Hopefully if you are planning a trip this year to hike the ‘W’ or the ‘O’ circuit in Torres del Paine you have already heard that reservations are mandatory. It is true.
According to locals, the camping and trails have become very overcrowded in recent years and the reservation system was really needed. Unfortunately since this is the first year, it is rather difficult to say the least.
There are 3 different companies with campsites and refugios. There is no central reservation system, so you have to try and reserve in some sort of date and hiking order by checking all 3 sites. We thought by waiting and visiting the offices it would be easier… Wrong. We asked at the Conaf office in Punta Arenas first. The girl in the office told us to do it online, showed us the website, and when we said it showed that all the campsites were already booked… She said sorry, I guess you can’t go!
After arriving in Puerto Natales, we canvassed the three offices. The only thing Haines st the offices was the occasion when we could see availability online that we couldn’t manage to book, website wouldn’t process it, and were able to book that one at the office. Otherwise it was the same story as booking online but with a nine block walk between each office!
Many other people were in the same situation as we were. In a number of offices, we heard nasty voices complaining that they had already come all this way and now must get on the track! (It didn’t help.)
In summary, BOOK ONLINE before you arrive.
The ‘O’ circuit is now only allowed anti-clockwise. Past the Seron campsite there is a ranger station, and you are not allowed to pass without proof of reservation at Dickson and/or Los Perros or Paso.
In some cases we heard from people who had reservations the whole way around except for one site. They usually had two nights at Grey and were allowed to stop at the earlier site if was late or they were tired. We did hear of a few people with really good Spanish who went up and waited it out for a space to open, but it is not easy and will likely cease altogether. At all the Refugios and campsites, the reservations are not known until around 7 the night before when they are either sent by computer or phone. Nothing is declared as a no-show until dark at 10pm, so you can’t really hope for that either…
The biggest trouble really seems to be that there is not even a partial refund for cancellation within the last 30 days, so nobody bothers to cancel. We heard of campsites on the back side that were only half full, I assume because of no-shows.
Buses and shuttles are well organized overall, and are coping with the odd itineraries and making them possible. Do take plenty of Chilean pesos as the entry fee is 21.000, shuttle is 3000, and Lake Pehoe catamaran is 28.000 return. Also, you might want a beer or bottle of wine at a Refugio!
Speaking of Refugios, these are pretty posh. You still get bunk beds, but they have full bars and offer full board with meals. Beds with sheets are also an option, which means that you could do the ‘W’ with only a day pack. It was looking pretty great to me when I was slogging up a hill and sprites with no packs danced past…
We ended up about half of each, camping vs Refugio. Note that you are not allowed to use your stove at the Refugios. They want everyone to buy meals at their restaurants. We were able to get hot water and rehydrate our backpacking food in each case, though we could not sit at a regular table as they were all full (with often two shifts) of dinner patrons. Since I’m gluten intolerant, I pretty much have to take all my own food regardless and the refugios didn’t make it easy. It did work out every time and we figured out the rules as we went….
We decided that it was really nice to have dry beds at night and if we were to do it again, we might choose all refugios. It does rain a lot and we aren’t in our 20s by a few decades. Of course, were we to do the full circuit we would camp a few nights and certainly want to carry some sort of emergency shelter at a minimum.
Another note- we heard from a few campers who rented tents and sleeping pads and had a miserable time as pads were wet. Each campground has permanently pitched tents for the renters. If you go that way it is less to carry but I would recommend at least to have your own mat and bag or quilt!
If you have any questions, send them along and I’ll try to answer when I can. We are still traveling and hiking though so it might be a week or so!
Links for reservations: