Chilean Patagonia has earned its spot on every hiker’s must-do list. This is attributable to the absolutely incredible mountain peaks that await here and the well maintained trail in the shape of a W that allows you to skip along beside them. “The W” is one of the first things anyone googles when they start to think about a trip to Patagonia.
The questions we had when we started checking out this hike:
How many days does this take? How do we get to the start? There seems to be a ferry involved… How does that work? Do you need a guide for this? There is also a loop that connects the two ends of the W… should we be doing that too? How do we book these huts I keep hearing about? Which ones should we stay at?
Worry no more.
Know the weather (as best you can, which is not very well at all), or at least know the season. Remember that this is the southern hemisphere and going in Northern Hemisphere summer will not exactly be shorts weather. We went in late March/early April and this timing allowed us to see all the fall colors Patagonia has to offer – we highly recommend this time. The huts here are seasonal, not open all year, and so if you want to stay in them, make sure they are open. We were here on the shoulder season at the end of March to the start of April. It was fantastic weather for Patagonia – it didn’t rain on us, we didn’t get blown over by the wind, but it was freezing.
The W can be done in 5 days/4 nights, but we recommend 6 days/5 nights – do not be in a hurry here, it isn’t about how fast you do it, it is about being there as long as you can. We did the hike from East to West – this way we could eat the lunches we were carrying first, and the buses seemed clearer to us that direction… that said, you can definitely do it the opposite direction and we met many hikers who chose West to East. The full loop is worth investigating – however, this is very weather constrained. When they close it, they mean it – a buddy we met on the trek learned this the hard way when he was sent back from where he came even though he had already hiked 9+ miles in that direction. The guard would not be persuaded to let him pass through. For us, this was not an option.
Some words about where to sleep:
If you can camp, great. If you want to stay in huts, get ready for logistics. The main thing to know about the huts: the companies that own them have a monopoly. That is the problem. The huts are not worth close to what you are paying for. The dinners are fine – they’re warm and hearty, but the breakfasts are weak and the lunches are gross. The service is horrible and the staff is rude. They essentially are treating this like a summer camp and are often taking up the guest spaces in common areas. Since there is no ability to have competition, they have no incentives to change their ways. Go in with low expectations for these dorm room huts – those we met hiking all agreed that we wished we could complain to make these better. That said, the weather is cold and we were happy to enjoy a bed after hiking.
There are 2 companies that own different huts.
Fantástico Sur: east side
Vértice Patagonia: west side
You have to book through each company separately and their websites are terrible. I had to refresh 20 times to get through and then it finally worked. You choose your food through the huts as well, but they operate differently. We opted to carry lunch for the first 4 days since we could pick individuals meals with Fantástico Sur. We bought breakfast and dinner. For Vértice Patagonia, it is either all the meals or none, so we had the box lunches for the last 2 days.
Getting to the hike:
Take a bus from Puerto Natales – they are nice and for tourists and not challenging. Reserve a seat on the bus when you first get to Puerto Natales. This bus situation is very confusing online because it is clear that the bus will take you to the Park if you book through Fantástico Sur, but not clear what happens next. Make sure you have all of your bus information printed so you can be pointed in the right direction. Our leg there was “Public Transport Puerto Natales – Torres del Paine” and then “Shuttle Connection Portería Laguna Amarga – Las Torres Sector.” Our transport back was “Minibus de Conexión Sector Las Torres – Portería Laguna Amarga” and then “Transporte Público Torres del Paine – Puerto Natales.” It worked out.
Day 1: Get to your first hut Refugio Torre Central or Refugio Torre Norte via bus. You can book the bus and the huts through Fantástico Sur. Wander that grounds, enjoy a nap on bean bags by the wood burning fire, hang out in the hammock, have a picnic outside looking up at the Torres in the distance. If you stay in Refugio Torre Norte, this is probably the nicest of the huts, so enjoy your time here. Refugio Torre Central is right up the street – these are very close to each other and it doesn’t matter which you choose. The bus drops you off right outside of Refugio Torre Norte so you either head inside or to Central.
Day 2: Rise before the sun. Hike to The Torres del Paine for sunrise. Leave all of your bags at Refugio Torre Norte and just take a day pack (with snacks). Enjoy sunrise at the top. Note: there is a campsite right at the base before the final climb which is a good option if you are camping. Head back to Refugio Torre Norte for a nap. Enjoy another afternoon here – picnic outside or besides the wood burning stove. (19km)
Day 3: Hike to Refugio Los Cuernos. This day is not too hard and you can see the epic peaks from the hut. Spend your afternoon exploring around, walking down to the water, reading beneath the mountains. (11km)
Day 4: Hike up the Valle del Francés and to the Vértice Paine Grande Shelter. This is the big day. Do NOT skip the valley. You may be tempted to skip it, or turn around when you see some big glaciers, but march onwards. When you get to the base of the valley, leave your backpack by the rangers station and hike up the valley with just your day pack. There is a big rock you can have your lunch on when you reach the valley and waiting for you are enormous glacially sculpted rocks – the sisters of Yosemite’s Half Dome. When you do get to the Shelter, grab a window seat and a bottle of wine. (21km)
Day 5: Hike to the Vértice Grey Shelter and beyond. Drop your backpack at the Shelter and grab your day pack. Today is a bit long, but again, worth it. Hike to the close look out to admire the icebergs floating about, but keep on going over 2 huge suspension bridges. These are so scary and so high and so epic. You will be walking beside Glacier Grey. Most visitors do not make it this far… don’t be one of them. Once you cross the second bridge, turn around and get back to the hut for some dinner. (19km)
Day 6: Up early for your hike back to Vértice Paine Grande Shelter to catch the boat by noon. This will take you back to a random spot where you board a bus back to the entrance of the park. This step was confusing – they will have a bus here for you and tell them you are going back to Puerto Natales – they will take care of you. At the park entrance you grab your bus back to Puerto Natales. (11km)
Long story and lots of details… BUT hopefully this makes your trip a bit easier to plan. Lace up those hiking boots.
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