More than two decades ago, under a military dictatorship, Chile attracted few foreign visitors, and hiking in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine was a solitary experience—on a 10-day trek over the now famous circuit, the author met only three other hikers, two Americans and a Chilean.
Parts of the route through this one-time estancia were easy-to-follow stock trails, while others, on Lago Grey’s eastern shore and into the valley of the Río de los Perros, were barely boot-width tracks on steep slopes, or involved scrambling over granite boulders and fording waist-deep streams. Since then, raging rivers have destroyed bridges at the outlets of Lago Nordenskjöld and Lago Paine, and the original trailhead on Lago Pehoé’s north shore no longer exists.
Meanwhile, completion of a trail along Lago Nordenskjöld’s north shore has created a new loop and simultaneously provided access to the south side of the Torres del Paine, offering easier access up the Río Ascencio and Valle del Francés on the shorter “W” route to Lago Pehoé. Where the former circuit crossed the Río Paine and continued along its north bank to the Laguna Azul campground, the new circuit now follows the west bank south to Laguna Amarga. A Laguna Azul exit or entrance is still feasible, though, by crossing the Río Paine by a cable raft at the Lago Dickson outlet, with help from the staff at Refugio Dickson.
Trail maintenance and development have improved, rudimentary and not-so-rudimentary bridges have replaced fallen logs and traversed stream fords, and comfortable refugios and organized campgrounds have supplanted the lean-tos and puestos (outside houses) that once sheltered shepherds on their rounds. Though it’s theoretically possible to hike most of the circuit without a tent or even a sleeping bag, showering and eating at the refugios, hikers must not forget that this is rugged country with unpredictable weather.
Most hikers tackle the circuit counterclockwise from Guardería Laguna Amarga, where buses from Puerto Natales stop for passengers to pay the park admission fee. An alternative is to continue to Pudeto and take a passenger launch to Refugio Pehoé, or else to the park’s Administración (involving a longer and less interesting approach); both of these mean doing the trek clockwise.
At least a week is desirable for the circuit; before beginning, registration with park rangers is obligatory. Camping is permitted only at designated sites, a few of which are free. Purchase supplies in Puerto Natales; only limited goods, at premium prices, are available in the park.
Accommodations and Food
For hikers beginning at Laguna Amarga, there is no refugio before Lago Dickson (roughly 11 hours), though there is a fee campground at Campamento Serón (4–5 hours).
Under Conaf concession to Puerto Natales’s Andescape (Eberhard 599, tel. 061/412877, andescape [at] terra [dot] cl) are Refugio Lago Grey and Refugio Lago Dickson, where there are also campgrounds and backpackers still crash at the old puesto, plus the Campamento Río de los Perros.
Both 32-bunk refugios charge US$25 per person, with kitchen privileges and hot showers, but without sheets or sleeping bags, which are available for rental but sometimes scarce. Breakfast costs US$8.50, lunch US$13, dinner US$15; a bunk with full board costs US$59 per person. Campers pay US$6.50 each (refugio guests, though, have shower priority). Rental tents, sleeping bags, mats, and campstoves are also available.
Replacing the cramped and overcrowded Refugio Lago Pehoé, the Paine Grande Mountain Lodge is the newest option along the circuit; make reservations through Turismo Comapa (Bulnes 533, tel. 061/414300, Puerto Natales). Rates are US$32 per person without breakfast (US$9 extra); lunch and dinner are available for US$13, but full-board packages (US$32) mean a small savings. Camping costs US$6.50 per person, and there’s also phone and even Internet access.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition