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View of the three tower peaks at the Torres del Paine National Park.

The extra secret to hiking the “W” in Torres del Paine

The Torres del Paine National Park is the most visited national park in Chile, and arguably in the whole continent of South America. Famous for its tower-shaped peaks, many hikers visit to complete the “W”, “O” or “Q” circuits. The letters represent the rough shape of the trekking route within the Torres del Paine National Park. The “W” circuit is the most popular of all three, and it was also the trail that I chose for my hike. Here is how the “W” circuit would look like, with some extra secrets that might enhance your Torres del Paine experience!

View of a huge mountain within the Torres del Paine national park, with a herd of guanacos in the foreground.

In general, the “W” circuit would take five days and four nights to complete. If you are reasonably fit, you can complete the “W” circuit in four days, or in three if you stick exactly to the “W” route. On top of the “W” circuit, I hiked additional trails, which I felt were the highlights of the entire trek. Four days was a good enough time to enjoy the sights along the “W”. Hiking the “W” circuit is easy on your own, and hopefully this information will help you with it.

Choose your starting point

The “W” circuit literally looks like the shape of a “W”. You can either start at the foot of the left “V” of the letter, or at the foot of the right “V”. On the left “V” is the Paine Grande campsite, and on the right “V”, the Torres campsite. To be honest, there are no significant differences between the two. If you are tight for time, starting on the right “V” might help you finish the circuit in three full days. For me, I decided to start from Paine Grande, which is a catamaran ride from the main ticket office.

Day 1

The first day was a pretty chill day for me. I arrived at the catamaran jetty a few minutes after the morning boat had left for Paine Grande. The next one would be five hours later, so I had a lot of time to spare. It was a blessing in disguise though, because I had the chance to explore a side trek to the Cuernos lookout point. Most tourists on a day trip to the Torres del Paine National Park would do this trek and it was worth the two-hour return trip. The Cuernos Mountain is one of the more famous peaks in the area, and arguably the poster boy for the park. If you were looking for a great view of the Cuernos Mountain, this viewpoint would be better than anywhere on the “W” circuit.

Day 2

I left my tent at the Paine Grande campsite, and headed out on the first leg of the “W”. This leg would take hikers to the massive Grey glacier, which seemingly stretched well beyond the horizon. The one-way hike to the Grey refuge was 11km and took about three hours. Indeed, the views of the Grey glacier were mesmerising, but it still felt a little too far away. If you were to follow strictly on the “W” circuit, the Grey refuge would be the point to turn back. However, if you would like to see more of the glacier, keep going.

After another hour or so, I arrived at another campsite known as “Los Guardos”. The campsite has been abandoned, but served as a good lunch spot. From this campsite, you would soon arrive at a series of suspension bridges. These bridges were the highlights of my second day. From the bridges, I was directly facing the Grey glacier, with the frigid cold winds freezing up my cheeks. I had never been so close to such a huge glacier before, not even when I visited the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina. It was amazing just enjoying the views of endless ice, and feeling the wildness of it all.

After the second suspension bridge, there will be a lookout point with spectacular views of the Grey glacier. You could continue on for more, or return back to Paine Grande. The extra hike to and from the Grey Refuge would take three or more hours. As such, expect a long day if you plan to see the glacier up close.

Day 3

My aim for the third day was to reach the Torres campsite. Again, I left early in the morning to make the estimated 35km trek to the middle leg of the “W” circuit and eventually the Torres campsite. The trek to the Italiano campsite on the middle leg of the “W” was uneventful and slightly mundane. I left my backpack at the campsite so that I could do the day-hike to the Britanico viewpoint without load. The hike to the Britanico viewpoint was 5.5km one way, with an elevation gain of 400m.

Unfortunately, the weather was horrible on this day and I could barely see the mountain peaks. Many people told me that this was the highlight of their “W” trek, and I could imagine so! On a fine day, you would be able to make out the many tower peaks in the area.

The distance between the Italiano campsite to the Torres campsite was about 16km and it was beautiful. The trail was adjacent to a lake, and at some points it had clear and wide views of the different mountain peaks. Even though the weather never got better, the trek was still very spectacular.

Day 4

From the Torres campsite, I began my trek to the viewpoint of the base of the tower peaks. These three towers were the inspiration of the national park’s name Torres del Paine, which translates as the Towers of Blue. Although many day-trip hikers only visit these three towers, I felt that they did not represent well the beauty of the national park. The three towers surely were beautiful, but I felt that there were more beautiful parts of the park on the “W” circuit.

The return trip took about five hours. From the campsite, it was easy to return to the main ticket office. Depending on the time you arrive at the ticket office, you might be able to catch the public buses back to Puerto Natales. If not, hitchhiking could save you hours of waiting for the bus in the cold, windy and empty ticket office.

Afterthoughts

Torres del Paine was a great trek, although I felt that there were simply too many tourists and hikers crowding out the trails. On some trails, I could barely walk at a constant pace without having to stop multiple times. Many tour groups would stop abruptly on the narrow trails to explain the different sights. After a while it became frustrating because it disrupted my momentum.

Thankfully, there still were many parts of the circuit that received few to no tourists. For example, the hike close to the Grey glacier and the hike from the Paine Grande campsite to the Torres campsite were extremely peaceful. Most tourists visited only the sights around both campsites, as these were the only accessible points by road or ferry. As such, if you would like a more surreal experience, my advice would be to spend more time exploring the trails outside the “W”. Ironic as it may be, the secret to a memorable “W” circuit around Torres del Paine is to explore the trails that extend from the “W”!

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