Patagonia — The W Trek

The W Trek is one of the most famous treks in Patagonia, and also one of the best ways to experience Torres del Paine National Park. With world-class landscapes, wild weather and breathtaking views, for many it's the experience of a lifetime. Having not had much trekking practice we were a little apprehensive about the 5-day 70km trek in the wilderness, but having spoken to other travellers about just how amazing it is we had to throw ourselves in headfirst and accept the challenge. After a 6 hour bus ride from El Calafate we arrived at Puerto Natales, Chile, the gateway to Torres del Paine.

We'd heard there was an informative talk at the hostel and hire shop Erratic Rock at 3pm every day. We decided to stay a couple of nights so we could hear the talk, hire the relevant equipment and prepare our food for the next 5 days. They offered detailed information on the route (west to east was recommended) as well as transportation to and from the park. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful, and we were grateful for the extra tips and expertise passed on by these passionate hikers. After the talk we hired our camping gear before visiting local stores to pick up food supplies, ensuring that the quantity and weight was suitable for our 5 days ahead. The following day we got up at 6am, had a final hot shower and set off for the bus to Torres del Paine National Park.

Day 1

Trail section: Paine Grande Campsite to Refugio Grey
Distance: 11 km
Duration: 3.5 hours

After a 7am bus to the national park, paying our entrance fees and listening to fire safety talks, we were dropped off by the ferry port and waited an hour or so for our catamaran. We were advised by Erratic rock to walk to a small but pretty waterfall not far from the docks. The wind was incredibly strong and at first we found it difficult to walk, even without our heavy packs! On return, we realised there was a big queue for the boat, and didn't end up getting the first one, so annoyingly had to wait for the second boat.

Once we landed, we set off to Refugio Grey, an 11km (mainly uphill) hike against the strongest winds we'd ever been in. It was quite a shock to the system, so were relieved when the winds finally died down halfway through and we were able to take in the views of Glacier Grey and Lago Grey. At 6pm we finally arrived and set up in the shelter of the campsite. We then walked to the lookout point of Glacier Grey, about 10 minutes from the camp, which was impressive even from a distance. We then walked back and prepared our first of many pasta meals in the communal kitchen in the company of fellow trekkers.

Day 2

Trail section: Refugio Grey to Campsite Italiano
Distance: 18.6 km
Duration: 6 hours

The following morning we made porridge and tea before packing up our tent and setting off on our next stint to Campsite Italiano. As we were walking back on ourselves the scenery was fairly uninteresting until we passed our starting point where the Catamaran dropped us. We wandered through scorched black and white trees where a fire had torn through the park a few years before (you can read up on it here). After a quick lunch of our own chorizo quesadillas (highly recommended) the clouds cleared in front of us to reveal Los Cuernos del Paine, an epic group of jagged pewter-coloured mountains.

The good weather held up all afternoon and we had fantastic views of the mountains ahead of us until we reached our second stop, Campsite Italiano, where we set up our tent in a small sheltered forest. The campsite had no running water so we had to climb down a river bank to a raging river to collect the ice cold fresh-off-the-glacier water! After cooking another much needed carb-heavy pasta dish and eating Nutella by the spoon-full (acceptable when trekking!) we got chatting to others we’d met along the way about their trips and experiences until it got dark and we headed back for an early nights sleep.

Day 3

Trail section: Campsite Italiano to Los Cuernos Campsite
Distance: 16.5 km
Duration: 7.5 hours

After a very wet and windy night we woke up to clear blue skies, much to our relief! We hung our wet tent up to dry during breakfast, left our packed bags at the campsite and ventured out with light daypacks to the Valle del Francés (or French Valley). Not having to carry such weight made a massive difference, and we felt a new wave of energy with our lighter packs and trekked through the stunning valleys in the beaming sunshine. Surrounded by towering snow-covered mountains, sprawling glaciers, waterfalls, raging rivers and turquoise lakes, for us it was the most amazing panoramic view we’d ever seen. After following the river through thick forest, the footpath ended at Mirador Britanico where we stopped for lunch completely surrounded by the breathtaking landscape.

Once we’d fuelled up on more quesadillas, snickers and trail mix we headed back down to Campsite Italiano to (begrudgingly) pick up our heavy packs again to head onwards to our next stop. The 3 hour hike was broken up nicely by Mirador Nordenskjöld, a beautiful panoramic lookout of Lake Nordenskjöld, before descending to a small pebbled beach. We took a short break, skimmed a few stones on the clear and completely still water before walking another 1km to our 3rd stop, Campsite Cuernos.

Day 4

Trail section: Los Cuernos Campsite to Torres Campsite
Distance: 20 km
Duration: 8.5 hours

We were pleased to wake up to clear skies once again, and after having our staple breakfast of porridge and tea we set off to the final stop: Campsite Torres. Our legs were starting to feel a little bit weary after 3 solid days of trekking, but the lighter packs and great weather kept spirits high as we walked up the steep cliff side in the warmth of the sun. As we’d made good time we stopped for a leisurely lunch at a small lake and took a 10 minute sunbathe and rested our feet.

The final stretch got really steep, and it took quite a lot of our energy to scramble up the boulder-filled path in the heat of the day. Once we finally arrived at the campsite, we decided to dump our packs, set up camp and make our way to Mirador Torres straight away. We were quite tired by this point, but the excitement of seeing Torres in clear weather was all the motivation we needed. Despite seeing other trekkers stop for the day we decided to quickly fill up our water bottles and venture up the final 1km steep incline to the final and much anticipated viewpoint. We were so glad we did, as once we arrived we were treated with an amazing clear view of Torres del Paine and the turquoise lake in front. 

Day 5

Trail section: Torres Campsite to Las Torres Hotel
Distance: 10 km
Duration: 5 hours

When doing the W trek west to east, on the final day its tradition to get up in the early hours and see Torres at sunrise. At 5am we begrudgingly woke up, packed a sleeping bag and warm clothes and set off in the dark to Mirador Torres once again, eager to witness the classic sunrise. Using head torches, we followed the small reflective arrows up the steep rocky path in the rain, not really sure why we were putting ourselves through it again! Towards the top it started to snow, but we powered on determined to make it before the sun came up. Sadly we arrived in thick fog, and could barely see the mountains at all. Although this was disappointing, it made us feel even more glad that we’d gone up the day before.

We waited as long as we could in case the fog cleared, but had to charge back down the mountain at around 9am to pack up our tent and complete the final stretch of the W. The last 8km was downhill, and although our packs were lighter without food, it was pretty tough on our knees. Hotel Torres finally came into view, and it was a huge relief to arrive at the finish line of this epic trek (there were even a few tears of joy from one of us!). We then heaved our tired bodies onto the busy shuttle bus that took us back to the park entrance, and we waited for the final coach to pick us up and take us back to Puerto Natales where well earned victory beers, dinner and hot showers awaited.

On reflection, we were so glad we’d made the effort to do the complete W trek experience. From carrying all our camping equipment through all types of weather to rationing our food and collecting our water from fresh streams, we felt a huge sense of achievement. Trekking through Torres del Paine National Park for 5 days was a real privilege, and definitely an experience of a lifetime. After a tasty grilled lamb dinner at Aldea Restaurant we headed to the Basecamp Bar for celebratory beers with our fellow trekkers, and reminisced about our incredible Patagonian experience.