Patagonia 101 – Torres Del Paine – The ‘W’ Circuit

Last year I had a marathon frenzy and decided to run the Patagonia Marathon in Puerto Natales, Chile. My friend and I stayed after the marathon and had a three-week hiking trip down the coast of South America.

Getting to Patagonia

If you are like me and live in the U.S., the most economical way to get down to Patagonia is to fly either to the capital city of Chile (Santiago) or Argentina (Buenos Aires) first, then book a separate flight down to Punta Arenas (Chile) or El Calafate (Argentina).

*Pro tip: If you you need to traverse countries while on your trip, it is cheaper to fly domestically and use ground transport (buses) to get the last few hours to your destination. Flying within the same country is cheaper than taking an international flight between Chile and Argentina. For example: If you want to start from Chilean Patagonia and travel to Argentinian Patagonia, the best way is to fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, then take the bus up through to Argentina. 

Getting around in Patagonia

Google map link

Patagonia operates on buses. You can find a few bus companies that will take you through the borders between Argentina and Chile. You can purchase bus tickets online prior to arrival from Bus Sur (one of the bus companies in Patagonia), but it might be easier to figure out the timetable once you arrive in Patagonia and purchase the bus tickets from the bus station as you see fit. *Pro tip: Go to the bus station a day early  and figure out your ride. 

September is considered a “shoulder season” (before and after the busy season) of Patagonia. There are plenty of spaces in the campsite but the national park may require  a reservation confirmation to let you inside the park. The temperatures in Patagonia around September is about 25F° (-3C°) – 40F° (4C°). I had a thermo jacket  

The route we took was: Punta Arenas –> Puerto Natales –> El Calafate –> El Chalten. Because we were trying to save money, we took a bus back to Punta Arenas then flew back to Santiago. If you are short on time, Punta Arenas and El Calafate both have airports.

We had also rented a car and drove between El Calafate and El Chalten. It was a wonderful experience to not have to rely on bus schedules for once during the trip. It was not much more expensive for two people to rent a car than to take the bus. We were a lot more efficient with our time having rented our own car.

Torres Del Paine

Puerto Natales – Torres Del Paine

Chile National Park service (CONAF) now requires local guides for you to enter the park in September due to past season’s increased number of rescues (2019). However, my friend and I did not find out about this requirement until after we had spent 5 days in the park. The CONAF staff asked whether we have a guide at Paine Grande point. When we told him no, he just asked us to write our names down for record keeping. It seems the weather was nice the 5 days we were there. I suppose that is the reason the CONAF staff was not super concerned about us not having a guide.

Most of the information can be found from one of my favorite travel blogs, Yes Mom I’m Alive. I received a lot of help from Britt, author of Yes Mom I’m Alive in the planning stage on maps/camping/weather condition/routes. 

Here is an easy map for the ‘W’ and ‘O’ Circuit. Camp Central is Camp Las Torres. Camp Italiano, Cuernos, and Chileno only open during the busy season (October – February).

Mirador de Las Torres

Camping in Torres Del Paine

  • The two privately owned companies that operate in the national parks are Fantastico Sur and Vertice. I have linked the specific reservation link I found from researching it for a while. It is not very obvious on Fantastico Sur’s main website where to reserve campsites. Neither of their websites are always up to date. When you see the campsite dates unavailable for consecutive days (especially outside of the busy season of October to January), email them and ask for availability. I have emailed them and found they respond quite quickly. *Note: their website advertises their own tour in addition to the accommodation. It is a bit pricy and not necessary to go with a guided tour. I’d always suggest go by yourself.
  • Campsites are way cheaper (~$20 a night) but requires time to set up. You can pay a little extra ($~10) to have the park set it up for you prior to arrival (*totally worth it*). After a long day of walking with 25lbs on my back, having a place to sit and lay down is totally worth the extra money. They gave us sleeping bags (20 Fahrenheit) but we doubled up with our own sleeping bag because it is COLD at night.
  • The refugios have nice buildings with electricity and almost like a big hostel hotel. The bathrooms were modern and some of them can even flush! Coming from primitive camping in the U.S., this was a pleasant surprise.
  • There are designated areas for cooking but definitely no stove. We brought our jetboil and pre-cooked some sausages to bring on the trip. Alternatively, most of the refugios have food you can purchase, from a simple pizza to elaborate dinners. They all have hot water which was the cherry on top (hot chocolate after a cold day of hiking, yum!). 
  • Sunrise for the tower Cerro – My friend and I woke up at 2:30 am, packed up our sleeping bags and started hiking up the mountain in the dark. It was easier to hike up than down. The trail is frozen towards the last 2 miles and it was basically an ice scramble on our hands and knees going up the mountain (note: if you are going in October, it will probably be a lot easier). I would recommend trying to time your arrival to the mountain around sunrise because if you are early, it is extremely cold on the top while waiting for the sunrise. 

Perito Moreno Glacier

El Calafate, Argentina

While we were getting from Puerto Natales to El Chalten, we stopped at El Calafate for a day. This is the place to visit one of the most famous glaciers in the world. Unlike most of the glaciers in the world that are receding due to global warming, Perito Moreno Glacier continues to accumulate mass at a rate similar to that of its loss.  It is one of the most magnificent and powerful places I have ever been. We took a tour with Hielo y Aventura where you can wear crampons and get onto the glacier for a whole day. We were told that there is only one official tour company. Other companies who offer glacier walk are agents and will lead to back to this company. Find this company locally once you arrive in El Calafate (this link for google map location). 

The trip started at 7am, we took the bus into the national park, paid the park entrance fee, and took a walk to the overlook where the glacier touches the land. Then we rode on the boat across the water to the left side of the glacier. It is about an hour hike to get onto the glacier, punctuated by a lovely beach, safety debriefs, and tasks such as putting on our harnesses, helmet, gloves, and crampons. 

We had lunch out on the glacier while huddling in an ice cave carved out by the strong wind on the glacier, observing nature’s biggest glacier making machine in the world. The blue color emanating from the glacier is indescribable. I tried to capture them in my photos but the photo does not do it justice. While we were on the boat back to the city, Hielo y Aventura surprised us with whiskey on the rocks (‘rocks’ from the glacier) and local chocolates to give us some relief from our tired and aching knees and body.


El Chalten, Argentina

Chalten city limits are within the national parks, therefore you don’t need to pay to enter the park (unlike Perito Moreno Glacier). There are many things you can do in El Chalten and it is fully equipped with restaurants and outdoor recreational shops to prepare you for any type of adventure from hiking to alpine climbing. 

Unfortunately, only 1/3 of the places are open during the shoulder season of September when we arrived. We hired a local guide and climbed our first multi-pitch right next to the town!

Everything is walkable the moment you arrive El Chalten. It was a town established around 1985. Trailheads start from the town and lead you to Mt. Fitz Roy, the most famous  adventure Chalten has so much to offer. It is a convenient basecamp to all types of adventures you can possibly imagine. My second trip to Patagonia will be centered around Chalten. 

Other helpful tips

  • Patagonia is EXTREMELY windy, so it is always necessary to have layers, and possibly scarf to cover your face.
  • Learn some games that can be played while hiking. 8 hours of walking is only so much fun. A rainy day poker card game is a fantastic way to meet handsome guys on the trail!
  • Always bring a book. Always.
  • Pocket hand-warmers would have been the cherry on top.
  • Stray dogs are picky eaters.
  • Sunrise and sunset schedules

All the photos are taken by me or my friend Kat. It seemed daunting when I started planning at first, even with Yes Mom I’m Alive‘s extremely detailed walkthrough and personal help (hats off to Britt!). 

I hope this is helpful for you to plan your first trip down to Patagonia. If you have any questions, you can reach me at jingjingyu.org@gmail.com.

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