One of the best places to visit in Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park is a must-see for anyone looking for incredible South America highlights. Stunning scenery surrounded by a beautiful natural environment and an opportunity for one of the best outdoor experiences anywhere in the world are just a few reasons to include Torres del Paine on any Patagonia itinerary.
Located on Chile’s side of the border, Torres del Paine is one of the most popular destinations in this part of the world. The majority of visitors choose camping in Torres del Paine, however there are many ways to visit the national park. Whether it’s a day trip, a couple of days or 10 days backpacking Torres del Paine. If a trip to Patagonia is on your South America itinerary then first you’ll need to be prepared. As my university lecturer liked to say; “fail to prepare, then prepare to fail”.
How to get to Torres del Paine
The closest town to Torres del Paine National Park is Puerto Natales, which is the place to head to buy all your camping and hiking equipment. It’s also a good place to stay before and after your visit to the national park.
There is no airport near Torres del Paine. Puerto Natales does have an airport but it’s very small and the only flights are once a day from El Calafate in Argentina. A better option is to fly to Punta Arenas and travel to Puerto Natales from there. Buses take around 3 hours, with regular trips throughout the day. Flights from Santiago, Chile’s capital, take 3 hours with a direct flight starting at around £40. Getting from Buenos Aires to Torres del Paine is more problematic as flights usually involve a short stopover in Santiago with return tickets costing over £160.
If you’re heading north through Patagonia another option is flying from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas, which takes just over 2 hours. There are also buses that run from El Calafate in Argentina. The journey is around 5 hours, although this does include crossing the border, which may take longer depending on the number of passengers and the mood of the officials on the day.
Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine bus
The bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine runs twice daily leaving town at 7:30am and 2:30pm. Return buses leave the national park early afternoon at 1pm and the last bus of the day is at 6pm. Tickets cost CLP$15,000 (around £15) for a return trip. You’ll also need a further CLP$2,800 (a little under £3) for the shuttle bus between Las Torres and Laguna Amarga where the buses for Puerto Natales drop-off and pick-up in the national park.
Accommodation in Puerto Natales
As it’s the place to stay both before and after everyone heads to Torres del Paine, you won’t be surprised to learn there are plenty of accommodation options in Puerto Natales. I stayed at Hostel Last Hope on the corner of Arturo Prat and Bernado O’Higgins streets and would highly recommend it. The owner is extremely friendly and the rooms are comfortable with plenty of space. Just what you need when you’ve spent five days camping in a national park! Not only that but breakfast is included and they even serve it extra early when you have to catch the bus to the national park (which is early. Really early! It’ll probably still be dark outside, so prepare yourself for that now.)
Most places in Puerto Natales will allow you to leave your belongings while you visit the park. Some for no extra charge if you’ll be staying there again upon your return to town. Several hostels also rent equipment and may offer you a discount if you’re a guest.
Erratic Rock Hostel
One of the best places to rent equipment is Erratic Rock Hostel on Manuel Baquedano street. This is one place you should definitely check out, but not only for tents and sleeping bags. Every day at 3pm the hostel run a free talk. This is something that shouldn’t be missed!
Aside from maps and equipment (and a bar!) they provide invaluable information covering what to take, what to leave behind, which campsites you can use and which routes are open. You can also ask questions and receive expert advice from people who’ve been doing this for many years. As the talk is usually attended by lots of travellers you’ll likely meet others with the same plan as you, allowing you to make a group before heading to the national park. It’s perfectly possible to visit Torres del Paine alone, as I did, but there are benefits to going with others. As I’ll explain later.
What to pack for Torres del Paine
After listening to the talk at Erratic Rock you’ll have a better idea of what you need and don’t need before you head to Torres del Paine. You should have also made a decision about how many days you want to spend in the national park and where you want to sleep. This has a major impact on what you pack. The more days you want to spend, the more food you need. Of course this means your bag will be heavier and remember, you’ll be the one carrying it. But there are ways to lighten your load and ensure you don’t spend your whole time bogged down by an overstuffed backpack.
Whilst there are restaurants at some of the campsites in Torres del Paine, not all of them have this facility. The meals, as you might expect from such a remote location, aren’t cheap either. You’ll find it’s better to take your own food with you. The one advantage in the case of any food you take is that your bag gets lighter the more you eat. Although try not to eat it all on the first night.
Muesli or porridge is a good source of energy and the perfect way to start your day. For a little extra flavour add fruit such as bananas or raisins. Obviously you won’t be taking 3 litres of milk with you so mix the oats with water or powdered milk. You’ll find drinkable water by using streams all along the route and by the campsites. It’s perfectly safe to drink as it comes off the nearby glaciers, making it cool and refreshing. Make sure not to drink any lake water and always take water upstream from campsites. Not everyone has immaculate hygiene levels.
If you’re concerned about the water quality or have a stomach that is particularly susceptible then take water purification tablets or a reusable water bottle with a built-in filter. You could also boil it once you get to the campsite.
The only place you’re allowed to have an open flame, and therefore cook, in Torres del Paine is at the campsites. Which means you won’t be stopping to prepare a spectacular meal during your lunch break. Pre-prepared wraps with jam or peanut butter are a great option. You can eat them on the go or just grab your daily ration when you stop for a rest. I spent the night before I left making all my wraps and placing them in separate bags for each day. This meant I wasn’t carrying around the extra weight of a jam jar in my backpack.
When you’ve arrived at your campsite for the night, put your tent up (hopefully with minimal swearing), had a shower and changed into fresh clothes you’ll no doubt want something to eat. After all the energy spent trudging across stunning Patagonian landscape you need something substantial. Rice or pasta are the most common options, but anything that will help you after a long day of hiking is required. Rice works better due to being less bulky than pasta, but if you’re part of a group you can always separate the ingredients out and share the load. Bring along a couple of carrots for something simple to add in.
One of my favourite recommendations from the Erratic Rock talk was regarding sauces. No-one is taking 5 jars of pasta sauce in their backpack. (I think that clinking noise is another type of bottle.) Instead, packets of powdered soup mixed with a little less water than normal create a perfect sauce alternative. Amazingly, they also work as soup. Taking small 50g packets reduces both weight and bulk from your bag, allowing you to take more important items. Like clothes.
I’ve already mentioned the water but if you need something to get you going in the morning then tea or coffee take up very little space. Make sure you only take as many as you need and leave the rest back in your accommodation in Puerto Natales. The last thing you need is carrying extra weight that you’re never going to use.
Anything that will give you a little boost during your hike is most welcome. Things like Snickers, nuts, dried fruit or cereal bars are perfect and take up very little room. Again, try to guess how much you’re going to need and avoid bringing too much. As with all food you bring with you, keep all your waste in your bag until you can responsibly dispose of it. You won’t find rubbish bins along the route so keep it in your bag until you find one.
Where to shop in Puerto Natales
The big supermarket, Unimarc, is on Manuel Bulnes street. However, there are plenty of smaller local stores around town so try to shop there first and find everything you need before going to the chain supermarket. For snacks you can get some tasty dried fruit from Itahue Frutos Secos on Esmeralda street. The prices are cheap and the chocolate covered raisins are incredible!
It’s very likely that you won’t need 1kg of rice, 5kg of muesli or 12 toilet rolls (very important! Don’t forget them) in five days. This is where a friend comes in handy. If you’re travelling with someone else, split the weight of your goods between you. Even just one other person can take a couple of kilos off your backpack and make such a difference in five days of walking. If you’re travelling alone, as I was, find someone else who’s going and offer to make a trade. Almost everybody in Puerto Natales who isn’t a local will either be going to or coming from Torres del Paine. Chat to people in your hostel, in the supermarket, at the Erratic Rock talk or around town. Anyone who’s just returned might have leftover food they can offer you for free.
I bumped into a guy at the supermarket I recognised from Erratic Rock. I’d met him on my bus from El Calafate and would see him again in the national park. We agreed to swap a few things between us, saving us both a little cash. Apparently half a bag of rice is equal to three toilet rolls. That’s not an exchange rate you’ll find on any website.
Unless you plan on using the lodges then, after food, the most important thing you’ll need for Torres del Paine is your camping gear. There are many places in town that rent equipment, including many of the hostels. Most of the prices won’t differ too much but if you’re looking to do Torres del Paine on a budget then shop around for the best deals.
I spent a whole day walking around town buying food and searching for the best priced equipment. Eventually I got everything from the hostel next to mine at Lili Patagonico’s on Arturo Prat street. It cost CLP$15,000 (or £15) each day for everything I needed, and anything around this price is a good deal. The following is a list of the main items I rented.
- Sleeping bag – choose the right balance between warmth and bulk. Small is good, but not so much if you’re freezing at night
- Camping mat – something not to be missed. Anything between your body and the chilly ground makes such a difference, not just because of comfort. Find the thinnest mat you can comfortably sleep on. Again, reducing bulk is the goal
- Cooking stove – don’t forget the cutlery. Lili Patagonico’s gave me everything from pans to knives and spoons, most of which I left in my hostel and just ate out of the pan after cooking.
- Gas canister – something small and light. Remember it doesn’t need to be full. I was given one that was around half-full and it lasted until my breakfast on the last morning. Fortunately I was able to borrow a little gas from some friends. If you have any gas left over when you return to Puerto Natales hand it over to your hostel or another visitor. You won’t be able to fly with it anyway.
- Tent – maybe the most important piece of equipment. Make sure whoever you rent it from shows you how to put it up and check all the pieces are there. I set mine up in front of Lili Patagonico’s, which was a big help when I arrived at my first campsite knowing what to do.
For hiking you want something light and breathable. Walking long distances for five days isn’t fun if you’re uncomfortable, no matter how beautiful the scenery is. Waterproof is good too, or an extra layer you can put on quickly. Be prepared for any weather in Torres del Paine. Underlayers are also a good idea, either during the day or at night. There can be a big temperature difference once the sun goes down.
When you reach the campsite in the evening have a set of dry clothes to put on. An extra pair of comfortable shoes will also make a difference as wearing just your hiking boots the whole time can lead to problems. Make sure your hiking footwear is comfortable before you go. A brand-new pair of unfamiliar boots will not be fun after a couple of days.
Chances are if you’re in Patagonia then you’ll be seeing more of this beautiful area than just Torres del Paine. In which case you should already have hats, gloves, fleeces and similar warm clothing with you. I had a great sense of relief in El Calafate when I found a fleece I had no idea I’d packed at the bottom of my backpack. For some reason I hadn’t worn it when I was in Rio. However, if you don’t have the necessary clothing, hiking boots or other similar items you can buy them in Puerto Natales. Just make sure they’re suitable before you go. The less useless items you can carry the better when you’ve got a large, overstuffed backpack behind you.
Other important equipment
- Duck tape – if a tent pole breaks you’re going to be so happy you brought this
- Hiking poles – this was something I never thought was necessary. However, after hiking up to Laguna de los Tres in El Chaltén it was one of the first things I bought.
- Hand warmers – packs of pocket hand warmers can really help on any cold nights sleeping in the national park. Pop them in the bottom of your sleeping bag
- Bin liners – useful for any wet or dirty clothes, carrying your camping mat or even just adding an extra layer of warmth at night
- Torch or headlamp – there’s very little light at most of the campsites and none at some, so some way to find the right tent is very helpful
- Matches/lighter – if you’re planning on cooking you’ll need some way to light your stove. Just make sure to only use them at the designated spots in the campsites
- First aid kit – better to be prepared for what might happen along the way. Sanitary wipes and alcohol gel are also a good addition
- Ziplock bags – easy way to separate your lunch for each day and to store your rubbish after eating. Also useful for keeping things dry in case it rains.
- Money – even if you plan on cooking for yourself you still need to pay for most of the campsites and the Torres del Paine entrance fee. You may also want to treat yourself to a nice beer or meal after a couple of days hiking.
Things you don’t need
- Pillow – placing unworn clothes into the sleeping bag sack creates a simple alternative without bringing anything extra
- Battery charger – unless you’re staying in lodges leave the bulky chargers behind. Solar chargers are a good, lightweight alternative
- Cooking utensils – aside from those necessary items already mentioned, avoid bringing anything you can live without. More items means more weight, and you’re carrying it
- Home comforts – a camping trip in the middle of a national park is the time to leave behind the extra blanket and fluffy slippers. If you can survive without it for five days drop it at your accommodation in Puerto Natales and pick it up when you return. It will feel so much nicer then anyway.
Once you have everything you need for Torres del Paine the fun part begins. Trying to fit everything into your backpack! If you’re travelling with other people or you’ve made some friends in Puerto Natales you can split everything between you. Obviously everyone needs their own camping mat and sleeping bag, but the tent, cooking equipment and food can all be separated to reduce the weight and bulk of your bag. Only take the minimum you’ll need.
I hate packing in general and travelling alone this was not a fun process for me. I had such great difficulty trying to fit everything I’d need for five days of camping into my backpack. The process of adjusting things, taking things out and putting them back in again lasted over an hour. Much to the amusement of my roommate, who wasn’t due to go through the same experience for another day or two. In the end I just hung my camping mat on the outside and everything else went in.
When to visit Torres del Paine
Summer offers the best weather in Patagonia but also the biggest crowds, resulting in full campsites and nowhere to sleep. Visiting Torres del Paine in Spring or Autumn however will see less people and good weather. That’s not a guarantee though as Patagonia is known for its unreliable climate. Winter in Patagonia runs from late April through to mid-September and many campsites will be closed during this time due to extreme weather conditions and unsafe hiking routes.
However, the time of year alone is not a good indication of the weather you can expect. As I travelled south it was already late in the season (early May) and I’d heard rumours the campsites could be closed. The week before I went there was terrible weather and I feared the worst. However, aside from one morning with heavy snow I was treated to glorious sunshine every day I was hiking. Unfortunately the lack of cloud cover meant it was freezing at night and I ended up wearing almost every piece of clothing I’d brought with me!