Torres del Paine: Patagonia’s essence in a day

Posted on 07. May, 2013 by in Chile

To trek or not to trek

A major difference between going on vacation and traveling long(ish)-term is this: when you go on vacation, you have already carefully researched and chosen your destinations (and possibly tour providers) before ever stepping foot on the plane. When travel is your lifestyle – okay, when WE travel – you let destinations come to you. In other words, aside from the main stops, the decision to visit certain destinations is made after talking to fellow travelers, being won over by posts on other travel blogs and studying guidebooks for more detail.

When we announced our trip to South America, we heard over and over again “You have to do the W Trek.” What is this trek about, we wondered? It turns out that this is one of those great hikes in the world, regularly appearing in The World’s Ten Best Treks’ lists in magazines across the globe. So obviously we considered tackling it as we neared the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia.

torres del paine mountains with reflectionWhat makes the W Trek such a remarkable hike? It turns out, this is a multi-day hike whose trials form a cursive letter W throughout the park and although it much of it is ranges from intermediate to difficult levels of hiking, the experience is supposed to be the pure essence of Patagonia. In those 4-5 days you experience glaciers, massive mountains, crystal blue lakes, waterfalls and exotic wildlife like Guanacos (part of the Llama family) ñandus Torres Del Paine W Trek(similar to Emus), plus foxes and even pumas. The park is name after its most famous mountain range, ‘Los Tres Torres’, or the Three Towers and ‘Paine’ is the local indigenous word for blue, an amazing array of which you see throughout the park from the sky and lakes to the floating chunks of glaciers (which we’ll get to in a bit).

Sounds amazing, right? Here’s the thing. We love day hiking, but not 4-5 days in a row, plus the whole experience is quite costly. The refugios (hostels along the trek) run $40 for a dorm bed, and meals are apparently so overpriced that people who’ve done the trek recommend lugging around all your own food for five days. We’d have to buy or rent warm clothes, as our supply is limited and the weather in Torres del Paine can change dramatically hours at a time. Then we read about bed bugs in some of the refugios and that was that. We were not going to do the W trek.

torres del paine national park llamaInstead, we took the five-hour bus ride from El Calafate, Argentina to Puerto Natales, Chile, the small Patagonian city popular as the base for trips into the park. We had intentions of sorting out a day trek to the three towers, which is a highlight section of the trek, but after a few failed attempts, we settled on an all-day tour that included several stops at the main viewing points and short hikes in the park.

For those non-trekkers out there, this was a great way to actually see more of the park than you would on the W Trek. The tours all cost roughly the same, at $40 per person, plus the $36 park fee on top, which worked out to be more expensive than renting a car but easier to get to the park’s highlights without having to do any more of that pesky research!

torres del paine mountain and horsesTorres del Paine National Park begins 112km (70mi) north of Puerto Natales. The minivan tour started by speeding through the vast pampa straight toward the looming mountains of the park, making one short stop first at the Milodon cave. The prehistoric cave was probably carved out by rushing water from nearby melting glaciers thousands of years ago, but what makes these deep caves so famous is the discovery of skin and bones of the prehistoric giant ground sloth, the Milodon.

jess with milodonFrom there the tour continued on into the park, driving along nearly empty dirt roads. 100,000 hikers visit Torres Del Paine every year, or under 275 per day, meaning we felt like we had this national park almost entirely to ourselves. The first stop was the first highlight – a viewpoint overlooking a bright blue mountain lake with snow-capped mountains in the background.

Massive icebergs at Lago Grey

The first hike of the day was a short trail to Lago Grey, walking across a wooden footbridge, through a forest and down onto a beach around the lake. The temperature dropped dramatically as we neared the massive blue icebergs floating in the lake which had calved off the nearby glacier. Wind-wipped and freezing, we posed in front of the blue ice blocks and even got to touch some of the smaller ‘cubes’ that floated to the water’s edge.

torres del paine eating iceice berg torres del paineWe warmed up back in the van, stopped at another mountain lake and then stopped at one of the refugios for lunch. Our lunches packed, we headed away from the restaurant and up onto a small hilltop where three, then four, graceful guanacos grazed and galloped right by us. At first we had stunned faces to match the cast of Jurassic Park viewing dinosaurs for the first time, but as we still observing them, warming ourselves in the sun, it really set in how magical the park can feel – so pure, natural and exotic down at the end of the earth.

dani jess & llamasThe tour continued on with gorgeous viewpoints every so often until the driver stopped for our second ‘hike’, which was really a 30 minute easy walk that led to a lookout above and just to the side of a rushing waterfall and paths up and down to different vantage points.

Along the path, the burnt trees were painful evidence of the terrible forest fires Torres del Paine suffered a few years ago when a tourist’s campfire got out of control and thousands of acres were burnt to the ground.

The water rushing down is so powerful and the water is pristine enough to drink, if only I could have just held the water bottle under that giant faucet…

torres del paine national park waterfall

The grand finale: The Three Towers viewpoint

These three towers have come to symbolize the park, the hikes, really the entire reason most people make the trip to this part of Patagonia. On the day tour, it was entirely anticlimactic, with a quick stop at a lookout spot with views of the three towers tucked behind a mountain in front of it. Watching herds of sheep running across the road nearby – and the reaction of a Japanese tourist who had never seen such a thing before – was actually much more memorable than this stop of the tour.

torres del paine national park torres
torres del paine sheepEven without feeling the buzz of accomplishment from at least a day hike to the towers, this day tour made the trip to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine completely worth it. The city itself was a fun place to hang out for a day or two after the tour, as well. Not even ten years ago there was almost nothing but the basics here, and now Puerto Natales is home to several great restaurants, a clean central park perfect for people watching and one of Chile’s typical riverfront promenades with beautiful statues, a BMX bike ramp, benches and incredible views out over the water that remind you just how far south you have really come.

puerto natales lake

Details and tips

If you are looking to visit Torres Del Paine National Park in a day tour, check out the tour agency at the Patagonia Aventura hostel (on the west side of the Central Plaza in Puerto Natales). They can also set up multi-day hikes and other excursions.

Rental cars are available in Puerto Natales and start at around US$70 per day.

TorresdelPaine.com has a range of maps for the W trek, the Circuit (an 8-9 day hike in Torres Del Paine) and other treks. They also have a listing of all the lodging options in the park. Make sure to book ahead since the refugios fill up quickly, especially between December and March.

dani and jess torres del paine lakeYou can follow our complete route through Patagonia here – including information on how to get from place to place, how much it costs, suggestions for places to stay and how many days we recommend you spend in each place.

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25 Responses to “Torres del Paine: Patagonia’s essence in a day”

  1. Annie of TravelShus

    07. May, 2013

    beautiful photos! I wish I had been able to go here when I was last in South America, but it was winter. oh well. Next time!
    Annie of TravelShus recently posted..Photo Inspiration: Sleeping Mallard in Naperville

    Reply to this comment
  2. Skúli

    07. May, 2013

    Beautiful photos of probably THE most beautiful place I’ve ever been. Hiked the “W” few years ago, slept in a tent and brought all the food. Hard work but so worth it!
    Skúli recently posted..How to kick jet-lag’s ass!

    Reply to this comment
  3. Sam

    09. May, 2013

    The 4-5 day W trek was the reason we decided against going to Torres del Paine and picked El Chalten in Argentina instead, but this tour sounds like it was a great alternative.

    I also really like the goofy pictures you’ve incorporated of yourselves here (Jess cowering from the Milodon, Dani licking the ice!). Fun stuff. More please!
    Sam recently posted..The Elephant in the Room: Being British in Argentina

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      11. May, 2013

      Sam – yeah, sometimes we can get pretty goofy ;-) We decided to visit both places, Torres del Paine and El Chalten (post coming this month!) and I have to say I am glad we made the effort to see both. Very different, and both had something to offer that the other place didn’t have. I have to say though that El Chalten was much cheaper, compared to Torres Del Paine, and I just loved that you can go on all these hikes around town without paying a dime!

      Reply to this comment
  4. Zara @ Backpack ME

    10. May, 2013

    We also did a day tour to Torres del Paine instead of the famous multi-day treks, like the W, but everyone we’d meet in the region would ask us “you’re not staying in the park?!”. It was snowing when we visited, so I can’t really picture myself spending several days there, freezing my ass off and spending lots of money for basic accommodation and food.
    In any case, such as your text and photos show, spending one day in Torres del Paine can also be very enjoyable.. and staying in Puerto Natales itself is great. Very cute little town!
    Zara @ Backpack ME recently posted..The Bharat

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    • Dani

      11. May, 2013

      Zara – that’s what we were thinking, too, actually, since we were told repeatedly by our driver how lucky we were with the weather. It was a fantastic day, blue skies, not a single cloud, it was actually pretty hot, but the next day it started to rain heavily and didn’t stop for hours. There were black clouds over the mountains of the National Park and I felt sorry for all the hikers who were out there that day. The next few days weren’t much better and we kept seeing hikers covered in mud arriving in town.

      Reply to this comment
    • Ariej

      04. Mar, 2014

      Hello,

      Do you know at what time the one day tour to Torres starts and finishes?

      Thanks a lot

      Reply to this comment
      • Dani

        05. Mar, 2014

        Hi Ariej, I think the tour started at 8am and we were back at 6pm or 7pm. It was a long day :)

        Reply to this comment
  5. Cassie

    10. May, 2013

    Interesting, I didn’t realize there was a day tour option! I was very reluctant to hike the W when we went last year, but my husband really wanted to and while it was difficult (I was not in good shape!) I don’t regret it. You saw some great visits though, I’ll recommend this to others that are wavering about whether to do the W!

    And great site, I found you recently on Facebook and am loving the quirky stuff you post there. It’s the stuff I would post if I saw it, I think :)
    Cassie recently posted..Deeper Connections Through Language (And How I Failed to Make One)

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    • Dani

      11. May, 2013

      Hi Cassie, thanks so much for the kind words! :) Luckily this was an option! It seemed much more difficult to arrange 1-dday hiking tours though, so we were glad that we could at least see some parts of Torres Del Paine, even though we didn’t go on any major hikes.

      Reply to this comment
  6. Jaime

    11. May, 2013

    THIS LOOKS AMAZING! I had never even heard of this.

    I love the pic of you licking the ice. I would so do that. Glad I’m not alone.
    Jaime recently posted..What a passport looks like after 2 years of travel.

    Reply to this comment
    • Jess

      12. May, 2013

      We had only started really hearing about it more and more as we started planning for South America, but yeah, it was an amazing trip. I wonder if you’d enjoy the 4-5 trek, you should talk to some of the bloggers who have done it. And yes, licking the ice was necessary : ) and we weren’t the only ones doing it! It’s just amazing that you can just put a cup into that water and drink it. No pollution at all. Amazing.

      Reply to this comment
  7. Amanda

    13. May, 2013

    You are definitely travelers after my own heart. I’m not a huge fan of hiking or camping – and especially not when there are multiple days of either involved. I can manage short hikes and maybe one night in a tent here or there. But it’s definitely not my cup of tea.

    A day trip like this sounds much more up my alley!
    Amanda recently posted..Did You Know? 10 Fun Facts About Pittsburgh

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  8. Charli l Wanderlusters

    15. May, 2013

    Shriek! A giant ground sloth! Now the ones we met in Costa Rice were ever so cute but I’m not sure they’d be so appealing in monstrous form! Jess looks terrified!

    We’re currently camped under Mount Cook on the south island of New Zealand and I can’t get over how similar the landscape is over here. Jagged mountains and glaciers line the horizon and crystal clear and still lakes fill the foreground. We’re hoping to head out and tour the glaciers tomorrow! I think I’ll have to get a shot of Ben licking some ice in homage to Dani!!
    Charli l Wanderlusters recently posted..White Island The Dramatic Volcano

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  9. As always, amazing photos girls. Id love to go here, and its on the list so one day! Thank you for the inspiration.
    Nicole @ Green Global Travel recently posted..Snorkeling Bora Bora: The Ruahatu Lagoon Sanctuary

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  10. Paula C. Wilkes

    18. May, 2013

    A blue iceberg! The photos are all fantastic. Chile is such a wonderful country to have various climate and beautiful places. You girls are cool!
    Paula C. Wilkes recently posted..Detailed and Specified Aruba TripAdvisor

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      20. May, 2013

      Thanks, Paula! Chile is truly a stunning place – such a diverse country with the Atacama Desert in the north, the Andes mountains, Patagonia, wine countries and lakes and volcanoes and glaciers and so much more :)

      Reply to this comment
  11. TammyOnTheMove

    19. May, 2013

    The park looks amazing. Seems like you were lucky with the weather. I heard from a lot of people who are doing the whole 5-day trek, that the weather can change really quickly and is often quite drizzly, windy or even snowy.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..Can an Englishman fall in love with Germany?

    Reply to this comment
    • Dani

      20. May, 2013

      Tammy – the park is truly amazing! And we know that we were incredibly lucky with the weather, even our driver was impressed and said it had been the hottest day of the summer (so far) – not a single cloud in the sky! It was back to clouds and rain the next day though ;-)

      Reply to this comment
  12. Grant

    21. Oct, 2014

    Hi Jess and Dani,

    Love the photos and the blog! We will be travelling through Puerto Natales early next year and would love to do this bus trip before we head to El Chalten.

    Unfortunately, the link you have posted of the tour provider is broken. Any chance that you have some more info?

    Thanks

    Reply to this comment
    • Dany

      21. Oct, 2014

      Hi Grant, I think this is their new link: http://www.apatagonia.com/en/tour_1.html It has all the info you need. I will fix the link now :) Thanks for pointing out that the old one was broken :) I hope you’ll have a good time in Patagonia – such a beautiful part of the world!

      Reply to this comment

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