Torres Del Paine ‘O Loop’ in 4.5 days
Despite what others tell you, it can be done.
But is that enough time to fully savor the park?
Torres Del Paine is one of the great natural treasures on the face of this planet, and a friend and I recently had the great pleasure of experiencing it. The Torres were the first stop in our Patagonian expedition, which was all too short, and wanting to do as much of Patagonia as possible in the two and a half weeks that we had, we opted to try and do the famous ‘O-loop’ as quickly as it could be reasonably accomplished while still enjoying the trekking and scenery. Turns out this was roughly 4.5 days.
The reason I’m writing this article is because every website and guidebook I've seen claims it can hardly be accomplished in 8 days. Estimates range from 7 (at the very fastest, for expert hikers) to 12 for less experienced folks, which seems a little much for some 65 or so miles. So if you, my reader, are like me from a couple weeks back, sure in your abilities but uncertain about the seeming unknown unknown driving expert hikers and guidebook-writers to assert this trek needs at least 8 days, rest assured that this trek is doable in the amount of time you would usually budget for 65 miles. In fact we met some folks who were trying to do it in 4 days, and judging by their speed, I’m sure they made it. A guide at Hotel Las Torres told us “se puede correr en 3 dias” (3 days, if you run). That said, after the trek, we both wished we could have had the time to take all 8+ days to fully savor the awesome majesty of the Paine. Unlike many other treks on which you might want to move quickly, this trail has an extraordinary density of beautiful landscapes which each deserve one of those special moments of appreciation of one’s place in the universe, meaning that you should consider that, although you, dear reader, likely can do the trek in 4 days, you may want to budget 8.
If that’s all the information you needed, you can stop reading here. The rest of this article is dedicated to chronicling our trek and a few pieces of advice for how to tackle this trek, especially if you want to take it fast, as we did.
Day 0: The Torres
Torres Del Paine (Towers of Blue) is a national park wrapped around these 3 towers overlooking the lake. ‘Paine’ means blue in the old language spoken by the tribes which used to inhabit these lands.
First things first. Let me introduce the main characters of this epic voyage:
Masha (left) and I (right) met some time ago and share a temperament for doing wild, unexpectedly awesome things. Sometime in October of 2014, I asked “Want to go to Patagonia at the end of the year?” So then we went.
When I said we did the O in 4.5 days, I wasn't being entirely forthcoming. We arrived at Hotel Las Torres on Day -1, hiked up to the Torres and back down for a day hike (without our packs) on Day 0, and embarked on the loop on Day 1, returning around noon on day 5, making for a 4.5 day loop, but 5.5 days of hiking in the park. That’s how I recommend doing it.
The loop can’t really be accomplished in any number of ways because there are only 8 Refugio (campsite) locations which you are restricted to, and all but one charge about $10/person/night (in Chilean Pesos) for a patch of dirt, and access to a sink and a toilet. So deciding on a trekking plan amounts to picking refugios, and a direction (it’s traditionally done counter- clockwise, but we ended up doing it clockwise).
As with most beautiful places the world has learned about, Torres Del Paine is undergoing a transformation from a pristine nature preserve into a tourist attraction, which you can sort of tell from this map. Although the actual park is protected, the area around it is owned by folks who have been rapidly developing the land, adding luxury hotels and roads between them, carving into the landscape. By California standards, it’s still quite protected, but native Chileans are quite divided over it. Evidence of the environmental degradation is sparse, but it’s there: the wilderness around the trails is oftentimes trampled, and the trail from Las Torres to Serón is an actual dirt road. Additionally, all the forest around Las Guardas was burnt down during a fire two years back, when some tourists decided to cook dinner outside of a refugio. We contributed to these processes which are changing this part of the world, which was an uncomfortable reality while we were there.
Day 1: Las Torres — Campamento Italiano
I’ve done quite a bit of hiking in my time, and Masha is more of a greenhorn, so I did most of the planning, and I packed for any old week-long trip in the wilderness. Everyone’s got a packing/trekking style, and mine is as follows:
- Only pack 1 pair of clothes, with 1 layer for each conceivable climate.* (Now you know why I’m always wearing the same shirt in all the photos)
- *The above rule does not apply to underwear. Pack #of days trekking amount of underwear. Masha ended up borrowing a few pairs.
- Oatmeal for breakfast, clif bars throughout the day, freeze-dried food for dinner (Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry). Keep food light.
I also have a pathology of never actually reading about the places I go to, because it makes for more of an adventure. That means there were some… unexpected parts of Patagonia which I discovered and had to deal with.
Probably the first thing that I under-prepared for became apparent pretty quickly: Patagonia, especially the southern Chilean part, is kind of windy.
The second, is that, since the water is glacial, it’s also quite cold, meaning that sadly, swimming is inadvisable. This was the furthest I got in the water:
And afterwards I had cold feet.
The trail is pretty good. It’s rather thin in most parts, but all too often there were many thin parallel trails which had been blazed because there were just too many people hiking to fit on one path—more evidence of tourism run amok. And the trail is full of people, all the time; mostly white, mostly American, crossing one another pausing each of their English conversations to greet one another in Spanish before switching back to English.
Another silly thing about the people you find on the trek: nearly everyone is hiking with two poles. That’s because, it would seem, one of the few extensive reviews of this trek (before this one) online strongly recommends them. We have no other explanation for why nearly every single hiker we met was sporting a pair of poles, which we found to be entirely unnecessary.
Since you’re walking around a bunch of snowy mountains, there were many rivers leading into the surrounding lakes, each of which has an an associated crossing. At best, a bridge would cross the ravine.
We arrived pretty late at the Campamento Italiano, and the weather was turning for the worse. We ate our first meal of freeze-dried Pesto Salmon Pasta (which would soon become a staple of ours) with some helpful Israelis, pitched tent, and went to bed.
Day 2: Italiano—Refugio Grey
We woke up under cold rain and strong winds on day 2, and this was the first time that I considered the possibility we were under-prepared, and I was responsible. We packed up and had a breakfast of oatmeal. Our plan had been to hike up the Valle Frances (French Valley) with day packs, and then hike back down to Italiano for lunch. We went to the bridge overlooking the river which passes by the campamento, and peered into the Valle Frances.
And decided to skip it.
Quite soon, we were in the clear, in nice weather, in a beautiful part of the park. We didn’t actually see the Valle Frances, which is said to be one of the most beautiful parts of the park, but it turns out they had closed it due to the conditions, and the itinerary we had set out for ourselves that day was a little ambitious anyhow, so we made our way further south.
We rounded the corner at Pehoé and turned northwards towards Grey. Anticipation grew as we approached the Glaciar. We stopped many times for photos along the way. Masha caught site of her first icebergs and each one from then on deserved a photoshoot.
And then we finally made it to the Glaciar.
Settling down for the night at Grey, we reached a sort of state of exuberance. The Glaciar, the mountains, good food, and one another made the entire experience magical, made the entire thing worth it. It’s that feeling that just makes you laugh out loud with joy.
For all the folks who go on trips, here are my food recommendations:
- Get a JetBoil. They’re stupid expensive but worth every penny. They elegantly pack all the necessary parts to boil 2 cups of water in 1 minute.
- Freeze-Dried food, particularly Mountain House and Backpacker’s Pantry, are the best thing to happen to backpackers. The meals are delicious, and best of all: modular. They keep forever too, so I usually buy them long in advance and whenever I pack for a trip I just grab a few tasty sounding options from my garage.
- Leave the mess-kit at home. Just bring sporks, and eat out of the Freeze-Dried bag. No cleanup necessary.
Our tent was a Marmot Sanctum, which I’ve owned for decades. It could have done better, but did pretty well overall, all things considered. It’s a wonderful tent, and Marmot in particular makes really quality tents.
After dinner we meandered to the mirador (the lookout) and watched the glacier for a while, which was still fully illuminated. The sun sets around 11pm in this part of the world and rises at 4am. This makes for long days of hiking, and we usually settled down in a campamento at 8pm.
The following day, we would attempt the Pass, which is the crux of this trek. It was actually a lot harder than we expected it to be.
Day 3: Grey — Los Perros (The Pass)
The day started well, as we walked parallel to the Glaciar all morning. The previously well maintained bridges devolved into sketchy ladders towards midmorning,
The trails worsened a fair bit for this section of the trek, for two reasons I can think of: 1. We had completed the W (minus the Valle Frances) which meant that less than half of the people who come here to hike actually walk through this section of the park. 2. Those who do select to do the whole O are the more adventurous sort, so don’t fuss as much over these things.
The trails grew much steeper climbing the pass, unmarked at the top, and extremely muddy on the way back down the other side. For those of you doing the loop forwards, it will be those same conditions in reverse.
After a great deal of struggle, and some very steep climbs, we arrived at the top of the pass, on one of the most beautiful days Torres Del Paine has had in years. It was a transformative moment. The most beautiful view I’ve ever seen, and likely will ever see. A truly once-in-a-lifetime moment.
Crossing over the top of the pass, the landscape became a desert, but we made our way down into the valley below towards Campamento Los Perros. Masha hurt her knee here a little taking a fall, and we were low on water, but we soon made it down to the tree line, and things got better.
We were tired and it was treacherous, but we made it in the end. We settled down to sleep in the supposedly mosquito-dense back side of the Park.
Now you may have heard about this. According to the internet, this place is full of mosquitoes and the sites exhort you to carry hardcore DEET. We found those warnings to be rather overblown, though we did DEET up, making it hard to tell how bad the mosquitoes would have been without it. In California, in the Sierra Nevada, there are places where no matter how much DEET you wear, the mosquitoes will get their share of blood from you. These mosquitoes were a different matter entirely, not aggressive at all, just passively assured that they would win in the end, when you weren't paying attention, and indeed, we finished the trail each with a few bites, but not many.
Day 4: Los Perros — Serón
This day was roughly 20 miles of walking, but mostly flat. At this point we had worked out all our gear issues, and were deeply set in a very good rhythm, so those 20 miles, although tiring, were entirely within our grasp.
Camp Dickson is the next on the trail from Perros, and we stopped here for lunch. Some folks came out to talk to us, and we came to realize how knowledgeable we had become about this trek, and they asked for a lot of advice we were able to provide (inspiring this article), though they were somewhat aghast at how quickly we were hiking.
Now, a word about the backside: It isn't quite as scenic as the front side, there’s no doubt. It was missing that extraordinary density of beauty which I described earlier. But the W misses the pass, and the overlook of the Glaciar Grey, which was the most beautiful part. The tall grasses and lush valley also make for a nice contrast to the desertic wilderness of the southern front side. It was raining for this part of our trip, as it often does in Patagonia, which was nice.
The weather in Patagonia is unpredictable. Don’t trust anything you see online, but trust the weather forecast they have at the hotel (printed out), but don’t even put too much stock in that. With fast winds right by the ocean, conditions can change quite quickly. It rained on and off all day, and when I say on and off I mean we had 5–10 minutes of rain every half hour for the entire 20 hour day.
By the end of this day, we arrived to a field of white flowers, as far as the eye could see, and finally stumbled into Serón around 8pm.
Day 5: Serón—Las Torres
We woke up early this morning to get started on the last leg of our trek, and walked further through this seemingly infinite field of flowers, until it led us back to Hotel las Torres. We were glad to be back, but as with most of these trips, it was bittersweet—the trek was over.
As we left for the bus station, a couple miles out of Hotel las Torres, we turned back before leaving this place and took one last look at the park we had circumnavigated. And we saw this.
For those of you considering a trip to this part of the world, I strongly recommend it.