W Trek Patagonia: How to Plan & Book the Best Route Without a Tour

W Trek Patagonia:  How to Plan & Book the Best Route Without a Tour

Hiking in this southern paradise is a real treat and a bucket list item for many. However, sorting out the W Trek was one of the most challenging bookings we have made to date. Non English websites, sparse accredited blog coverage on routes and limited availability due to popularity made for a difficult journey before we even got to the park!  

We have put together a clear and concise way to book the best 5-day route through the park based on our experience.


Overview

When and where to book:

Cuernos Refugio

You want to have the best chance possible of seeing the towers in clear light. The weather can be treacherous in those mountains and the best time to hike the W Trek is in the summer months from November to March. During the months outside of summer, most of the services at the main lodging companies are closed and the days will also be shorter and cloudier.

The park has been split up so you must book your sites with at least two of three companies operating campsites there. The first two companies, Fantasticosur and Vertice, have paid refugios (big cabins and campsites) where you can either reserve a spot to pitch your tent, rent a tent, or stay in the lodge. CONAF on the other hand, is a non-profit organization that offers free camping. The CONAF site at Italiano is extremely basic with no lodge, but hey it's free! Whichever you chose, you'll need to book your accommodation through their online booking systems.

Beautiful and strategic sites like Glacier Grey and Chileno book up fast. Book the refugios as far in advance as you can to ensure you get the sites you want.

Booking rule:

Bookings for the following year's season open around the middle of May. For example, bookings open in May 2019 for the November 2019 - April 2020 season. Message the companies, Vertice and Fantasticosur, directly in advance and ask if they can email you once it opens up. We got our emails and booked right away!

Booking directly and planning your own route is by far the most cost efficient way to go.

Should you hike the 'W' left-right or right-left?

This question left us scratching our heads until we finished our trek. There are pros and cons of each. We hiked the 'W' from the left to the right which starts at Paine Grande and ends at Torres Central, but would actually recommend hiking right to left since its pros outweigh the cons and the itinerary works out a bit better.

Groovy W Trek Camp Ratings

What we did and why it wasn't as great:

We hiked the W Trek from left to right and stayed 5 nights. Some called it a "slow w" but the pace was just right. We stayed in Glacier Grey, Paine Grande, Cuernos, and Toores Central (2 nights). Ultimately, the views are better and the itinerary works more nicely walking with W from right to left.

Our drawbacks:

  • On the way to the start of our trek, we almost didn't make the catamaran due to the long line up of people (it's first come, first served). If we missed it we would have had to either wait 3 hours for the next ferry or hike an additional five hours to the start of our trek at Paine Grande.
  • Staying at Torres Central rather than Chileno added an extra 5km total to our whole trek. It is a 1km hike from the campsite to the main trail on a gravel road which is included in the 5km total.  
  • Torres Central feels as if you are not actually on the trek. The camp and refugio is located on a road with tour busses and other vehicles driving by. The service was also the worst we experienced out of all refugios.
  • We had to spend an additional night in Torres Central so we could avoid rushing our hike up to the towers and back in order to catch the bus.
  • The view from Cuernos to Chileno wasn't as nice as the other way around since the sun wasn't in our favour.

Our Benefits

  • Saving the crown jewel, the three Torres Del Paine, for last. After the multi-day trek it was satisfying to finish with the a view of the famous centrepiece of the park.
  • The first two days of the trek covering the Paine Grande to Glacier Grey then back the next day to Paine Grande are the easiest of the trek. It was nice to warm our muscles up and get used to our packs before the harder hiking days.

Will all of these factors in mind, we came up with the ideal itinerary we would use next time!

The Best Route!

  • Day 1: Park Arrival + Torres Central up to the Towers and back to Chileno (13.8km)
  • Day 2: Chileno to Cuernos (13km)
  • Day 3: Cuernos to Frances Valley and back down to Paine Grande (21.5km)
  • Day 4: Paine Grande to Grey (11km)
  • Day 5: Grey to Pudeto where you catch your bus back to Puerto Natales (11km)
W Trek Suggested Route

The Route in Detail

Day 1: Puerto Natales - Las Torres Hotel - Towers Lookout - Chileno (7 hour hike, 13.8km, 750m ascent, 400m descent)
Towers Lookout

Highlight: Today you will see the crown jewel of the park, the granite towers!

Your first task is getting to the park entrance (Amarga) from Puerto Natales (2 hour bus ride) pay for your entrance and then take a shuttle to Los Torres Hotel.

Read our tips on the Best practice for catching the bus.

Congratulations, you made it. Time to start hiking! From Las Torres Hotel to Chileno it is a 5 km hike with a total ascent of 325 m. Careful on your way, there are very high winds as you enter the valley so hike slowly and crouch down if a gust catches you off step. Drop off your bags/tent in Chileno where you will be staying the night and take a coffee or some water. It's much easier hiking with just a day pack up to the spectacular granite peaks, Torres Del Paine. From Chileno, the roundtrip distance to see the towers is 7.8 km.

Read our article on All you need to know about the Chileno refugio.

The weather is crazy in this area. We had two snow storms on our way mixed with sunny blue skies. The last half of the hike to the towers is tough and includes scrambling up large rocks. The 90 km/hour winds didn't help! When we reached the top we were sad to see the towers completely covered by cloud and yet another snow storm. However, we waited patiently beside a large rock for 45 minutes and the weather cleared up to perfect sunny blue skies! Seeing the Torres Del Paine in real life was breathtaking.

Top Tip: There are weather reports posted at Chileno so consider staying a bit or heading off right away depending on the hourly cloud cover forecast.

Day 2: Chileno to Cuernos (4 hours, 13km, 125m ascent, 406m descent)
Multicoloured Lakes

Highlight: Passing the multi coloured lakes and relaxing at the lovely Cuernos camp.

Today you will have spectacular views of the lake as you walk through otherworldly landscapes. The hike is relatively easy with a total descent of 406 meters and a small 125 m ascent in the middle of your hike.

Cuernos was our favourite refugio we stayed at. It didn't feel too busy and we got to pitch our tent on a wooden tent pad overlooking the beautiful lake! It's the perfect place to relax after you long first day.

Read our article on All you need to know about the Cuernos refugio

Day 3: Cuernos to Britanico to Paine Grande (10 hours, 21.5 km, 550m ascent, 600m descent)
Frances Glacier

Highlight: Seeing the very much alive Frances glacier drop massive chunks of ice with a thunderous roar.  

Today will be your longest hiking day. Once you reach the Italiano campsite, drop your bags off to lessen your load for the return hike to Frances Lookout and Britanico. It was partly cloudy when we hiked, but we were lucky to see Frances Glacier and even see and hear the thunderous roar of ice breaking and falling!

Since the clouds were rolling in we decided to stop at Frances lookout and forgo hiking to Britanico further up the mountain. We heard mixed reviews about Britanico and that it wasn't any more spectacular than the view at Frances Lookout. To shorten your hike you could opt to stop at Frances Lookout and forgo Britanico. This would take about 5 km and 2.75 hours off your total journey that day. Shortcut!

After picking up your bags from Italiano, it is a 2.5 hour easy hike to Paine Grande with small ups and downs on the way.

Read our article on All you need to know about the Paine Grande refugio

Day 4: Paine Grande to Grey Lodge (3.5 hours, 11 km, 200m ascent, 185m descent)
Glacier Grey

Highlight: You will see views of the Grey Lake and small icebergs before the grand finale views of the massive Glacier Grey.

Watch out for the huge gusts of wind coming at you from the front. Once you reach the Grey campsite it is about a 15 minute walk from there to the Glacier Grey lookout point. You don't want to miss it!

Read our article on All you need to know about the Grey refugio

Day 5: Grey to Paine Grande (3 hours, 11 km, 185 ascent, 200 m descent) & back to Puerto Natales
Hiking path from Paine Grande to Glacier Grey

Highlight: Today is an easy hiking day with the wind at your back and your last of the trip so enjoy the views!

It's only 11 km to Paine Grande where you'll catch the catamaran to Pudeto and a bus back to Puerto Natales  (30 minute catamaran & 2 hour bus ride). Hiking this direction is a lot faster and less effort so it's a nice way to end off the trip.

The catamaran is first come first serve so arrive early to ensure you get a seat. The ferry times change depending on the time of year but the last ferry from Paine Grande to Pudeto will take multiple trips to ensure everyone waiting gets across. No stress and you can get yourself a victory cocktail at the Paine Grande refugio while you wait. You pay for your ticket with cash inside the boat. Once at Pudeto, you'll catch your bus back to Puerto Natales.

What you should bring

Glacier Grey

Clothes: waterproof outer shell jacket, light down puff jacket, merino wool base layer (long sleeved shirt and leggings). These layers will keep you warm at night and help with wind on the pass.

Two t-shirts, long hiking pants, shorts, two medium cushioning socks and one light cushioning sock, underwear, warm hat, mitts, hiking boots, and sandals for camp.

Accessories: sunglasses, head lamp, waterproof dry bags for clothes/camera, power bank, cheap $2 poncho to cover yourself and backpack incase it pours, hair elastics, toiletries, bandaids for blisters, playing cards, book, numbing cream for knees/sore parts of your body, 1L water bottle or water bladder, camera, roll of toilet paper.

Top Tip: You won't need a pack cover we were told and saw first hand these things just act like parachutes on the windy sections of the trail. Garbage bag your goods or use dry bags instead.

What you can rent:
Paine Grande

You can rent a one or two person tent, sleeping mattress, hiking poles, sleeping bag, and hiking shoes (although we recommend bringing your own shoes to avoid blisters!).

Erratic Rock doesn't take advanced reservations and has become very popular, so don't count on getting your gear the night before your trek like we did. There were no tents. Panic! We ran over to Rental Natales and luckily found a two-person tent that arrived just moments before we got there. Rentals Natales has online reservations and they wash their sleeping bags after every use.

Meal options at camps/refugios:

Paine Grande bar

There are a few options for eating while you're on the trek. You can cook or you can have the cooking done for you. We found it really nice to come into the big lodges and have a seat out of the rain and wind to a nice warm prepared meal.

Full-board/half-board

At Fantastico and Vertice refugios, there are full-board and half-board options. Full board includes breakfast, dinner, and a boxed lunch. There was always enough food to keep us full at every meal.

The lunch bag usually consists of a sandwich, nature valley bar, juice box, nuts with dried fruit, chocolate bar and a piece of fruit. Dinners are hearty and come with a big piece of meat. Breakfasts are served with eggs and toast. Make sure to state if you are vegetarian.

Get all the info from our article: W Trek Patagonia Camps Ranked and Rated

A la carte at Cuernos
A la carte

You can also buy a la carte meals during lunch and dinner at some refugios. At our favourite Refugio, Los Cuernos, they had a hearty lasagna, burger and charcuterie board so we wished we had just ordered breakfast and lunch from there!

Cook your own food

Most refugios have a kitchen where campers can prepare and cook their own food. The downside is that you'll have to carry the weight of your food on the trek. Most refugios also have a small convenience store where you can purchase extra items along the way, such as soup, Ichiban noodles, cookies, alcoholic beverages, water, crackers, pasta, coffee etc.

If you're going to cook your own food ensure the refugio you're staying at has a kitchen. Chileno for example does not have a kitchen.

Most lodges take credit card for snacks, food, and drinks, however sometimes the credit machine is down so it is better to have a few Chilean Pesos with you.

Brings snacks!

Even if you're not cooking your own food, grab some snacks at the grocery store before your hike while it's cheap! We brought almonds, dried fruit, dark chocolate, and gummy worms. Check out Supermercado Unimarc; there is a dried goods stand at the front door. Full board won't leave you hungry, but it's nice to have a few snacks of choice to lift your spirits after and during a hard day.

Where to stay and what to prep in Puerto Natales

Treehouse Hostel

Look for a hotel or hostel with free storage, if you're travelling around Chile you probably aren't going to want to bring that extra stuff with you on your hike! We stayed at Treehouse Hostel where you can keep your bags for free in a big wooden locker. All you need is your own lock. Their private room was spacious, quiet and had a private bathroom. Free self serve breakfast is set up early for people taking the 7am bus.

Pre-trek preparation in Puerto Natales
  1. Grab your rentals the day before you leave on your trek
  2. Purchase your bus ticket the day before you leave on your trek to ensure you get an early departure time
  3. Grab snacks beforehand at a grocery store, such as almonds, dried fruit, dark chocolate, candies, and a roll of toilet paper.
  4. Pull out cash for catamaran, Torres Del Paine Park fee, and any extra goodies you wish to buy at the camping lodges. There's reliable ATMs in Puerto Natales to pull out cash. Most lodges take credit card for snacks, food, and drinks, but cash is needed for the catamaran and park fee.

Transportation - flights, buses and catamaran

Hiking path from Chileno to Cuernos

Getting from the Puerto Natales airport to Puerto Natales: A taxi from Puerto Natales airport to Puerto Natales is a flat rate of 7000 CLP for the whole car, not per person. The drive is about 10 minutes.

Getting from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine: Main transportation is by bus. The journey is 2 hours - 2.5 hours and costs 15,000 CLP ($25 USD) round trip. Consider taking Bus Sur because drivers drive at reasonable speed (BJ was very slow and many buses passed us).

Arrive 15 minutes early for your bus at 7am from Puerto Natales to Torres Del Paine. Some people didn't get on and had to wait for the 11am bus. It's better to get to the park early and is a must for this itinerary.

The bus first stops at Amarga where everyone gets off to purchase their park pass. Those going further to Pudeto to catch the catamaran to Paine Grande will need to get back on the same bus. The drive is 30 more minutes to Pudeto. Those headed to Las Torres hotel catch another 15 minute shuttle bus.

Top Tip: Sit on the front left side of bus from Puerto Natales to Amarga for the best views. Sitting at the front also ensures you're first in line to get your park pass and you can quickly hop on the shuttle.

Getting from Paine Grande to Pudeto: You can either hike 5 hours or take a 30 minute catamaran. You can't make reservations for the catamaran from Pudeto to Paine Grande or back. It's first come first serve so arrive early to ensure a seat. The last ferry from Paine Grande to Pudeto will do multiple trips to ensure everyone gets across. You pay for your ticket inside the boat. The catamaran cost 20,000 CLP ($30 USD) one way.

Check out what it's like to be there in our video!