Hiking the W trek in Torres del Paine, how it got started
It has been quite a few years ago since we hiked the W trek in Torres del Paine National Park. However, we still get questions from our readers about it every now and then so I figured it would be good to write about the experiences we had. We hiked the W trek already back in 2009 but I figured it’s about the experience, most practical information can be found on other websites. I made sure though to have this article checked by a couple of friends of mine who hiked this trail more recently over the past couple of years. Fun thing is that not many of my friends are actually into hiking but quite a few of them did the W trek over the past years. That might just give you an idea of how busy it gets…
Let’s head back to December 2009 when we were in Patagonia. Before heading out to do the W trek in Torres del Paine, we had been trekking in El Chaltén in Argentina. We had done various hikes there such as the one to Laguna de los Tres, which remains one of my all-time favorite day hikes ever. While here, we actually ran into a group of Dutch people who had just come back from Torres del Paine and told us they’d had a great time, however many of them had been sick on the trail. We didn’t really pay much attention to it and eventually got on the bus from El Calafate to Torres del Paine. Here we stayed at Refugio las Torres together with herds of other trekkers and budget travellers. Not your most idyllic place to stay but then again, it was just the start of our adventure. The weather didn’t look too promising but since it’s the mountains, it can change in a minute. At least it wasn’t raining and we’d had a first decent look of Las Torres (the towers) so we were off on a good start!
Day 1: Refugio las Torres – Mirador Las Torres – Refugio El Chileno (7 hrs)
I’m always somewhat nervous when I start a new trek, typically because in most cases, it’s something you’ve been looking forward to months or sometimes even years. After doing multi-day treks all over the world for some ten years now, this feeling is still present, most recently when starting the trek to Everest Base Camp in Nepal. The W trek in Torres del Paine started out pretty easy with a gentle hike up into the valley. After about an hour and a half, we arrived at Refugio El Chileno, where we packed out our bags and gathered some stuff to carry for the rest of the hike. The next hour or so was easy, through a forest with a swift stream down below us. Every now and then we’d pass other hikers but generally it wasn’t too busy. The real challenge of the day was the last stretch up to the Mirador Las Torres, which is not really a hike yet more of a scramble across big boulders. It’s nothing too difficult though and within another hour we reached the base of Las Torres. Unfortunately, it was cloudy yet it was still stunning. And cold… very cold! Our mittens and hats really came in useful here. After a short break for lunch we decided to head back down to the Refugio where we arrived by the end of the afternoon. Looking back at our trek, this place was definitely the friendliest and best place to stay, not nearly as crowded as the other huts and with staff being super friendly!
Day 2: Refugio El Chileno – Refugio Los Cuernos (4 hrs)
Today was an easy day so we slept in for a bit and then slowly made our way to the next place for the night. The track was incredibly muddy at some points, making up for quite some hilarious situations with hikers who couldn’t keep their balance. It wasn’t the most exciting day because it’s rather flat, yet it starts to become really pretty once you reach the trail above Lago Nordenskjöld which is like emerald green. I don’t actually think I’ve ever seen a lake with a similar color anywhere else in the world. About half way during the hike, Los Cuernos (the horns) rock formation came into view so we took a ton of pictures, before descending down to Refugio los Cuernos. Looking back on the W trek in Torres del Paine, I’d say this was not the most interesting part of the hike. That is why I’d always recommend to hike from right to left, so you can save the best for last…
Day 3: Refugio El Chileno – Valle Francés – Lodge Paine Grande (11 hrs)
We decided to wake up early because today was said to be some eleven hours hiking. Not something we never did before but we figured that starting early would pay off by having the trail mostly to ourselves. Breakfast was served when it was still dark outside and by 06.00 am we were walking. The first bit up for the Valle Francés (French Valley) took us about two hours and was pretty easy, mostly flat and on the shores of Lago Nordenskjöld. Upon entering the valley we left most of our stuff behind at Campamento Italiano and from there we made our way up the valley. We passed the French Glacier and followed a stream all the way up to the end of the valley. At some point I felt utterly exhausted even though it wasn’t that demanding. However I decided to push on to the end but just as we got to Campamento Britanico, 30 minutes before the end of the valley, I couldn’t go anymore. All I wanted to do was sit down and drink water, no food, I just had an unquenchable thirst. After a break we decided to head back, leaving the amazing rock formations at the end of the valley and instead enjoying the stunning views over Lago Nordenskjöld in the distance. Just as we picked up our luggage and moved onto Lodge Paine Grande, Martijn said he didn’t feel well and he started throwing up. Like right on the trail. First thing I said was ‘don’t do that on the trail!’ but then I realized he was feeling even worse than me. How we eventually made it to the Paine Grande Lodge for the night I don’t even remember… Upon arrival I begged the lady at reception to give us our own room as we were taking turns in being sick and I didn’t really want to bother anyone else with it. Our night was one I’ll never forget, I think neither of us ever felt that miserable before…
Day 4: Lodge Paine Grande – Refugio Grey (4 hrs)
Night was hell and so was the next day. We both managed to eat some dry rice and share a Coke which is supposed to make your stomach better, but other than that, we didn’t eat anything. Instead, we just took a shitload of Dextro Energy tablets and dragged ourselves to the next place. We both took a hiking pole and heavily relied on that one. I carried most of our stuff as Martijn was the weakest and somehow, we managed to make it to Refugio Grey around lunch time, just a little later than we normally would have. I’m forever thankful the hike was easy and not very demanding, just some minor ups and downs, but on an easy track. The views on the Grey Glacier in the far distance helped us reach our final destination as we kept on saying ‘we only need to go there, we can do that!’ Needless to say we spent the rest of the day in bed. Shame because as for the location, this place is definitely the best one to stay in.
Day 5: Refugio Grey – back to the real world
The boat that would pick us up and take us back to the real world would only leave in the afternoon so we decided to spend our morning doing some easy hiking. We actually walked down to Lago Grey and the mouth of the glacier. Luckily we started to feel a little better by then but we still couldn’t eat so walking there seemed to take forever. The views were stunning though and later, during our boat trip, we even got closer to the ice and the massive icebergs that were floating in the water. Upon dropping us off at the Lago Grey Hotel our trek came to an end and at that time, I couldn’t have been happier to be heading back to the real world, getting the chance to recover from our stomach issues without having to hike with a heavy pack. We stayed in Refugio las Torres for one more night before actually heading back to El Calafate in Argentina.
Looking back on hiking the W-trek in Torres del Paine
People often ask me if the trek is difficult and my answer is always the same: ‘no it’s not difficult, in fact, it’s one of the easier multi-day hikes I’ve done over the past years. What made it difficult for us is that we both got sick and the third day.’ Although this trek is not for the non-adventurous, you will be just fine. If you don’t mind to spend a little money, you can have all your meals cooked, your bed made up each evening and you will just have to carry your stuff for 4 days, which shouldn’t be much more than a pair of clean underwear and your camera. Oh and don’t forget your rain gear!
The W trek in Torres del Paine is definitely one of the most scenic hikes we ever did and after sorting out the photos for this post, I really felt the urge to go back there. Despite the many people hiking it nowadays, I still think that every avid hiker should do this hike because it has some of the most stunning scenery you will ever encounter in your life!
I think that due to the fact that the track is generally easy, it is currently being overrun by tourists. Just make sure to realize that before setting off on what you think will be a unique wilderness experience. It doesn’t have to be a problem or mean that shouldn’t hike the W trek, but I just want you to have a realistic expectation rather than the wrong ideas…
Practical tips for hiking the W-trek
– You can either stay in the Refugio’s or go camping. We saw some of the campgrounds and they looked horrible: completely crammed with tents and no view at all. Looking back at it, staying in the refugio’s definitely was the better option!
– Food is EXPENSIVE in the park. We booked a full board package including three meals a day (breakfast, packed lunch and dinner) and that was more than enough to fill our stomachs. Lunch packages were huge and we didn’t even need to use our supply of food we brought into the park. Note that if you are coming from Argentina (El Calafate) you are not allowed to take any fresh foods into Chile! You can still buy snacks everywhere but expect to pay up. If you’re on a budget, BYO might be the best option.
– We took the boat back from Refugio Grey to Hotel Lago Grey but needed a private transfer back to Las Torres where we had left our stuff. This was really expensive so a better option is to start the trek from Puerto Natales (catch a bus there from El Calafate) so you can skip the nights in Las Torres which was not the best place anyway. Then from Refugio Grey, hike back to Paine Grande and take the catamaran across Lago Pehoe to Pudeto. From here, catch a bus back to Puerto Natales to pick up your stuff. Looking back at our trip, this would have been a much cheaper option.
– You need to book your places to stay in advance, even if you are camping. I’ve sold this trip quite some times over the past year to clients at work and it happens all the time they are overbooked. Just showing up isn’t going to work, at least not in the high season (roughly Dec-Feb).
– If you want to hike the whole Circuit (which will eventually lead you back to Las Torres) plan 3-4 days extra and bring your tent because in some spots are no refugios. This is on the bucketlist for a next visit to Torres del Paine. On my second visit there I did a short part of the Circuit (from Las Torres going right) and it looked very promising!
– We booked our tour through the agency I work with on my office job yet from what I’ve heard, the cheapest option would be to book through Vertice Patagonia. I’m in no way affiliated with them and cannot vouch for them out of my own experience, however I barely hear negative stories. Booking all huts yourselves can be quite a pain!
Want to read more? You may also like these posts:
– A Torres del Paine Packing list – all you need to know!
– Travel tips for Torres del Paine National Park in Chile
– Hiking to Cochamó, also know as the Yosemite of Chile
– Climbing the Villarrica volcano in Chile and the uncomfortable truth about it
– The Southern Lights in Patagonia – all you want to know!
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Thanks for sharing!