Patagonia is a region in the southern part of South America that straddles both Chile and Argentina. With stunning mountain views, glaciers, and icy blue lakes, it is a popular destination for hikers and nature lovers. Planning a trip to Patagonia can be a little daunting! Unlike planning a trip to Europe or even South East Asia, there are very few resources out there to help navigate the planning process. In addition to this, there are certain things that need to be booked in the proper sequence to make sure you do not miss anything or have to change plans later, which can turn out to be very costly. This post covers how to plan a trip to the Chilean side of Patagonia, specifically Torres del Paine National Park and the recommended sequence to follow.
You can skip all this and book an organized tour to Torres del Paine or pay a company to plan all this out for you! However, this can be expensive, plus I think there’s fun in the planning of a trip! You do not really need a guide on any of the popular hiking routes, unless you are hiking off season or hiking some of the more difficult trails.
Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine National Park is one of the main highlights of Chilean Patagonia. This park is especially famous for its stunning lakes and towering mountains. It is also well known for 2 multiday hiking trails that bring thousands of visitors to the park during the warmer months.
It would be remiss of me not to talk about the weather in Patagonia. 3 words! IT IS WILD! I went in December which is summer, hoping for sunny days and warm weather. Instead I got rain, snow (up in the mountains) and the craziest winds I have ever experienced in my life! So crazy it knocked me over. I even saw grown, well built men getting knocked over. The weather changes so quickly in Patagonia. It can go from one extreme to the other in a matter of minutes. The wind can throw a wrench in the most well thought out plans. The wind can cause disruptions like trail closures, ferries not running etc. Prepare for changes. You will have to be flexible and have to go with the flow a little.
Step 1 – Decide When to Visit
Step 1 in how to plan a trip to Patagonia is to decide when to visit. The best time to visit Patagonia is during the southern hemisphere’s summer and the shoulder season. This loosely translates to October through April. It is best to go during this time instead of off season mainly for two reasons. 1. the weather off season, especially snow in the winter and 2. facility closures.
I visited during December. It was busy but not too crazy. If you are going during peak summer, ideally you need a few months lead time to make sure you have the best options to choose from. Accomodations fill out fast so the earlier you decide when to visit, the better.
I learned later that the wind in Patagonia is the worst in the summer. When I do Argentinian Patagonia at some point, I may avoid summer and try going in the spring or early falll…but I digress…
Step 2 – Decide What to Do/See
Deciding what to do is really the largest hurdle in planning a trip to Patagonia. This is specially true for Torres del Paine. You have several options for Torres del Paine. These are:
- The O circuit
- The W trek with overnight stays
- The W trek as day trips
- Some of the W’s trails
- Lookouts and places without hikes
- Combination of 3 or 4 and 5, combination of 1 and 5, combination of 2 and 5
1. The O Circuit
The O circuit is an “O “shaped, 85 miles/ 136 kilometer long trail in Torres del Paine National Park. You can only hike it between November and April. The trail is closed during the rest of the year. You may need to be in somewhat good shape for this circuit. The O circuit can only be hiked anti-clockwise. The starting point for it is either Portería Laguna Amarga or Paine Grande. There are pros for choosing either entry point. If you start at Portería Laguna Amarga, you are saving some of the best views like the French Valley and the iconic Base Torres for last. The advantage of starting at Paine Grande however, is that you can reduce the load of your bag as you go through the more challenging sectors of the O circuit (because you would have consumed some food).
2. The W Trek with Overnight Stays
The W trek is named after the “W” like shape of the route. There are 3 main highlights of the trek, all at the top points of the W. But, that’s not to say the rest is not amazing! There are lots of beautiful view points along the way. The W trek with overnight stays is probably the most popular thing to do in Torres del Paine. The trek takes 4 days at a minimum, but is more comfortably done in 5. The distance is 48-50 miles/77-80 kilometers. As you can see from the picture above, the W is actually embedded within the O.
You can hike the W without a tour guide from October through April but you will need a guide the rest of the months.
3. The W Trek as Day Trips
The W can be easily done as day trips without staying overnight in a camp or refugio along the trail. As mentioned above, the main highlights of the W are the 3 points on top of the letter W. From left to right these are the Grey Glacier, the French Valley and Base Torres.
If you do these as day trips you also only need 3 days as opposed to 4-5 days. The one caveat is getting to the start of each hike. The start to both the Grey Glacier hike and the French Valley hike requires a ferry crossing that costs $25 CLP or $30 USD each way. That’s essentially 120 USD for the 2 hikes. Alternatively, you could stay one night in the Paine Grande refugio and camp site that lies at the bottom of the W between the start of the Grey Glacier and the French Valley hikes.
Technically the French Valley hike can be extended all the way up to Britanico but it would be a little tricky to do as a day trip as you would need to catch the ferry back at a certain time. Britanico is best suited for the O circuit or W with overnight stays
4. Some of the W’s Trails
As I mentioned above, the W has 3 trails that can be done independently as day trips. You can easily decide you only want to do 1 or 2 of the 3 trails instead of all 3. If I had to pick only 1, I would probably pick Base Torres. This is because Base Torres is the iconic view that Torres del Paine is best known for. If I had to pick 2, I would do Base Torres and the French Valley. This is because the Grey Glacier can easily be seen from a boat ride instead of a hike.
5. Lookout and Places without Hikes
Torres del Paine National Park is full of beautiful miradors or lookout points! From bright aqua lakes and waterfalls to stunning mountain vistas, you can see the beauty of Torres del Paine without a lot of hiking. You can easily hit all the highlights in one day. Stay tuned for a post with more details on places you can easily visit in a day.
Step 3 – Decide on the Number of Days
Next step in planning a trip to Patagonia is deciding how many days to spend. If you are doing options 1 and 2 from above, your number of days is more or less set for you. It’s generally 8-10 days for the O circuit and 4-5 days for the W trek. The difference between 8 days and 10 days depends on your fitness and how much you think you may be able to hike in a day. The biggest callout here is that you have to decide this ahead of time because you have to book your accommodation accordingly. If you decide to also include some of the lookouts and places you can see without having to hike, you may have to add an extra day to the count.
If you are doing a combination of 3 or 4 and 5 from above, then you really need to figure of how many days you will spend.
Here are some sample itineraries with the number of Days (I’ll assume the lower end of the number of days I’ve specified above for the O and W)
- Option 1+ option 6 = 9 days
- Option 2 + option 6 = 5 days
- Option 3 + option 6 = 4 days
- Option 4 (assume 2 out of 3 trails) + option 6 = 3 days
Remember that the W is a part of the O. So you don’t have to do them separately
Step 4 – Book Accommodation
I would say booking accommodation is the 2nd biggest hurdle in planning a trip to Patagonia. There are a few accommodation options to choose from depending on what you decide to do. Accommodation around the O and W are mostly camping and refugios. Refugios are more or less dormitories with multiple beds. There are a few hotels inside Torres del Paine but all most of all them except Hotel las Torres (that intersects both the W and O) are outside these 2 main trails. Booking accommodation as soon as you figure out what you are doing is absolutely vital. Camp sites and refugios fill up fast, especially on the W route. If you are not doing the O or W, you have options of self-catered cabins, guest houses and hotels in addition to camp sites and refugios.
Some people opt to stay in Puerto Natales and drive up from there. I honestly think this is a waste of time unless you are just only coming to the park for one day. If you plan on being in the park or visiting the park for more than 1 day, I highly recommend staying overnight in the park or close to it.
I will publish a more detailed post on accommodation next.
Steps 5 – Decide Where to Fly to
There are 2 main ways to get to Chilean Patagonia and specifically Torres del Paine if you are flying in. These are through the towns of Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. Punta Arena is further south and about 318 kilometers/ 4 hours away. Puerto Natales is 75 kilometers/ 1 hour away and therefore the closest to Torres del Paine. Punta Arenas has a lot more options in terms of the number of flights and flight times than Puerto Natales does. The Puerto Natales airport is really tiny! Ear mark some options for flights at both airports but don’t book until you also look into transportation.
Step 6 – Look into Transportation
You have 2 options for transport (I am assuming you are planning this trip on your own and not through a tour company). Hire a vehicle and self drive or use public transportation.
Unless you have a lot of time on your hands, I really don’t recommend the public transportation option. While there are buses that go from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine and back, these have limited stops inside the park or the timing does not go well for the W day hikes. You don’t really need a vehicle if you are doing the O or W and can use public transport to get to and from the start and end of each circuit. But you do need a vehicle for all other options listed above.
Bus Sur operates a bus service from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine. See HERE for more.
Hiring a car
Hiring a car will give you the most flexibility. Now, hiring a car is most relevant if you are doing options 3, 4 and 5 from above, where you will need a car to get from place A to place B or to your accommodation that’s not on the trail itself. The reason I say not to book a flight until you look into a rental car is because rental cars run out fast! Especially from Puerto Natales. You need to look at steps 5 and 6 together and not separately.
The big car rental players either don’t serve this region or the ones that you can book via the usual car rental websites all get booked fast. The good news is that Patagonia is served by mom and pop car rental companies. You will need to book these fast too. The closer to your trip, the more expensive it is and then you run the risk of a car not being available.
Here are some options. Contact via WhatsApp for the fastest response.
- Bobadilla Rent-A-Car (Jose Luis) – +569 68350370 ( I rented through him. Can recommend)
- Howen H Rent-A-Car – +569 50885882 (corresponded with them)
- Adel Rent-A-Car – +569 98827569 (others have recommended them)
Say you have good flight and car rental options from both Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. Which one should you pick? It’s up to you really! If you want to explore, Punta Arenas, maybe see the famous penguin colony, then you may want to fly in to Punta Arenas and hire a car from there. If you hire from a small pop and mom company though, you may not be able to hire a car from one location and return to the other. But it doesn’t hurt to ask.
You also do have the option of public transport between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales. For example, you could easily fly into Puerto Natales, hire a car there, return the car back to Puerto Natales and then catch a bus to Punta Arenas and fly out of Punta Arenas. All these options are available as long as you book well ahead.
Word of Caution – the roads in Torres del Paine and to Torres del Paine from Puerto Natales are gravel, narrow and winding. Drive with caution.
Step 7 – Book Flight and Car
Now that you have looked at all your options for flights and cars, you can go ahead and make the bookings. Do the two close together as possible. Interestingly, if you decide to fly LATAM (I highly recommend LATAM over the other airlines in Chile), the LATAM Chile website is cheaper than LATAM.com. If you use the LATAM Chile website, Google may ask you if you want the website to be auto translated. The website glitched a bit when I used this option but when I said not to translate and just used Google’s standalone translator, it worked a lot better for me. There is a question asking your nationality so I think this site is open to any nationality and not just Chileans. Not sure why it is cheaper!
Step 8 – Book Excursions and experiences
You may want to book certain excursions and experiences inside Torres del Paine and even Patagonia at large. A few examples of these are below. If you do, then book ahead to avoid spaces filling up. Most of these have multiple start times during the day. Book early if you are set on making a certain time during the day.
- Grey glacier navigation – Torre del Paine
- Grey glacier walk – Torres del Paine
- Grey glacier kayaking – Torres del Paine
- Patagonia fjord excursion – Puerto Natales
- Penguin colony excursion – Punta Arenas
Step 9 – Buy a Park Entry Pass
You need to buy a pass to visit Torres del Paine prior to visiting. HERE is the site to do it. Print out the QR code or save it on your phone. You will have to stop at the park entrance and present your code to proceed. The entrance fee for up to 3 days is $35 USD per person while the entrance fee for more than 3 days is $49 USD. Even though they ask you how many days you are in the park, they are only counting the nights. A trip from the 23rd to the 27th (both dates included) was counted as 4 days instead of 5.
Step 10 – Pack
The final step in planning a trip to Patagonia is packing! As I mentioned, the weather in Patagonia is unpredictable. You need to pack for all seasons. HERE is a packing list.
Message me if you have any questions about planning a trip to Patagonia! I will be more than happy to help answer any questions!
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