Though it may be one of the furthest places on Earth to reach, Torres del Paine National Park has recently become a focal point on many travelers’ map of the world. The vast majority of visitors will reach the Park in the relative comfort and safety of a commercial airliner while a few poor souls will endure a seemingly interminable and issue-prone bus ride (30+ hours!?). But for those with the time and chutzpah to try something different, a third way does exist. Providing more comfort and scenic variety than either a bus or a plane, the ferryboat to the Patagonia is an adventure in and of itself that prepares the modern traveler to greet the wonder of one of the last great wilderness destinations on Earth.
Risk, that essential element of adventure, was inherent up until the 20th century in nearly every type of travel. So, it seemed fittingly nostalgic to be boarding an ocean-going vessel for a multiple day journey to a place forgotten by time—the Patagonia.
Long sea voyages and mountain crossings were once customary for anyone with the urge to travel and a stomach strong enough to endure the many toils it often entailed. These days much of the unpleasantness has been eliminated from travel and there are plenty of folks willing to pay a little something extra to put it back in. With prices ranging from $450-$2,100 USD, the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales isn’t cheap, but considering the destination of Torres del Paine—the 8th Wonder of the World—a little something extra seems to be in order.
Patagonia Ferry Trip
Arriving at the dock at the appointed hour on Friday afternoon, I entered a hall full of bored looking travelers deeply lounging in their chairs. There were a few open seats, so I joined in, waiting out the final preparations before embarking on our Patagonia ferry voyage to the end of the world on the ironically named ferryboat, Eden.
The close quarters of a modern ferry offers relative luxury in comparison to the dank accommodations of an old-time voyage at sea. When not sleeping, reading or chatting over food and drink, one is likely to be out on the foredeck taking in the impressive seascape or gazing off towards a horizon dotted with clouded, snow-capped peaks. The sense of isolation is awesome, and though I had my camera ever-present, I couldn’t quite capture the feeling of tranquility that comes from being so far removed from the known world.
They say the level of visibility is a crapshoot, and I counted myself lucky to be basking in a steady stream of golden sunshine on Saturday afternoon, having born dry witness to morning fog, drizzle and even a snow flurry falling outside the window. The generally socked-in mornings offer invitations for further sleep, especially when out in the open waters of the Pacific, where the waves sing their lumbering lullaby.
Boat travel through the gulfs and fjords of the Chilean Patagonia is necessarily slow, as the pilot is made to navigate tricky straights full of strong winds and unruly currents. This tortoise-like pace allows for the occasional spotting of marine life including porpoises and whales, though I mainly remember seeing birds. The slow passage also allows you to say a gentle goodbye to the world you’re leaving behind and a smiling hello to the wonder awaiting your arrival.
Arrival to Puerto Natales
The first thing one notices down south is the difference in light and color. That’s because you’re below the 50th parallel, and sunlight hits the region at an oblique angle. The change of lighting provides a distinct change of perspective, and when you finally step off the boat and onto solid ground, you feel that you’ve truly arrived at some faraway place.
Depending on your itinerary, you might have time for a stroll through town, or you may even choose to spend the evening in Puerto Natales before heading off into the mountains. Whatever amount of time you have, it is wise to stock up on goods for the trail, as prices go sky high as you approach the park. A Unimarc grocery store in the center of town has everything you may need, but I would also recommend a visit to the Dried Fruit Guy (Baquedano 443), whose prices are low and selection vast, making it easy to assemble a unique trail mix (raspberry peanuts? Yes, please!).
If you need to rent any gear for your trek or want to meet other travelers, Erratic Rock is the place. In addition to the gear shop and hostel (they offer a free night stay to anyone who can do 150 push-ups!), Erratic Rock also boasts a hip little café with an open mic, making it a comfortable place to enjoy the fruits of civilization before having to step out and brave the notorious Patagonian weather. For a good list of recommended clothing/gear, as well as general park logistics, click here.
If you have your own vehicle, access to the park is via Route 9, which can be joined on the north side of town. For those without a vehicle, transportation options vary, but Buses Pacheco seems to have its act together, with service throughout the area including buses departing for the park every hour between 7:30 am and 2:00 pm during peak season. If you are staying at a hostel in Puerto Natales, you can arrange for a pick up at the doorstep. Expect to pay around $20-25 USD for an open-ended round trip ticket. Inquire with the bus company regarding pick up times/places.
Refugio Hopping Amid las Torres
Refugios (mountain huts) are a well known and oft utilized asset for many trekkers, though they may be somewhat of a novelty to the typical North American used to “roughing it” whilst out on a camping trip with friends or family. Part of Europe’s civilizing legacy, a refugio carries basic modern amenities within the timeless setting of a mountain wilderness. In addition to providing a welcomed shelter for the weary trekker, refugios in Torres del Paine offer a number of conveniences, especially for the hiker traveling alone.
Besides the obvious comforts of bed and bath (bring your own toiletries, including towel), the park’s refugios have meals available for purchase ($55 USD per day got me 3 meals including a bag lunch for the trail). This eliminates the time and energy of food preparation from the agenda, allowing you to focus on the pure enjoyment of being in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
Another perk of staying in the refugios is the social aspect; it’s pretty easy to meet folks and make hiking plans should you prefer to not go for it alone out on the trail. Refugios are in the business of taking care of you, and they take this charge seriously. During each check in I was issued my meal tickets for the duration of my stay at that particular refugio and asked about any dietary restrictions, which were well accommodated for throughout my stay in the park.
In addition to prepared foods, refugios also have assorted beverages on hand. Don’t worry, this isn’t the ferry; alcoholic drinks are served. Boxed red wine ($7 USD) proved a popular choice for the mid-budget crowd at Refugio Torre Central, while Refugio Los Cuernos had big bottles of Patagonian helles on hand (one of the excellent brews by Cervecería Austral). There’s nothing better than uncorking or uncapping a bottle (or a box) of some choice beverage after a long day of hiking through the incomparable beauty found throughout Torres del Paine.
‘The Little U’
When you tell someone that you’re going trekking in Torres del Paine, you’ll almost invariably be asked whether you are doing the ‘O’ hiking circuit— a challenging and adventurous 7-10 day circumambulation of the park—or “just the ‘W’”, a scenic and somewhat demanding tour of the highlights, usually done in 4 or 5 days. A vast majority opt for the latter, but for those who want to go all out, a third option exists, ‘The Q’, which is a 9-10 day jobber best suited for very experienced trekkers. Having made my plans at the last minute, I was limited to a quick and dirty ‘there and back again’ hike that I dubbed, ‘The Little U’.
Though I was traveling alone, I wasn’t alone for long. After checking in at Refugio Torre Central, I laid down for a quick siesta in my bunk and then headed to the dining hall for some vittles. The hostess took my meal ticket (don’t lose those!) and seated me at a table with some other guests of the refugio. I jumped right into the melee of excited chatter, and with smiles and laughter quickly earned my place at table–as well as a share of the ruby-red nectar from the gal seated beside me. I soon had a salad set before me (tomato, chard and hearts of palm), followed by merluza (hake) with mashed potatoes, continued the chitchat until both my plate and the box of wine being shared were empty. I accepted the offer of a nightcap from my new companions, solidifying the bond that would keep us together the following day as we battled gravity and extreme winds to arrive at the base of the fabled towers.
Waking up with the rabble around 7 am, I got my pack sorted with the correct mix of gear, snacks and surprises before cramming in a hurried breakfast. Looking out the window, I spotted my new friends gathered and waiting. Another gulp of coffee and I was out the door and past yet another rainbow as we began the steep ascent on the trail to the base of las Torres.
The winds greeted us GOOD MORNING as we turned the corner on the lip of the canyon overlooking Camp Chileno. I whooped back at the wind while two of my companions were pinned down, clinging to a rock, looking a little worried as gusts of 50 mph wind threatened to peel them right off the trail. Together, we cleared this psychological hurdle and descended to the canyon bottom where Camp Chileno provided a proper bathroom break for the ladies. More forested walking gave way to open sky and a view of the final approach, twisting up an exposed rocky slope atop which houses the classic viewpoint of las Torres del Paine. The mirador (viewpoint) makes for a perfect lunch spot, where shelter from the wind can be had tucked between the boulders. Allow all day for the round trip, and much of the evening for camaraderie over boxed wine.
“How long is it between las Torres and Los Cuernos?” This was the million-dollar question on everyone’s lips. The answer I came up with: it depends on which way you’re going. During my second day trek, I was stopped every 15 minutes by the arresting power of the scenery. The rare, sunny day and warm companionship of fellow hikers made for a relaxing walk with ample time taken for appreciation of the views. This leisurely pace resulted in those 12 km taking all day. A few days later on my way out I was under time pressure to catch a shuttle and was able to hustle the same trail in about 3 hours, but I have long legs. Assume a minimum of 4 hours for the average mortal.
Unfortunately, I had a little more hiking to do to round out Day 2, as I was booked that evening at the newest refugio, Los Domos Francés. I decided there was enough time to at least stop and share a beer with my hiking buddies, and thus refreshed, was able to sling on my pack and clock another 45 minutes of hiking from Los Cuernos, arriving at the Los Domos around dusk. I had enough time for a quick shower before sitting down to a delicious meal in the cozy dining hut, after which I settled into my bunk for an uninterrupted sleep.
Los Domos Francés is so new it felt like the paint was still drying. Pipes running above ground alongside untrodden footpaths accentuated the minimalist design, which looks to be as sturdy as it is Spartan. By next season I imagine things will be more primped and properly ordered, but the lodge is sure to remain a no frills affair; there’s nothing at Los Domos Francés to detract from it’s raison d’être—The Paine River—those myriad shades of blue found throughout the park, especially in Lake Nordenskiöld.
Day 3 of my journey proved to be the grittiest. After reuniting with my partners from the previous day’s hike thanks to a little trail magic, we set out for Campo Italiano, a bare bones backpackers’ camp where trekkers are able to leave their heavy packs before making an attempt on French Valley. A difficult, yet beautiful trail of 11 km-15 km round trip (depending on your turnaround point), the way leads past the ramshackle Campo Britanico to an impressive mirador in a tree-cleared avalanche zone, and a bit further on up the trail has a more expansive mirador that encompasses the heart of the Paine massif. Many agree that this is not only the most impressive scenery in the park, but also the most difficult leg of the ‘W’. The difficulty of the trail is made even more challenging by the cauldron of bad weather that is regularly conjured up in that grand cirque of peaks.
After a quick coffee break at Campo Italiano my companions and I set out and by eleven we’d cleared a patch of low-canopied forest only to be met headlong by a withering gale of icy winds and whipping rain. “Let’s huddle together and discuss our options,” I suggested to my mates. “I think I know what’s up ahead,” I said. “Suffering.” Just then two hikers emerged from the thick of the storm. “See anything up there?” I asked one of them. “Yeah. More clouds, and more rain.”
My companions and I opted to return to the cooking shack at Campo Italiano for more coffee and sandwiches. Every half hour or so, another group of soaking wet hikers would enter the hut and try to warm themselves up. They looked shell-shocked, every last one of them. Around 1 pm the storm had lifted, and we decided to make a go of it once more. By mid-afternoon, we reached a clearing and by some miracle the clouds opened up to reveal a heart-stopping panorama that defies description. Our enjoyment of the illustrious views was halted after a few minutes as conditions began to deteriorate, so we made our way back down again, feeling lucky to have seen anything at all.
At Campo Italiano, I parted ways with my companions, as they were heading onwards and I had to head back. Rain accompanied me along the way past Los Domos Francés and down to the lakeshore where the pebble-strewn beaches appear uncut by human traffic.
Los Cuernos has the dominant presence of Zion National Park in Utah, but with the crisp water features of Yosemite in spring and with infinitely fewer visitors. I slipped off my wet boots at the door to the refugio (the only one where this curious custom was observed) and settled into my room and into some dry clothes. Since the refugios were meeting my basic needs, my pack was relatively light, and I had room for a bottle of Terra Andina Carmenère, which I stealthily uncorked and shared with my tablemates (BYO is apparently taboo). With very little help, I finished the bottle with my meal and slept like a baby, up and at ‘em early, having elected the 7:30 am breakfast slot during check in to allow me enough time for my hurried final day of walking. It was hard to leave, but with so much left unseen, I know for sure that I will be back again someday.
Logistics on Land
Booking your stay in advance for Torres del Paine is advisable, as the refugios get pretty packed. I can only imagine that increased visitation to the park is going to put an even tighter squeeze on the limited number of beds. Before I was able to enjoy the convivial atmosphere of Refugio Torre Central, I was forced to tangle with the bureaucracy—the refugios insist on seeing your passport and tourist card, or you will pay the 19% ‘value-added tax’. Los Domos Frances and Refugio Los Cuernos were a bit more relaxed, but I still had to pony up a nominal fee. It’s worth negotiating if you know some Spanish; or better yet—bring your documents and avoid the hassle!
Costs vary based on the type of accommodation you choose, but a bed in a refugio averages around $50 USD per night. I paid $500 USD for 4 nights of lodging in shared dormitories, including a full meal plan. There are two companies that manage the refugios in the park: Fantastico Sur, which manages the refugios on the eastern side of the park, and Vértice Patagonia, which operates the facilities on the western side.
For additional options of accommodation outside the park, check out the options on Booking.com.
Logistics at Sea
During the high season (October 31 to March 31st) the Navimag ferry sets out from Puerto Montt every Friday around 8 pm arriving in Puerto Natales Monday before noon (Navimag offers another ferry service in the low season). Baggage check-in is between 9 am-1 pm on Friday, and boarding begins at 5 pm, followed by a safety talk and the evening meal at 8 pm.
Be advised, consumption of alcohol is not permitted aboard the ferry, but this rule does not appear to be strictly enforced. Fare includes 3 meals a day, and the food is of decent quality and quantity. Drinking water and tea service is regularly available, but it doesn’t hurt to bring a couple of bottles of beverage just to be safe (perhaps of the clandestine variety). You’ll notice things get pretty wavy by the time you reach the Pacific Ocean Saturday evening, so bringing some sort of remedy for sea-sickness is advisable.
Things to See Nearby
Patagonia is a long journey from everywhere, if you have time consider visiting El Calafate, Argentina, and the glacier region. Note if you cross into Argentina check to see if you are required to pay the reciprocity fee. If you are, you must pay online and print out your payment receipt before you arrive at the border. If you’re planning on driving a rental car you’ll also need to get special permission, and documentation, to take the car into Argentina, ask about this before you reserve your car.
Further south in Argentina is the town of Ushuaia. While the town itself is not apparently much to look at, it’s a departure point for boat tours to Tierra del Fuego surrounds, and Antarctica.
Trips to Antarctica are not cheap, but if you can afford it, don’t miss this fantastic opportunity. Check out tours from companies such as G Adventures, Antarctica Travels, Intrepid, Adventure Life and Polar Cruises.
If you want to see more of the beautiful Patagonia landscape by sea, you can take a cruise around the continent!
If you want to explore more of Chile’s lake district near Puerto Montt during your trip, check out beautiful Lago Llanquihue and more.
Note: This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question before planning your trip.
To learn more about Matteo, read his bio!