The O Circuit in Torres del Paine is about exploring the remote, ever-changing landscapes of the Patagonian backcountry.
Climbing a scree field up to the John Garner Pass to reveal the 6km expanse of Glacier Grey. The shameless self-regard on the day where the trail finally joins up with the day hikers on the W Trek. Cruising in Valle de Frances, finally liberated from the weight of a backpack. And of course, the foggy, cool mornings that might magically end the very day you arrive at the base of Las Torres. Just the awareness that you’re near the southernmost point of the earth was bewildering.
Who knows whether my version of the O Circuit was one of those special travel experiences where everything played out just right or whether it’s consistently so awesome. But I guess the only way to figure that out is to go for yourself.
Here’s everything you need to know about trekking the O Circuit including suggested itineraries, how to book campsites, how to get to Torres del Paine National Park, info on trekking without a guide, and other good to knows. Updated October 2019.
AT A GLANCE: THE O CIRCUIT
// Location: Torres del Paine National Park, Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena Region
// Nearest City: Puerto Natales, Chile
// Difficulty: Moderate
// Duration: 6-8 days
// Distance: 120km
// Highest Elevation: 1200m
The O Circuit – a 120km one-way backpacking loop in Torres del Paine National Park – is regarded as one of the most exclusive backpacking routes in South America.
Like all of the hikes in Torres del Paine, it is named for its letter-like shape; it’s a circle looping through the backcountry. And you can do it without having to skip the W Trek! The O Circuit starts out in the rugged backcountry and joins up with W so you don’t have to miss highlights like Glacier Grey, Valle del Frances, and [obviously] Las Torres. You can learn more about the trekking routes in Torres del Paine in more detailhere.
Entrance to Torres del Paine in 2019 cost $21,000CLP ($29) per adult (foreign) or $6,000CLP ($9) per adult (Chilean). Admission must be paid in CLP.
BEFORE YOU GO
GET A TORRES DEL PAINE MAP & GUIDEBOOK
The campsite map is easy to get ahold of, but you’ll also want to get a topographical map before you head into the backcountry. Here are some of the Torres del Paine maps and books I’d recommend.
- Torres del Paine Waterproof Map by Zagier & Urruty Pubns
- Moon Patagonia by Moon Guides
- Trekking Torres del Paine by Cicerone Press Limited
Need it now? Here’s the official Torres del Paine Trekking Map. Click the preview below to zoom in on the details, view the legend, or review distances.
CHOOSING YOUR ROUTE
There’s just one main trail through the backcountry. While the W Trek can be hiked in either direction, the O can only be hiked counterclockwise. That said, there are a few variations of the O Circuit based on which campsites you choose. Keep in mind that hiking the O Circuit usually takes 8 days, but you can knock it out in more or fewer days depending on your fitness level, and [perhaps more significantly] which campsite reservations you can land.
There are twelve designated camping areas on the O Circuit. Some are clustered together while others are the only site available for several kilometers. Before you book, make sure you’re aware how long your hiking days will be. There are no easy ways to exit the backcountry once you’ve started. Below are a few O Circuit itineraries with suggested campsites.
Option 1: Serón > Dickson > Los Perros > Paso > Paine Grande > Italiano > Central
Option 2: Serón > Dickson > Los Perros > Gray > Paine Grande > Frances > Chileno
Option 3: Paine Grande > Frances > Torres Serón > Dickson > Los Perros > Gray
READ MORE: 5 Trekking Routes in Torres del Paine
MAKE YOUR CAMPSITE RESERVATIONS IN TORRES DEL PAINE
Due to a surge in popularity, you’ll need to make reservations for the O Circuit months in advance. But actually booking campsites in Torres del Paine is unexpectedly tough. In order to complete the O Circuit, you’ll need to have seperate campsite reservations for every night of your 8 day trip. And because these bookings are handled across three agencies with often faulty websites, this is not an easy task.
Before booking anything, list out the dates and sites. Come up with a backup route if your preferred campsites are full. And keep a close eye on your dates to make sure you don’t mess anything up.
Reservations for the season open between July and September each year, but there’s no precise date or time. If you’re booking before CONAF reservations live, go ahead with your FantasticoSur and Vertice reservations. You should be able to fill in the gaps with the free CONAF sites later. If you’re looking more last minute, check availability across all three sites before you start making bookings. If most of your sites are available, start by booking the CONAF sites (so you can cancel if you need to) before requesting the more expensive FantasticoSur and Vertice reservations.
READ MORE: How to Book Campsites in Torres del Paine
The elements in Patagonia are no joke; you’ll want to be sure that you have adequate gear come rain, snow, or very serious wind. This means layers and 3-season equipment. You can opt to buy your stuff ahead of time or rent it in Puerto Natales.
Get started: What You Need for Patagonia: A Packing List
O CIRCUIT ROUTE
As I mentioned above, there are a few different O Circuit trekking routes but below is a sample 8-day itinerary starting and finishing from the Laguna Amarga Entrance.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Itinerary and suggested campsites are based on my own experience in 2017. Be sure to reference a park map before finalizing your bookings.
DAY 1: LAGUNA AMARGA TO SERÓN // HIKING DISTANCE: 13 KM
Catch the early bus from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine. You’ll arrive at Laguna Amarga Entrance around 9am where you have to pay your entrance fee and watch the park film. From there, hop on your second bus to Hotel Las Torres where the trail begins.
The hike is mostly gentle and the scenery nice-but-unspectacular. But not to fret! It’s just your first day and you’ll be hauling a very heavy bag. Set up camp at in a meadow for your first night at Serón.
DAY 2: SERÓN TO DICKSON // HIKING DISTANCE: 18 KM
The second day is all about water. You’ll get to enjoy the walk along Rio Paine in the morning come upon the massive Lago Paine and Lago Dickson later in the day. Just after Lago Paine, you’ll come to Guardería Coirón where you’ll have to show proof of reservation to travel onward. From there, it’s another 3 or so hours until you get to Dickson. It’s one of the prettiest campsites in the park, in my opinion!
DAY 3: DICKSON TO LOS PERROS // HIKING DISTANCE: 11.8 KM
While the next two days might seem short compared to the first, there’s a good reason for that. You’ll need the energy to cross John Gardner Pass on day 4.
As you hike the trail from Dickson to Los Perros, be sure to stop at Mirador Valle de Los Perros and Glaciar Los Perros. You can expect to be hiking for about 4.5 hours before you set up camp at Los Perros for the night.
DAY 4: LOS PERROS TO PASO // HIKING DISTANCE: 8 KM
Today is the big one! You’ll have to cross John Gardner Pass at 1,200m which is the literal and figurative high point of the trek. Go early, both for weather and because the trail from Los Perros and Paso closes at 14:00.
It’s a tough hike, and from what I remember, much of it is through a scree field. Keep your eye out for the trail markers! If the fog rolls in or you lose sight of where you’re headed, this is a dangerous place to get lost.
But the hike to John Gardner isn’t all a slog. You’ll be able to see snow-covered peaks along the way like Paine Chico Norte, Cóndor, and Amistad. And coming through the pass for your first look at Glacier Grey is one of those never-forget-it moments. Really.
DAY 5: PASO TO PAINE GRANDE // HIKING DISTANCE: 18 KM
Day 5 is the day where the O Circuit meets up with the W-Trek. On one hand, this is where the real marvels of Torres del Paine start. On the other hand, there will be all kinds of crowds that your backcountry-self will balk at.
It’s about 5 hours from Paso to Grey and you’ll have to cross a few suspension bridges along the way. At Grey, you’ll see a campsite, Refugio, and the mirador where you can get the second-best look you’ll get at Glacier Grey.
There’s another viewpoint as you continue on to Paine Grande, but the hike will take around 3.5 more hours. Once you get to Paine Grande, set up camp or check into the Refugio. There are spectacular views of Cerro Paine Grande and the lakes all around you.
DAY 6: PAINE GRANDE TO ITALIANO // HIKING DISTANCE: 7.5 KM (OPTIONAL 5.4KM TO MIRADOR BRITANICO)
The reason for this short hiking day is that the splinter hike to Mirador Britanico is unmissable.
It’s only about 2.5 hours onto Italiano where you can setup camp for the night and drop your bags. Instead, you can undertake the hike up the middle of the “W” with just a daypack. It’s around 2.5 hours up to Britanico and another 30 minutes to the Mirador Britanico. There are more than a dozen peaks surrounding this point, and it’s a view that will even rival Las Torres.
Once you’ve taken it all in, hike back down to Italiano for the night.
DAY 7: ITALIANO TO CHILENO // HIKING DISTANCE: ~21 KM
This day is officially a slog. It’s a long, upward sloping walk along Lago Nordenskjöld. After about 4.5 hours, the trail forks and you can either go right towards Hotel Las Torres and Central camping area or stay left and shortcut towards Chileno.
DAY 8: CHILENO TO HOTEL LAS TORRES// HIKING DISTANCE: 13.8 KM
On the very last day, you’ll see Las Torres that the park is named for. The three spires towering 2850m with the lake and glacier in view are iconic and worth the early wake-up.
It’s best to get there in time for sunrise, which means you’ll need to set out at least 3 hours before sunrise. It will still be dark, so you definitely need a headlamp. But an uncloudy sunrise at Las Torres more than makes up for the early wakeup time.
Tip: Bring your sleeping bag! It can be pretty cold before the sun comes up, and you’ll enjoy the wait a lot more if you’re cozy.
Once you’ve had your views, its a mostly downhill hike to Hotel Las Torres where you can catch your bus back to the park entrance.
Read More: Photostory from Torres del Paine
HOW TO GET TO TORRES DEL PAINE
GETTING TO TORRES DEL PAINE
The nearest major airport to Torres del Paine is Presidente Carlos Ibáñez del Campo International Airport (PUQ) in Punta Arenas. It’s also possible to fly directly into Teniente Julio Gallardo Airport (PNT) in Puerto Natales, though flights are significantly more expensive.
From Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine, you first need to catch the shuttle to Puerto Natales. Bus-Sur has regular service from both the airport or the bus terminal in Punta Arenas, and tickets cost $7500CLP ($10).
From Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine, there are once or twice daily busses run by Buses Juan Ojeda, Buses Gomez, or JB Patagonia. The bus ride takes 2-3 hours and costs around $15000CLP ($20) round trip. All buses depart before 2:30pm, and can fill up days in advance, so contact them via email or stop by one of the hostels in town to secure your spot.
GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD
The bus makes two drop-offs: one at Laguna Amarga if you’re starting the trek from Hotel Las Torres and one at Pudeto if you’re overnighting at Paine Grande.
Once you’ve paid your entrance fee at Laguna Amarga, hop on another bus that goes to Hotel Las Torres. It’s only 10 minutes and costs $3,000CLP ($4) , but it will save you a 7km walk to the trailhead.
If you’re continuing onto Pudeto, you can take the Catamarán Hielos Patagónicos to Paine Grande. The catamaran departs 1-4 times per day (depending on the season), costs $30,000CLP (~$41), and takes about 30 minutes. You can find more information on current schedules on the HipSur website.
GUIDE OR NO GUIDE?
Except in winter, you are free to hike the O Circuit without a guide. That’s what I opted for! But before going it alone, here are some of the pros and cons to hiking the O Circuit without a guide.
Why go without a guide? Patagonia is expensive and O Circuit tours are no exception. The trail is super easy to follow. There are plenty of other hikers so it’s safe and far from lonely. And it’s obviously more fun this way!
Why take a tour? Carrying 8-day’s worth of gear and food is a lot to haul on your own. Booking campsites on your own is a pain in the ass. The weather can be unpredictable and even dangerous if you’re not well prepared.
O CIRCUIT TOURS
Most O Circuit tours include roundtrip transport from Puerto Natales, all your camping/refugio nights, and your meals. And if you notice something missing from that list, that’s because it is possible to book tours with or without a guide. It can be worth paying for an O Circuit tour just to have someone to take care of your logistics.
O Circuit tours cost between $1,100-$2,400. I didn’t personally use these services, but here are a couple of the best-reviewed companies.
- Rental Natales: Super friendly gear shop in town that also comes recommended for fairly priced O Circuit Tours.
- FantasticoSur: FantasticoSur manages several of the backcountry sites, and they also run O Circuit tours (with or without a guide). Their prices are HIGH, but could be worth it if you are struggling to make your reservations.
HOW MUCH DOES THE O CIRCUIT COST?
Here’s a general projection of costs for one person on the O Circuit based on the itinerary above (updated for 2019).
- Roundtrip Transport from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine ($28)
- Pre-Accommodation in Puerto Natales ($15 for dorm)
- Campsite Fees (Free to $25 per night)
- Hiking Gear & Clothing (varies)
- Camping Equipment Rental ($200)
- Food (from Puerto Natales) ($80)
- Food & Water (purchased) (Varies)
- Entrance Fee to Torres del Paine ($29)
There are a million factors that affect this price. Costs will vary depending on which sites you book, what gear you rent, what food you buy, whether you’re traveling alone, etc. There are SO MANY VARIABLES to factor in, but I’ll give you my best estimate. If you do the hike independently, stay in the cheapeast sites available, and rent basic gear, expect the O Circuit to cost $500.
WHERE TO STAY IN PUERTO NATALES
You’ll want to set out for the O Circuit first thing in the morning. The best way to do this is to overnight in Puerto Natales and catch the earliest bus into the park. Here are some of the best places to stay in Puerto Natales.
Refugio Hoshken | Budget: Refugio Hoshken inexplicably brings cool people together. It’s a basic spot but the vibe is right, the staff is super friendly, and they’ll even let you leave your stuff in storage while you undertake your trek! Dorms from $14.
The Singing Lamb | Mid-Range: The Singing Lamb is quite simple but spacious common areas and its location just five blocks from the bus station make it the go-to hostel in Puerto Natales. Double rooms start from $51.
Hotel Simple Patagonia | Luxury: The Hotel Simple Patagonia is anything but simple. The architecture is sleek and you’ll enjoy stellar views of the Ultima Esperanza Sound, which well warrants its location 4km from the bus station. Double rooms from $158.
GOOD TO KNOW
- Water: There are freshwater streams every day of the trek where you can fill your water bottle. And since it’s glacial melt, it tastes FANTASTIC.
- Weather: The elements in Patagonia are extreme. Be sure that you check the forecast ahead of time and come prepared for any type of weather anyway.
- When to Go: The best to Visit Torres del Paine is probably the shoulder season. 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 the park is most crowded and winds can reach their strongest gusts (120km/hr). For fewer 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.