Torres del Paine is a national park in southern Chile that covers almost 2,000 square kilometres of the Patagonia region.
The area is known for its soaring mountains, huge icebergs, pearly glaciers and grasslands that are home to rare wildlife. The park takes its name ‘Torres’ from the massive granite towers.
For any hiking enthusiasts, Torres del Paine is always high up the list as a world-class hiking destination with exceptional topography of imposing massifs, virgin forests and turquoise lakes. The park offers a variety of short and long-distance treks and trails but the most notorious are the W Trek and the O Circuit Trek.
The W trek is Torres del Paine’s most popular and iconic trek, following a W-shape on the map, dipping through three different valleys en route – The Ascensio Valley with views of the mile high granite towers, The French Valley with hanging glaciers and The Grey Valley, dominated by views of Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier.
For more experienced trekkers, the full O Circuit of the Paine range combines the above highlights of the park with the northern less-visited but more challenging section of the park.
- Amazing diversity of both wildlife and landscapes.
- Vast plains inhabited by native rheas, guanacos and pumas.
- A goldmine of natural beauty and adventure with treks to suit most abilities.
Even though it lies in the souther region of Chile, the best access point to Torres del Paine is from Buenos Aires – capital of Argentina. Here there is an international airport with regular flights to Europe, USA and the rest of South America.
From Buenos Aires, catch a domestic flight to the city of El Calafate and then take a bus or rental car to Puerto Natales, which will take four to five hours.
There are also four tour companies that travel from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine each morning. Tickets cost around $20 for a return and can be bought from the companies’ offices located inside the Terminal Rodoviario. For groups you can negotiate a discount but always book in advance during the high season.
The W Trek is 80 kilometres long and is usually completed over the course of four or five days.
The slightly longer and tougher O Circuit trek is 105 to 130 kilometres, route dependent, and can be completed in seven to nine days. For this trek you will need to camp at least two nights en route but the views from the campsites are well worth it.
Whilst the W and O treks are the most well-known, there are dozens of day hikes available in Torres del Paine that are equally as beautiful and unique in their own ways, skirting lakes, glaciers and waterfalls.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The W Trek is not a difficult or technical hike but it does require endurance and stamina due to the distance that it covers. The highest point along the route is 1,100 metres with just a handful of steep inclines along the way.
The highest point of the more challenging O Circuit is John Gardner pass at 1,220 metres. This route covers similar terrain underfoot as the W trek but is longer with more steep ascents/descents and some rocky scrambles, making it more difficult and geared towards seasoned trekkers.
While previous hiking experience is not strictly necessary, a good level of fitness is an absolute must to take on the climb up into the Frances Valley and the towers themselves.
It is recommended to complete a handful of training walks with a loaded backpack in preparation for the trail.
The entrance fee for Torres del Paine National Park is $30 USD for an adult. This allows you to spend as many days within the park as you wish or three days of consecutive entry (leaving at the end of each night and re-entering the following day).
You can either buy your ticket at the Laguna Amarga entrance of the national park (note that you will need to show your passport and pay in cash), reserve your ticket online via the CONFAF portal or purchase it in person at their office at the bus terminal in Puerto Natales.
As well as your entry permit, proof of camping reservations are required in order to begin the hike and are strictly enforced.
Guided or Self-Guided
Hiking with a guide or tour group will take all of the planning and hassle out of your trek. During the day, guides will lead your group along the path to arrive at night to pre-pitched tents with pre-paid, cooked food.
Although convenient, the difference in cost of going with a guide is quite significant, looking at around $1500 USD versus $150-200 USD.
When you enter the park and pay your fee, you will be provided with a Torres del Paine W or O Trek map to be used when you’re walking. For both routes there is one main path to follow, so it is easy to undertake self-guided.
However, the key consideration when deciding whether to go with a group will likely be that it removes the hassle of carrying all of your own camping equipment, food and drink.
The best time to visit Torres del Paine is during summer, between November and early March. During this window the weather is ideal for exploring the National Park and Tierra del Fuego.
As with most peak summer seasons you may face heavy crowds at key points along the trek.
If you don’t mind the cold weather, you can avoid the masses by visiting in the quieter winter months. The W trek is open year-round and you can hike it without a tour guide between October and April. During this time you will need to stay in refugios rather than camping.
From May onwards you will need an official guide to hike the trail and solo travellers will be fined if caught.
The official opening date of the O Circuit is down to CONAF and is based on weather conditions but normally happens some time in November, with the season continuing until the end of March.
Although more difficult, the O Trek will take you past glaciers and lakes, and across suspension bridges in front of ice sheets that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Below we have outlined popular and manageable itineraries for both the W and O Circuit Treks.
If you are going self-guided you could opt to add in or shave off a day based on your athletic ability.
Puerto Natales to Grey (including transit to start point via bus and catamaran) – 11km
Grey to Paine Grande – 18km
Paine Grande to Frances – 11.5km (+9 km for the extension to Mirador Británico)
Frances to El Chileno – 17km
EL Chileno to Laguna Amarga and Puerto Natales – 13 km (+8 km for the hike from the Centro de Bienvenida to Laguna Amarga). Set off early if you want to see the torres at dawn.
Starting at Refugio Torre or Paine Grande and hiking anticlockwise.
Hotel Las Torres to Campamento Serón – 13km
Serón to Campamento Dickson – 18km
Dickson to Campamento Los Perros – 12km
Los Perros to Refugio Grey via the John Gardner Pass – 24km
Refugio Grey to Paine Grande – 11km
Paine Grande to Campamento Francés – 9km
Francés to Los Cuernos via the Valle Francés – 18km
Los Cuernos to Campamento Chileno – 12km
Chileno to Campamento Central or Las Torres Hotel via the Las Torres Lookout – 13km
If you’re looking to hike in Patagonia but don’t want to commit to multiple days of trekking, some of the most popular day hikes include:
The Fauna Trail
- Hiking Time: 2 to 4 hours
- Difficulty: Easy
- Start/End: Porteria Lago Sarmiento to Porteria Laguna Amarga
- Overview: A somewhat secret trail with views of the Paine Massif and the possibility of spotting grazing guanacos, condors even a puma.
- Hiking Time: 1 to 2 hours
- Difficulty: Easy
- Start/End: Porteria Laguna Azul
- Overview: Hike to a picturesque blue lake surrounded by massive mountains with jagged snow-covered peaks.
- Hiking Time: 5 to 6 hours
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Start/End: Guarderia Grey
- Overview: Dodge the crowds and visit a stunning Patagonian waterfall in uninterrupted bliss.
Mirador Las Torres
- Hiking Time: 6 to 8 hours
- Difficulty: Very hard
- Start/End: Hotel Las Torres
- Overview: Fancy a challenge but don’t have a week to spare? Mirador Las Torres is one of the most iconic sights in Torres del Paine but will involve a full day of steep climbing.
For the multi-day W and O Circuit treks there are two types of accommodation options – refugios or camp sites.
As of 2019, you now have to book all of your CONAF camping site in Torres del Paine in advance with printed confirmations to enter the park. To avoid disappointment or not gaining access, it is worth planning and booking well in advance during the peak season.
For anyone looking to keep costs to a minimum, the free campsites are Italiano Ranger Station and Torres Ranger Station. If you have some flex in your budget, consider staying at the paid campsites, where the facilities are better maintained. If you really want to treat yourself you can book full-board with a pre-erected tent or bed at each campsite.
As well as campsites, there are various cosy mountain huts (refugios) nestled into the mountains. Although a little more pricey, these will allow you to complete your trek with just the necessities rather than carting camping gear.
Although hiking is the key reason people come to the area, there are plenty of other things to see and do whilst in Patagonia.
Take the weight off your feet and book a guided tour to a glacier on horseback from one of the estancias (working farms) around Torres del Paine.
Hop on a boat trip to Glacier Grey on the Southern Patagonian Ice Field – one of the largest continental stretches of ice on the planet.
As you approach the 40-meter high river of ice you will see cracks in the ice wall and feel the cold radiating off it. Perito Moreno Glacier is equally impressive and its sheer size (almost 200 square kilometres) will render you speechless.
If you are interested in history as well as geography, take a tour to the Mylodon Cave – located just outside the park. The cave was discovered in 1896 by the German explorer Eberhard Hermann who found inside the strange remains of the extinct Mylodon sloth.
If you’re flying in and out of Buenos Aires or one of Argentina’s other major cities, soak up some Spanish culture by attending one of the tango shows, getting your fill of steak and red wine, or wandering the colourful houses.
|Skills Required||Climbing, Hiking, Mountaineering (if completed outside summer months), Walking|
|Difficulty||2/5 - 5/5|
|Starts at||Estancia Cerro Paine s/n, Torres de Paine, Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena, Chile|
|Finishes at||Estancia Cerro Paine s/n, Torres de Paine, Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena, Chile|
|Length of route||80 - 130Km|
|Average time to complete||4 - 5 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||1100 metres|
|Equipment needed||Camping equipment, Trekking gear, walking boots|