Upon researching how to hike Parques Nacionales Los Glaciares and Torres del Paine without a guide, I had to search several websites including the parks’ own sites, El Chaltén’s website, Trip Advisor, blogs and more to get a general idea of the process. At times, I felt confused and the research was very time consuming. I likely could have just purchased a travel book, but even the Fodor’s (copyright 2015) on occasion was outdated. This post is dedicated to information about hiking Patagonia. The details of our trip can be found in other posts under Argentina and Chile on this site.
Best Direction to Travel through Patagonia
First and foremost, while I feel extremely fortunate to have gone to El Chaltén and Los Glaciares first and Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine second simply due to benefiting from weather issues, I recommend reversing the itinerary. Puerto Natales is a larger city with more amenities. It is easier to book bus transportation and actually pay for it with a credit card instead of cash.
With the luxury of time, it wouldn’t hurt to hang out in Puerto Natales a few days before heading to the park. The city is nice with many restaurant selections and grocery stores for provisioning. There is also a hostel that provides information about hiking the W route. During the high season, it is recommended to make reservations on the buses and in the parks. While the buses we took from El Chaltén to El Calafate and from El Calafate to Puerto Natales weren’t full, the bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine was. In fact, there was an overflow bus. I asked the lodge where we were staying if they would buy our tickets and they did so about a week in advance. The buses from Puerto Natales go to three places in the park.
Campsites for the park operated camp grounds require a reservation during the high season, and it must be done in person. There is a CONAF office in Puerto Natales, however, it is not open on the weekend, thus a week day visit is required. There is also an opportunity to make reservations at the administration office in the park where the buses take all passengers, but the campgrounds filled up quickly. We were lucky to be able to get space at the campgrounds on the dates we wanted, but other dates within the five days we were in the park were full.
It was my understanding from reading that campers/hikers needed reservations anywhere in the park, though having met some fellow campers, they said it was easy to camp at the privately operated refugios without a reservation. Having said that, without reservations, campers need their own tents, as I did see that tents were sold out at the refugio where we were camping. I suspect if visitors want to stay in the refugios, reservations would be required in advance. The two operators of the refugios are Fantastico Sur and Vertice Patagonia. Hikers/Campers can reserve food, sleeping bags, tents, space in camps, or shared space in the refugio. Showers and bathrooms are available to all. While there are small stores at some places, food options for purchase are limited especially in the middle of the W route where food is packed in on horses. Beer and wine are available.
Route Options and Refugios
Many people hike directly to the Torres del Paine from Laguna Amarga on the first day which is a good option if the weather is nice. On the next day they would hike to Britanico, on the third day to Glacier Grey, and on the fourth day to the Administrative Headquarters. The ferry to Pudeto may also be taken. The reverse route is also an option. If the ferry ride is preferred, get back on the bus at Laguna Amarga and take it to the next stop, Pudeto.
If time allows, there is a totally different way to hike the W route. We took the ferry from Pudeto to Refugio Paine Grande by Lago Pehoe. We stayed there two nights which provided us the opportunity to pick which day had better weather to hike to Glacier Grey. We could also do it with a day pack rather than a backpack. I originally planned the added time because I was concerned with the bus/ferry coordination. They seem to have these connections down and hikers aren’t left behind, so we really didn’t need the extra time, but we had the luxury to hang out while it was raining and hike while it was sunny with a day pack. Had we planned to stay at Refugio Glacier Grey, we would have had to backpack there and back over the two days.
We had planned to camp at Britanico, but found out this was no longer an available option. As such we made a reservation at Campamento Italiano, a free campground operated by the park, while we also had a reservation at Los Cuernos the following day. This wasn’t the best planning, but it gave us the option had we needed it to hike Britanico on one day or another (though one day is long and the other short). Campers could easily stay at either place for two nights as well or try out Frances Camp. I probably wouldn’t recommend staying at the same place two nights in a row unless it were the cabins, as I can say the individual cabins with a nice shower house and hot tub at Los Cuernos was worth every penny. We had to make the cabin reservations six months in advance, so some planning is required.
After two days in the middle of the W, we headed to the Torres del Paine. While we only had one night there, we still had two days. Since this is the park’s namesake, it wouldn’t be bad to have an extra night. It could be split between Refugio Chileno (a pay site) and Campamento Torres (free) or the nights could be at the same location. What confused me the most when reading about Los Torres is that Campamento Los Torres is operated by the park and is only an hour from the lookout. There is also a Las Torres Hotel as well as a Refugio Torres Central & Norte which are privately operated. The hotel and the refugio are down in the valley several hours from the lookout, so pay attention to the names. Refugio Chileno seemed to be rather popular, though crowded and dirty (relative to the other refugios). I’d recommend backpacking up the additional elevation to Campamento Torres if a reservation can be attained. Especially because being just an hour away from the lookout allows for a hike up at sunrise!
Things to Know:
CASH is needed for the park entrance fee and ferry ride. It can be Chilean Pesos, US dollars or Euros. We had read only Chilean Pesos were accepted which isn’t the case. In addition, the privately operated sites take credit cards.
Accommodations within the park:
Sites Operated by Fantastico Sur on the W Route are in dark green on the park map (which means pay):
Torre Central & Norte
Los Cuernos and Los Cuernos Cabins
Sites Operated by Vertice Patagonia on the W Route are in dark green on the park map (which means pay):
Refugio Paine Grande
Sites Operated by the park on the W Route are in light green on the park map (which means free):
Other Sites on the W Route:
Hotel Las Torres http://www.lastorres.com/
Frances Camp http://www.torresdelpaine.com/ingles/secciones/noticias/21.asp
*I did not list Sites for the O or Q route
Transportation to and in the park:
Buses from Puerto Natales to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine:
Regular Schedule 7:30 and 14:30 and is coordinated with Ferry Ride in park (7:30 bus will get you on the 12 Ferry)
Detailed information about the bus schedule may be found here (also includes from Puntas Arenas):
Buses going into the park stop in 3 locations. 1. Laguna Amarga 2. Pudeto 3. Administrative Headquarters
Currently bus tickets in Chile cannot be purchased online and emailing the bus companies isn’t very productive. It is best to contact the hotels or a travel agent.
Park Shuttles (2,800 Chilean Pesos paid on the bus as of January 2016):
If only using buses, there is one bus going in and a shuttle and bus going out. The shuttle times are coordinated with the bus schedules.
Shuttles depart during the high season from Hotel Las Torres to Laguna Amarga (approximately 20 minute ride) at 9, 14, 16, 19:30
It is possible to hike to the headquarters or to Laguna Amarga to cut out the shuttle. It is also possible to take the ferry to Pudeto to cut out the shuttle.
Departs from Pudeto during high season at 9:30, 12, 18.
Departs from Paine Grande during high season at 10, 12:30, 18:30
Ferry tickets may be purchased onboard any time during the ride.
$22 US dollars one-way as of January 2016. I don’t know the two-way amount. CASH ONLY
Getting on the ferry first got us a good view up top, but our bags were at the bottom. Plan accordingly.
Helpful links for schedules and timing:
Hiking times and distance one way in the park according to the park map:
We shaved off about 0.5 hours for every 2 hours listed, but we came from a higher altitude and many times were hiking with a day pack rather than a backpack.
Administrative Headquarters to Paine Grande Shelter: 16km, 5 hours
Paine Grande Shelter to Grey Shelter: 11km, 3.5 hours
Paine Grande Shelter to Campamento Italiano: 7.5km, 2.5 hours
Campamento Italiano to Britanico Lookout: 5km, 3 hours (steep)
Campamento Italiano to Frances Camp: 2km. 0.5 hours
Campamento Italiano to Los Cuernos: 5km, 2.5 hours
Los Cuernos to Las Torres Hotel: 12km, 4.5 hours (Refugios Torre Central and Norte are near Las Torres Hotel)
Los Cuernos to Chileno Shortcut (skips going down to hotel in the valley): not on park map…approximately 4.5 hours
Las Torres Hotel to Chileno: 5km, 2 hours
Chileno to Campamento Torres: 3km, 1.5 hours
Campamento Torres to Base of Las Torres Lookout: 1km, 1 hour (steep)
Transportation from Puerto Natales to Puntas Arenas:
There may be a variety of companies, but we took Buses Fernandez which was the best bus we took the whole time in South America, and it is the only one I know of. We purchased the tickets at the bus station in Puerto Natales about five days in advance before we went to Torres del Paine.
As referenced in the narrative above, I believe it is easier to purchase bus tickets and travel from Puerto Natales to El Calafate or El Chaltén as several bus companies are located in the bus station. That said, we traveled the opposite direction, so I am providing information from my experience and research.
We could not get transportation from El Chaltén to Puerto Natales directly. We had to stop in El Calafate. I’m not sure this is the case in the reverse travel direction.
Buses to/from El Calafate/El Chaltén:
From El Calafate to El Chaltén
Frequency: every day
Timetable: 07:00 hs (TAQSA), 08:00 hs (CalTur and Chalten Travel), 13:00 hs (CalTur and Chalten Travel), 16:30 hs (TAQSA), 18:00 hs (Chalten Travel) y 18:30 hs (CalTur).
From El Chaltén to El Calafate
Frequency: every day
Timetable: 07:30 (ChaltenTravel), 08:00 hs (CalTur), 10:30 hs (TAQSA), 13:00 hs (CalTur y Chalten Travel), 18:00 hs. (Chalten Travel), 18:30 hs (CalTur) y 19:30 hs (Taqsa).
Duration: 3 hours each way.
Prices Cal-Tur and ChaltenTravel: AR$ 350 / AR$ 700 return.
Prices Taqsa: AR$ 300 / AR$ 580 return.
Data supplied by the respective bus companies, updated December 2, 2015.
For more detailed information and reservations online for Chaltén Travel and Cal-Tur:
Other transportation companies I found on google and Trip Advisor to go to/from El Chaltén/El Calafate:
Ves Patagonia: http://www.vespatagonia.com/
We used Las Lenguas. I was concerned about transportation on Christmas Day, and they were the only ones who responded to my email. They transport from hotel to hotel, so we didn’t have to worry about transportation from the bus station to our accommodations. It cost $600 Argentinian pesos for pick up and $300 for return.
Las Lenguas: http://transportelaslengas.com/en/
Buses ranged from double deckers to small shuttles. I don’t think any had bathrooms as they make a stop at La Leona. In fact, every bus we rode in Patagonia stopped somewhere for snacks/restrooms except the bus from Puerto Natales to Puntas Arenas.
El Calafate is touristy. Tours leave from El Calafate to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (long day), Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (long day), and Perito Moreno Glacier (close by).
Personally, I would recommend El Chaltén to really enjoy Parque Nacional Los Glaciares
I’d recommend 2-3 days in El Chaltén. For the travel distance, three days is better especially if there is bad weather.
Must do hikes in El Chaltén:
1. Laguna de Los Tres to see Fitzroy. Take shuttle to Hosteria el Pilar (then it is a one-way hike instead of out and back and it is easier. http://www.elchalten.com/eng/actividades/lagunadelostres.php
2. Laguna Torre. Can walk from town. http://www.elchalten.com/eng/actividades/lagunatorre.php
Other hikes in El Chaltén:
Here is a link to several hikes in El Chaltén: http://www.elchalten.com/eng/actividades/caminatas.php
Buses to/from El Calafate to Puerto Natales:
This reservation was unachievable from the States. We had to wait until we arrived in El Chaltén as no transportation company returned my email. We were able to book this through a travel agent in El Chaltén, and we could only book a private company. It may have been easier in Puerto Natales as the buses are at the station. Travel time is approximately 5 hours.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Every other day service shown on website.
Cootra: Email: email@example.com.
Buses Pacheco: http://www.busespacheco.com/rutas.htm
Always Glaciers is who we used. We were picked up at our hotel at 5:30am. It was around noon before we would have been able to cross the border had the bus driver had his papers. Instead we were stranded for a few hours. Our drive was in very bad weather, so it may have been faster if visibility was better. Immigration takes around an hour. The bags were checked for fresh food. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org