The Torres del Paine W is one of the world's great treks. A mind-blowing run of twisted volcanic peaks, tumbling glaciers and aquamarine lakes, it zigzags across the Cordillera del Paine like a giant W
This is a step-by-step guide to trekking the W from West to East. Each step links two campsites or refugios. Most trekkers don't stop at all of them, but choose breaks according to their fitness and timetable. Very fit and fast hikers may complete the W in two days, but everyone else will take five to seven.
1) Getting to Torres del Paine and the Start of The W
By bus and Catamaran: 4.5 hrs By bus and hiking: 9.5 hrs
Several companies run buses from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine, with similar timetables. A morning bus leaves between 7am and 8am and an afternoon bus at around 2.30pm. Most agents and hotels in Puerto Natales can book tickets, which cost around US$30 return. The journey takes between two and four hours depending on your final destination.
By Car Drivers should make sure they have plenty of petrol as there are no petrol stations in Torres del Paine and only one on the way there - in Cerro Castillo, which is frequently sold out.
By Bus There are three main bus stops in the Park:
The Park Entrance at Laguna Amarga (2 hrs 15 mins), where you must pay an entrance fee of US$35 (2013/2014)
The Cataraman Dock at Pudeto (3 hrs 15 mins)
The Conaf Administration Centre (4 hrs 15 mins)
You can take either the catamaran to Paine Grande Mountain Lodge at the start of the W or hike there. Leave the bus as follows:
Cataraman Leave the bus at Pudeto. From there take the Catamaran across Lake Pehoe to Paine Grande Mountain Lodge (run by Vertice Patagonia). Sailings (weather permitting) are at 9.30am, 12pm and 6pm from November 16 to March 15 - less frequently in low season. The journey takes about 30 minutes and costs US$37 return or US$23 one way (2013/2014). No need to make reservations. Visit the Salto Grande waterfall nearby if you have to wait for the catamaran.
Bus and Trekking Leave the bus at the Administration Centre. From here you can hike to Paine Grande Mountain Lodge (5 hrs, 14 km). The trek is not one of the most interesting and most people prefer to take the catamaran across Lake Pehoe. Note that since September 2016, this route to the start of the W Trek is closed in high summer, but you may still leave the W via this route.
2) Trek from Refugio Paine Grande to Mirador Grey and back 7 hrs (22 km)
A good but long warm-up hike, this trail rises gently to Grey Glacier Mirador (lookout), a climb of only 175 metres. At the top you will see the mighty Grey Glacier splutter great splinters of ice into the river below. The warmer the weather the better the show, which is backlit by the immense Southern Ice Field.
3) Trek from Paine Grande to Camp Italiano 2.5 hrs (7.6 km)
Another nice nearly flat trail rising to only 170 metres, this one takes you along the shores of two of Torres del Paine's famous turquoise lakes. First Lago Pehoe and, after about 45 minutes, Lago Skottsberg, the spiky peaks of the Paine Massif getting closer and closer. After two to three hours and 7.6km the trail will take you across a bridge to Camp Italiano (free), which is set in woodland.
4) Camp Italiano to French Valley Mirador 3 hrs (5.5 km)
This is where the trekking starts to get harder as the trails climbs 800 metres up into the ribs of the Paine Massif into the French Valley. The rewards are staggering though. Massive hanging glaciers are set into vast curtains of granite, the remnants of a solidified magma chamber pushed up to the earth's surface millions of years ago. Add shaking and rumbling as slabs of ice crash down the valley and it's easy to see why the French Valley is many hikers' favorite.
You can camp at Camp Britannico, which is about 30 minutes (2km) below the Mirador.
5) French Valley to Refugio Los Cuernos 3 hrs (9 km)
The trail now heads down to the shores of Lake Nordenskiold, another dazzling blue lake, to Refugio Los Cuernos (run by FántasticoSur), which sits in the foothills of Los Cuernos (The Horns).
6) Refugio Los Cuernos to Refugio Torres Central and Norte 4 hrs (11 km)
Straightforward trekking through foothills to Refugios Central and Norte run by FántasticoSur
7) Refugio Las Torres to Refugio Chileno 1.5 hrs (5.5 km)
This is the first leg of the climb to the famous Towers (Las Torres), the three iconic granite pegs that give Torres del Paine its name. The trail is quite up and down to begin with before climbing in earnest to Refugio El Chileno (run by FántasticoSur) in the Valley Ascencio.
8) Refugio Chileno to Camp Torres 2 hrs (2.5 km)
The trail climbers another 600 metres to the base of the towers, where there is a free campsite used a lot by climbers and anyone wanting to see The Towers turn pink at sunrise.
9) Camp Torres to The Towers and Back 2 hrs (1.5 km)
The final challenge of the Torres del Paine W, this trail is probably the most difficult. Once you've walked through the old beech forest, only a field of giant boulders stands between you and The Towers. This moraine field may seem never ending, but it's actually only the last 350 metres or so of the path.
The Towers stand behind a glacial pool. They are Torre d'Agonsti (2850 metres), also known as Torre Sur, Torre Central (2800m) and Torre Norte (2600m), also known as Torre Monzino.
10) The Towers to Refugios Torres Central and Norte 3 hrs (8 km)
A welcome downhill run back to the luxury of the Refugio or the bus back to Puerto Natales.
11) Return to Puerto Natales Refugio Las Torres runs shuttles to and from the park entrance at Laguna Amarga. They're free if you're staying at the refugio. From there buses leave for Puerto Natales.
Organizing and Booking You can book refugios and camping via the websites of FantasticoSur and Vertice Patagonia, or you can opt for an all-in group tour, which may combine the W with other activities such as kayaking, fishing and horse riding.