The city of Puerto Natales is located in the southern Patagonia and is the main entrace gate to the national parks around. The main reason people are heading to the city of Puerto Natales is the proximity to the beautiful park of Torres del Paine. But heading out to Torres del Paine is not as straightforward as it used to be in the past years. Let us explain this trip in detail.
Staying in Puerto Natales
We personally cannot say we particularly enjoyed the city, but stay with us on this one. First we arrived on a Saturday evening, meaning the following day was Sunday: everything was closed in the city! On top of that, there was no electricity in the district for half of the day… Therefore, not the best first impression!
Puerto Natales is relatively small and expensive with not much touristic interest. It is really a transit town to explore the region, therefore we don’t recommend you to stay too long there, unless you use it as your base. There are quite a number of options for accommodation, either in the center if you feel like going out, or closer to the bus station if you plan on departing early.
Organizing a trek to Torres del Paine
Limited access for trekking and camping
In 2016, due to the growing flow of tourists attracted by the park, the CONAF (the organization managing the Parks) decided to change the requirements for trekking. While before you could just go there with your camping equipment, hike to one of the campsite and spend the night, now you are not allowed to hike (event enter) in the Park without booking all your accommodation. What it means is that at the entrance, there is a checkpoint where you will be asked to prove the booking confirmation for the time you stay in the park. Beware, they have the capacity to check if the booking is real or not.
Of course this doesn’t matter if you go only for a one-day hike as this is not limited (yet), but you would need to have a detailed plan about your return.
Defining your itinerary
First of all, you will need to decide if you want to hike half the park (the so-called W hike of Torres del Paine) or the full park (the so-called O hike of Torres del Paine). The W goes from West to East (or reverse) while the O makes a loop. Usually 3 to 5 days are needed for the W while the O requires at least a week. We let you look online for details, as they are many information about it. Due to the complexity of the reservation system and of the bad weather forecast we decided to opt for a partial W.
Beware that some of the distances are long and that you will have a loaded backpack! We found the time indicated on the map to be quite adequate. We usually ended slightly faster than indicated, breaks included. Also for the “branches” of the W you always have the possibility to leave your backpack at a campsite as you will have to come back the same way.
As to choose to go from West to East or reverse, the best is to check the weather forecast as to give you the maximum of chances to see the famous Torres under the sun!
Selecting your campsites
Once you have decided your itinerary, it’s time to book. This is where it is getting very complicated because they never thought about having a centralized system… The full thing is just plain stupid and made to either make you pay or give up on the Park completely.
Based on this map you will have to define your itinerary and look where to sleep. You will notice that there are 3 organizations managing the campsites: the CONAF, Vertigo and Fantastico Sur. The CONAF is the only one offering free camping but of course there are not enough campsites available to allow for a full W-hike or O-hike. Also, due to the fact that it is free, people tend to never cancel their booking if they don’t show up so it is usually showing as full even if there is still space available…
The two other companies will charge you for everything. We recommend the Fantastico Sur over the Vertigo if you do have a choice (you don’t always have one) because they are cheaper and better.
Then you will need to go on each website to check availability and book. If you have question, know that we heard that none of them is very fast at answering by e-mail so calling them might be a better option. They all have offices in Puerto Natales.
To be on the safe side you need to book months in advance. Otherwise you can also pass by an agency that will organize everything for you… of course at a cost.
How to do trek Torres del Paine without booking?
Option 1: trick the system
First of all, you will need to show at least one booking to be able to come in with all your material (tent and sleeping bags). Luckily, the campsites at the entrance points usually have some last minute spots, so check Camp Central, Camp Paine Grande or Camp Grey even the day before: they can be your first night spot while giving you the opportunity to hike one of the branch. For instance, when arrived in the morning, we set up our tent, then hiked to the Torres on the first day and camped at Camp Central.
If you were not able to book a second night, head towards one of the campsite on your way, and make sure to arrive after 5 or 6pm: usually they cannot refuse you to stay, unless they are really out of spots. The free camping of Campo Italiano can be a good try. Of course you will need to explain why you don’t have a reservation so the best is to have a good excuse and pretend you booked at another camping that is too far for you to reach at that time. If you stay longer and could not make any reservation you will need to do the same for the following nights… It worked for us but we cannot guarantee that it will work for everyone!
Option 2: opt for day trips
Another option would be to find an accommodation at the edge of the park and from there organize a few day trips. For instance you can camp at Camp Pehoe. From there you can go for 3 different day hikes: up to Glacier Grey (transfer by catamaran), up to Mirador Britannico (transfer by catamaran), up to the Torres (transfer by shuttle bus). However, note that the catamaran is definitely not cheap so it might end up relatively expensive.
Another option would be to also rent a car so you can access the park from different sides and explore other parts that are not on the main circuit such as Mirador del Condor or the Laguna Azul.
We hope you enjoyed our little tips and tricks and we definitely wish you a nice visit in the Torres del Paine national park. Let us know how it went for you.