One of the most common questions I get asked about my South America trip is „What was your highlight?”
I hate that question.
I’ve travelled the continent for over a year. I’ve visited countless places, had loads of different experiences, met so many people… How am I supposed to pick out one place or event that was better than anything else? I can’t.
Still, for some weird reason, people always seem to expect that there has to be something that’s standing out. They keep pestering me with that question until they get an answer. So, if I really have to choose one thing (please don’t make me), I always say it was my hiking trip to the Torres del Paine Nationalpark in Patagonia.
Why? Well, that trip just had it all: Outstanding nature. Amazing people turning into good friends. Physical challenges that were overcome. What’s not to love?
Planning a hiking trip to Torres del Paine
Before getting to Torres del Paine, all hiking I had ever done was day trips. Now, I was going on an eight-day hike that has a reputation to be quite challenging. I was not at all sure how it would go, but I was determined to try. After all, it’s also said to be one of the most beautiful hikes in the world.
I did, however, make the whole experience a bit easier for myself by booking the whole trip through a travel agent called Vertice Patagonia. One, booking the campsite individually can be quite a hassle. Two, this way I got tents at the campsites (so no carrying of tents or having to build them up myself), as well as food (so no carrying of that either, except for the lunch boxes).
Yes, it was more expensive than booking everything individually and bringing my own stuff. But just the thought of having to figure out how much food I would need for eight days of hiking was causing me nervous breakdowns. I was happy to pay a bit more to gain that peace of mind. Plus, it meant less to carry. Double win.
Tent of refugio?
There is an option to book refugio accommodation rather than tents, but I decided against it because tents were cheaper. I actually found them quite comfortable, especially as having one to myself allowed for a bit more privacy, something that’s sacred to us introverts.
However, when I got upgraded to dorm beds in the refugios three times while on the trek, due to an error in my reservation, I didn’t complain either. Two of those nights I ended up being in a room by myself. What s luxury. Only the last night I had to share the dorm. I ended up in a room with the loudest snorer I have ever encountered. At that moment, I really missed my private little tent.
I was also more than happy not having to bother cooking food when arriving at camp. Especially after those really long days, with the most strenuous hikes, I literally collapsed in my (already set-up) tent upon arrival. I only had to get up to have a shower and then plop down again at the dining table, where I was served a delicious dinner. All you need after a long day of hiking.
The fellow hikers
Coming through the check-point at the entry of Torres del Paine, I was asked if I was hiking solo. The lady informed me that it wasn’t recommended to hike the Gardner Pass alone, as it’s the highest and toughest part of the trek. She looked at me as though I could just produce a hiking partner out of thin air. When I failed to do that, I was informed I’d better make some friends in the next three days. She may not have said it in those words, but the meaning was clear.
For introverts, the prospect of having to make new friends can be daunting. However, once I was on the trek, it took all of ten minutes until I met the first fellow hiker, a guy from Switzerland. He became one of my most constant hiking companions during the following days. Other joined soon, and I was hardly ever alone while hiking the O-circuit.
Unlike the more common W-trek, the longer O-circuit can only be done in one direction. There is only a limited number of camps, meaning almost everyone stays at the same places the same nights. Therefore, you quickly knew everyone else hiking with you. You’d occasionally meet them on the trek and then reconnect in the evening at camp. It created a certain kind of camaraderie which I really loved.
The O-circuit vs. the W-trek
Most people only do the shorter W-trek rather than the longer O-circuit. I was very glad I went for the latter, though. Yes, it was tough but totally worth it. Not only did I see a lot more stunning landscapes, but the trail was also much less crowded than on the W. If it’s solitude you’re looking for, the O-Circuit is where you should go. At the same time, the camaraderie between the hikers is a lot greater because everyone’s in the same boat.
Unfortunately, our group fell apart a bit after the first four days, when we finished the part exclusive to the O-circuit and reached the part shared with the W-trek. From here on out, everyone stayed in different camps and ended their trip on different days. Some had already done parts of the W before starting the O. Others, like me, did that part at the end. Also, the trails were a lot fuller now, because it wasn’t just our O-crew anymore. Lots of people do the W or even just day trips. The trek itself was of course still stunning, and there were still some familiar faces on the trails and at various camps. Nevertheless, I felt a bit nostalgic at losing the familiarity and camaraderie of our group.
Hiking as an introvert in a group
Torres del Paine was not only my first multiple-day hike but also the first time I was really hiking in a group. The day hikes I’d done leading up to it I mostly did on my own. I’d come to enjoy being out in nature by myself. Hiking solo is just such a perfect introvert activity. Now, I was almost always with other people. However, I found, almost to my own surprise, that I loved that just as much.
I had people to talk to if I wanted some conversation. If I didn’t, there was still plenty of opportunities to walk in companionable silence. Also, turned out that having a group to cheer you on can be a really great thing on a strenuous hike.
The longest hiking day we had was crossing the Gardner Pass. Luckily, I had indeed managed to make friends by then. The entire hike took nine hours. There was still snow on the pass, which meant a long, exhausting, uphill hike to reach the top. Then, it’s a lot of slippery downhill hiking through the snow to get to the next camp.
Having someone motivating you on the way and greeting you with high fives when you reach the peak can really make a difference. Of course, the great view of the Grey Glacier that opened up before us was also a nice reward.
Helping each other out
There was always the sense of tackling this together and helping each other out if necessary. For example, once we reached the slippery downhill part after crossing the Gardner Pass, one of my hiking companions lent me one of his hiking poles for the rest of the day, because he had noticed me struggling to make it down without slipping.
Being among friends also turned some things into adventures that might otherwise have been frightening. When we were hiking downhill through that snow, we reached a part that was pure ice. On top of that, it was steep. There was no way we could walk down that slope without falling. The people coming through before us must have had the same thought. There was a clear ice-slide visible, where everyone had slid down on their bumps. We had no choice but to do the same.
This was made more precarious by the fact that the slide included a sharp turn. We all worried we’d crush into the trees. However, everyone made it down in one piece. In our collective memory, the experience quickly turned from terrifying to hilarious.
I still love hiking on my own, but it’s equally great to have people with you to share those memories with.
Nature of Torres del Paine
The O-circuit is counted among the most memorable hikes in the world. As one of my fellow hikers put it: „After this, every other hike will seem dull.” I’ve done quite a few other hikes and can assure you they were not dull at all. Still, Torres del Paine stands out.
It’s Patagonia at it’s best: Snow-capped mountains, green valleys, turquoise-blue lakes, massive glaciers, and if you’re lucky, even some wildlife. Even though you’re basically in the same area the whole time, the landscape changes every day. Sometimes you walk through woods, sometimes through open valleys, sometimes you climb over mountain paths. You cross rivers by balancing over some improvised wooden plank standing in for a bridge or by taking your shoes off and wading through barefoot. All the summits provided amazing views, while the camps offered camaraderie with card games, drinks and shared camp food. I couldn’t have wished for a better eight days.
My last day was the hike up to the Torres del Paine Massif. It’s the most famous photo motive in Torres del Paine and maybe even in all of Chile. By this time, most of my former hiking companions had either already finished their trip or had hiked up at 3 am for sunrise. I was too tired to do that with already seven days of hiking in my bones. Therefore, I ended up doing this last hike by myself.
Though I was hiking alone, the trail to the Torres is by far the busiest in the entire National Park. Many people come here for day trips and I was constantly stuck between tour groups. Still, once I managed to escape those, I also had brief pockets of time in which I was alone. Besides, no crowds could hamper the feeling of victory I had when I reached that last summit and the view of the famous mountains opened before me. I spent a couple of hours up there to take pictures, eat lunch and enjoy the sweet feeling of having mastered the last part of this eight-day hike.
Well, I still had to get down, of course, and my knees were less than happy about that. But I had made it. I hadn’t been sure at all if I could, or at least not how well I could. But now I had done it, overcoming my own expectations of myself and having a great time while doing it.
Hiking Torres del Paine: Practical info
How to get to Torres del Paine:
The best way to get to Torres del Paine is to come from Puerto Natales, the nearest town. Buses go from the bus terminal to the NP entrance every day, taking about two hours. At the entrance, you need to show your ticket and then either walk or take another short bus to the visitor information centre, where the actual hike starts.
There are various camps in Torres del Paine. They reach from very simple campgrounds where you need to bring your own tent to fancy refugios with restaurants attached. As all the camps are managed by different companies, making bookings can be a bit of a mess. Especially as some of them book out very quickly during the main season. However, you’re not allowed to visit the NP overnight without a valid reservation. Alternatively, you can do what I did and book a package. I went through Vertice Patagonia, but there are several different offers. It will be more expensive but saves you a lot of hustle.
The best time to visit Torres del Paine:
The O-circuit opens in November and stays open until March. The W-Trek is theoretically open all year. However, in winter there can be a lot of snow, which sometimes leads to parts f the trails being closed. Also, not all campsites are open. The main season for both treks is in Chilean summer, during January and February, when the weather is at its best. At the same time, this is also the busiest season. If you want to avoid the crowds, you may prefer to go a bit earlier or later. I went in early November and while we had some snow on one day, the weather was otherwise very good. That being said, rain and strong wind is something you can have all year round in Patagonia.
Which trek should you do?
If you feel fit enough, I highly recommend the O-circuit. It’s less crowded and absolutely stunning. While you certainly need to bring a certain basic level of fitness, there’s no need to be a super hiker. I wasn’t either and I managed just fine. However, if you’re not sure you can pull off eight to nine days of hiking, the W is probably the better choice. The landscape is equally amazing and if you don’t go during absolute high season, crowds are bearable. Plus, as the W is shorter, you won’t need quite as much time and money.
Why I loved hiking the O-circuit
Hiking the O-trek was tough, and challenging, and exhausting. I hardly made it down the mountain the last day and my knees hurt for several days afterwards. But it was also rewarding, exhilarating, and simply so much fun. I made great friends and achieved more than I thought I could. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Have you been hiking in the Torres del Paine National Park? What was it like? Would you do it again? O or W? Share in the comments.