6 Tips: How to Trek Torres del Paine’s W Trek or O Circuit at the Last Minute

The wonderful, the fabulous, the marvelously famous Torres del Paine

So you waited too long to book your accommodation along the W Trek or O Circuit in Torres del Paine and now it’s sold out. Your dream of visiting the fantasmagorical wonders of Grey Glacier, the French Valley, and of course, the Torres themselves are shattered, right? WRONG! I made reservations to hike the entire O circuit for three people just TWO WEEKS before our trip into the park. This post is aimed to show how you, too, can experience the majesty of the W Trek or O Circuit at the eleventh hour.

Let me start off by saying that this isn’t a manual to the O or the W. There are countless guides and advice posts out there. One that I have found that is comprehensive and helpful is Adventure Alan’s post on the matter.

The overall theme of these tips is that you will need to be flexible. The good news is that if you’re planning last-minute, chances are you’re rather flexible. The more time you have to spend in Patagonia, and the more nebulous your itinerary, the easier it will be to book a trek last-minute. To put an itinerary together, you may need to stay in a refugio one night when you’ll be carrying a tent for the others, and that’s ok (so long as you don’t mind paying a little extra). Fortunately, we were able to hike the entire O Circuit without having to mix accommodation types. I’ll admit we may have been lucky, but it’s entirely possible that your ideal trip WILL work out!

Most of you already know, but Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is much more than just the W or the O, and if none of these tips sound good/work for you, I would highly recommend going anyway. There are plenty of lookouts/hikes/camps that you can visit and still have a wonderful time in this extraordinary place. Pehoé camp offers remarkable views of the Cuernos del Paine and Paine Grande massif, and Serrano camp is just a short car ride away from some great day hikes.

On to the tips!

1. Check for availability every day

There are cancellations practically every day, so pounce on them! This is what I did, and after about a week and a half of searching, I was finally able to put our O Circuit reservations together.

There are THREE websites that you have to navigate to see availability and make reservations: Vertice, Fantástico Sur, and CONAF. Luckily, necessity is the mother of invention, and someone created a site (TorresApp.com) that aggregates availability for all of the refugios and campsites! Start your search at this website to see an overview of availability across multiple dates and locations. It cannot perform bookings and is usually 12-24 hours delayed, so once you have a possible itinerary it is necessary to visit each reservation site individually to confirm availability and book.

A word on the nuances of this site: Fantástico Sur and CONAF results are displayed with an accurate number of beds and campsites available while Vertice is displayed as one or nothing. It’s possible Vertice has eight spots available, but you will only see a “1” on the aggregator.

When you’re ready to make a booking, navigate to the appropriate website:

  • Fantástico Sur: Controls booking for Serón, Francés, Cuernos, Central, and Chileno.
  • Vertice: Controls booking for Dickson, Los Perros, Grey, and Paine Grande.
  • CONAF: Chile’s National Forest Service. Controls booking for Campamento Paso, Italiano, and Torres (when open, Torres was closed the season we went, 2018-19).

The general availability of the sites (from what I have seen) are as follows:

  • Best Availability: Serón and Dickson, hands down. Especially true if you have your own tent, as there is a lot of space. Los Perros is a close third. Central almost always seems to have beds available in the refugio, but is sparse on camping.
  • Erratic availability: Francés, Cuernos, Grey, and Paine Grande. Occasionally they will have great availability, and then there will be a span of a week where everything is booked. The vacancies of these will often determine your route and when you go. For example, if you find availability for Paine Grande on the 20th and Cuernos on the 21st, you’ll be hiking the W west-to-east and can hike the O if your schedule allows. If the only availability is Cuernos then Paine Grande, you’ll be hiking the W east-to-west and will not be able to hike the O.
  • The hardest to get: Italiano and Paso because they’re free, and Chileno because it is (currently as of Feb 2019) the closest to the Torres, making it the easiest place to catch sunrise at the viewpoint. If you can’t get any of these, don’t fret. They are close to other camps and refugios thus are not key stops along the circuit such as Dickson or Los Perros.
  • Unavailable: Torres camp, as it’s been closed for two seasons at the time of this writing.

I should note that I originally booked the W Trek due to Los Perros being booked out for 2 straight months. I had to email Vertice directly to ask about availability and it turned out that there was an error in their booking system, so the correct availability was not showing. It was only then that I was able to piece together a trip on the O. If you’re not seeing any availability at a particular camp, email Vertice, Fantástico Sur, or CONAF directly to inquire about your desired camp and date; it’s entirely possible their system has an error. Also, I have heard that checking the availability on the Spanish version of the booking sites might show extra dates. This never yielded different results for me, but very well could for you.

It’s also worth noting that if you need to change your itinerary for any reason, that Vertice does not allow changes or issue refunds within 30 days, while Fantástico Sur will accommodate any changes up to the day of, so long as you are shifting only the dates and/or locations. If you need to remove a date or cancel a booking entirely within 30 days but not less than 15 days, you’ll receive 50% back, and if you are within 14 days, you will not receive a refund.

Ultimately, if you have five minutes every day, check the aggregator to see what’s available to try and fit an itinerary together. Sometimes you might have to spend an extra night or two in one place to make it work, but if you have the time, it’s worth it.

2. Establish a base camp and go on day hikes

The imposing Paine Grande massif on a day hike through the French Valley

This really only works with the W, as you can only hike the O in one direction. Some would say that it is a less “pure” form of the W, but the W doesn’t HAVE to be done in a particular order or direction. This will still allow you to see the major sights and perform the trek, just in a slightly different manner. What’s more, you’ll be able to do it all with just your day bag!

You could make it work like this: Francés, Cuernos, and Italiano are fully booked for two weeks, so you cannot technically backpack the W, BUT Paine Grande has availability for three nights (possibly with a mix of sleeping quarters, you might need to get creative). Day 1: Arrive at Paine Grande in the morning and hike to the Grey Glacier lookout. Day 2: Trek through the French Valley to the Británico lookout and back. While a long day, it’s definitely possible. Day 3: Head to the Cuernos Refugio. Before heading back, enjoy a leisurely snack on the deck while watching for avalanches on Paine Grande. Combine your Paine Grande stay with the great availability at Central to see the Torres del Paine, and you’ve just done the W Trek! We met a couple Australians that were doing this itinerary, and it seemed to work out great for them.

3. Book a couple nights in one or two camps and inquire on future availability every day

All sorts of room in Dickson

You’ll be leaving a lot up to chance here, but there are cancellations that happen within 24 hours, leaving you the opportunity to snag the spot. You might have to hang around camp all day waiting to hear about a cancellation, but I have heard of this happening. For example, if you are in Central and there was no availability online for Cuernos, Francés, or Italiano, ask the hosts at the check-in desk if there have been any cancellations in those camps. Each check-in desk has a radio that is connected to their other sites, and in most cases, sites managed by the other organizations. If you are persistent and there is a cancellation, they will send your name to the other camp; all you need to do is grab your stuff and hit the trail! This is not a foolproof method, and there is a good chance that you may just end up spending your days in the same camp (assuming they have availability) waiting to no avail, so keep that in mind.

4. Use an agency or take a guided trip

Heading down from Paso John Gardner

Using an agency is not the cheapest option, but at the beginning of the season they will make reservations along the trek to sell to future customers, meaning it’s entirely possible that there is availability in the camps or refugios, so long as you go through them. They will also arrange all transportation to, from, and within the park. There are a few agencies around town doing this, but SWOOP Patagonia and Chile Nativo are a couple examples.

A guided tour is by far the most expensive way to do the W or the O, but if you have the dinero, it’s not a bad option if you’re trying to do them last minute. A cursory look online yields multiple availabilities within the next month (end of February through March). Some companies that give guided tours are SWOOP, Ecocamp, and Fantástico Sur, among many others. These companies offer a wide array of packages and many of them allow you to carry just a day bag and stay in the comfortable rooms of the refugios. So if the idea of not having to carry all your stuff and sleeping in a bed is attractive to you, then this would be a great option. We did not consider a guided trip, mostly because the cost was way above our budget and the trail is easily navigable sans guide.

5. Stay outside the W or O and make day trips

The catamaran dock at Paine Grande

You won’t be staying on the circuit, but you can still take day trips to each leg. This option is solely for the W as it is the only trek that is accessible for day trips from outside the circuit.

In this case, you can stay anywhere that has availability; from camping in Camp Pehoé to living it up at the Hotel Las Torres. It would help to have your own car here, but you can also hitchhike or take the the buses that come into the park early and leave the park late. For the latter, the buses will often pick you up from a designated stop (Laguna Amarga, Pudeto, or Administrivo) and bring you to another for a small fee.

You will do your day trip, return to your accommodation, and repeat the next day. The most popular place to start is with the Torres del Paine, as they are the most accessible. For the others, you will take the catamaran from Pudeto to Paine Grande in the morning and return in the evening. In the high season for 2018-2019, the first catamaran leaves Pudeto at 9 AM, arriving at Paine Grande at 9:20, and the last one leaves Paine Grande at 6:35 PM. This gives you roughly 9 hours to perform your day hike to Glacier Grey Lookout, Británico Lookout, or to Cuernos Refugio. For the latter two, you will need to be a quick hiker, as CONAF says these routes will take 11 hours, but it is certainly possible. If you are on a budget, this might not be the best option, as the catamaran costs $28,000 CLP (about $42 USD at the time of this writing) for each return journey. This isn’t the most convenient, easy, or desirable method, but it allows you the opportunity to do the W if there are no openings in the camps or refugios.

6. Have your own gear? Just show up.

A myriad of tents at Paine Grande

First and foremost I will say that I do not endorse this method, as it goes against the rules of the reservation system and of the park, and the consequences could be very dire (think having spent all day getting to camp only to be turned around and have to hike BACK to where you came from). It should also be noted that this will NOT work for the O, as there are CONAF rangers checking everyone’s reservations at checkpoints along the trail.  However, if you have all your own food and gear (whether you’ve rented or own the latter), I have heard instances of people showing up into camps without a reservation and asking if there is any space to throw their tent down. Often the hosts will understand that you can’t make it back to any of the other camps before dark and will let you stay there without a reservation. I have also heard of a time or two where there was no room, and the individuals were sent back to their origin, so try this method at your own risk.

Overall, the best way to make a last minute W or O work is to BE FLEXIBLE. Sometimes the only thing that will work in terms of availability is a refugio bed one place, a provided tent at another, and just an empty campsite for your gear at another. It might be a slight pain, but it is more possible than you might think. The assertion, “You have to book months in advance to do the O or W,” is not entirely true, and by following these tips you can prove those nay-sayers wrong!

Have other ideas or tips on how to see this beautiful place last minute? Share them in the comments below!

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