of clothes. Even if you are chilly in the morning, don't wear all of your layers because once you start hiking, your body will warm up very quickly and you'll have to stop to take off your layers.
As for the winter months in TdP, you should contact the CONAF office or your tour guide for more information. To my understanding, you can only trek TdP in the winter with a guide.
Patagonia is VERY EXPENSIVE! Prices down here are pretty equivalent to prices back in the states or even more expensive. Hostels are for sure more than those in Europe. So be prepared to cash out when you are down here.
Hostels = $100 (4 nights)
In El Chalten, El Calafate, Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, hostels will be ranging from $19 - $28/night. You will probably need to book at least 1 or 2 days before and after the park so you're already looking at about $100 just for 4 nights.
Campsites = $70 (6 nights)
Unless you are able to snatch a free campsite, the paid ones range from $5,000 - $9,000/night or about $7.50 - $15. So if you are like me and stayed for 6 nights that's about $70 for 6 nights.
Entrance Fee = $21,000 or $30 USD (valid for 3 days)
Transportation = $55 - $133
Depending where you start and the mode of transportation you'll be taking but this is based on just taking buses.
Bus from Puerto Natales to TdP (Lago Amarga) = $15,000
Shuttle from Lago Amarga to Las Torres Hotel = $3,000 (x2 when leaving) = $6,000
Catamaran = $18,000 (one way) or $28,000 (return)
Bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales = $7,000
Bus from El Calafate to Puerto Natales = $21,000
Gear Rentals = $15 - $25/night
Restaurants in Puerto Natales are pretty equivalent those those back home so you will be looking at $10 - $15 entrees. As for groceries, my 7 days in the park costed me about $65, which isn't cheap at all because that's a little under $10/day on not that great of food.
At the refugios, you will see prices for snacks and food 2 - 3x their normal prices. A snickers bar in town will be about $800 while in the park was $2,000. A can of soda is $500 in town but in the park it's $3,000.
Where to stay in Puerto Natales
I stayed at Erratic Rock and I thoroughly enjoyed it! Although it was on the pricier side at $16,000/night for a dorm, it was a really comfortable place with Apple TV, all the movies you want on VHS, an awesome breakfast with delicious homemade bread and omelette, free storage, strong wifi, awesome and knowledgeable staff, comfy beds, clean and tidy hostel, and a full fledged kitchen, and overall great people.
They have a restaurant and gear rental next door to make every even more convenient for you! I enjoyed my stay so much I booked an extra night instead of heading to Punta Arenas.
Base Camp TdP Info Talk
Next door to Erratic Rock is Base Camp where they serve delicious pizzas, quesadillas, tacos, beers and wine starting at 6pm. However, at 3pm everyday there is an hour long talk about everything you need to know about Torres del Paine. They provide amazing information, stuff you wouldn't even consider, and it really helped me plan and prepare for my trip. I highly, highly recommend heading there for the talk no matter at what stage of the planning process you are at. You will definitely learn so new useful information.