Trekking the W-Circuit in Torres del Paine (Patagonia) has “always been on my bucket list”. That was most people’s reaction when I told them about our recent hiking adventure in Patagonia.
To be honest, it wasn’t initially on mine. When Dario suggested travelling to South America, I actually hesitated. I had recently visited Peru, Bolivia and Chile, where l covered the iconic spots of Machu Picchu, Salt Flats and Atacama desert.
Heading to Patagonia for the best hiking trails
But I was ignorant to how vast the natural and beautiful spots in South America are. In particular, Patagonia is home to possibly the best hiking trails in the world. No matter how beautiful each photograph was, none came close to portraying the true beauty of this national park. After this trip, I’m even more keen to return, and explore other trails – especially around El Chalten in Argentina.
Read on for a glimpse of what you could expect from the W-Circuit Trek.
Torres del Paine (Patagonia, Chile) – The W-Circuit Trek in 5-6 days
The W-Circuit or W-Trek is one of the most iconic hiking trails in Patagonia, located in Torres del Paine national park, Chile. We completed the W-Circuit over 5 hiking days and 5 camping nights, with an itinerary moving from West to East. In total, we covered approximately 75km.
(Scroll further for a detailed itinerary in the second half)
A demanding trek, but “do-able” and accessible for most
The trek is quite demanding, but also one that most people, without a lot of hiking experience, can manage.
I enjoy hiking but usually go for day-hikes. The longest trekking-camping expedition I had done before this was 3 days 2 nights long and 15 years ago, as part of the HKAYP/Duke of Edinburgh expedition in school. Close friends would attest that I was terrible at it; I cried (a lot).
So even as I suggested this ambitious plan to Dario, I admittedly already had secret doubts as to whether I could actually “do it”.
After walking 26km in one day during a recent hike in Battle (UK), I felt a bit more prepared. But the challenge was also to hike these distances with 12kg on my back. We carried our tents, sleeping bags, mats, cooking equipment, food and everything… (Ok fine, Dario carried the tent, and took a lot more of the load.)
Nevertheless, I’m proud to say that there were only weather-related tears this time (it was -5 degrees on one night!).
Your body adapts so quickly
One of the coolest, most satisfying things was… our bodies. It’s amazing how quickly you will adapt. On Day 2, we walked 20km. By the last 2km, I was ironically probably more mentally exhausted. By then, the heavy backpack didn’t really bother me any more.
We also became so good at hiking, we got faster and took less breaks. Milder uphill slopes eventually became our “rest”!
That said, I found it difficult to be on my feet for more than 6-7 hours, regardless of how much distance we were covering. So I guess it makes the trip more enjoyable if you are able to get through each hiking section as quickly as possible.
Camping equipment for Patagonia
Planning this trip took time but that was really an enjoyable part and it made it extra exciting. We loved researching for the best tent (MSR Elixir 2), warm enough sleeping bags and ultra light and comfortable sleeping mats (Sea to Summit).
(Neither of these products were sponsored or gifted, and we genuinely loved these in particular. If you purchase via my Amazon links, I’ll get a small referral fee. Thanks!)
You could also rent camping equipment at some of the campsites. However, the rental prices are quite high (e.g. approx. USD30 per tent per night).
But you don’t have to camp…
There’s also an option of staying at “Refugios” or dorm-style accommodation. These are much warmer options, but also come at a price. I heard at one campsite (El Chileno), a bunk bed in a room costs US$90!
Hiking W-Circuit without a tour guide is possible and recommended
The thought of travelling to an unfamiliar place to hike made me believe we would need a tour guide, at first. But tours to do the W-Circuit costed upwards of US$1800 per person and that was the main reason we started researching on how to do it ourselves. It’s completely possible and I’d recommend it, as the trails are very well sign-posted.
Doing it alone just means you need to make your accommodation bookings in advance. Even if you are camping in a tent, you still need to reserve your slot much in advance.
Our full detailed itinerary
Now here’s a breakdown of how we hiked it:
Getting to Puerto Natales (Flight from London)
Getting to Puerto Natales was the first mission. It’s the town closest to Torres del Paine national park, where you can station yourselves at the start and finish, stock up on food supplies and get any last minute camping equipment (gas canisters).
It was a really long journey. Flying from London, there were two layovers via Sao Paolo (Brazil) and Santiago (Chile) into Punta Arenas (Chile). From Punta Arenas airport, it was another 3-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales.
Day 0: Get to Torres del Paine National Park and Paine Grande (No hiking)
- Hiking Route: None
- Accommodation: Camping at Paine Grande
The bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine left at 7am. It was a 2-3 hour bus to Pudeto, then another hour on the 11am Catamaran ferry to Paine Grande.
After arriving at the Paine Grande campsite, we set up our tents and just wandered around a little. It was a relaxing first day, which got us really excited to start walking.
Day 1: Hike 10km to Glacier Grey & Kayak tour to the Glaciers
- Hiking Route: Paine Grande to Glacier Grey (10km)
- Time: 4 hours (it was our first day hiking, and we had our backpacks so it felt like we moved at a slow pace. We were also new to the amazing views so we stopped a lot for photos)
- Accommodation: Camping at Campsite Grey
Our first night camping was unbearably cold. It was -5 degrees celsius and our tent was even frosted. But getting out of the tent to this glowing sunrise view of the mountains made the sleepless freezing night instantly worth it.
(The key is just to wake up early and start moving)
Almost every sight left us in awe, and left me struck still taking photos non-stop. So our first leg took much longer than expected – approx. 4 hours, versus 3.5 hour. We were also slow because we were still getting used to hiking with our big backpacks.
Kayaking to Glacier Grey
We arrived at Glacier Grey campsite at 12:30pm – just in time for a quick lunch, before our Kayak tour to see the glaciers with Big Foot Patagonia (it’s US$90 per person, but they’re the sole operators).
Luckily for us, the winds were weak, and the lake was calm. However, there had been an ice calving just 5 days before, which meant it was dangerous to get any closer. That was a pretty unique sight to see as well though.
We treated ourselves to a dinner at the refugio’s restaurant this night – it was probably the best one along this trek.
Day 2: Hike 20km from Glacier Grey to Frances Campsite
- Hiking Route: Glacier Grey to Paine Grande to Frances Campsite (20km)
- Time: 3.5 + 3.5 = 7 hours
- Accommodation: camping at Frances
After the first night’s temperature horror, we wrapped our feet in our down jackets and had amazing sleep! Seriously, our sleeping mat (Sea to Summit) was such a good buy. Our longest hiking day was about to begin: 20km.
But first, we fueled up. For breakfast, I brought homemade porridge mixes (oats, nuts, seeds) and topped it up with BEASTFAST granola to spice things up.
Day 2’s walk itself wasn’t tough in terms of the terrain, but when we reached the last 2km, I was losing enthusiasm. By then, we had been on the trail for over 7 hours. Although it was essentially flat ground, this part was probably the toughest for me personally. I had enough… both physically and mentally.
Reaching Frances campsite and dinner!
In fact, some people stay at Italiano campsite, which is closer than Frances. That campsite is just much less equipped (to put it euphemistically…). There are no showers and only a hole in the ground as toilets. On the other hand, other campsites have proper hot water showers and toilets.
But one thing kept our spirits high: the thought of cooking ravioli for dinner! We even had a pink creamy tomato sauce (powder with water), topped with Parmesan and black pepper. It felt very gourmet. Oh and this was Dario’s favourite meal of the camping trip. Mine was instant noodles (haha!).
Day 3: Hike up Frances Valley to Britanico Mirador, and back
- Hiking Route: Hike up Frances Valley to Mirador Britanico and back (9km)
- Time: 6 hours
- Accommodation: camping at Frances again (no need to pack up in the morning, we just took our day packs, woo!)
The advantage of staying a second night at Frances campsite was a morning without packing up our tent and gear.
Although we didn’t carry our large backpacks today, I actually felt particularly tired on the third day. The heavy walking from the combination of Day 1 and 2 caught up with me. Plus, it was a pretty tough climb.
Rain, sun and snow – all in 1-2 hours
The weather in Patagonia is volatile, extreme and unpredictable. Winds can get up to 120km/h in this area. On this day, we had rain, sun and snow in just a 1-2 hour time frame, and I promise this won’t be the last time you hear this anecdote.
But our view throughout most of the day looked something like this:
How could we even be bothered by the rain, wind or snow!?
Day 4: Hike 18km from Frances to El Chileno
- Hiking Route: Frances to El Chileno (18km)
- Time: 6.5 hours
- Accommodation: El Chileno campsite
By Day 4, we had gotten good at walking. I had muscle pain, sore ankles and knees. My toes hurt. But I also felt kind of immune to all of it.
There was 18km to cover and it was going to be tough, with an extremely steep incline for 2 hours right at the end. So we were both motivated and excited to start early. Waking up at 6am is pretty easy, since we had gotten used to falling asleep before 9pm. We left at 7:45am.
A challenging and rewarding stretch to El Chileno
The first stretch from Frances to Los Cuernos was meant to take 2 hours, but we managed it in 1 hour 15 mins. That was a pleasant surprise! We kept beating the estimated times to complete each stretch, and that kept me pumped throughout.
The last section towards El Chileno was especially tough. You see the campsite from afar and feel like you’re really close. But then there were multiple steep downhills before uphills. We just kept pushing on…
Nonetheless, we reached our destination by 2:25pm and that felt amazing. This was actually my favourite day of the trek. It was so challenging but rewarding, especially as we had improved so much by Day 4.
Day 5: Hike up to Torres for sunrise and back down
- Hiking Route: El Chileno to Torres, back to El Chileno, down to Las Torres Hotel (13km)
- Time: 6 hours
- Accommodation: Back to Puerto Natales
The final hiking day turned out to be the toughest. We woke up at 4am in attempt to catch the sunrise on top of Torres del Paine. I was basically still a sleeping zombie for the first 30 mins, which actually helped. Otherwise, it was a gruelling 1 hour 45 minute steep ascent, and we didn’t even take breaks. We couldn’t because we were rushed to catch the sunrise. Even though I was just carrying a light backpack, I was reaching my limit.
Sunrise at Torres del Paine
Sadly the sun was not glowing red, as some photos on Google set us up for. We weren’t too disappointed since we understood how volatile and unpredictable the weather in Patagonia is. In fact, some other hikers couldn’t even see the towers properly when they went (since they were covered in clouds).
Plus, going early was a great idea as the trails were still quiet. There are a lots of day hikers going up in groups on this path.
We headed back down to El Chileno campsite, to pack up our tent and bags, before making our way to the end of the trail: Las Torres Hotel/The Welcome Center. Our knees were in excruciating pain by then, because it was essentially a 4 hour descent. But it was still sad to know that our hike was about to come to an end… We dilly-dallied a little and took many selfies.
To celebrate, we had a pint of Calafate Ale (best beer of the trip!) at the Welcome Center. Then we took the shuttle bus back to Laguna Amarga, and another bus back to Puerto Natales.
I don’t think the combination of photos and words could ever do this trip justice. There’s just so much more, that neither 3000 words nor 3000 photos could begin to capture. Although there were tough times, every time I looked up, I felt the beauty of Patagonia. It was truly more than sights to see, it was a place to feel.
This experience also made us appreciate the simple things in life: juicy apples, a partner to be adventurous with, and mostly just hot things like a hair dryer and hot water bottle!
Thank you, Patagonia!