Chilean Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park is known for its jaw-dropping landscapes: turquoise lakes, granite mountains, and mammoth glaciers. With 17-18 hours of daily sunlight during its summer months, travelers will have plenty of time to explore the region regardless of if they are backpacking through the park or simply going on daily excursions from their hotel. In addition to world-class hiking, the park offers activities including kayaking between icebergs, glacier trekking, and wildlife-viewing tours. No matter what activities you engage in, you will leave the park in marvel of how majestic nature can be.
Most backpackers will complete the famous "W" trek, with a few of them continuing further to complete the "O" trek or "Q" trek. These treks are named after the overall shape of their routes. A map of the W trek, from the Swoop Patagonia website, can be seen in the image below. The itinerary below is for anyone interested in completing the W trek, which is usually hiken in 4-5 days.
Traveling between Santiago and Torres del Paine National Park is pretty complicated as there are many flights, buses, and transfers involved. I included the links to the bus companies above if you wish to make your transportation bookings directly with them. If you wish to go through an agency who will do all of the planning and make all the bookings for you, continue reading for more information. The one thing I would change about our itinerary (aside from being able to spend more time exploring) would be adding on an extra day in either Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas after TDP. We were exhausted by the end of the trek and the journey back to Santiago was pretty rough as it involved a 4-hour hike, boat ride, car ride, bus, and two flights.
As for flights, most people fly into Punta Arenas as there are essentially no flights to Puerto Natales (or they are very expensive). To reach parts of Chilean Patagonia, you will have to fly through Santiago. If you are heading to parts of Argentinian Patagonia, such as El Calafate or El Chalten, then you can take a bus from TDP/Puerto Natales to El Calafate and then fly to Buenos Aires from the Argentinian side.
The best time to visit Torres del Paine, and Chilean Patagonia in general, is from November to March as this period is the southern hemisphere's summertime. The weather is ideal for backpacking during these months, but be aware that it is the peak season in the region.
US, EU, and Canadian passport holders can visit Chile without a visa for up to 90 days. Citizens of India holding a valid US Visa, with current validity of six months, do not require a Chilean tourist visa (either Simple Tourism or Multiple Tourism or Multiple-Business). Please check your country’s official resources to confirm your visa requirements.
Chile's official and administrative language is Spanish. However, since the Patagonia region sees travelers from all over the world, English is widely spoken in the region. If you head to Santiago before or after, you will find that English is not as common, though you can get away with it if sticking to the tourist heavy areas.
Chile's currency is the Chilean Peso (CLP). As of August 2020, $1 USD is equal to 797.60 CLP. Some hotels in Patagonia give you the option to pay in USD.
Our group booked everything through ExperienceChile which made planning much easier, but we did pay a premium. They gave us a standard itinerary with many options to customize it - i.e. we were given refugio options for some nights, meal preferences, adding on an extra day or activity. We also opted to book all of our transportation through them starting from when we arrived in Punta Arenas until the moment we departed. This included all of the bus reservations and private transfers. Since this was our first backpacking trip, we opted for the full board at each of the refugios which included all meals, bedding, and towels. This made our hike much easier as we had to carry fewer items. All of the meals were pretty filling, including the packed lunches. We brought our own trail mix, protein bars, and other some other snacks.
If you opt not to go with a travel company, you can book accommodations directly with Vertice for the west side of the park and with Fantastico Sur for the east side. Refer to the image below to see which refugios and campsites can be booked with these companies.
In the event that you choose not to backpack through the W trek, you can expand your search to hotels outside of those offered by Vertice and Fantastico Sur including the following:
Some of these hotels, especially the luxury hotels, offer activities including guided hiking, boating, yoga, spa treatments, and horseback riding.
Below is a profile of the elevation gain for the W trek from the east to west, taken from the Swoop Patagonia website. 1 meter is equal to roughly 3.3 feet. While each day's hike was definitely doable, we were tired at the end of each day.The hike to the Mirador Base Las Torres and the French Valley were the two difficult days with lots of elevation gain, while the hike from Chileno to Los Cuernos was the easiest. I suggest also reviewing the AllTrails and Pygmy Elephant websites as they include helpful information regarding elevation gain, grade, and hiking difficulty.
This packing list is what we used for our trip. It is for anyone doing a full board option where bedding and food are all provided. If you are not staying in the Vertice or Fantastico Sur refugios, or are camping, feel free to use this list as a starting point but be sure to consult other resources to determine what additional gear you should pack. The weather in Patagonia can be quite erratic and you can walk through all four seasons in just one hour. Pack light-weight and waterproof layers that you can quickly put on or take off. You should also prepare for rain and make sure you have a waterproof cover or poncho for your backpack. Within my backpack, I packed everything in large ziploc bags or plastic bags to provide an extra layer of protection.