9 days. Over 130 km. More than 30 kg on my back most of the time.
Sunshine, heavy rain, snow storms, hail, winds over 130 km/h.
Patagonia sucked us all the way in, chewed on us, spit us out, over and over again.
We will have a near death experience, involuntarily putting our gear under an extreme conditions test. More than once will I be speechless at the wonders of this fascinating part of the world. At least as many times will I be forced to my limits.
One of the lessons we will learn is that Patagonian weather forecasts very much differ from what we were used to before. But that is not the only life lesson we will learn from this trip.
We, that is my fellow hiking companion Christian and myself. We hiked the O-Circuit in April, 2019. Before this, none of us had ever done actual multi-day trekking like this. We walked up to mountain huts for overnight stays but that was about it.
Let me take you on a journey that tells the story about an experience that still remains one of the most challenging to me up to date. Giving you an insight in some of our naive mistakes to hopefully prevent you from doing the same or at least put a bit of a smile onto your face.
In the following paragraphs I’ll provide you information on how and where to book the campsites and get prepared for the hike. It is mandatory to have all your overnight stays booked in advance. They will ask you at the entrance of the park for your reservation receipts meaning you don’t get a ticket if you can’t provide this proof. On the map above you see the Welcoming Center of Torres del Paine National Park. That is where we parked the car and started the actual circuit. The CONAF tourist office is located about 7 km before this. That is where we bought the tickets for the park. Here you can also get a paper map and check out the weather forecast. They also have daily updated weather forecasts in each camp.
The entrance fees back then were 21,000 CLP for adults from nations outside of Chile and 6,000 CLP for Chilean citizens. But be aware that the prices are usually increased every other year. You can find more information here. The park’s official website is this. Make sure to check it out beforehand to be well-informed.
As a little side note: We did the whole trek only having our reservations and the wee little paper map, nothing else. No GPS trekking via telephone or digital maps. I only started using offline trekking maps after this trek. So, most of the very useful little helpers I recommend here came into my world after this particular trek. We all have to start somewhere, right? 🙂 The whole O-Circuit is very well marked.
Making reservations at the camps
Next to CONAF there are 2 companies who manage refugios (mountain cabins) and campsites in the park, Fantastico Sur and Vertice. Both of them are private and, let’s be honest, super expensive. But camping outside of authorized areas is forbidden, so basically you have no other choice. Don’t do the trek if you plan to ignore the restrictions and do wild camping. There is sheltered sections for cooking at the campsites. These you don’t have when camping in the wild. A big part of the park has burned down in the past because visitors underestimated the winds and ignored restrictions to start with. A little spark can turn into a disaster. Don’t take a chance.
Fantastico Sur owns campsites at Central, Cuernos, Chileno, Serón, Frances. Vertice owns campsites at Paine Grande, Dickson, Grey, Los Perros. The campsite at the Paso ranger station is owned by CONAF and free. The W-Trek and the O-Circuit are very popular treks, the O-Trek being less crowded. Still, I’ve heard of people having to book online 6 months in advance to get spots on the campgrounds.
We arrived in Puerto Natales, a little village about 120 km away from the parking area in the park, 2 days prior to starting the trek. We didn’t do any online booking but instead went into each of the offices in town and booked our camps. During the first part of the trek, we met 7 additional hikers who all, except for one, hiked within a different time schedule. So, basically, we had the first days of the trek almost entirely to ourselves. Once we came into the parts that make up the W, campsites and treks became super crowded. If you want to make sure to get spots as you like, do the booking online. This is a page where you can do all at once. I’ve never used any of the booking web pages though, so I can’t tell you anything about user experience. In general, April is kind of out of season for tourists. The weather is said to be more moody, temperatures are colder, there are higher chances of snow and rain. Visitor numbers tend to be fewer. Perfect for hikers and those who don’t care about uncomfortable hiking conditions 🙂
Getting prepped and ready
We originally planned on doing the hike in 8 days, 7 nights. These are the campsites we booked: Dickson, Los Perros, El Paso, Grey, Paine Grande, Frances, Central. Camp Serón was closed when we did the trek, so we had no other choice than skipping that camp and intending to do over 30 km the first day. As mentioned at the beginning, we ended up doing the trek in 9 days. We didn’t get as far as 30 km the first day either. We also never put up camp at Frances. But more on that later 😉
We bought all our food and did the packing in Puerto Natales a day before heading to the park. Our food plan included breakfast, dinner and snacks for 2 people for each of the 8 days. Check out my food and gear packing list for details on how or what to pack. Definitely pack enough clothing. I can recommend, at least, a second set for the campsites, so the rest can dry if it gets wet throughout the day.
There are regular buses between Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine NP. Since I owned a car, we just headed for the park the day before and slept a night in the car. We parked it in the major parking area by the Welcome Center (see map above) and left it there for the time we were gone. Parking was free.
But before we got to the parking area, we went into the ticket office at the park entrance to get the tickets. I’ve already mentioned the weather forecast that was displayed there. I remember exactly how I looked at it. 90 to 100 km/h winds, a mix between sun and clouds, heavy rain. That’s what it said for the following day – our first day of the trek – in self drawn pictures and numbers. I also remember how I said to a doubtful looking Christian “It won’t be that bad. That’s probably just the worst case scenario.”
You know these moments when your present you just wants to look your past you in the eyes, shaking your head saying “What an idiot you were”? That was one of these moments. That weather forecast was far off from a worst case scenario. But let’s get to that 🙂
My personal overall grade for the complete hike is SB-4.2. That’s the average of all single day hikes.
I’ve summarized facts, grading and my personal stories of each single day on the following sub pages:
- Day 1: Welcome Center Parking – Camp Séron – Emergency Camping Spot
- Day 2: Emergency Camping Spot – Coirón Ranger Station – Camp Dickson
- Day 3: Camp Dickson – Camp Los Perros
- Day 4: Camp Los Perros – Camp El Paso
- Day 5: Camp El Paso – Camp Grey
- Day 6: Camp Grey – Camp Paine Grande
- Day 7: Camp Paine Grande – Mirador Británico – Camp Los Cuernos
- Day 8: Camp Los Cuernos – Camp Central
- Day 9: Camp Central – Camp Chileno – Mirador Base de las Torres – Camp Chileno – Camp Central