Torres del Paine National Park
The Torres del Paine (Spanish for "Towers of Paine", "Paine" being the old indigenous name for the colour blue), three immense rock towers give the park its name.
Other attractions include the Cuernos del Paine (Spanish for "Horns of Paine" -- horn-like mountain tops), Grey Glacier, Lago Grey, Lago Pehoe, Lago Nordenskjöld and Lago Sarmiento.
The best time to visit the park is between November and April, which coincides with spring and summer in the southern hemisphere. However, be prepared! The weather is fickle and can change dramatically.
If you want to check the weather, windguru.cz, is what most people park use to get an idea of what is going on. For example http://www.windguru.cz/int/index.php?sc=538866&sty=m_spot gives you the weather closest to the torres. Here there are 3 rows for cloud cover, high, medium, and low.
Daily buses run from Puerto Natales (2 hours), the main connection with civilization. Their itinerary depends on time of year: from November until February there are two buses: at 7.30 AM arriving at 9.30 am at the Laguna Amarga entrance, and in the afternoon at 14.30 pm arriving at 16.30 at the Laguna Amarga entrance. From this point, there are shuttles available to get into Las Torres sector where Base Of Las Torres trek (the most famous one in the park) starts.
The price for the bus varies, depending on where you book it, which company you use, etc. As of March 2016, companies ask 15,000 CLP for a return ticket, you can try to negotiate.
If you entered the park in a different way and you want just a one-way ticket to go back, just board the bus, and you can pay the conductor. The price might vary from minute to minute or from driver to conductor. They ask 8,000 clp (March 2016), try to pay a bit less. You will probably not get a ticket anyway, and your money will very "discreetly" go straight into the conductor's back pocket.
There are no direct buses for El Calafate, but many tour operators offer them. It is thus possible to go directly from El Calafate to the park and even return another day, although this is expensive (count 80 US$ return, +40 US$ when returning another day).
If you have a car, the roads into the park from Puerto Natales are well maintained and fairly straightforward.
As of October 2016, the entrance fee charged at the entrance to this national park is 5000 CLP for Chileans, and 18000 CLP for foreigners. Neither credit cards nor foreign currencies are accepted. Note that if you wish to reenter the park again on a subsequent day, you can ask the personnel to mark your entrance ticket (with a stamp on its reverse) allowing you to use it once more without having to pay again.
A catamaran runs between Refugio Pudeto and Refugio Paine Grande taking about 30 minutes. A one-way ticket is CLP 15000, a round-trip ticket costs CLP 24000 (Jan 2015). It is best to board last as your luggage will come out first. The fees are collected during the trip and they also accept USD. Also do not be late for the catamaran as it will leave on time.
Another boat service runs between Lago Grey Pier and Refugio Grey, bookings are needed in advance and cost 45000 CLP for a one-way ticket for the 1 hour trip (Jan 2015). With the same company a 3 hour return scenic boat tour can be taken for 55000 CLP (Jan 2015) to see Glacier Grey from the water, with the transfer starting from Hotel Lago Grey.
A minivan runs between the Laguna Amarga Conaf office bus stop and Hosteria Las Torres (to connect with buses to Puerto Natales and main walking routes several times a day). The price is CLP 2800 one-way (Jan 2015) for the 20 minute ride (which takes about 90 mins by foot).
The rest must be done by foot although there are options by horse (45000 per person from Hosteria Las Torres to Camp Chileno).
With the hefty 18,000 peso, or $30 USD entrance fee and the expensive bus ride there, it is best if you are doing a multi-day trek. That said, the design of the park and the lack of frequent buses and ferries within its borders makes anything less than a four-day trek a real hassle. If you go to the park, get your money's worth and hike the "W" for 4-5 days, or do the big circuit.
Hike the W Circuit: From west to east: bus to Visitors Centre/Administration, hike via Campamento Las Carretas to Refugio Paine Grande (17.5 km), sleep first night there, hike to Refugio Grey or Campamento Las Guardas (beautiful view of Grey Glacier) and back to Refugio Paine Grande (15 km), sleep at Refugio Paine Grande, hike to Campamento Italiano (7.6 km), sleep there, hike to Campamento Britanico and the Mirador of Vallé Frances (beautiful view on the snow-covered summits) and back (15 km), sleep at Campamento Italiano, hike to Hosteria Las Torres (16.5 km), sleep there, hike to Campamento Torres and Mirador Torres (beautiful view of the three torres) and back (10 km). Minibus to the Laguna Amarga park gate. From east to west is also possible.
Hike the Big Circuit: with the connection of the two ends of the W via Campamento los Perros, Refugio Dickson, Campamento Seron. The big circuit does not usually open until November, so if you are planning to trek in late October it may be worth calling ahead to find out.
Daytour: Drop off at Administration, Mirador Condor, Salto Grande, Mirador Cuernos, Mirador del Nordenskjold. Catch the bus at Laguna Amarga Gate.
Daytour: Drop off at Laguna Amarga Gate, Minibus to Hosteria Las Torres, hike to Campamento Torres and Mirador Torres and back (10 km). Minibus to the Laguna Amarga park gate.
Daytour: Drop off at Pudeto, by boat to Refugio Paine Grande, back by boat. Sightseeing tour by boat on lago Grey to the Grey glacier.
Daytour: Hike to the Torres, one of the park's star attractions. This is a beautiful and demanding trail through mountains and woods along a raging river. Note that entering the park from the east side will reduce your driving time to the trailhead by about an hour.
If using a guide, all equipment, such as tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, crampons for walking on ice and luggage transfers, are all provided by the tour companies.
Most companies run longer tours into the Torres del Paine National Park and these are generally between 5 to 7 days' duration.All of them run comprehensive tours with local knowledgeable guides, many of them following the famous "W" circuit, and including a cruise up the Serrano River or along one of the fiords.
Depending on the tour, accommodations are provided in tents (either in an organized camp with all facilities, including hot showers, or in the wild with pit latrines), in the park's refugios listed above, or in lodges or remote mountain inns.
Other activities offered on guided tours include fly-fishing, kayaking through the fiords and channels, or ice hiking (https://www.facebook.com/bigfootpatagonia/). The ice hiking is near Refugio Grey.
Bring as much food as you can or want to carry. The big supermarket in Puerto Natales has a good selection of camping food (though no freezedried meals). There are also a couple of nut/dry fruit shops in town with good selection and reasonable prices.
Most refugios and campsites sell some things, but the availability of certain items is unreliable and prices are prohibitively expensive, e.g. a Snickers bar goes for 1500 CLP (3 USD), biscuits are four times more expensive than at the supermarket in town. Some places sell camping gas cartridges at normal prices, but white gas is difficult or impossible to buy.
There are several lodgings in the park called "Refugios". Some are basic while others are bigger and nice, with shared areas, fires, small grocery shops etc. If you plan on staying in those, make reservations well in advance. The cost for a dorm bed spot ranges from about 30us$ to over 70us$ with extra costs for bedding / sleeping bags.
Both FantásticoSur and Vertice will ask for credit card information and charge it two weeks before arrival. There appears to be no cancellation penalty before that.
There are several campsites. Camping near a refugio costs Ch$4.000 to Ch$8000. There are some free Conaf campsites away from refugios where you may find the pitches very small and on steep ground. All campsites have at least basic toilet facilities (bring your own toilet paper). Despite warnings there seemed no need to book camping spots even in peak season, except for Torres and Chileno which fill up in peak season.
In the campings next to a refugio you can rent all the camping equipment required, like a 2 person tent (around 7000clp, Apr 16), sleeping bag (~5000clp) and matress (~2000clp).
Please note that some campsites that appear on the map that you get when you enter MIGHT BE closed (depending on season) and/or require permission from CONAF (namely Japones, Britanico, and Pingo). You can camp at the following places on the W and the Circuit trails (prices per person as of March 2013, most paid campsites have some kind of showers):
- Hotel/Refugio Las Torres, 8500 CLP (2016. 7500 outside of summer), good showers, some views of the towers. You can store your stuff at the refugio to go hike Valle Ascencio to the towers.
- Chileno, 4000 CLP, on the Valle Ascencio trail. Bring extra guy lines because tents pitched on the provided wooden platforms can not be staked down.
- Torres, free, basic toilets, you can only camp one night. It is 40 minutes away from the mirador for the towers. Can be reserved several days in advance at Laguna Amarga and Italiano.
- Los Cuernos, 8000 CLP (!), famous for its rude staff and for being really crowded and commercial. Best avoided. Bring extra guy lines because tents pitched on the provided wooden platforms can not be staked down.
- Frances,(new -to be updated) 4000 CLP, currently not offering meals or equipment - suitable for campers carrying their food and gear
- Italiano, free. They might tell you it is closed but if you show up late (after 6 or 7 pm) the rangers will let you stay. This is the best way to avoid Los Cuernos. Many people do that. In any case, you can use it to leave your backpack to walk up Valle Frances. It is not possible to camp anywhere on the Valle Frances trail. In heavy rains, do not camp near the stream, as rising water can divert and flood your tent.
- Paine Grande, a.k.a. Lago Pehoe, 7000 CLP (December 2015), super crowded, they provide gas stoves for cooking in a cramped cooking area. Very windy. The staff doesn't seem to care much about things. The hot showers are unreliable. If there's still food available after attending guests that stay in rooms, the lodge's large restaurant serves lunch or dinner for 12500 CLP (December 2015). Alternatively, a lunch bag may be ordered. A small bottle of beer costs 3500 CLP and a bottle of non-overwhelming wine is 15000 CLP. There's a small shop selling non-alcoholic beverages and basic food like chocolate, noodles etc. One liter of chocolate milk costs 2500 CLP (3 times as much as in a normal supermarket).
- Grey, 6000 CLP. Good facilities, a nice mirador 15 minutes away. The far too small cooking room opens only at 0800 AM and gets extremely crowded and somewhat dangerous (due to gas stoves that tip over) at peak hours, but there are a few tables on the rather sheltered veranda available for cooking if you wish to leave earlier.
- Paso, free. Basic facilities.
- Los Perros, 4000 CLP. Basic facilities, alike those at a free campsite, but you need to pay for it.
- Dickson, 4000 CLP. Fantastic location, can be windy.
- El Coiron is just a ranger information station. No camping (unless it is a special case).
- Seron, 7800 CLP (11/14)
Camping anywhere outside of these areas will be punished very strictly. Please do not do it!