In January of 2020, we traveled through Southwest Patagonia. Our original plan included the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park, El Calafate, El Chalten, and Los Antiguos.
However, we found a really great last minute Antarctica deal and had to trim the itinerary around the dates of the cruise, resulting in the omission of El Chalten and Los Antiguos.
If we were to make a change with our limited schedule, we would probably visit El Chalten instead of El Calafate because it is slightly less touristy and there are more hiking opportunities. The only main attraction in El Calafate is a VERY expensive tour of the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is pretty, but very overpriced.
For ideas on where to visit before Southwest Patagonia, read our blog: Seven Days in East Coast Patagonia.
- IVA Tax: In both Argentina and Chile, foreigners do not pay the IVA tax on hotels IF they pay with a foreign credit card. However, we have found that you must DEMAND that you not pay the IVA. Most hostels and hotels, no matter how friendly, will try to boost their rate by not mentioning it. Additionally, if you pay with a card, expect that they will offer their own made up conversion rate to boost the cost as well. We have usually found it impossible to argue against this one…
- Exchange Rates: In Argentina, Western Union continued to have the best exchange rate (see previous posts for explanation of the blue dollar); however, in Chile, your best bet will be to use a no foreign transaction fee credit card when possible. ATMs are plentiful, but they all charge a hefty fee for each withdrawal and limit you to 200,000 pesos (~$250 US). Note that many hostels will only accept cash, especially in smaller towns, so you should always have some cash.
- Expect everything to be more expensive than it says in online resources, even direct websites for activities, museums, etc. With recent inflation, costs have risen across the board in both Argentina and Chile. And…Patagonia is EXPENSIVE.
- Border Crossing: Some people have been surprised at how often we’ve chosen to cross the border thinking it would be difficult. It is not; the bus drivers are all helpful and will guide passengers swiftly through the process (unlike in Paraguay!). The only major downside is getting your passport filled too quickly. Transitioning to Chile is usually more difficult as they do not allow any produce, meat, or cheese across their border, so choose your bus snacks wisely. Additionally, they will give you a slip of paper labeled “PDI.” You need to keep this and turn it in when you exit the country.
- In Argentina, Spanish speakers use the “sh” sound for “y” and “ll.” In Chile, they use the “y” sound for “y” and “ll.” When traveling back and forth, it can become confusing to code switch this linguistic difference.
In Argentina and Chile, you will need a power converter. We travel with a Universal Converter and have found it helpful everywhere.
10:00am Cerro de la Cruz
11:00am Palacio Sara Braun
12:00pm Museo Regional de Magallanes
2:30pm Tax Free Zone
We arrived in Punta Arenas from Ushuaia on an unavoidable 12 hour daytime bus. We chose to stop here instead of continuing on to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, to break up the bus rides.
We also thought that a larger town would have better supply options for our trek. However, Puerto Natales actually has several grocery stores and more gear stores than Punta Arenas. It is also more accessible because it is smaller.
Punta Arenas is still a very cute town and we enjoyed our short visit. We stayed at the recommended Hostel Ayelen, which offers a good breakfast and is close to both the buses and a grocery store.
To explore the city, you only need a few hours. We began our day with a walk up to the Cerro de la Cruz for views of the city and Strait of Magellan.
Afterwards, we headed towards the Plaza de Armas for visits to a couple of the local museums starting with the Palacio Sarah Braun. Sarah Braun was a controversial but successful Latvian business woman in Punta Arenas. Her house is one of the most beautiful and well kept buildings in the city.
We also attempted to visit the Regional Museum, but it was closed for repairs. At the time of our visit, the Chilean protests that began in October, 2019 were still going strong. It is unclear if the museum was closed for normal renovations or if there had been damage.
The museum is not far from the Costanera that runs several statue lined miles along the Strait of Magellan if you care for a walk to build up an appetite!
The food in Punta Arenas is quite good, but pricey. Expect to pay western prices while visiting Chile! Below is a King Crab stew. It was GOOD!
Everyone told us that we should go shop in the Tax Free Zone for any gear and food we needed for our trip. There are a few outdoor stores and Walmart like stores in the ZonAustral. The best way to get there is in a Collectivo (number 15, 20, or 21). These cars are like UberPools only they stay on the same route all day. You hail one, tell the driver you want to go to the “Zona Franca,” and pay them 500 pesos a person.
We actually didn’t end up finding any gear we needed in the gear stores, but bought a few food items in Sanchez and Sanchez, supplementing the rest of our needs at the Unimarc Supermarket near our hostel. We were able to find sufficient options for backpacking, though no dehydrated premade meals or anything.
For breakfasts, we bought peanut butter, tortillas, and granola.
10:00am Check Out/Walk to Bus Terminal
11:00am Bus to Puerto Natales
2:00pm Arrive in Puerto Natales/Walk to El Patagonico
Afternoon: Prep for W Circuit
As mentioned in Day 1, we took the bus to Punta Arenas, but half wished we had just traveled another 3 hours onto Puerto Natales to prepare for our W Trek.
Buses leave every hour from Punta Arenas, but we took a late morning bus to give us time to rest before our trek. The ride was pleasant with beautiful views!
Upon arrival in town, we walked the short distance from the bus terminal to El Patagonico Hostel. Most hostels in town are set up to serve visitors to the Torres del Paine National Park. We had read good reviews about this hostel being especially helpful, especially in offering luggage storage while on the W Trek. The hostel also offers gear rental for reasonable rates. However, the breakfast is terrible (so plan to buy something to give yourself a good energy boost before your trek) and the clerk will try to charge you IVA and uses the conversion rate scam to boost rates (but that’s pretty much everywhere).
After checking in, we explored the town, discovering that nearly every other store was a gear store!
We also went to the Unimarc Supermarket again to get a few more things. The line should have been our first clue as to how busy the W Trek would be! Actually, though, supermarkets in South America always seem to be busy with long lines. Most people go to the store daily for a few things instead of weekly like we tend to do in the states.
For dinner in Puerto Natales, we highly recommend Kawesqar Cafe! The food was soooo good and the prices were soooo reasonable! We tried Guanaco (Llama) and barbeque!
In lieu of including a full itinerary here, please consult this W Trek guide that we successfully used this to plan our five day trip.
A Few Pro-Tips:
- YOU SHOULD reserve your campsites about 6 months ahead, especially if you plan to be there during the high season like we were. There is always the possibility of last minute openings at the refugios, but if you’re going all that way – why risk it?
- The refugios are pretty darn fancy, like little villages. Most of them have Wifi, showers, flush toilets, a bar, and a restaurant! Some even have stores to buy food and gear. This is not a wilderness experience.
- Expect CROWDS. There are MANY MANY people hiking the W and O treks. Because the trail is accessible to all experience levels, you will find a lot of variety in the types of folks you meet – from UL backpackers, to those with heavy rental gear, to some (amazingly) carrying tote bags and full sized pillows in their arms…
- Even using the guide linked above, you will not find accurate information on distances between refugios. In Patagonia, they love to measure distance with time, which is far from helpful for fast thru-hikers like us. Below, we will give our hiking times for each day’s hike compared to the suggested time estimates so you can have a better idea of range.
- You can rent camping gear in Puerto Natales or at the refugios (more expensive). We highly recommend renting a tent, even if you have your own. Our Big Agnes Tiger Wall got trashed by the wind!
W Trek Day One:
We took the earliest bus to the park at 7:00am, stopping at the entrance around 9:00am to purchase tickets, a confusing process. Tip: ask for help!
Next, we got back on the bus to continue through the park to Pudeto to catch a catamaran across the lake. Pro-tip: when we got there, everyone was crowded at the wooden structure by the road but the dock is behind the building down a trail. If there during high season, expect to cram into the boat with dozens of others. We all fit, but there was a sense of panic in the air about getting left behind.
The ride across the turquoise lake takes about 30-45 minutes.
The boat lands at Paine Grande Refugio. Some people stayed here and others continued with us towards Refugio Grey. The hike to Refugio Grey is suggested to take 4 hours. We completed it in 2.5 with a break for lunch.
The path along this section is not particularly strenuous, though there is a muddy section with some scrambling. It is VERY WINDY with views of Grey Glacier as you approach the refugio.
We were quite surprised at how developed the refugio was when we arrived! They have a bar, restaurant, hotel, market, kitchen, hot showers, and toilets…
There are also dozens of permapitched tents that you can rent from the refugio.
By the time we had pitched our tent, it was still only 2pm, so we explored a small side trail to a mirador of the glacier and sat staring at icebergs for a while.
For dinner, we mixed instant potatoes with our mystery meat and it was pretty good!
W Trek Day Two:
On our second morning, we left our gear and climbed a trail towards the Paso Ranger Station, though we only went to a mirador just past the second of three suspension bridges (based on recommendations from fellow hikers). Along this fairly steep path, we got an opportunity to see the glacier a little bit closer. This hike took us about 1:45 hours roundtrip.
The worst part of the W Trek is that, if you stick to the traditional schedule, you just retrace the same path you take on the first day. However, today the sun was out more so the hike looked a little different! The return hike took about 2.5 hours with a break for lunch.
We reached the Paine Grande Refugio around noon and were very excited to have arrived first and found a tent site near the kitchen with a wind guard… Pro-Tip: The wind guards do nothing because the wind changes direction! Your best best at this campground (known as the tent graveyard) is to get as close to the side of the mountains as you can huddled among other tents.
With basically an entire afternoon still ahead of us, we took a trail leading around the lake for some afternoon views.
When we returned, it was happy hour in the bar, so we got ourselves some pricey pisco sours before joining the other campers in the eating area for our dinner.
I wish that was the end of day 2, but it’s not! Our poor choice of tent site, the insanely bad winds, and an already compromised tent pole resulted in a late night tent trashing! Our primary pole broke and tore a hole in our rain fly…while it was raining! Fortunately, the kind folks at the refugio let us crawl into one of their cozy, empty permapitched tents!
W Trek Day Three:
After a terrible night’s sleep worrying if we’d have to quit without a tent, we woke early to consult with the refugio staff about our options. They were very helpful, providing us with repair materials, but also making arrangements for us to stay in rental tents for our final two nights!
While we did manage to repair our tent to “it’ll probably work” status, we weren’t willing to put it to the test in the famous Torres winds again…
After packing up, we set out for what many consider to be the most difficult day of the W Trek. It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the base of the Mirador Britanico hike, 3.5 hours to climb up and back, then another hour to hike to Refugio Los Cuernos, where we camped for the evening.
We hardly remember the first part of the day: lake views with subtle ups and downs?
The real gem of the day is the climb to the Mirador Britanico.
Most people leave their packs at the base of the climb. We opted not too because we still wanted our water bladders and snacks.
Note that the trail is fairly steep and thin, with lots of congestion…so expect to get annoyed at times waiting on slower people to let you pass.
On the way to the top, we saw glaciers and Caracara birds.
The rest of the day was also quite pretty, especially as you approach the Los Cuernos Refugio and walk along a lake shore!
W Trek Day Four:
This was the shortest day! It took us only 2 hours to hike from Los Cuernos to Chileno Refugio. In hindsight, we might have considered making this a 4 day hike with an afternoon summit of the Towers instead of a sunrise hike the next day because we had way too much extra time!
The trail, though muddy, was super diverse though with views of lakes, meadows, canyons, and rivers!
Though, it is also possible to take one of their horse taxis!
We began our sunrise hike to the base of the towers around 3:45am and we reached the top by 5:30am, in plenty of time for the sunrise around 6am.
The trail is a little steep and some people got lost, though there are reflectors along the way to guide you in the dark with your headlamp. Once you’re at the top, there is a lot of space to spread out and enjoy the sunrise from the boulders. We tucked down in between some large boulders for some protection from the wind. It was cold!
After our hike, we returned to camp, packed up, and walked down the mountain to the visitor’s center where we took a shuttle back to the entrance. From there, we took a bus back to Puerto Natales, where we returned to Kawesqar Cafe for some more delicious barbecue!
6:30am Check Out/Breakfast/Walk to Bus Station
7:30am Bus to El Calafate
2:15pm Arrive in El Calafate/Walk to Lodging and Check In
4:00pm Reserva Laguna Nimez
Much of the day was spent on a bus ride from Puerto Natales to El Calafate. The buses here continue to be comfortable and are generally on time, though border crossings can be unpredictable if busy. Today’s transition to Argentina went smoothly.
El Calafate is a very small, cute, touristy town. We stayed at an Airbnb a little outside of town on a dirt road where street dogs escorted us to and fro for our entire stay.
The only other major site in El Calafate is the Reserva Laguna Nimez, a bird sanctuary. Here, we walked around and enjoyed learning about a variety of local birds, such as the Southern Lapwing and Patagonian Flamingos!
After our visit, we bought groceries to make dinner at our Airbnb and get ready for an early morning visit to the Perito Moreno Glacier.
7:30am Pick Up for MiniTrekking Tour
5:00pm Return from Tour
We note this above and reiterate it here: we were not wholly impressed with the benefit-cost ratio of our visit to Perito Moreno. It’s quite an expensive endeavor! At the cheapest, you can pay $50 for a bus to take you to the main visitor’s center for views of the glacier, but any extended visitation costs big bucks.
We did decide to shell out for the MiniTrekking Tour on the glacier that includes a 2 hour bus to the park, a boat ride, and a 1.5 hour guided walk on the glacier (but not the entrance fee for the park). We debated between this and the Big Ice Trek, that includes 4 hours of glacier trekking, but ultimately found it to be too cost prohibitive.
We still enjoyed our day immensely though! The guide was informative and charming; the glacier was stunning; and the people were friendly and fun.