Puerto Natales is a little town where you start the W trek from. We had a days rest in the town before starting the walk. The W trek is a four day walk in the shape of a W. It heads up and back three valleys, which all have views of the Torres del Paine National Park. You have an option of either camping or staying in refugios. A refugio is similar to a DOC hut in New Zealand, but it also has a cook and you can purchase food there. We opted for the refugios. However, we later found out the refugios have a bad reputation in Puerto Natales as being a rip off and being the evil empire. It was the expensive option, but seemed worth it when we only had to carry day packs and we could look forward to a three course meal being made for us each night and hot showers. We avoided telling people we were staying at the refugios, but we were pretty happy with our decision.
The first day was a climb up the valley. It took about two hours to reach Refugio Chileno. We had nice weather, which made it a hot and tiring climb to the top. We then dropped off our bags (what little there was of them) and walked to the end of the valley. This was the first stretch of the W. There was a forty-five minute climb up some boulders to reach the view point. This is the most famous view of the W trek, as it looks at three towers with a lake at the base. The track is really popular, but we were lucky enough to have the whole area to ourselves. We sat there for a while admiring the view, before heading back down the ankle-twisting boulders.
The second day was only five hours and we walked around the base of the W to the start of the second return leg up the valley. The trail was either downhill or flat, so wasn’t particularly challenging. We followed a lake (Lago Nordenskjold) around, so it was very scenic. We stayed at Refugio Los Cuernos on our second night. It is based next to the same lake we followed around for the day.
Our third day was the hardest by far. It was posted as 11 hours, but we did it in 9.5 hours. We started with a two hour walk around the lake and part way up the valley to Campamento Italiano. Then we headed straight up the French Valley. It was quite a hard climb and we had to clamber over boulders again. Half way up there was a lookout facing one of the biggest mountains. We sat there watching avalanches fall down into the valley. The whole area was booming. It took 3 hours to reach the top of the valley, where we stopped for lunch. We were surrounded by mountains on all sides. Then we had to walk back down for 3 hours and then continue around for another 2 hours to get to Refugio Paine Grande. This last track went through the burnt forest. Two years ago a fire wiped out most of this area and it hasn’t recovered. Refugio Paine Grande is the end of the track, but to complete the W you have to do a return walk up and down another valley.
The fourth day we completed the W. It took 3 hours to reach Refugio Grey where we had lunch. The track follows alongside the Grey Lake. We walked next to the lake which had huge icebergs floating down it. Just after the refugio is a lookout of the glacier. We climbed all over a giant rock to get a good view of the glacier. Along they way we had to cross a number of dodgy looking bridges. One had collapsed in the middle, so the added a couple of boards just across the middle section. Each one was made from logs in the forest and the steps were wide enough apart that you could put a foot through. We felt like Indiana Jones. Then we had to walk back for another 3 hours to complete the walk. We got a boat back to our bus and returned to Puerto Natales about 10pm.
When we first heard about the three course meals we were a little concerned that we weren’t being real trampers. However, I can assure you that we suffered just as much as the campers when it came to the food. The first night was acceptable, but it went steadily downhill after that. The first course was always packet soup, which was the highlight of the meals. This was always followed by rice and a “surprise” meat. The first night was chicken and half an orange. The second night was a lump of cardboard covered in tomato paste and the last night was so atrocious it still makes me feel sick. It was called german cake and consisted of a lump of plain mince that was only partially cooked and had been refrigerated. Dessert was usually okay, but given what it was following in hindsight probably wasn’t very nice. We also ordered a packed lunch each day, which consisted of a brick sandwich, some scroggin and a chocolate bar. On the last day the sandwich had lettuce, tomato and cheese. I couldn’t help but feel there was something missing.
We had fine weather for the whole trip, which is unusual for this national park. Even at night the refugios had fires going, so it was never very cold. Although I imagine the campers may have a different opinion. The trek was pretty amazing. We are all now very tired and plan on resting for the next few days in Puerto Natales.