Warning: This is a super long post. It’s best read on a Monday at work wishing you were anywhere else.
Hiking Patagonia is awesome. It was easily one of the top 3 coolest places I have ever been in my life. However, it’s not for the easily panicked or those who struggle with “figuring things out” while in a foreign country. If you can deal with the struggles, it’s 100% worth it for views like these:
You can get to Patagonia a number of ways but the vast majority will come through either Santiago, Chile or Buenos Aires, Argentina. We got $220 round trip flights from Washington D.C. to Santiago (thanks, Thrifty Traveler!) so that was an easy decision.
The following are notes that I wrote on my iPhone while in Chile. It’s a series of tips that we didn’t see in any of the other travel blogs that we read about getting to Torres del Paine. We read a lot of blogs about this trip but this one was the most useful: Traveling Jackie
Arriving in Santiago, Chile:
We flew Copa Airlines from Washington, D.C. to Panama City, Panama and onward to Santiago, Chile. Copa is headquartered in Panama City so any big connections through Central America will likely be on a Copa Airlines aircraft. We were really impressed with Copa. While we couldn’t understand their Spanish very well, they were on-time, had good movies [Kayla always cries watching movies, and watching on an airplane is no exception], and kept the red wine flowing. Yes, beer, wine, and liquor is always free on all Copa flights!
When you arrive in Santiago follow the signs for immigration and wait in the line for foreigners. There is no fee for U.S. citizens but Mexico and U.K. citizens pay a fee around $115 per person.
Once you clear immigration follow the signs for baggage claim and get your bag(s). You will get in another line for customs. Hand your declarations sheet to the worker and put your bags on the belt. If they don’t say anything or point and speak Spanish at you then you are good to go. Seriously…I swear they didn’t even acknowledge me as a living human being, but whatever…better than getting stopped and questioned! Grab your bags and head to the Salidas (exit).
Once you approach the exit there will be about 50 pushy taxi drivers standing there. Before you get there look for the desk to the left that has Delfos and TransVIP minibus signs. Show the person the address you want to go to. We went to our Airbnb in Recoleta and it cost us 7,500 CLP each (650CLP:1USD at the time of this post). The worker will give you a receipt and tickets and tell you what door to go to.
Once you get though the exit the taxi drivers will approach you and yell “TAXI TAXI!” at you. Ignore them or say “no gracias” and just keep walking. Don’t look into their eyes, it’s a trap!
Go outside and show your ticket to the Delfos or TransVIP worker and they will show you to your van. Show the driver your address and away you go. A typical van can fit up to seven people but it was never full the times we were in it. You don’t really know if you’ll be the first or the last to be dropped off, but it is a safe, reliable, and relatively predicable way to transport yourself from the airport to the city.
We didn’t spend a lot of time in Santiago because we aren’t too fond of big cities or smog. We did go on an amazing tour at Viña Aquitania (Consistorial 5090, Santiago) though. To get there we went to the metro station and purchased a “normal ticket” based on the time to day for about 700 CLP each. We hopped on the green line and took it ~9 stops to the Blue Line. Follow the transfer signs and go to the blue line (make sure to check which direction). You don’t have to buy another ticket. Once we got to the stop closest to the winery (Quilin) we decided to get an Uber instead of taking the bus. It was a cheap (2,000 CLP) and fast (5 minute) ride to the winery.
The tour was 10,000 CLP each for a private tour with Barbara. She was fantastic and we had a blast. Her English is superb and she is a funny and interesting woman. She also takes excellent photos!
Once the tour was done we had our “tasting” in the sunny grassy area. Tasting is a stretch. It was drinking. The tasting is 3 full glasses of wine. We had the Rosè, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They were all exceptional. We left extremely satisfied and a little buzzed.
Santiago to Punta Arenas:
You can schedule a Delfos or TransVIP pickup to go back to the airport. We had a 8am flight and didn’t want to get picked up at 4:30am so we decided to Uber instead. Uber is hit or miss at 5:30am on a Saturday. The app said 17min to pickup but a driver ended up being available 5 min away when I requested. It cost us 23,000CLP to go from Recoleta to the airport (9 miles).
Since we had some non-hiking clothes we decided to store a bag in Santiago instead of pay to bring it to Punta Arenas on Sky Air (Chile’s version of Spirit Air). The airport has 24/7 secure storage. It’s on the arrivals level near the exit, just keep heading towards the left side (as if you were leaving the airport) and you’ll see it past the cafes on the left side of the hallway. A small roller bag cost 3,000 CLP per 24hr of storage. Pay the 1st day up front and pay the rest when you pick it up. It’s manned by an employee 24/7.
The Sky Air check-in line appears to be the longest because it is the cheapest airline. Be sure to give yourself 2 hours to get checked in and through security. It took us about 1 hour 20 minutes for an 8am flight. We had time to grab a coffee and breakfast and then had 20 minutes before getting on the bus to get on the plane. Sky Air allows you to check in 48hr in advance online and choose your seats. It appears most people don’t do this because I waited until the night before and we were able to chose from a lot of open seats (but the plane was nearly full the next day). If you don’t pick your seats you’ll get random ones when you check in at the airport.
Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales:
Buy your ticket online before leaving Santiago!!! If you buy online you can stay at the airport and get picked up (it’s the last stop before going to PN). If not, you’ll have to pay for a ride to town and buy a ticket and then take the bus back to the airport when they pick people up. We had cell service so we bought a ticket from our phones but it was very slow. Buy it ahead of time, even better if you can print out the tickets in advance. Note: The buses pick up on the left side of the airport (looking outside) near the ticket counter and prayer area and seem to run about 20min late on average.
Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine:
When you arrive at the PN bus station go inside and buy your ticket to TDP. We were going the next morning so we bought the 7:30am tickets and a return ticket (it’s an open ticket for whenever you want to come back). We chose Bus Gomez but Bus Sur has nice buses as well. They have slightly different times so pick the one that works best for you.
We walked to our hostel and checked it. It really helps having cell service to use google maps. Otherwise print a map out in advance. PN is a strange town. Parts of it are really dumpy looking but we felt pretty safe overall. It is basically locals and hikers.
We went to get cash afterwards (nearly everything is cash in PN and TDP). It was a Saturday so the bank was closed. Fortunately, we found an ATM. Unfortunately, it was inside a locked door that you need to be a member of the bank to access. Someone was in there so we waited and pretended to be members so they held the door open for us when they left. Moral of the story: get cash in Santiago or Punta Arenas!
We then went to the grocery store for snacks. It was insanely busy. We got bread, salami, cheese and some snack bars to make a lunch for the next day. If you get produce you have to put it in a bag and then stand in line for a sticker with the weight/price on it. The lines for paying took 30+ minutes so make sure you get your produce sticker or you’ll be going to the back of the line.
After that we went and got dinner at Base Camp next to Erratic Rock Hostel. It’s a great little bar that has great pizza. Erratic Rock is a well know hostel because they do a “what to expect on the trail” briefing every afternoon (we didn’t make it on time). We drank beers with a few people who had just finished the W Circuit so we picked their brains and got last minute advice.
Torres Del Paine:
We were up at 5:30am and ate breakfast at our hostel. We left to walk back to the train station at 6:45 and arrived at 7:05. Buses were already there (we bought a ticket in Bus Gomez). The bus ride was about 1hr 40min to the entrance. Our bus was freezing…everyone had their down coats on with the hoods up. When you get to the park everyone gets in line to pay the fee and do the paperwork. Make sure you have your passport and money on you (not in your pack, which goes under the bus), you’ll need it and they don’t take your bags off the bus yet. Unfortunately for me, I had our cash and passports hidden in my pack…which was at the bottom of the pile since we were one of the first people on the bus. Needless to say, the bus driver wasn’t thrilled when I started pulling out all the packs to get to mine. He scolded me in Spanish and Kayla attempted to explain why we needed out packs. Learn from my mistake, keep you cash on you until you get into the park!
Once you have paid and got your ticket, you decide where you’re starting. We started in Las Torres so we got our bags and found a little van taking people to Las Torres. It was 3000 CLP per person and saves you 1.5 or 2hrs of walking on a road full of buses and vans.
If you’re staying at Torre Central (and you should, it is way nicer than Torre Norte and just as nice as the way more expensive hotel) check-in and drop your packs and take your daypacks. We were stupid and awe-struck by the mirador Torres that we walked right past Torre Central (it is on the right once you see the Refugio signs) and tried to check in at Torre Norte which apparently isn’t open in April. No one was there so we said screw it and carried our packs up to base camp and mirador las Torres. It was a good workout but you should learn from our mistake and not carry all of your gear to the top. It’s a solid 7-8 hour hike (4hrs up and 3.5hrs down) and very steep and rocky at the top. It was tougher than we expected and we made it even more difficult carrying 35lb packs. It is worth it though. The top is truly incredible but the clouds rolled in and the emerald green water looks muted when it’s not sunny.
We returned back to Torres Central Refugio and felt like idiots for walking right past it since it’s twice the size of Torre Norte. Laugh at us when you check in and drop your bags in the morning. Anyway, we got back around 6:50pm. Dinner was at 7:30pm or at 9pm (if you paid for it). It was a family-style sit-down dinner with 3 courses. It was delicious and very filling. There is also a bar with beer (Patagonia beer, yum), wine, and liquor. Beer was between 4000 and 6000CLP but it was 20% off for end of season sale! High five!
There are no power plug-ins at the Refugios to help save energy. Buy a solar battery pack and keep it on the outside of your backpack during the day to charge it. Another reason to go East to West, the sun is almost always at your back instead of in your eyes.
Las Torres to Los Cuernos:
This was an easy 4 hour hike. We took a lot of pictures and several breaks. We arrived by 1pm and chilled the rest of the day. We rented a cabin and it was awesome. However, they no longer allowed use of the wood-fired hot tub for people in the cabins. The fire risk for the park was too high. Oh well, a private cabin with a wood stove heater and skylight window looking at the mountains was worth the price! Overall, this was our favorite day of hiking. The hike itself was easy, and the views were simply amazing. The emerald green water of the lagos and mountains were awe-inspiring.
Los Cuernos to Britanico to Paine Grande:
I didn’t really take too many notes on this day. We hiked to Camp Italiano and dropped our packs and attempted to make our way to Britanico. We made it most of the way up the French Valley and then the trail simply ended. We tried a few areas that looked like trails and eventually just turned around and headed back to Italiano to get our packs before hiking to Paine Grande.
Refugio Paine Grande:
This was by-far the worst of the Refugios (although we didn’t really see the sleeping conditions at Refugio Cuernos since we had a cabin). We had had a single room which was nice but it’s bunks in a room about 9′ x 5′ so there is about 2.5ft to stand and put your crap next to the bottom bunk. There wasn’t a working heater in the rooms and the power goes out at some point and they don’t turn it back on until 6:50am. Make sure your headlamp is accessible if you’re getting up early or have to pee in the night. It would have been nice to know about the lack of power overnight when we checked in. The workers here were less friendly as well. This is owned by Vertice Patagonia vs the previous Refugios that are owned by Fantastico Sur. The bathrooms were also pretty gross here compared to the other Refugios and many people complained of lack of hot water (definitely not a problem elsewhere). We didn’t shower here, partly because the showers were nasty.
Paine Grande to Glacier Grey:
This hike was pretty easy and pretty quiet. We hit the trail early and didn’t see any other hikers until we were about 4km from Refugio Grey. Glacier Grey is beautiful but we didn’t have a lot of time to spend here since we were taking the ferry back that afternoon. I wish we could have done the glacier hiking or kayaking but it wasn’t worth another night in the expensive refugios.
We took the ferry from Paine Grande which takes you back to the buses and then back to Puerto Natales. People will start to get in line by the dock an hour before the ferry is supposed to leave. It only holds about 50-60 people so make sure you get in line if you’re on the last ferry of the day. You pay cash once you get on the ferry. The bus leaving TDP were the opposite of the bus to TDP…this one was about 90 degrees. Kcocch can share her experience on the bus some other time!
Overall, Torres del Paine was everything we hoped it would be. It was simply amazing in so many ways that are hard to describe. Chile itself was ok, but nothing overly special. Patagonia made this trip incredible. If I could do it all over again, I would stay in the Patagonia region for the entire time and explore some other parks like El Calafate and and El Chalten.