Mostly Overland

in search of Kinder eggs

Doing the W Trek in April – Torres del Paine, Chile

DSC_1109-2Whether you want to check out the fall colors, avoid crowds, or simply can’t go at any other time, April is a great time to visit Torres del Paine (and Patagonia in general).

There are plenty of resources out there on planning the W trek in general. Below, I’ll lay out my itinerary; for a late-season west-to-east W trek using refugios as much as possible. But first here’s three major ways late-season visits to Torres del Paine may differ from high-season vacations.

The good news is that the famous Patagonia winds weren’t too much of a problem. The bad news was that there was a lot of rain, snow at higher elevation, and poor visibility. My last day, which I finished by noon, was of course completely clear, and from what I understand from others, the previous week was completely clear as well, so you may get luckier than I did, but you’d be extremely foolish not to be prepared for these conditions before setting out on a trek. You don’t need heavy winter gear but you do need a warm hat and waterproof gloves.

If you don’t have your own car, the only way into the park is by bus from Puerto Natales. In high season there are several buses each day; but by mid-April there’s only one bus each day, leaving at 7:30 am and arriving at the park before 11. On the way back, the bus leaves the park at 2:30 pm only. There’s a shuttle to the bus stop from Hotel Las Torres at 2 pm.

It’s easy to get buses to and from Puntas Arenas several times a day.

If you prefer the relative luxury of refugios, the usual wisdom is to book far in advance. This isn’t strictly necessary at all the refugios in late season, but it did appear that Refugio Cuernos (Day 3) was completely booked up on the night I stayed there. At Refugio Grey (Day 1) and Refugio Paine Grande (Day 2), there was plenty of space without reservations, and indeed some campers who had trouble with their tents ended up staying the night. If you only want to spend one night at a refugio, I’d recommend Grey. It has by far the most comfortable common area, and feels more like a big house instead of a mountain lodge. Stoves to dry clothes on are plentiful, as are board games. Pisco sours were cheaper here than at Paine Grande, and the bar well outstripped the usual offerings. Comparisons to Rivendell are not out of line, especially given the terrible time I had on the way. Board: Meals are expensive at refugios. I think dinners are well worth it; after a long day of hiking, you get fresh bread, soup, a substantial portion of meat with sides, and dessert. Lunches are a ripoff: bland sandwich, apple, granola bar, juice box. The only reason to buy them from the refugios is not wanting to carry all your food the whole way. There’s a store at Paine Grande when you can restock. Breakfast is definitely worth the price before heading out for a day of hiking.

By the way, late season, Refugio Chileno may or may not be open, officially. I was unable to book the Chileno in advance and planned on camping at Base Torres, about 45 minutes further up the trail. By the time I got going on the W, however, I heard rumors that Chileno was in fact open. This turned out to be true, and when it was 10,000 CHP to get a bunk or 6,000 CHP to camp, it was a no-brainer. Chileno wasn’t fully functional – the dinner was tacos and was much simpler than other refugios, and nobody was around to turn on the lights in the morning – but the prices were slashed compared to the other refugios.


This map, based on a scan of the actual map I had with me on my trek, represents my first foray into cartography and I apologize if it makes your eyeballs bulge out.

Here’s my itinerary for a 5-day west-to-east W trek in the fall, using refugios as much as possible. When I started the trek, I believed Chileno to be closed and planned to camp on the last night. If you are planning on camping, you can use this same itinerary as each refugio has an adjoining campground (which you must pay for). You also have the flexibility to stay at two free campgrounds, one at the base of the French Valley (Campamento Italiano) and the other at the bottom of the last ascent to Base de Las Torres (Campamento Torres, not to be confused with Hotel Las Torres).

Day 1:
Bus from Puerto Natales. There’s only one bus a day in the late season, and it gets you into the park around 11. It makes three stops. The first is orientation (Porteria Lago Amargo, on the far right center of the map), where you’ll pay your entrance fee. It’s also where you’d start the W if you were going east-to-west. The second stop is Pudeto, where most people who are doing the W west-to-east get off. It’s also the port for the catamaran. If your bus hasn’t been delayed, you will have time to buy a sandwich at the cafeteria (if you didn’t bring a lunch from Puerto Natales) and run over to Salto Grande waterfall for some photos. Be sure to hurry, as the catamaran only runs once a day. Another couple that went to see Salto Grande sauntered back and missed the catamaran (full disclosure: it turned out and picked them up, but you don’t want to be that guy).

If you’re lucky, it will be a clear day and you’ll have the best panoramic views of the park. I was not lucky.

The catamaran drops you off at Paine Grande and now you’re on your own. It’s 3.5 hours up to Refugio Grey (unless you have to backtrack for a dropped glove, in which case it’s longer). Can you make it to Grey and back in one day? Keep in mind that the catamaran is dropping you off around noon, and you probably woke up in Puerto Natales around 6 to make the bus. If you want to do the 7-hour out-and-back to Paine Grande before dark, you really can’t take very many breaks (sunset in mid-April is right around 7 pm). I recommend taking it easy on your first day and spending the night at the very comfortable Refugio Grey.


The view from Refugio Grey

Day 2:
On day 2 you’ve got all day to covered the same distance you did yesterday afternoon, so why not tack on a bit? I headed about an hour north of Grey for a better view of the glacier. I’m glad I did, especially because I got to cross this terrifying suspension bridge. After about an hour you reach the now-closed campground of Los Guardos. Older maps will still show it (this one does not), and while you can’t camp there, it’s pretty obvious when you reach it and it makes a good point to take one last look at the glacier before turning south. Then retrace your steps to Paine Grande, and since you should reach it with daylight left, you can hike a bit further south of the Refugio Paine Grande (along the trail marked by a red-dotted line on the map) to watch the late day sun (if any) hit the Cuernos.


Refugio Paine Grande

IF CAMPING: You can skip the additional spur north of Grey and instead make for the free campground at Campamento Italiano instead.

Day 3:
This is the longest day of this itinerary. You’re taking a easy, if muddy, path along Lake Skottsberg for 2.5 hours until you reach Campamento Italiano at the base of the French Valley. The bad news is that if you’re unlucky, like me, you’ll arrive to find that the valley is officially closed, although there was no ranger present to enforce the closure. Of course I don’t advocate hiking closed trails but what you’d probably find is that the first part of the trail still provides some neat views, and that closer to the top you are likely to be hiking through snow on the way to a completely fogged in view anyway. Probably. The good news is that if the valley is open, you can ditch your big pack here and continue with just your day pack and walking sticks. Nobody is stealing your bag here.

After you get back to the base of the valley, pick up your big bag and hike the remaining 2.5 hours to Refugio Cuernos. If you’re the last one in that night, due to definitely not hiking the closed valley alone, because that would be stupid, they will be out of beer.

IF CAMPING: You get a jump on the French Valley in the morning and can make it to Cuernos for a short day, or up to Chileno. If you’re pushing hard you can probably even get to Camp Los Torres before nightfall. You’ll have to get up early to do so.

Day 4:
The map shows times of 4.5 hours out of Cuernos and 2.5 hours to Chileno, but these are times via Hotel Las Torres, and there’s no reason to go through there unless you’re in desperate need of supplies. Instead, take the marked path via the “shortcut” – there’ll be a sign, but it’s not totally unmissable so keep your eyes peeled. Once you rejoin the trail from Hotel Las Torres up to Chileno, you don’t have very far to go. I think the entire trip from Cuernos to Chileno probably took about 4.5 hours.

I got to Chileno earlier than I anticipated, and I had a window of good weather, so I made the push for Base Torres (it might be a little counter-intuitive that the highest point of the W is called the Base, but keep in mind that there are people who actually climb the Torres themselves, and for them, this is the start, not the finish). The trail is steeper than any other part of the W, but it wouldn’t be terribly difficult if it wasn’t for the fact that it had recently snowed, the snow had been packed down, and then frozen over. Even with only my day pack and trekking poles, I bit it hard four times on the way up, falling onto my ass or hip as my feet flew out from under me. My hiking partner for the day, with no poles and wearing sneakers, managed to only eat shit three times. Coming down is even more dangerous; it’s best just to slide down carefully on your ass with a foot out to brake you.


Sliding down from Base Torres

Day 5:
My plan at the outset of the trek was to see the Torres at sunrise on Day 5. I modified that plan on Day 4 to make two ascents – Day 4 afternoon AND Day 5 sunrise. After the beating I took on the Day 4 ascent, and the fact that I would have to add the 1.5 hour hike from Chileno instead of the 7am departure from Base Torres Camp (sunrise was about 8:30 am), I scratched the sunrise plan and watched the sunrise on the tips of the Torres from Chileno. It looked good, but I had my moment at the Torres the day before and didn’t feel like I missed out. If sunrise was my only time at the Torres I’m sure it would have been worthwhile so don’t let me talk you out of getting up early to see it.


The obscured view of the Torres themselves from Refugio Chileno

You’ve got to get down to Hotel Los Torres by 2 to catch the shuttle to the bus stop (same place you first entered the park). You’ll probably have plenty of time to get a celebratory drink at the Hotel Las Torres beforehand, and you’ll be back in Puerto Natales by evening.

My last day was clear and I wanted another crack at seeing the view from Pudeto, where the catamaran leaves, but I wasn’t able to get down to Hotel Las Torres to take the bus

IF CAMPING: As I mentioned above, Chileno was open when I arrived, and the free campground at Base Torres that I had planned on staying at that night was closed. I believe the campground opened up later in the day, but be aware that due to higher elevation the Base Torres camp may close from time to time. If so you’ll be forced to stay at Chileno.

One thing about the time estimates on the park-issued map: trust them. If you’re like me you routinely beat estimated hiking times by 10-20%. That is not the case in Torres del Paine, and I’m not the only person who noted this fact. Budget your time accordingly.

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