Visiting Torres del Paine in Chile has always been on our bucket list. We were pretty excited to check this off as part of The Great Expedition. From Easter Island, we first flew back to Santiago before heading south to Patagonia. A flight to Punta Arenas and a bus to Puerto Natales took us to the start.
To best experience the full splendor of Torres del Paine, we decided to hike the famous W Trek. A 40-something mile trail in the shape of the letter “W” (hence the name), the trek is usually done over the course of five days and four nights of camping. We chose to hike from west to east.
From sunny Puerto Natales, we took a local bus to stormy Torres del Paine and were dropped off at the Pudeto outpost. While we waited for the catamaran to take us to the trailhead, we did a short hike to Salto Grande, the largest waterfall inside the park. Salto Grande connects Lake Nordenskjold and Lake Pehoe. While the hike is usually easy, we had such strong head wind (50+ mph / 85 kph) that walking was a real struggle.
It was a taste for what’s to come. Despite the awful weather, the views of the waterfall were pretty.
Torres del Paine “W” Trek Day 1: Grey Lake
The poor weather continued. During the entire catamaran ride, all we could see were rain and clouds. The strong winds kept blowing. It was hard not to worry about the next few days. Considering the unpredictability of weather in the region, we were desperately hoping it would improve, and soon. The weather cleared up a bit after we checked in to our campsite on Paine Grande (yay). The slight weather improvement encouraged us to take on the first stretch of the “W” hike up to Grey Lake and Glacier.
Despite the cloudy weather, the hike itself was quite scenic, with panoramic views of the hills, Paine Grande mountain and lakes along the way. We could only imagine how much prettier it would be with the sun shining. We also had our first iceberg sighting! Small ice chunks that broke off of the Grey glacier floated along the shore.
It was around this time that the weather closed in again. The rain, sleet and wind became relentless. It was hard to just stand up straight! The sleet hit our skin like needles and we had no choice but to turn back to camp. The walk back was some of the worst hiking we’ve done. By the end, we were both soaked from head to toe despite our rain gear, and pretty frustrated.
On the final stretch back to camp, the landscape opened to Lake Pehoe and we couldn’t believe what we saw. The sun was shining and there was even a rainbow! It felt like such a lie – we had been in hell and this looked like heaven.
Back at camp, we tried our best to dry all of our gear and dug into the first day’s worth of instant food for dinner (tuna, beans, mashed potatoes). The clouds began to break that evening and the massive Paine Grande mountain shyly revealed itself. Fingers crossed for better weather for the next few days!
Torres del Paine “W” Trek Day 2: Paine Grande to Frances
Day 2 started off better than Day 1. The weather had cleared up, the wind slowed down and our gear was mostly dry. Woot! The plan was to hike from Paine Grande to Frances campground that day and complete the first loop of the “W.” More instant food for breakfast (oatmeal, noodles) before we hit the trail for the day.
Striking views of Paine Grande mountain dominated the first half of the hike. The trail essentially follows the foothills of the mountain into Frances Valley, where it then splits – one path goes up the valley while the other goes straight around the Cuernos mountains.
Passing the valley for today (we’ll be back tomorrow), we continued straight to the campground. The most memorable part of the day was a suspension bridge we came across with a sign showing a maximum capacity of only 1 person. Hmmm… pretty concerning, don’t you think?
It was a pretty easy-going day, though we were starting to feel our lack of fitness. Tomorrow the harder hiking begins.
Torres del Paine “W” Trek Day 3: Frances Valley and the way to Cuernos
Hiking up the Frances valley (the middle of the “W”) is one of the highlights of the entire trek. It would be our first real test on a challenging stretch with constant steep slopes. We slowly made our way up, pausing to catch our breaths whenever needed while admiring the views.
Every now and then, we would hear loud thunderous sounds coming from the mountains. What were those? Avalanches! Once we were high enough, we could also see them. Pieces of the Frances glacier broke off and cascaded downhills. It was scary but entertaining.
Mirador Frances had the best seats in the house – 360 degrees of mountains, glaciers and lakes. Just unbelievably beautiful.
Just when we though we had left the pretty views behind, we were pleasantly surprised by the trail to Cuernos. The way took us along the shores of Lake Nordenskjold. With the sun shining and very little wind, the entire lake became a huge blue mirror. Perfect reflections of the surrounding mountains.
This time when we stopped, it wasn’t to catch our breaths, but to admire the views. Wow.
Part of the trail led us right to the edge of the lake, a shore of black and white pebbles. The lake was so clear we could see those pebbles disappearing into the emerald blue waters.
And just like that, we made it to Cuernos! It was an incredible location – lake to one side, with unparalleled views of the horns on the other. Now we’re starting to understand the magic of Torres del Paine. We stayed up that night for sunset (usually we’re asleep before!) – the sun here doesn’t set until past 9:30pm at this time of the year! The golden hour never disappoints. We took some of the most beautiful photos of the entire trek on Day 3.
Torres del Paine “W” Trek Day 4: Cuernos to Chileno
Day 4 was hiking. That’s what we were focused on. It was a long way from Cuernos to Chileno, the campground closest to the base of Las Torres. The day started off with thick cloud cover and light showers, so we put the camera away and hunkered down to walk.
Auto-pilot was a good description for how we felt for most of the day, dragging ourselves up the constant and relentless slope to Chileno. There were definitely times when we were tired and in pain and thought about giving up (though there was no choice). We got there an hour sooner than we expected though, and celebrated the small win by trying to rest as much as possible. The next day (and last day) was going to be the hardest of them all.
Torres del Paine “W” Trek Day 5: Mirador Base Torres
The alarm rang at 3am and we promptly got ready for the final ascent. It felt like D-Day. The advantage of staying at Chileno overnight was that we could get to the towers of Torres del Paine in time for sunrise. By now we were definitely fatigued from the previous days of hiking and camping, but we were pumped to get there.
The first hour or so on the trail was fine – it was dark, but the slope was gentle and the trail was well established. The final stretch, however, was brutal. Mad scrambling through rocks on a steep ascent that seemed to never end. We could see the sky getting brighter behind us as we struggled to keep going. There were many other hikers along the way and we all cheered each other on. When we finally made it, we had time to spare.
It felt like a dream. Were we really here? Did we really manage to make it all this way? There had been so much anticipation and worry and self-doubt, seeing the towers at last was the ultimate catharsis. The view was… indescribable. The three peaks surrounded by snow, towering over the glacial lake. And when the sun finally came, the towers were golden. It was pure magic.
We’re never going to forget this place.
The way down felt like a celebration. We practically ran down the hill, fueled by our sense of accomplishment (…and gravity, too). And just like that, we were done with the “W” trek.
From Torres del Paine, we continued our adventures in Patagonia, crossing to the Argentinian side.