You are in for a treat if you head to Patagonia to trek. The O and W Circuits in Torres del Paine are nothing short of spectacular. They aren’t easy multi-day hikes, especially with full backpacks but they sure are bucket list worthy.
It’s time consuming researching the Torres del Paine trek – be it the O Circuit or the W circuit. I always had questions I could never find the answers for online so I hope this blog post makes your life easier. Here’s everything you need to know to do the Torres del Paine trek.
Be sure to watch either the You Tube video from our 8 day trip or click on the video below.
Getting to Torres del Paine National Park
The closest city to the park is Puerto Natales, a three hour bus ride away from Punta Arenas, one of the main cities people fly into from Santiago. You can also fly from Buenos Aires into El Calafate, Argentina and then take about a five to six hour bus ride into the park via either a private shuttle or a bus – most likely with a transfer in Puerto Natales. For a shuttle transfer we used Patagonia Extrema Viajes. (They actually picked us up at the trailhead, got us to the Argentina border and onto a bus for$US70 each at the end of the trip.)
Note: Busbud is the easiest way to book all your bus tickets. You will need everyone’s full name and passport number to book.
The town of Puerto Natales has got a great vibe and a pretty waterfront. You’ll find lots of inexpensive places to stay though if you’ve got $US100 I highly recommend Toore Patagonia – with its great aesthetic and a small kitchen to boot. Stock up on gas canisters, food and whatever else you might need at the last minute for your trek in town. Just a note that there are lots of half empty gas canisters that hotels/hostels will provide for free – left over from people who have finished their trek in the park. Just ask. You can also rent whatever equipment you need in town as well. Walk around and check out the stores or hostels before committing as gear gets a lot of wear and tear on this trip.
It’s a two hour bus ride from Puerto Natales to get into Torres del Paine National Park. I’d recommend purchasing a ticket the day before you plan to go from one of the many bus companies at the main bus station in town. There are lots of buses leaving in the 7 AM – 7:30 AM range with the main bus companies being:
Our one way bus ticket cost 7,900 Chilean pesos, about $Cdn28.
Buses return each day at 2:30 PM and 8 PM.
Getting a park pass for Torres del Paine
If you’re planning to visit Torres del Paine for a day, a week or even longer then you will need a park pass. If you’re doing the W or O Circuits you need to provide proof of your reservation to get the park pass. You have to fill out a form explaining which hike or trek you’re doing and the number of days you plan to be in the park. The pass in 2019 cost 21,000 Chileno pesos, roughly $Cdn 42. When you purchase a pass they will provide you with a map of the park as well. The pass costs the same amount whether you are going for a day or for a week.
While you can get a park pass at the Laguna Amarga entrance there can be quite a lineup to get it, as you can see in the picture below. That’s fine if you’re one of the first into the park but there are frequent buses every morning so count on a wait. Bring cash if you purchase the pass in the park.
There is another option we discovered and that is to purchase the park pass from the CONAF kiosk at the bus station in Puerto Natales. You also have to watch a short film so you can do all of that in 15 minutes or less. They did accept credit cards at the kiosk in the bus station.
Getting to the start of the O Circuit
The O Circuit starts at the airy building (plainly obvious when you’re there), a short walk away from Las Torres Hotel. While you could do the dusty 7 kilometre walk along the road from the Laguna Amarga entrance to start the O Circuit I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead hop on one of the frequent shuttles and spend the 3,000 Chilean pesos (cash only!!) to get to the start. In the morning the shuttles run frequently but less often in mid-day. Once you’re at the building you can buy a few more supplies, enjoy a beer, a glass of wine or a latte before hitting the trail. Don’t miss your chance to see a three dimensional model of the route you’ll be doing.
This building is also the place where you show your pass before heading out.
A map of the O and W Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park
Booking campsites for the Torres del Paine trek on both the O and W Circuits
There are three companies that operate campgrounds on the O and W Circuits in Torres del Paine National Park – Fantastico Sur, Vertice Patagonia and CONAF. In the description below you can see which campground is run by which company. If you book well in advance (six months say) you won’t have any problem getting what you want. But you do need to lay it all out on paper as you need to basically try and book all campgrounds at once. You can do it all online – and order meals including vegetarian options, packed lunches, tents, sleeping bags and pads too. The CONAF campsites are crappy and best avoided unless you aren’t up for longer days of hiking. And they are awful at responding. In high season (December to March) it’s going to be hard to get last minute spots at any campsites unless you get lucky.
Our route on the O Circuit
You’ll also have to put a lot of thought into your itinerary. I was pleased with what we ended up doing.
We did the following: Visitor Centre near Las Torres Hotel to Seron – Dickson – Los Perros – Grey – Frances X 2 nights – Chileno and out.
What is the distance between campgrounds and what do they look like on the O and W Circuits?
There are four campsites on the O Circuit – Seron, Dickson, Los Perros and Paso. Most people skip Paso (it’s run by CONAF and very primitive) opting to continue all the way to Grey.
On the W Circuit there are seven campgrounds – Grey, Paine Grande, Italiano, Frances, Los Cuernos, Las Torres and Chileno. Italiano is run by CONAF so it’s very basic.
The distance from the Las Torres Hotel to Seron Campground is 13 kilometres. Count on 4 – 5 hours of hiking.
At all campgrounds you must check in and show not only your passport but your Chilean visa. Our friend Scot tore his up while cleaning out his wallet – not appreciating that it was a visa. At Seron Campground they were giving him a hard time but eventually decided his name just wouldn’t go on the books. It got easier as we continued on the circuit but I have to say the Chileans love their paper and bureaucracy. (At the border with Argentina where we expected difficulties, it was easier than at this campground.)
Services here include washrooms (nasty), showers (passable), an interior dining area (small but passable) and a tent for those that are cooking. They sell wine and beer, chocolate and a few other foodstuffs. Have cash.
We booked dinner and lunch here and were glad we did. Tent rentals look fine too. Book this campground through Fantastico Sur. There is no WiFi.
The distance from Seron to Dickson Campgound is 18 kilometres. Allow 6 – 7 hours. It’s a glorious day of hiking!
This campsite has lots of choice when it comes to where to set up your tent. The building used for dining was great. Food was good here and so was the playlist of one of the employees. There are rooms to rent upstairs as well as tents. You can purchase all sorts of foodstuffs along with wine and beer. It’s well stocked. Washrooms are way better than Seron though a bit of a walk away. The two showers were on the dodgy side, especially one that barely drained. Be sure to have waterproof sandals with you. Note that there is a clean, almost private bathroom down the hall from the indoor dining area. There is also a large cooking area – both inside and outside.
Book Dickson through Vertice Patagonia. No WiFi here either.
Los Perros Campground
The hike to Los Perros Campground from Dickson was 11.8 kilometres. Allow 4.5 – 5.5 hours. Much of the walking is through lovely woods. At the beginning and end of the day enjoy some gorgeous glacier views.
Los Perros campground is rustic. Think freezing cold showers so only the hardiest of young males appeared to use them. The wash up facilities are minimal. And there is no dining service though I believe you can get a packed dinner and breakfast. And you can rent tents. They’d be fine. We brought our stove and fuel but this was the only cooking we did on the entire trek. The cooking facilities are cramped right now but should improve going forward with a new building well on its way to being finished. Bathrooms are basic and not very private. One night was plenty here though the surroundings are lovely.
Book Los Perros through Vertice Patagonia. There is definitely no WiFi here.
What do you need on Torres del Paine National Park trek?
It’s 8 kilometres from Los Perros to Paso Campground and though it doesn’t sound like much that distance is up and over John Gardner Pass. Allow six to seven hours to do that distance. For many people that will be enough hiking for the day but the campground isn’t one I’d want to stay in. You have to be self-sufficient. There are no tents set up here or any services though it is on a stream so water is easy to get. But it feels cramped, closed in and dirty. Avoid if at all possible.
If you do want to book, you will have to persevere with CONAF. They are slow to respond – if they even get around to it.
The hike from Paso to Grey Campground is lovely with a large part of it running parallel to the Grey Glacier. Although this section is only 7 kilometres long allow up to five hours. Your total day from Los Perros to Grey is going to be in the order of 10-12 hours of hiking time. Get an early start.
You can tell you’re getting close to Grey because you start running into day hikers. When we finally arrive at the campsite we’re blown away by the sheer number of people we see, especially after the small numbers on the O Circuit.
Some people finish the O Circuit here and take a boat down to the Grey Ranger Station. For others it is the start of the W Circuit. For us it means we’re halfway.
The Grey Campground has everything – a regular lodge with private rooms, rental tents and camping areas though by the time we got there our choice was minimal. It’s got decent bathrooms, a well-stocked store and a restaurant with an excellent bar. It’s also got WiFi which we all ignore but we were in the bar – drinking pisco sours within 15 minutes of having our tent set up. What a great way to end a tough day!
Paine Grande Campground
Its 11 kilometres to get to the Paine Grande Campground from Grey. Count on somewhere between 3.5 and 5 hours of hiking time, much of it with pretty views of Grey Lake. It’s also possible to walk in 17 kilometres from the administrative headquarters. Allow 5 hours if that’s your goal.
We had lunch here before continuing to Italiano. From what we saw the facilities looked decent – lots of services and the option to stay in a hotel though from the outside it looked a little tired. There is a dining room here too.
We passed through the Italiano Campground a total of three times – once on the way to Frances where we stayed for two nights and twice in a day when we hiked towards the Britanico Lookout. It’s a 7.5 kilometre hike from Paine Grande – and really quite glorious. When we did it the wind whipped up taking our friend Scot’s sunglasses from his head and depositing them in the river below.
Note: It’s a 5.4 kilometre. three hour one way hike to the Britanico Lookout from Italiano though if it’s a very cloudy day there is the option of turning back at the Frances Lookout – about an hour up the trail.
The Italiano Campground, run by CONAF is another basic one, situated on the river. It doesn’t offer more than the basic services – toilets and a camping spot, no showers – so if you can handle another 30 minutes of walking I’d suggest continuing to Frances.
From Italiano to Frances Campground it’s only two kilometres – easy ones too though after hiking all the way from Grey, a distance of almost 21 kilometres, we were all more than ready to be done.
Frances Campground is unusual. It’s very spread out with camping high up in the trees on platforms (bring small bungies and rope so you can secure your tent), washrooms and cooking facilities down the road a few hundred metres from the start of the tents and the dining hall another 300 metres down from there. We got a workout everyday just going to breakfast and dinner.
While the hike up to the tent was just that – a hike – everything else about Frances was great. It had by far the best bathrooms, showers and wash-up facilities of any of the campgrounds and the dining room was actually quite lovely. There is WiFi in places and you could go and have a drink or tea mid-afternoon and just hang out in the dining area.
Book Frances through Fantastico Sur. We actually liked being in one spot for two nights.
Los Cuernos Lodge and Campsite
Los Curenos Campsite is just a three kilometre hike from Frances – and an easy one at that. It’s got lots of camping along with private cabins. We didn’t stay long here – merely grabbed a snack as we were heading for Chileno Campground. The bathrooms looked alright from what little we saw. I can’t comment on the showers but they have them and there is WiFi.
It’s approximately 11 kilometres if you take the obvious cutoff to get to the Chileno Campground. (If you don’t take the cutoff you end up at Las Torres Campground.) Allow four to five hours. Most of the hiking is truly lovely, especially on a sunny day when Nordernskjöld Lake looks amazing – a robin’s egg blue colour.
The Chileno Campground feels tired, a tad dirty and overrun with people as a lot of day trippers who are on their way to the Torres lookout stop here for drinks. The campsites are at the top of a hill, again on dodgy platforms. They give you a hammer to help you set up your tent.
Bathrooms are so-so but the showers are okay. The one dinner we had included a steak that was tougher than shoe leather and completely impossible to cut with the knives they provided. Overall this was my least favourite campground on the entire circuit.
Las Torres Campground
From Cuernos to Las Torres Lodge it’s 11.6 kilometres. There is a campground here as well though we didn’t check it out. While it would provide a good staging area for a hike up to see the towers or to start the W Circuit from the east I believe based on information at the start that it’s very rustic. As much as I disliked Chileno, if you’re planning to hike to the towers you are better off heading there from Cuernos or Frances and then walking out to finish on the last day.
I can say that Las Torres Lodge is lovely, luxurious and offers great views and food. If you want to splurge before or after the trip this would be the place to do it. We stopped here for a drink and dessert at the end before hopping on a shuttle back to the Laguna Amarga entrance.
How to access the W Circuit
If you’re planning to hike the W Circuit instead of the full O Circuit you can start at either end. If it’s Grey you want to start at then you must take a boat from the Grey Ranger Station – but be warned that it can be cancelled when there are high winds.
Another option is to either do the five hour hike into Paine Grande from the Administrative Headquarters or take a 30 minute boat ride on Pehoe Lake from Pudeto. Buses can drop you off here catch the boat. From there you can do and out and back hike to Grey Campground, a popular way to start the W. Or start at Las Torres Hotel and do either an out and back hike to Grey (and if you were thinking about that just do the O!) or opt for a return boat ride at Paine Grande or Grey.
Other useful information for a Torres del Paine trek
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Be aware that you need to carry a valid park’s pass and check in at ranger stations along the O Circuit, even if you’re not planning to stop there.
A few things I would consider essential to have on this trip are as follows:
- Even though they say you can drink out of the streams I would recommend this lightweight, USB rechargeable water purifier. We didn’t want to take chances.
- Get a bombproof tent that can withstand wind. John and I bought this MSR one for the trip and loved it.
- I like the size and weight of the Snow Peak Titanium Cookset.
- And for a portable stove that packs into nothing I’d suggest this one my friend Scot brought.
- For a pack I have been very happy with Osprey’s Ariel 75. It’s got lots of pockets and the pack itself doesn’t weigh a lot.
- For a sleeping pad we bought the Thermarest Prolite Plus® which is half the size and weight of our old ones.
- Buy a compression sack for your sleeping bag and tent. They are my new favourite pieces of gear.
Do you need to book a tour to do the O and W Circuits?
There are so many ways to explore Torres del Paine that it can be a tad overwhelming. There are loads of tours of varying lengths but really you don’t need to go that route if you’re prepared to spend a bit of time online doing the bookings. You can save thousands of dollars per person by going self-guided, and this is not a trail that is difficult to follow. The only day that would be the least problematic would be on the third day over John Gardner Pass if the visibility went south. Still there are wands to follow.
There are options to rent tents, sleeping bags and sleeping pads through the companies that operate the campsites (see above). I thought the tents might be dodgy but they aren’t. Personally I would always rather have my own sleeping pad and bag but if you want to travel light you could rent. Meals are available at all non-CONAF campsites except for Los Perros – and again I think they can provide packed meals. You can also book rooms – sometimes shared at Dickson, Grey, Paine Grande, Los Cuernos and Chileno. Don’t expect private bathroom facilities though.
If there is something I haven’t addressed in this blog post please send me a question through the comment form and I’ll do my best to answer it.
Be prepared to enjoy a solid week or more of world-class scenery!
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Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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