The ultimate backpacking guide to Patagonia

Ravaging westerly winds, ragged spires of Torres del Paine, multi-hued lakes bedecked with icebergs and gigantic glaciers. These form the essence of Patagonia. Covering the sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America (encompassing both Chile and Argentina), it is home to some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet! We were fortunate to spend a week in the rugged, unspoilt terrain of Chilean patagonia and would like to share our journey with all of you and hopefully inspire some of you to make the journey to the end of the world!

Stunning views like this make Patagonia the destination of choice for nature photographers!

In this post I’ll cover the logistics of how to get to Torres del Paine (TDP), types of accommodation available in the park, how to make your way to the best sites around the park and some of the must do activities. I’ll also give a handy guide to the equipment you will need and where to source them if you don’t want to carry them from your home.

Views like these greet you in Torres del Paine.. the water is really this blue! The three peaks you see are the famous Towers of Paine which gives the park its name.

Before arriving in Patagonia, I had spent a a whirlwind two days in the Chilean Lake District which is definitely worth a visit, read about my experiences here. To get to Patagonia, I caught a flight from Puerto Montt (PMC) to the southernmost airport in Chile, Punta Arenas (PUQ), the gateway to Torres del Paine! This was one of my most eagerly awaited parts of my sabbatical and I couldn’t wait to explore the magical terrain of Patagonia!

This is the view from my campground inside the park. I have to say Patagonia is home to some of the prettiest mountains I’ve seen.

The flight from PMC to PUQ is about 2 hours, try to snag a window seat if you can, the views of the snow capped Andes are breathtaking. PUQ is the administrative capital of southern Chile, but to get to Torres del Paine, you need to make your way to Puerto Natales, which is 2.5 hours north. Frequent buses run from the airport to Natales, though making a reservation is a good idea if you’re going in the peak season. Fares are between 8-10$ one way. 

Enroute to Puerto Natales, the roads can get a bit patchy from time to time, so best to hire a SUV

A fair warning, if you’re planning to do the famed W trek, be prepared to start booking refugios (campsites/trekking huts) a good six to nine months in advance. They sell out very fast, and the websites to book them are whimsical to say the least (this was my experience in 2017, I hope it has gotten better now). I sadly didn’t find campsite availability to do the middle leg of the ‘W’, so I was planning to do a slightly modified version with a few day hikes thrown in. I did manage to snag a campsite inside the park (all the bookings done in spanish, and not sure if anyone at the camp would speak english, or whether I would be able to locate it once I reached the park). But, then that is part of the charm of venturing to Patagonia! More about the W a bit later. The campsite I had booked was on the shore of Lake Pehoe, and it is hands down one of the most scenic places I’ve camped in. There are luxury hotels on the shores of Pehoe and Lago Gray as well, with rooms costing well over $400 per night. These also get booked out way in advance so my advice is when you’re planning a trip to Patagonia, book you accomodation first and then book flights around it!

Erratic rock in Natales is a great place to meet fellow hikers or get information about the park
Paroquia Maria Auxiliadora a church in downtown Natales

Since my accommodation was a mixture of refugios along the trek, campsites and hostels in Puerto Natales, plus with my wife joining me for the last day in the park, I rented a car from the airport so I had more flexibility while exploring. Exiting the airport, there is just one road to take, the famous Ruta del fin del mundo (the end of the world route). Sadly, apart from the name which conjured up images of swashbuckling sea captains and traversing through windy terrain, there isn’t much to see till you reach Torres del Paine (a good 5 hour drive). However it is best to stop and spend a night at Puerto Natales to prepare for your trek/camp/adventure into the park. 

At the shore of Natales, gloomy patagonian weather in mid-summer! Patagonian weather is very fickle!

Puerto Natales is a tiny town situated on the Chilean fjords and serves as a gateway to the majestic Torres del Paine national park. The town has a last frontier look to it, and if you drive around you get a sense of the brooding nature that surrounds it. You also get your first taste of the Patagonian weather here, specifically the gale-force winds which will rip your car door clean off its hinges if you’re not careful. Having my own car, I did drive around and captured this shot of the looming Chilean peaks juxtaposed against the steely gray water of the fjord. The weather in this part of the world changes in an instant, so don’t be downcast if you don’t see sunny blue skies. Give it an hour and you might get lucky!

Dorms at the Singing Lamb.

I checked into the Singing Lamb hostel and walked to the downtown area to rent my camping gear. There are many places around and I would advise going to a few and comparing prices before picking one. Some of the ones I looked at were: 

  1. Camaleon Rental
  2. Rental Natales (Bernardo O’Higgins 662-A)
  3. Casa Cecilia (Tomas Rogers 60), 
  4. Fantastico Sur (Esmerelda 661),
  5. Chumango Hostel (Baquedano 558),
  6. The Gear Spot (Tomas Rogers 235), 
  7. Carfran Patagonia 

It doesn’t make sense to fly in with all your gear, I just had my 50L backpack with me, and rented the rest of the stuff before heading into the park. If you’re camping on the W trail, pick up a suitable tent with a rain cover, a sleeping bag and pad and pair of hiking poles at the bare minimum. Make sure you practise setting up the tent before you reach the park! Next was groceries (food is prohibitively expensive inside the park, because of how remote it is), so I stocked up on fruits, bread, cold cuts, salami, cheese and water etc, to go along with the energy bars I had bought from the US. One of my nights camping along the W was in a trekking hut with meals included, but for all the others I needed to carry whatever food I would need. 

Fresh crab served in its shell! Delicious!

The entrance fee is 21,000 pesos (~30USD per person regardless of length of stay, payable only in Chilean Pesos). You will need your passport while entering the park. If you’re not driving you can take a bus from Puerto Natales to the park, there are 2 daily departures from the town one early morning and one in the afternoon. There are 3 stops in the park, first one near Laguna Amarga (the entrance, get down here if you are doing the W from the East). The second one is near Pudeto (get off here to take the catamaran to Paine Grande, starting point for the westernmost leg of the W). The last stop is the administration building which I don’t think is of any use for visitors. The latest schedules can be found here. Make sure you buy your tickets for the bus well ahead of time in the peak season.

Views from the road inside the park, notice the multiple shades of blue in the two lakes!

Trekking enthusiasts will have heard about the legendary “W” hike of the TdP, and it deserves every bit of the praise it gets. The trek is usually done from east to west, though you can switch it around depending on your accommodation situation.  Simply put, the W is a 4-5 day hike in the park which takes you to three of most stunning vistas in the park. First is the Mirador las Torres (three sheer towers or horns of granite rising majestically in front of a still glacial lake) which gives the park its name. Second is the Valley of the Frances (the middle of the W) where you hike up to Mirador (meaning lookout in Spanish) Brittanico for splendid sweeping views of the French Valley. This is the leg I had to skip because I couldn’t get campsite reservations. Friends who have done the W also told me that of the three legs, this is the one to skip if you don’t have time because similar scenery can be found elsewhere. The last leg (westernmost) has you trekking aside Lago grey flecked with icebergs and eventually leading up to the gigantic Gray glacier. In the middle path connecting the two outermost legs, you hike alongside the azure blue waters of Lago Nordenskjold, which also leads up to the famous Salto Grande waterfall (a must stop if you are short on time since the lookout is on the main road). 

The iconic W hike is detailed above, doing it in entirety from east to west takes 5 days, 4 nights with stops at Chileno, Los Cuernos, Paine Grande and Refugio Gray.

The W is a tough hike, but doesn’t have any crazy high elevation gains, and folks who are in decent shape should be able to complete it without any issues. The good part is that no point in the hike is at a very high altitude so that helps a lot. However, I would recommend doing at least three or four 8-12 mile round trip hikes with a 40-50L backpack with a decent elevation gain in preparation. The hard part of the W is the length rather than the elevation gain, so if you want to make it easier throw in an extra day to distribute the load. It is also possible to complete the W on the other side to make a Q (shown in brown in the map), though support in form of campsites and refugios is much lesser in that part of the hike.

The starting point of the W (if you go east to west).

I would also highly recommend doing a glacier ice-hike on Gray glacier. The hike starts from Refugio Gray and takes around 4-6 hours. I booked through Bigfoot Adventure Patagonia and would highly recommend them. More about my (mis)-adventures on this leg of my trip in a later blog post! Please feel free to reach out if you have questions about the logistics of getting to Torres del Paine. Time to get some shut eye and get ready for an early start and drive to the park tomorrow!

Carb loading before hiking the W (That is one giant burger.. see the fork for scale!!)

The picture below gives a preview of things to come. Follow the next step of my adventures where I start the mighty W hike here!

Cannot wait to hike in Torres del Paine, scenery such as this awaits you inside this spectacular park!

4 thoughts on “The ultimate backpacking guide to Patagonia”

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