Torres del Paine is best known for its jagged mountain range, but the glaciers, fjords, and ancient forests are really what get stuck in your mind. The place is jaw-dropping, awe-striking, and all those other stupid clichés used to describe something extra stunning.
That being said, there is one real problem with Torres del Paine. As far South as it may be, it is amazingly accessible. All of its highlights can be visited on a series of day trips, and with accessibility comes crowds. To have a more backcountry experience, you’ll have to go further still. Most adventure travelers opt for the W Trek, but often ranked as one of the best hiking routes in South America, you’ll still end up lining up for views. The O Circuit, on the other hand, is a more backcountry experience limited by permits.
Are you seeking an alternative W Trek that will give you a more adventurous experience in Torres del Paine? Here’s everything you need to know about trekking the O Circuit including how to get to Torres del Paine National Park, tips for doing the O Circuit without a guide, and details on the best time to visit Torres del Paine.
The W Trek vs the O Circuit
Why trek the W Trek?
The W Trek is the perfect initiation to trekking in Patagonia. The trek is relatively painless, and over the course of 5 days and around 60km, you will see the icons of Torres del Paine (Glacier Gray, Valle del Frances, and Torres del Paine). You will have access to full-service campsites and refugios that are strategically placed so you can pick a trekking route that matches your fitness level. If you rent or bring your own gear, you can set up camp and complete most of your hikes with just a daypack. If you’d rather travel light, you can rent gear and buy meals along the way.
Sounds pretty excellent, right? The real drawback of hiking the W Trek is that everyone already knows about it. The trails are crowded throughout the year and campsite availability is limited.
Why trek the O Circuit?
Sometimes going the alternative route requires that you skip the original. The O Circuit is a stellar alternative W Trek because you still get to experience both; the O Circuit is just the W Trek with a backcountry bonus.
The 8-day route is somewhere around 120km, starting on the quieter trails of the park and joining with the W Trek on day 5. Trekking days are long, but you’ll pass glaciers, grassy meadows, and the John Garner Pass which are completely awesome. The trekking distances are more fixed and the campsites more basic. You won’t have the option to buy food or rent gear at the campsites, and will instead need to travel with food and adequate gear. Of course, you’ll feel like a badass when you finish, which is the real highlight of the O Circuit.
The obvious drawbacks are required self-sufficiency and unpredictable weather. Once you start the O Circuit, you’re kind of locked into at least completing 5 days of it. You don’t want to come underprepared.
How to Trek the O Circuit
How to get to Torres del Paine National Park: The nearest cities to Torres del Paine National Park are Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. If you’re flying, your best option is to take the bus from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (3 hours) and stay the night. Buses from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine (2 hours) depart daily at 7:00 am and 2:30 pm and leave the park at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. Round trip bus tickets cost $15,000CLP ($23 USD) in 2017.
The O Circuit without a Guide or with a Guide: The O Circuit is an 8-day, backcountry trek so you need to pack in your own food to camping gear. If you can bear the weight and are willing to spend time planning, we’d recommend hiking the O Circuit without a guide. Patagonia is expensive, as are O Circuit tours.
Other reasons to go alone? Torres del Paine only has one rout and the trails are well marked. Getting lost is an impossibility! All you have to do is decide where to camp and plan your route. There are plenty of other trekkers on the trail so you don’t have to worry about safety. Once the trail rejoins with the W Trek, you can buy food and stay in refugios if you want. The O Circuit without a guide is totally manageable for backpackers with some experience.
Best Time to Visit Torres del Paine: Summer in Torres del Paine is December – March. That’s when the weather is warmest and the park is in full color. That being said, this is also when winds can reach their strongest gusts (120km/hr). For lesser crowds and often gorgeous weather, consider trekking Torres del Paine in a shoulder season like spring (October – November) or fall (March – April). While the park is still open, only hikers who are experienced and well-prepared should hike in winter.