Voted as the Eighth Wonder of the World in 2013 by international tourists, Torres del Paine National Park remains a symbol of Chilean Patagonia and a destination that has been capturing the imagination of hikers and travelers across the globe. Home to the Torres del Paine Circuit, as well as the ‘W’ trek, the park has arguably become the most famous adventure destination in Patagonia.
The history of the Torres del Paine Circuit
Pioneered in 1976 by British mountaineer John Gardner and two park rangers, Pepe Alarcon and Oscar Guineo, the full circuit or ‘O’ trek has since been adapted to allow a shorter route: the ‘W’. With 160,000 visitors annually to the park, rangers are essential in helping to keep the trails well-maintained. Necessary precautions such as stipulating that hikers are not allowed to stray from the main trails also work to preserve this otherwise fragile natural environment.
With its landscape of aquamarine, glacial lakes, and the symbolic granite torres (towers) from which the park takes its name, Torres del Paine has an understandable global appeal to trekkers. This bewitching Patagonian charm is the reason why so many visitors from all over the world make pilgrimage here.
Hiking the ‘W’
The shorter of the two main trails in the park, the ‘W’ is named for the shape that this route forms when viewed on the map. Hikers start in the west of the park at the Campamento Paine Grande campsite where the path leads alongside Lago Grey to finish with a splendid vista of Glacier Grey. Here, visitors can watch chunks of ice ‘calving’ from the glacier into the blue meltwater of the lake.
The path returns to the campsite before peeling off towards Valle Frances and the middle section of the hike. Visitors spend the night at Campamento Italiano and then take the route as it edges the windswept Nordenskjold Lake and arrives at Los Cuernos campground.
The final day is the most strenuous and steepest part of the trek. Forming the final edge of the W shape, the path climbs up to reach the sky-piercing Torres del Paine and the calm, mirror-like lake that sits at their base.
To make the four-day trip accessible to all hikers, serviced campsites along the route hire out tents and on-site canteens provide nutritious, three-course meals.
Hiking the Circuit or ‘O’
Circling the Paine Massif (the towers) and exploring much more of the national park, the Circuit or ‘O’ trek is the most taxing but rewarding of the trails here. An 80-mile (129 km) route, it delivers on all of the park’s most celebrated sights.
Exploring the northern side of the park before finishing by following the ‘W’ route to the towers, the Torres del Paine Circuit trek encompasses its fair share of beautiful landmarks. One of the most exceptional parts of the route includes the descent from the John Gardner Pass. Here, a 180 degree view of Glacier Grey awaits trekkers and this vista is considered by many visitors to be the main highlight of the trek.
Hikers normally start from the entrance of the park and camp overnight in Campamento Serón, as walking the route counterclockwise avoids the powerful headwinds that can be felt on the trail. Walking the Circuit in this direction also allows hikers to reach the base of the towers on the final day at sunrise; a welcome treat after a long but rewarding hike.