Torres del Paine – details from my trip backpacking the O

I used a 70 liter pack, which worked nicely for this length of a trip

This is the first in a series of 3 posts I’m doing on my Torres del Paine backpacking trip. It’s not my usual sharing economy topic but I think I have some useful info that will help others. And even if you don’t plan on ever visiting this park, perhaps you’ll enjoy a few of my pictures.

Backpacking through Torres del Paine is an incredible experience. This part of Patagonia is truly stunning. I look back at my pictures and still think the backdrop is too beautiful to be real. The trip is hard without being out of reach for a reasonably fit hiker. And the camping is actually far more luxurious than I expected (see details about camp facilities below).

Somewhere beautiful along the Torres del Paine trail

When researching this trip I read a lot of blogs describing people’s experiences. These were super helpful, but I didn’t feel I ever found the level of detail I would have liked. So here I have summarized my experience, day by day, in the hopes that future hikers will find this helpful in planning trips.

We saw rainbows almost every day hiking around Torres del Paine

For more information, you can see my posts on essential things to know before going to Torres del Paine, and gear recommendations for backpacking this route.

The O vs the W

Torres del Paine park has one big loop of a trail going around the perimeter. There are also two optional additional hikes off of this loop that go to stunning viewpoints (miradores). As a result of this layout people talk about hikin the loop as doing the “O” and hikin just the lower part of the loop as doing the “W” (which includes the two viewpoints, making it look like a W on a map).  It’s also possible to just visit for a day hike or two but if you’re going to travel all that way I think that’s a bad choice.

Mornings are the most beautiful time in Torres del Paine, and you miss this if you visit for just one day

The W is far more popular and has some quite fancy accommodation options. The O takes longer and sees a lot fewer people for the 2/3 portion that is separate from the W. For serious backpackers, the O is a really nice loop, well worth the time. But for those wanting a less back country experience, or who just don’t want to do that much hiking with a pack, the W is a good option. Here I will focus on the O, but you can just look at the part between Grey camp and Torres camps for information about the W.

Where to start

For the O there are two logical starting points: one end or the other of the W. You can only go counter clockwise around the O regardless of where you start.

  • Option 1: Take the ferry to Paine Grande camp and start there.
  • Option 2: Take the bus to Laguna Amarga (a processing center for entry into the park) and start from there.

I did option 2 and will discuss the hike from that perspective. Overall I like this route. It gave us the chance to exclusively meet other O hikers from the start, and enjoy the isolation of the trail for the first part. It also means that if you run out of food or have other problems towards the end you will be on the very well serviced W with lots of options to buy stuff and get help.

How to get there

I flew into Punta Arenas, spent a night there, took a bus to Puerto Natales (3 hours away), spent a night there, and then took a bus into the park. You can get a bus from the Punta Arenas airport direct to Puerto Natales to save a day. My extra day was built in on purpose in case we ran into problems, and also to give time to buy some stuff we needed. It turns out you can stock up in Puerto Natales (fresh foods you might want like cheese and bread, along with lighters and gas canisters for your stove) so the Punta Arenas stop can be skipped if you feel confident nothing will go wrong.

Just keep in mind that your schedule on this route is fixed and very hard to adjust. Camp reservations fill up far in advance. I met one person who had the airline lose his bags. He was able to push the entire schedule for camps out by 1 day but did have to pay for expensive lodging at one camp. So it is possible to make adjustments, but it’s not easy and there’s no guarantee they will have space for you if something goes wrong.

Day 1 – hiking to Serón camp

In the morning you take a bus from Puerto Natales to Laguna Amarga. There are three bus companies that run this route, and I’d recommend the early bus (7am). The bus companies all have the same pricing so just pick whichever is convenient and has space available. The bus trip takes about 2 hours. Once you get there the park staff will process your entry fee (21,000 clp, cash only, for foreigners). Be sure to bring your passport, you need the number here and they want you to show it at some of the camps. The staff will give you a park map and show you a short video about park rules and then you’re free to start your hike.

There are two options for starting the O from here: you can take the shuttle to Torres camp (3,000 clp, an 8 minute ride) or you can just set out from here. I recommend the latter. It’s an hour longer hiking if you start at Laguna Amarga but the shuttle is a waste of time and money, and this day is an easy one regardless. You can just head towards the bridge and follow the only trail (there is a foot bridge separate from the car bridge at the start of the trail). This route has the advantage of skipping the part of the trail that is a very rutted dirt supply road for Serón camp.

Approaching Torres lodge from the camping area, up that hill to the left is the start of the trail to Seron

If you do want to start at Torres camp, don’t ask at the information center about how to find the start of the trail. They will misdirect you! Instead just look for the trail head up the hill behind the lodge, which is just a short distance behind the information center.  You will see some green domes up there in the direction you should be walking. At the top of a small hill there is a signpost for Serón.

From the Laguna Amarga bus stop the hike is about 5 hours. From Torres camp it is about 4 hours. Either way is not too difficult.

Serón camp is your first stop. Go check in and set up your tent. At camp you have hot water showers, flush toilets with toilet paper and sinks, and dish sinks. There are also some structures in which you can cook with protection from the wind and rain. And there’s a nice warm common area inside with benches where you can hang out in the evening. There can be lots of mosquitoes and black flies at Serón if it’s not raining or super windy. In this case, the indoor hang out is nice. There is garbage disposal at this camp. This is your last garbage disposal option until Grey camp.

Day 2 – hiking to Dickson camp

We had high winds overnight at Serón and when we set out the next morning it was still quite windy. The trail to Dickson is known for high winds starting about 30 minutes in, and it was rough! It may have been worse due to the windy night, but be prepared for some fierce resistance and blowing about while hiking a steep uphill and then relatively flat route. The path is beautiful but I spent much of the time trying to avoid being blown off it. Fortunately the winds were blowing me towards the hill side instead of down the cliff.  Repeatedly I had to use my poles to keep from falling into the hill with the gusts. After about an hour the winds get a bit more reasonable. Never before did I understand the term “gale force winds” but I think I’ve now experienced them.

Views on the windy section of the trail to Dickson

Halfway through your hike on this day you will come to the ex-camp Coirón. They have nice outhouses, picnic benches with no wind, and staff who check everyone’s reservations for the next camps. You have to show that you have a reservation at one of the next two camps in order to continue on here. You can’t cook here, but the staff will give you hot water for your lunch if you ask nicely.

The route for this day is known for having lots of mosquitoes because it’s quite swampy, especially after you pass Coirón. But the high winds seemed to keep them away for us. In total the hike this day took us 6 hours.

Dickson is a beautiful camp right next to the lake. Camp in the trees closest to the lake for wind protection. This camp has showers with hot water (it’s limited, but if they’re cold just wait a bit), flush toilets, and sinks. They sell beer and soda and some food. Unfortunately they have no covered cooking area, which makes it unpleasant if you have to cook in the rain. There are lots of mosquitoes and black flies at this camp. They do have a very cozy indoor area where you can hang out in the evening. And there is a charging outlet inside.

Lake Dickson

If you don’t want to camp, Dickson offers bunk accommodations that are tight but cozy and come with full meals and very nice bathrooms.

Day 3 – hiking to Los Perros camp

The hike from Dickson to Los Perros takes only 4 hours and is quite easy. It’s a beautiful hike with lots of lookouts. Take your time and enjoy the views! You will end at a glacier lake near a beautiful river. It’s a nice place to hang out so getting to camp early isn’t a bad thing if the weather is decent. This camp has cold showers and flush toilets. There is no shop to buy things. They have a big indoor cooking area which has power on at night so you could potentially charge phones here for a few hours. The campsite is nice but dark because it’s in a lot of trees.

Views on the trail to Perros

When you check in at Los Perros the ranger will tell you exactly what time to leave in the morning. Listen to them; this is based on when sunrise happens and how long of a hike you have the next day. For us they said to leave at 7am, which was basically sunrise. The trail is not easy in the dark so I wouldn’t recommend setting out before sunrise. I assume they always tell people to leave at sunrise because the weather on the pass can be rough later in the day.

Day 4 – hiking to Paso camp

Get up early and head out for one of the hardest days of hiking. You start out in a muddy stream with lots of roots and rocks. You’re in the forest but climbing up from the start through decreasing patches of trees. We had a partly rainy day which meant lots of rainbows on the pass. You ascend into rocky terrain as you approach the summit. It can be very windy on the ascent. We got lucky and it wasn’t too bad for us, but other reports I’ve read suggest winds can make the ascent significantly harder. Hiking up to the summit was much easier than we expected; everyone going up with us agreed. But the descent was significantly harder than expected. It took up about 2.5 hours to reach the pass, and about 3 hours to get down to Paso camp.

Hiking up to the Pass

The trail is well marked with orange paint, and for this day, especially for the way down, I found poles to be essential. The descent is very steep and slippery. There are some ropes and handrails but it’s mostly just really big steps down over and over on rough terrain.

On this day you’ll get some great views of Grey glacier. But most of the time you’ll be in the trees on the way down.

Rain on the hike up to the pass paid off in rainbows all day. Rainbow over Grey glacier at the top of the pass

About half the folks from Dickson will be going on to Grey camp and the other half will stay at Paso. Paso is a free camp run by the park services. They have only about 20 spots so you have to reserve early. This is the camp with fewest facilities. There is one outhouse and it’s a really awful design. This was a topic of significant discussion and disgust among our hiking cohort: no one wanted to use this outhouse. There’s a decent sized covered cooking area, and two sinks. It’s cold up there, and on our hike it rained most of the day so lots of people had wet clothes hanging inside the cooking area. It’s not a very warm place to hang out, but it’s either there or your tent at Paso.

Although it makes for a hard day, I’d recommend going on to Grey camp and staying there. It’s another 3.5 hour hike from Paso, and it is up and down lots of hills, so it’s not an easy hike. But there are really awesome suspension bridges with great views, and the camp at Grey is a lot nicer than Paso. They have a large camp store, full restaurant, showers, power for charging, and an indoor cooking area. On the down side, this is the start of the W so you have a lot more people around; it’s your first encounter with folks wearing nice clothes, staying in a hotel, and looking super clean. Many O hikers dread the start of the W.

Incredible views of Grey Glacier on the trail to Grey Camp

Day 5 – hiking to Paine Grande camp

On this day you’ll either set out from Paso or Grey. See above for distance between these camps. The hike from Grey to Paine Grande camp is 4 hours and it’s not hard. There are beautiful views of lakes along the way. But also increasing masses of people, and here the trail runs two ways so you have to make way for hikers going in the opposite direction for the first time.

In my opinion Paine Grande is the prettiest of the camps. It’s on a lake with gorgeous mountain views. Paine Grande has nice facilities: showers with hot water (6-10pm), flush toilets, a very large cooking area indoors with power outlets and a sink, and a restaurant and bar with great views. They also have a large camp store.

Paine Grande camp

Paine Grande is a windy camp so set up as close to the hills as you can for some protection.

Day 6 – hiking to Francés camp

Britanico mirador is well worth the hike up

On this day you can hike to one of three possible camps: Italiano, Francés or Los Cuernos. Regardless of where you stay you’ll want to leave your pack at Italiano and do the hike up to the Britanico Mirador. It’s a hard steep hike at the beginning and the end, but the middle is much easier. This hike is well worth it for the views! It took us 2 hours to hike up and 2 hours back down, but I think we were slow on the descent due to some foot pain so most people would probably come down faster.

Italiano camp is free, has nice outhouses and a cooking shed protected on three sides. There is no sink, water comes direct from the river. The camping area is somewhat dark and gloomy. Italiano is an easy 5 mile walk from Paine Grande. I wouldn’t recommend staying here unless you’re trying to save money.

Leave your heavy pack at Italiano camp for the hike up to Britanico mirador

Francés is just another 30 minutes from Italiano. It has a modern and really lovely design to the bathrooms with the best showers on the hike. But the design of this camp is a bit impractical because it’s on a steep hill. You have to walk a long way from the platforms for the tents down to the toilets and the tiny cooking areas (there was a small usb charging port in one of the cooking shelters). You are allowed to cook on your tent platform here, but the sink is down by the bathroom as well. There is also a small shop at this camp, even further down the hill.

With only really small sheltered cooking areas most people cooked at their tent platforms, which made this a much less social camp than others.  And in spite of the hill, the camp is in the trees so there is no views to be had. It’s windy but the trees protect you nicely from the wind. Also, this camp has a rodent problem, so you have to hang your food from the trees. If you camp here in the rain I think it would be unpleasant due to the cooking situation and distance to facilities.

Frances camp’s chic bathrooms are the nicest in Torres del Paine

Cuerno is another hour and a quarter hike from Francés and it’s a much nicer camp. They have a fancy bar, nice shower and toilet facilities, and beautiful views from the camps. The problem is that you must reserve one of their already set up tents and pay for full board here. So if you want to camp with your own gear and food this isn’t an option. But if you want a break from setting up gear and cooking camp food this is a good time to do it.

Cuerno camp has incredible views

Day 7 – hiking to Central camp (aka Torres camp)

Today you set out from Italiano, Francés or Cuerno, depending on where you decided to stay. And your destination is either Chileno or Torres (which is also called Central camp). The distance between Cuerno and Torres is a 4 hour hike. There is a lot of up and down, and some really great views along the way. Just over three hours along you’ll come across the option to turn left and head up to Chileno. If you do this you have an uphill hike for probably another 2 hours (I didn’t take this route). If you go on to Torres it’s a pretty flat end of the hike.

Camp Central (Torres) has 24 hour hot showers (most on the W are only open 6-10pm), flush toilets, and there’s a camp store and bar in the lodge. There are picnic benches throughout the camp but no sheltered cooking areas. And this camp can be VERY windy so that was not super pleasant. Get a protected camp site behind some trees. Our tent literally turned inside out from the gusts of winds! Fortunately the poles didn’t break, but we had to change camp sites for more protection.

Chileno Camp was not offering camping during our trip. To stay there you must pay to use their pre-setup tents and pay for full board.

Chileno has the advantage of being much closer to the Torres mirador, which you definitely should visit. But Central is already at the end of your loop and so you don’t have to carry your pack any further once you set up camp there. On this day some people opt to hike directly to Chileno, leave their packs, and ascend to the Mirador  before heading back down to camp at either Chileno or Central. That’s a long day of hiking, but sunset viewing can be nice.

We hiked to Torres and just set up camp for the evening, with the plan to rise early the next day for a sunrise mirador.

Day 8 – hiking to the Torres mirador

Wake up for a 4am departure (or earlier, depending on what time sunrise happens). The hike from Torres to Chileno took us about 1.5 hours. It’s fine to do in the dark with a headlamp, though you do need to pay attention to keep the trail. It’s mostly uphill, and at that early hour in the dark it was a hard hike.  Chileno is a good spot to stop for a few minutes for a rest, and a toilet if you need one. Then carry on in the dark up to the Torres Mirador.

The rest of this hike is broken in two parts. The first part is about an hour of pleasant hiking through the woods. You are ascending but not at a difficult slope. When you hit the ranger station (there is a toilet here) you will see a sign saying you have only 1 km left to go, but it’s 45 minutes to the top. This estimate is real. It took us that long to go the 1km up. It’s very steep and a slow difficult climb.

When you get to the top you’ll have a view of a lake and the famous torres (towers) behind them. When the sun rises it hits the torres with a beautiful light effect. Of course if it’s rainy or cloudy you won’t get this view, but the mirador is pretty magnificent regardless. We got super lucky, hiking up in the rain which cleared just as the sun came up for not only beautiful light but also a rainbow over the torres.

Torres mirador at sunrise (with a rainbow!)

The hike down is significantly faster than up. I didn’t time it but apart from the first 1 km, you can move quickly on the trail down. For the sunrise hike we only saw about 20 other people at the top. On our way down we passed tons of people hiking up. Many folks visit the park for just the day to do this mirador hike. So it’s very crowded later in the day. I’d strongly recommend sunrise or sunset to avoid the crowds.

Once you’re back at Torres, you can catch a shuttle (3000 clp, 8 minutes) to the bus stop at Laguna Amarga. You should buy your return ticket to Puerto Natales when you purchase the outbound ride to the park. There are two options: 1:30/2:30pm or 7pm/7:30pm depending on which bus company you use. I’d recommend getting the earlier bus as you’ll have plenty of time to catch it if you do the sunrise hike. And it’s nice to get back to town in time for a shower and a proper dinner.

Celebrate with all your new O hiking friends at one of the nice restaurants in Puerto Natales. I recommend either La Lenga (vegetarian) or Mesita Grande (pizza).