If you want amazing scenery and challenging hiking, southern Chile’s Torres del Paine is the park for you. Here I’ll detail how we booked, what we packed, and what we explored.
The seed of this trip began when I watched the documentary 180° South. With that first glimpse of Patagonia, I knew I needed to go. Patagonia is a region of South America that includes both southern Chile and southern Argentina. Known for ice-capped mountains, glaciers, and scrub brush, it is sparsely settled, but the communities there range from the native inhabitants to Welsh, German, and Italian. Butch Cassidy and part of his gang are rumored to have disappeared here for a while. It is a place to escape to.
I began looking into ways to get there and quickly found EcoCamp, a sustainable hotel made up of geodesic domes that sit at the base of the Torres del Paine range. EcoCamp offers guided treks through the park as well as shorter excursions like Patagonian safaris. Choosing to believe ourselves adventurers, we decided to do the W trek, a 60-mile hike through the southern part of the Torres del Paine park.
Once we booked, there was no turning back!
We booked the trip directly through EcoCamp. To save a little money, we planned our trip for the first week in the fall shoulder season: the beginning of April. We also had to decide, because of financial restrictions, whether to do the shortened W trek and stay in a heated dome or do the entire W trek and “rough it” in an unheated dome. We chose the latter, because more mountains.
EcoCamp will pick you up from your hotel or the airport in Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, or El Calafate and drive you into the park. We chose to fly into Punta Arenas because it was quite a bit cheaper. Plus there was the draw of going to the southernmost city of the Americas! I actually had AAA book our flights because the different legs started to get confusing. We arrived in Punta Arenas on a Saturday afternoon so that we had a full day to explore before EcoCamp picked us up Monday morning. That bit of cushion also eased my nerves, since I was afraid a flight would get canceled. If we missed our EcoCamp pick-up time, the whole trip would have been ruined!
I wish we had come in even earlier, because we missed the penguins on the Isla Magdalena in the Strait of Magellan by one daaaaay. I’m still sad.
I booked the hotels in Punta Arenas (one for before the trek and one for after the trek) several months before our departure through Trip Advisor. Also, we made sure to get Chilean pesos out of the ATM at the Santiago airport for the best exchange rate.
As for logistics in the park, EcoCamp took care of everything. To sleep in the park, you have to reserve either a camping spot or a place in one of their lodges during your stay, which means you’ll need to know how far you can hike in a given day. EcoCamp reserved space for us at two refugios along the way, and they carried our overnight bags for us. All food was taken care of as well.
Our group’s two guides also served as fountains of knowledge. Each evening, we gathered as a group to talk about the next day’s hike and what to expect. Along they way, they shared lots of information about the flora, fauna, and geography, which really enhanced the trip for us. Overall, EcoCamp was an awesome choice that I highly recommend.
The flights and the trek cost us about $2800 a person.
We booked almost a year in advance, which allowed us to prepare ourselves physically for the challenge of the W. Avid hikers, we tried to hike at least once every weekend, slowly increasing our mileage. We got to the point where two 10-mile days back to back were no big deal. All literature I found said the longest day was the 16 miles between Refugio Los Cuernos and Refugio Paine Grande, the second day of hiking. It was more like 19, so I was grateful for the hiking miles I’d put in over the past year.
We also used an elliptical two or three times a week and sometimes the treadmill. Once we bought our backpacks, we hiked quite a bit with them full of water to get all straps adjusted. The key is definitely leg strength.
Training with hiking poles would be a good idea if you like the idea of a little extra support. I don’t suggest hiking with them in the park if you’ve never used them before. They become more of a liability that way.
EcoCamp provides a detailed packing list, which was awesome, since Patagonia is hard to pack for. There, you can experience all four seasons in a day, so you’ve got to be ready with layers. We went fairly light, knowing that everyone on the trip would be in the same stinky hiking boat. Here’s what I chose to bring:
- 3 pairs synthetic underwear
- 4 pairs synthetic socks
- 3 pair wool socks (one very thick for evenings/sleeping)
- 4 short-sleeved synthetic shirts
- 2 long-sleeved wool shirts
- 1 set of long johns for evening/sleeping (mine consisted of a mid-weight wool shirt and a pair of running tights)
- 2 pair hiking pants (one zips to shorts)
- North Face rain coat
- Marmot mid-weight fleece
- Flip flops
- Keen hiking boots
- Sun hat
- Wool hat
- Waterproof gloves
- Snacks (our beef jerky was a HUGE hit with our guides)
- Battery packs for camera and phones (and Casey’s C-PAP machine, which was its own adventure)
- Osprey backpack with 2-liter water reservoir
- City outfit (jeans, long-sleeved t-shirt, tennis shoes)
- A journal!
We arrived in Punta Arenas on Saturday, April 1, around 2 pm after leaving Indianapolis at 5:00 the evening before. I’d contacted our hotel to check on taxi prices from the airport to the hotel and was told it would cost around 10,000 CLP, which is about $15. What I didn’t realize is that there is a flat airport-to-town rate. It is always exactly 10,000 CLP, which is super nice. We grabbed a cab with no problems and went to Hotel Lacolet, which has a beautiful view of the city and the Strait of Magellan. They welcomed us with our first Pisco Sours (a kind of brandy sour) of the trip. Do know that you should not drink the tap water in Punta Arenas. We stuck with bottled water and were just fine.
Knowing the next day might be a bit overcast, we went straight to the picturesque overlook known as Mirador Cerro la Cruz, where you can see most of the colorful city.
We wandered a bit—making sure to see the plaza and the statue of Magellan—and then grabbed dinner at a Chilean sushi place called Entre Ollas y Sartenes. That’s right, sushi. It was good.
On Sunday, most things in town were closed, but we headed in the chill to the city cemetery, which was magnificent. The variety of names and stories we found in there was so cool. We went back to the plaza and saw many stray dogs, all of whom seemed nice, and eventually made it down to the strait. You could easily see Tierra del Fuego from shore, and it was crazy to think there wasn’t much further you could go before hitting Antarctica.
We toured the Museo Regional de Magellanes where we learned about the history of the region, from prehistoric animals to the beginnings of Punta Arenas. Then, a bit chilly, we lunched at La Luna. Fortified, we wandered back down to the strait, where we saw a cute green clock tower and the jumping off point for Antarctic expeditions. After dinner at Mesita Grande, we retired for the evening in our cute hotel.
The next morning, off we went with our soon-to-be-BFF travel buddies.
It’s impossible to relay how magical the Torres del Paine range is. Photos simply don’t do it justice. The company was great too. We trekked in a group of 9 with 2 guides, and all of us were fast friends by the end of the week.
Day 1: Travel to EcoCamp
Our first day consisted of driving from Punta Arenas to the park, with a brief break in Puerto Natales for a fantastic lunch. As I noted earlier, EcoCamp took care of all meals while we were with them, and the food was excellent. Just outside of Puerto Natales is the Milodon (Giant Sloth) Cave. We walked through the massive opening of the cave and got to pose with the giant sloth statue that stands guard there.
It was a long drive to the park, but we were rewarded with our first glimpses at the mountain range. We ended our day at EcoCamp, where we dropped off luggage at our domes and then met to eat dinner as a group. The food there is world class. You get to choose from three appetizers, three entrees, and three desserts. Wine is included with dinner (though I often chose custard apple juice, because I can’t easily get that in Indiana).
The standard dome was chilly until you got under the 50 pounds of blankets. Then it was cozy—even when we woke to frost on the inside of our windows one morning. The rough part is getting out of that warm bed and putting on cold microfiber hiking gear. My mother had gifted us an inflatable lantern for camping that came in so handy in the dome. Casey rigged it up on a coat hanger and hung it from the ceiling for a perfect little overhead light.
The restroom facilities for the standard domes were nice, though unheated. That said, there was always very hot water. If you’re the type of person who hates being cold and can afford the next dome up, which includes its own bathroom and a wood stove, go for it. But know that the standard dome was still a nice choice.
Day 2: Los Cuernos
We were rewarded our first morning with a magnificent sunrise that made Nieto and the towers glow behind our domes.
The first day of hiking took us from EcoCamp about 10 miles into the park, ending at Refugio Los Cuernos (the horns). We walked along the base of Nieto and beside the teal Nordenskjöld Lake, which is fed by glaciers. According to our guides, Claudio and Francisco, the Paine range is about 11 million years old, and the green arc of mountains across the lake is about 90 million.
During one of our food breaks, our fantastic guides explained how Los Cuernos were formed with their granite and sedimentary layers.
We ended the day at Refugio Los Cuernos, where Casey and I got to stay in a cute A-frame cabin next to an amazing waterfall. The food at this refugio wasn’t nearly as good as EcoCamp’s, but we were hungry. They also packed us a lunch the next day.
We had been told that we wouldn’t have access to electrical outlets in the refugios so we left our plug adapters back at EcoCamp. Turns out, we did have access. Casey’s C-PAP did fine on the battery pack, but it would have been nice to plug it in those nights.
Day 3: French Valley
On our longest day of hiking, we headed out from Refugio Los Cuernos in beautiful weather, up the French Valley, back down the French Valley, and ending at the Paine Grande Refugio for a total of about 19 miles. We got to know both sides of Los Cuernos, see more of Nordenskjöld Lake, and meet the majestic Paine Grande with its tiny avalanches. It was a day of amazing views, and the difficult hiking was totally worth it.
Passing through Refugio Italiano (fondly dubbed Refugio Stank by our crew) made me super glad that I was with EcoCamp and didn’t have to stay there. It smelled awful.
We climbed massive rocks to get to a lookout of the glaciers on Paine Grande and then continued on up into the valley. The view from the French Valley of the back of Los Cuernos, the Shark Fin, and Paine Grande was an excellent halfway point.
The hike back allowed us to pass through more Lenga forest, all reds and golds from the changing seasons, as well as through a burned-out forest caused by a 2011 forest fire. The last two miles to Refugio Paine Grande were rough on my feet, but we finally made it. The only meal option, unidentified “meat with potatoes,” was expensive at $23 a plate. Fortunately, EcoCamp had already paid for our meal. Again, refugio food wasn’t great, but it was food and we needed calories. We stayed in a comfortable dorm room with six bunks to a room. There were not-awesome showers, but hey! Running water!
Day 4: Grey Glacier
On our third day of hiking, we hiked from Refugio Paine Grande up the west side of the W to Grey Glacier. Once at Grey Lake, we took a catamaran right up to the glacier. It was the coldest day, but incredible!
Our mileage was just over 10 this day, and it was nice to take a break on a warm boat with more Pisco Sours. Being able to go right up to the face of the glacier was an amazing experience. This boat ride was another aspect that EcoCamp arranged for us.
Once we completed our boat ride, a van picked us up and drove us back to EcoCamp, where we were fed snacks and given drinks before dinner as we talked about details for the next day’s hike.
Day 5: Los Torres
The hike to Los Torres (the granite towers the park is named after) was the hardest, especially after being two days out from the longest hike. The trail head is near EcoCamp, so we walked from there about 17 miles round trip. It was rough at times, but with one foot in front of the other, we made it! We couldn’t have asked for a bluer sky.
After climbing a horribly long hill that nearly got the best of me, we got to walk through Lenga forests and over glacial rivers.
The end goal was the amazing towers and the beautiful lake at their base. We took a break there to take photos and eat, and we also saw a fox looking for snacks.
The entire day was definitely a bonding experience with my fellow hikers, and Stephanie in particular kept me going on this hike. When she and I finally made it back up the last steep hill to EcoCamp—officially completing the W—our guide Claudio was there waiting for us like a proud dad. We all slept well that night.
Day 6: Nature Trail
As a chaser to the W, we did a short 5.5-mile hike through the park looking at wildlife and cave paintings. I went in my sneakers instead of my boots, and it was a welcome break. That said, we were told it would be pretty flat, and it was definitely “Patagonia flat” (uphill).
We were lucky enough to see many guanaco (ancestors of llamas and alpacas), a skunk, and rheas (which look like ostriches).
We lunched at an overlook that featured ancient cave paintings. You can’t get much more awesome than that.
Overall, it was a lovely cool-down to a week of hard hiking.
Day 7: Travel to Punta Arenas
On the final day, we left early and drove the long miles back to Punta Arenas. We had to say goodbyes to new friends with promises to travel with them in the future. Casey and I were dropped off at Hotel Don Rey Felipe for this final leg, which we chose because it had a hot tub and a sauna. Turns out the hot tub wasn’t very hot, but the sauna felt amazing on our tired muscles.
It really was a trip of a lifetime, and though I have many more places to travel on my bucket list, I would gladly come back to Torres del Paine in the future. To see more photos, follow me on Instagram!