Paine Circuit GuideSurvive
Patagonia is famed for its breathtaking landscapes, and this trek, which circumnavigates the very heart of the Torres Del Paine National Park, is no exception. Littered with astonishing vistas of towering granite peaks, turquoise lakes and immense glaciers that disappear into the horizon, the Paine Circuit should be close to the top of everyone’s list. Ever-changing weather patterns, scenery and terrain make this a rewarding and versatile trek that won’t disappoint.
Incorporating the shorter and more populous W Trek, the Paine Circuit (or ‘O Trek’) is the W’s longer, wilder big brother. Covering around 130km, this moderately challenging route circumnavigates the Paine massif, and winds through dry steppes, dense forests, highland moors and mountain passes.
My trekking partner Toby and I visited in mid-March – towards the end of the trekking season – in an effort to avoid the potential crowds of the W and to dodge the worst of the infamous Patagonian winds that are at their strongest during midsummer. The region is known for its capricious weather, and in fact the National Park was closed for the two days prior to our arrival on account of 110kmph winds that had made it too dangerous for the buses carrying trekkers to enter the park. That said, we were incredibly fortunate during our actual trek, and barely needed to rely on the wet and cold-weather gear that we’d packed. Depending on your pace and the unpredictable weather, the circuit takes around 8 – 10 days. We completed it in 9, and walked it in an anticlockwise direction, thereby saving the Torres Del Paine – the granite towers from which the park gets its name – for our final day.
Day 1: Guardería Laguna Amarga to Campamento Serón
20km – 5hrs
Our first day marked one of the longest (and flattest) stretches of the circuit. With bags heavy on our backs, to our left the immense Cordillera Paine towered over the prairie, partly shrouded in cloud and bisected by a faint rainbow that appeared just as we set off. Feeling the first enlightening sensation of wildness and solitude – as if we were the only ones for miles around – we yell at the top of our voices, happy to finally be on the trail with its challenges and surprises still ahead of us.
The path leads us north to the banks of the Rio Paine. Its cloudy, bright turquoise waters tumble down through small rapids below us. The incredible colour of the water is due to ‘glacial milk’ – the phrase given to the mixing of rock silt with glacial meltwater. It’s a phenomenon we’ll become well accustomed to seeing by the end of the trek, but it won’t become any less alluring.
The Rio Paine remains within earshot, if sometimes out of sight, and the path ducks in and out of patches of ñirre woodland (the southernmost tree found on Earth) before emerging onto wide, golden grassy river flats with the beautiful Campamento Serón tucked into the side of the valley a few kilometres ahead.
Day 2: Campamento Serón to Refugio Lago Dickson
20km – 8hrs
The blue skies and warm weather that saw us through our first day greet us as we awake on our second. After some camp stove coffees, we pack up and continue up the valley in the rich morning light. Before long the trail curves away from the river and climbs westward around the tiny horseshoe-shaped Laguna Alejandra. The path steepens and the heat of the morning starts to take its toll. Where are those strong Patagonian winds to cool us down? As it turns out, they’re waiting for us just over the brow of the hill.
Reaching the top, we’re taken aback not only by the gusting Patagonian winds, but also the breathtaking panorama of Lago Paine hundreds of metres below us. We can make out the distant shores of Lago Dickson – our camp for the night – framed by a wall of jagged peaks at the western end of the valley some 12km away. This new perspective fills me with the first real sense of the immense scale of this beautifully rugged corner of the world.
Day 3: Refugio Lago Dickson to Campamento Los Perros
9km – 5hrs
I awake on the third day feeling the aches and strains from the previous two. My pack seems bulkier as I heave it onto my back and my legs feel heavy. There’s dense cloud cover overhead and the cool air is a welcome change.
Today’s route takes us almost entirely under canopy cover, first winding its way south through dense, young woodland, still heavy with dew, before turning west into Valle de Los Perros and opening up into much taller lenga forest. Ahead of us lies the wildest and most remote part of the circuit. Aside from our own footsteps, drumming woodpeckers and the fast-flowing waters of the Rio de los Perros are the only things our ears can pick out.
Day 4: Campamento Los Perros to Campamento Paso
12km – 5hrs (680m ascent, 800m decent)
The distance between Los Perros and Paso campsites isn’t very far, but in order to reach Campamento Paso we must cross Paso John Garner. At 1,241m, it’s the highest point on the Paine Circuit and also the most exposed. But crossing the pass from east to west, as we are, trekkers are rewarded with their first astonishing views of Grey Glacier, vast and ancient.
We chase our shadows up through the thin early-morning mist to the top of the pass. By the time we reach its crest the weather has turned and the strong winds and snow leave us little choice but to press on and find shelter on the other side. In the past I’ve shied away from using trekking poles, but I’d strongly recommend them for the Paine Circuit. They proved invaluable on several occasions, no more so than when zigzagging down the slippery western side of Paso John Garner.
After emerging from a lush evergreen forest of coigüe we stop for lunch at a clearing with expansive views of Grey Glacier. At over 30m high and 28km long the glacier makes up part of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field, the second largest of its kind in the world and a remnant of the last ice age. This thought is still tumbling around my head later that evening. Since that ice age ended, some 12,000 years ago, almost all of human history has played out around it; civilisations have risen and fallen as it has slowly carved its way south. Not only is Grey Glacier vast in the space it occupies, but it embodies an expanse of time too, stretching almost endlessly into the past.
Day 5: Campamento Paso to Grey Glacier
10km – 31/2 hrs
The highlight of the fifth day comes in the form of two long wooden footbridges, strung across deep gorges. Bringing to mind a scene from Indiana Jones, they aren’t crossings for those with a fear of heights, but add an exciting element to the already incredible setting. With the soaring jagged peaks of the Cordón Olguin mountain range to our left, and the icy crevasses of Grey Glacier to our right, we walk through rocky woodland, halfway between the sky and prehistory.
Day 6: Grey Glacier to Lago Pehoe
11km – 4hrs
A short while out of camp the trees thin into an open hillside and we find ourselves passing through a graveyard of dead trees, left blackened and burnt by fire. On several occasions since the 1980s, trekkers have lit open campfires that – with the help of the strong Patagonian winds – have left large swathes of the Park’s woodland burnt and charred. As a result, open fires are now banned throughout the park and camping is only permitted in the designated campsites.
Day 7: Lago Pehoe to Valle de Frances
21km – 7hrs
We make the 7km to Campamento Italiano in good time, our legs very much worn-in after a week on the trail. This first section of the day skirts the small Lago Skottsberg before cutting northwards. The terrain is relatively flat, and is made up of a combination of gravel paths and duckboards. We set up our tent, take in some food, and leave our big packs behind for the middle leg of the W route: the ascent to the cwm at the head of Valle del Francés. Whilst the Valle can be considered a side trip, and the Paine Circuit can technically be completed without it, it would be criminal to skip it. Around a four-hour round trip, the valley offers unbeatable panoramas of the back side of the Cuernos Del Paine to the east, that curve around and merge into the head of the valley wall that ends in the colossal Paine Grande. Looking south, the aquamarine waters of the Lago Nordenkjöld glimmer in the afternoon sun. We are in a cathedral of rock, dwarfed by its size, humbled by its spectacle.
Day 8: Campamento Italiano to Campamento Las Torres
27km – 10hrs
We set off early and emerge out of the camp’s woodland not long after sunrise into a crystal-clear morning. Ahead of us lies the longest and most diverse section of the trek: we take in the almost Mediterranean-looking shores of Lago Nordenkjöld, cross golden prairies dotted with horses, and weave through forests of lenga trees before finally ascending along the precipitous edge of Valle Ascencio. About an hour before reaching Campamento Las Torres, we stop briefly at Albergue El Chileno – a large wooden refugio tucked into a bend in the river. Toby notes how arriving at this beautiful spot in the blazing afternoon sun feels like being a tired hobbit walking into Rivendell. After treating ourselves to a couple of celebratory beers, we make the final climb through patchy ñirre forest to the campsite. Awaiting us in the morning is the final leg of the trek and the jewel of the park: the Torres del Paine.
Day 9: The Torres Del Paine
1km – 1hr
Our alarms buzz at 6.00am. In the darkness, we leave the tent with head torches on and set off up the steep, rocky path towards one of the most famous and magnificent views in Patagonia. The sky is clear, and up here the air still carries a chill from the night. Reaching the lookout, I take a seat in this great amphitheatre of granite, and watch as the dawn light falling across the soaring towers of rock slowly changes. As soon as the sun crests the peak behind us, the towers transform from a pale blue to a fierce shade of red, as if someone has suddenly set them alight. The light slowly pours down the huge rock faces, and we’re treated to a spectacular show of nature.
Looking back on the trek from the vantage point of hindsight, I realise that watching the sunrise that morning was indeed a phenomenal sight, but the real joy of the Paine Circuit was found in the thousands of footsteps that led up to those towers; in the variety of astonishing vistas we stumbled upon; in the mercurial weather, and in all the small joys that a route like this provides. Far from quenching my thirst for visiting this captivating part of the world, the Paine Circuit has simply increased it. I can’t wait to go back.
The park entrance fee is around £20
Puerto Natales is the largest and most popular hub for accessing the park and lies 100km south of the National Park. Buses run daily between the two. The entrance to the park is located at Guardería Laguna Amarga.
Camping is only permitted within the specific campsite areas and cooking fires must be contained to gas stoves.
The best time to trek in the park is in the summer and early autumn, so from early December to late March. The park is busiest between January and February.
If you intend to stay in refugios instead of camping, it’s advised to book these in advance, particularly in the busy months
Even if you don’t normally use them, trekking poles are recommended.
Kit-wise, waterproofs, dry bags and windbreakers are a must. Wearing multiple layers that can easily be added or removed whilst walking is also advisable, and lightweight trousers or shorts are preferable to waterproof overs.
Bring cash with you – some of the larger refugios sell food and drinks that might be a welcome change from your camping provisions, or will allow you to top up if you haven’t packed enough.
The Park office provides you with a map, but be warned – it isn’t waterproof.
Full Disclosure Statement: Tom and Toby were helped on their trek by Poler Stuff and Howies.
Tom Eagar is a London-based freelance filmmaker and photographer, specialising in adventure travel, action sports and documentary. His written and photography work has been published in a variety of travel and culture publications including Boat magazine, Huck and MPORA.