Thursday, April 4, 2024

W Trek - Torres Del Paine National Park - Patagonia, Chile

When your daughter calls and asks if you want to go hiking in Patagonia, the answer is simply “Hell Yes!”

The two of us, father and daughter, backpacked the W Trek Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile in late March.

It was absolutely stunning, a truly epic trip and I don't use the word "epic" lightly. Check out the photos and videos below to see what I mean. It was my first time in the Southern Hemisphere and in South America. Best of all, it was quality father/daughter time well spent at the (almost) bottom of the world.

The Logistics

We convened at Atlanta's Hartsfield Int'l Airport fresh off quick flights from our respective cities, then flew together on a Delta Airlines direct flight to Santiago, Chile. From there, we took a SKY Airlines flight to Puerto Natales in Patagonia, Chile (via quick stop in Puerto Montt). We booked each of those flights directly with each airline, which was cheaper than booking a bundled roundtrip from one airline or travel booking site.

We used a local company, Hello Patagonia, to help us with the route, park passes, booking the refugios (large cabin style hostels where we stayed each night in shared bunk rooms with hot showers, food, & drinks - tent camping is also available), daily bag lunches, booking the kayaking, and private transportation to and from the park. We were originally looking at Swoop-Patagonia to help us with all this but they were booked for the timeframe we were looking at, so they recommended Hello Patagonia and we're glad they did. 

Hello Patagonia did an outstanding job with the itinerary, all the extras, and helping us understand what to bring and what to expect. We highly recommend them. It was well worth the money compared to us having to book and plan all these details ourselves (which is possible but tricky navigating all the different refugio bookings, etc). They can also help you tack on some extras like boat rides, glacier hiking, kayaking, etc and give recommendations for other things to do in the area. The private transportation to and from the park was nice compared to riding in a big shared bus with other people. 

For the flights, my daughter and I carried on our luggage in our backpacks (hers is 39 liter backpack, mine is 45 liter backpack) and a small personal bag each. We did this to minimize risk of lost luggage in route since we had 2 layovers & 1 stopover. Due to this, we couldn't carry on our trekking poles, so we rented them from Hello Patagonia, another nice perk in using them. Yes, you will definitely want to use trekking poles on the W Trek unless you have bionic knees.

Puerto Natales is a 2 hour drive from Torres del Paine National Park and was our home base before and after our 5 day W Trek adventure. It's a nice small town along the water with plenty to do including good restaurants, bars, and shops. We left our small personal bags at our Puerto Natales hotel, packed with the stuff we didn't need on the trail.

Spanish is the spoken language. Some people knew English, some didn't. It's definitely helpful to at least know some basic Spanish words and phrases. My daughter was much better than this than I was and acted as our translator. Chilean pesos are the local currency. Most places accepted credit cards (always charge in the local currency) but there are times when cash was handy especially when a credit card machine wasn't working or not available, which did happen a couple times.

We were gone a total of 10 days, including the travel days. You can easily extend this trip to include a lot more. We met people there who were on extended trips that included Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, etc. We also met some couples who had quit their jobs to travel for a year. 

The Trek

The map below illustrates why it's called the "W". It was 5 days, 4 nights. We did this route east to west, which was good for several reasons. First, the toughest day was first, to and from Torres base (base of the towers). It was the longest distance and most elevation gain of the 5 days. It was good to get that out of the way plus the towers are an amazing sight to behold. Second, you seem to get better views in front of you hiking from east to west. Third, the last day was the easiest and allowed for more time to do some kayaking either that morning or the afternoon of Day 4.

There is also the "O" Trek which is the W Trek plus a loop that wraps around north of the W route. It's typically done in 8-10 days. We met people along the trail that were doing the "O". They had to navigate some snow (which can also occur on the W by the way).

Yes, we were sore after the first day but I would have been sore anyway even if we had done an easier first day. It's amazing how the body adapts and is capable of doing more than you think it can. Or maybe that was the Advil. Definitely the Advil. And the trekking poles. Thank God for trekking poles!

Different sources say the W Trek is 45 miles total but according to my GPS watch, we ended up doing just over 60 miles due to all the extra extended hiking to more views along the way. We ascended a total 15,100 ft in elevation gain over those 5 days. For some of the W Trek Circuit, we were able to drop our packs at campsites or refugios and hike out and backs without the extra weight. Some of the days on the trail were 10 hours+ but that also included stopping to gawk at all the beautiful scenery around us, plus lunch breaks.

My trusty and well worn hiking shoes that I've had for over 10 years finally met their match and have finally started to come apart due to the beating they took there. 

Except the last day, we lucked out on the weather. It's extremely unpredictable and always changing in Patagonia (layers!). The first 4 days, we had relatively calm winds, partly sunny skies, a little bit of rain here and there, and perfect hiking temps in the 50s. Our last day, we got to experience the real Patagonia weather with winds 40-50mph+ with intermittent rain. There was more rain and snow the week before we were there, and the week after.

We met many friendly people and heard many different languages from all over the world. As an example of the diversity of people on the trail, our refugio bunkmates the 1st night were from Brazil and Germany. I only had 1 hour of internet the entire 5 days on the trail which was so refreshing (you can purchase internet time at WiFi kiosks at each of the refugios, there is limited to no cellular signal on the trail).

Breaking Down Each Day

Puerto Natales

My daughter and I had a day & a half to hang out in Puerto Natales before we set out on our trek. There are options for bike/e-bike rentals, horse back riding, hiking, kayaking and other adventures in & near town. It was a bit cool and windy so we opted to chill after our long travels and just walked all over town. 

As soon as we arrived in town off our last flight, a bird pooped on my head (thankfully was wearing a hat). I initially took it as bad luck ahead but now realize it was good luck since we had such a great trip!

We met with Hello Patagonia the night before our trek started and they did a great job of walking us through each day of the W Trek.

There were stray dogs around town but they were friendly and looked healthy & well fed. When they got up, they always moved with purpose and always seemed to know where they were going next. Maybe they weren't strays after all & were just free to roam from home?

Kau Cafe had nice waterfront vibes, good coffee & breakfast

In front of our hotel, Hotel Big Sur. Nice adequate rooms for a reasonable price, walking distance to everything in town & friendly staff. The walls were thin however, we could hear someone snoring loudly down the hall from us, so not sure if other hotels are the same or not. 

Fantastic food & drinks all over town. Great meals & drinks at La Disqueria Natales, La Guanaca Pizzeria, Santolla, Restaurant Cormoran & Last Hope Distillery.

the waterfront in Puerto Natales

W Trek Day 1

13.25 miles, 4,210 ft elevation gain

Featured: Viewpoint and Base of the Towers

We were picked up at our hotel by our driver at 6am and drove the 2 hrs to Torres Del Paine National Park. He stopped at this beautiful viewpoint as we were approaching. 

8am, here we go!

approaching the base of the towers

rocky terrain throughout 

Las Torres

Yes, there is some hiking through beautiful forest

glacial waterfalls everywhere

windswept & sculpted terrain

the view when we reached Central Refugio

W Trek Day 2 

10.9 miles, 2,150 ft elevation gain

Featured: Lago Nordenskjold, Los Cuernos (the Horns)

Sunrise at Central Refugio. What a view of the morning light hitting the Towers. 

Day 2 backpacking was flatter and easier than Day 1, a good way to recover from Day 1, and had beautiful views throughout. 

A lone guanaca (related to the llama)

Some sort of hawk that wasn't afraid of us

Los Cuernos (the Horns)

Frances Refugio

Frances Refugio served good food and had a cool music playlist playing in the small commons/bar/restaurant area. It had a nice vibe and was probably our favorite refugio. 

my bunk at Frances Refugio

The birthday girl!

W Trek Day 3

14.1 miles, 3,200 ft elevation gain

Featured: Frances Valley, Británico Viewpoint, Los Cuernos, Cerro Paine Grande

This was another long day with longer distance and elevation gain but so worth it to go all the way to the Britanico Viewpoint. 

the backside of The Horns (Los Cuernos)

Amazing cliff glaciers & deep snow

some steep ascents

amazing 360 degree views at Britanico viewpoint

sun dog!

The sun came out for us. Sometimes this view can unfortunately be obscured by clouds, rain and/or fog, so we lucked out.

We witnessed a few snow slides and one big avalanche on this hike. That white snow at the bottom of the mountain is from a fresh avalanche that occurred only a few minutes before I took this picture. Note how it covers up the old black/grey snow. We saw the avalanche happen through the trees as we were descending so I wasn't able to get video or pictures of it occurring, but it was amazing to witness. Sounded like thunder.

Looking back at Los Cuernos as we were hiking towards Paine Grande Refugio.

Paine Grande Refugio in sight, along Pehoe Lake. It was interesting how all the refugios were quite different from each other. This was the largest refugio but not the best one. It was the only one that served instant coffee (yuck!). But it has a nice lounge area with a wood stove & upstairs bar area, and plenty of outdoor space to hang out too (plus large tent camping area).

W Trek Day 4

13.5 miles, 3,460 ft elevation gain

Featured: Lago Grey, Glacier Grey

This was one of the other extended hikes from the W Trek that we did, by hiking a bit further past Grey Refugio and past the 2nd suspension bridge to get better views of Glacier Grey. We were able to drop our packs at Grey Refugio before we set out for the extended hike. It was worth it.

The wind increased during our hike up to Glacier Grey. These mammoth glaciers have their own climates. Big wind swell and waves on Lago Grey.

Icebergs calved off of Glacier Grey

The 2nd suspension bridge. It was a long way down and a bit scary with the high winds but it's plenty sturdy.

Glacier Grey - it is massive. Look at a map of Torres del Paine National Park and you'll see it takes up most of the park. This view is only at its most southern tip that feeds into Grey Lake.

Looking north along Glacier Grey - that snow cloud bank just sat there and didn't move.

W Trek Day 5

8.5 miles, 2,100 ft elevation gain

Featured: Kayaking around icebergs, hiking back down from Grey Refugio to Paine Grande Refugio, Lago Pehoe

We were originally supposed to go kayaking the afternoon of Day 4 but the guides cancelled it due to high winds and rescheduled us for the next morning. Hence, we instead did the extended hike on Day 4. Day 5 morning still had high winds but the guides tried to make a go of it. 

We stayed in a secluded cove and didn't venture out into the open lake. Even so, the guides cut our outing short due to high winds and rough water for safety reasons. It was a good decision with the wind gusting easily over 30 mph.

The wind increased, blowing 40-50 mph+. We had the wind to our backs descending back to Paine Grande Refugio with some intermittent rain. Hikers were going up in the opposite direction with the wind in their face.

Pehoe Lake in sight

celebratory post W Trek beer

Lounging inside Paine Grande Refugio

Waiting for the boat to take us back across Pehoe Lake to Pudeto, where our driver awaited to drive us back to Puerto Natales.

My daughter and I had such an amazing time together. I'm beyond grateful for the experience and the time we had together in one of the most stunning places in the world. It was an outstanding multi-day backpacking adventure that I would highly recommend not to miss if you get the chance to go.


Derrick Surratt said...

That looks like an Epic Trip! Thanks for sharing the pictures/videos!

Anara Tu said...

Thank you so much for sharing! I enjoyed reading your stories!