Torres del Paine National Park holds a special place in the South American backpacker’s imagination. Soaring rock formations rise above glowering black mountains wreathed in glaciers, hellish winds howl through endless mountain passes, constellations reach across the endless southern skies, and all through the wilderness a series of trails winds in-between the peaks beckoning hikers to distant and surprisingly well furbished camping spots.
Torres del Daaaaaang
We dreamed of Torres del Paine for weeks before we re-entered Chile, scheming whether we would hike the ‘W’ trek or the ‘O’ trek, both popular routes that combine ferry rides and hiking as they cross the park- that is, until we learned about recent changes to the park’s camping reservation system…
Sometime in the year between when we first planned to visit Torres and when we arrived (4 months before we showed up, actually) the park, concerned about damage to the park’s sensitive ecosystem by ever-increasing hiker traffic, instituted a strict reservation system designed to limit the number of hikers that started the 5 or 9-day trail every day.
Torres del Paine is such a major backpacking destination that its popularity has meant that its camping areas have become highly regimented- even in the wilderness! Camping spots are on platforms, stove use is restricted to very specific areas (due to legitimate concerns about wildfires) and even in the hardest-to-reach spots, campers can find themselves pitching tents within view of a hostel with flush toilets and running water.
So, while the park already required backpackers to start from one of two specific points and all hike in one direction and camp in the same built-up sites, as of August 2016 every hiker has to have reservations at each campsite they intend to stop at before they even begin the trek, which sadly for us, had been completely sold out for months.
A quick change of plan was in order.
You can read any number of blogs to learn how to hike the W or finagle reservations through the various concessions that purportedly work together to manage the hostels, camping spots and hotels that round out the major circuit hikes, but this will not be one of them. Our Torres del Paine adventure was a little less by-the-book- eschewing the popular trekking routes and unwilling to commit to an all-inclusive tour, we turned to an old standby: we rented a car and drove ourselves through Torres del Paine National Park, car camping all the way!
Hell yeah, we drove here!
Huge vistas everywhere! It's honestly hard to take a bad picture if the weather is clear
For us, car camping made sense because it allowed us an entry into the park on our own schedule (not as part of a tour group), it allowed us to save money by camping and cooking for ourselves, and it afforded us the opportunity to be in Torres del Paine both early and late in the day when the craggy mountains that serve as the parks’ visual focal point are at their most magnificent.
Backpacking would have been fun, but when life gives you lemons you rent a car, put the lemons in the trunk (because who backpacks with lemons?) and drive those lemons to a pull-up campsite to enjoy the view with some fresh lemonade. We were determined to enjoy Torres del Paine, one way or another.
Okay, so not lemonade, but still a great view of the Cuernos (Horns)!
How to Car Camp in an International Trekking Destination
Begin by stocking up on all the stuff that you would never carry if you were going to be backpacking. We suggest fresh eggs, full bottles of wine, maybe a couple baguettes and bags of chips. Time to make the most of your wheels!
Rent a car somewhere in Puerto Natales, but check online prices first. The AVIS office in town quoted us prices twice as high in person as we found at their same office online (our rental ended up being $74/day). That said, you might find cheaper prices overall if you go with a local agency (Patagonia Rentals, Tours del Paine, Ed’s Rental Palace, etc) but you definitely won’t have an international company to help you to if something goes wrong.
Get a waterproof map of the park in town. These are free in most hostels and have all of the trails in the park easily mapped out and color-coded. You will quickly see that many hikes exist in addition to the two most famous routes and that they lead to all manner of waterfalls, viewpoints, glacier views and hidden lakes deep in the park’s hills- just be sure to pay attention to which ones require a guide (the colors look pretty similar).
Speaking of colors: The Salto Grande waterfall!
You might have heard that Puerto Natales is the “Gateway to Torres del Paine”, but don’t be fooled: it is still a 2-3 hour drive on a gravel road to make it to the park. As such, you will want your car rental agency to document every single dent, scratch etc on your car before you leave. We had no trouble making the drive in the small sedan we rented, but every time a car/tour van passed us and we saw gravel flying we both held our breath until it all hit the ground. There is actually an urban legend in the area that if you press your hand to the inside of the windshield when rocks hit, the glass won’t crack… This is probably not true but it not stop us from doing it every time that we saw gravel go airborne.
Potholes and free-roaming ponies are just a couple of the driving hazards
Bring cash. This should be second-nature because you are in South America, but your entrance fee, campsite fee and late night impulsive-cold-beer-and-chocolate purchases at the camp store will all likely be in cash because the card readers appear to all be perpetually broken. It goes without saying that all of these goodies are way more expensive in the park than at the supermercado in town.
Plan to spend at least three days on your car camping excursion. We did this park in a bit of a whirlwind and I would not recommend less: We drove in, made camp and toured Lago Grey on day 1, hiked to the base of the Cuernos and around the Torres on Day 2, and woke up early to drive back on Day 3. There are numerous great day hikes in the park, and we chose a central camping location at Camp Pehoe to make it easy to access both ends of Torres del Paine. We were actually surprised at how few people we talked to made the short hike across the suspension bridge to the shores of Lago Grey- this was highlight for us, from the beautiful, wild drive to the dramatic and violently windy shore hike.
Rosie loves suspension bridges
Patrick loves making a scene, apparently
The wind in the park is no joke, so bring a windbreaker (this should seem obvious, but we saw plenty of people in jeans and cotton t-shirts looking like they might have liked a windbreaker). We hiked out to the windy, vast rock beach at the base of Lago Grey and the wind was so intense that it was picking water up off the lake in great sheets, swirling them around and dashing them against the stony shore. There is a short hike across the beach up to a viewpoint where we could see Glacier Grey brooding at the head of the lake and small icebergs bobbing all around- the map says that this should take about 2 hours, but we spent 5 hours out there we enjoyed the scenery so much!
Leaning against the wind
Glacier Grey is actually white, but you know, whatever
In between the gusts that made it hard to stand
They are dead-serious about their camping-stove-usage areas. One of our favorite car-camping traditions is to bring our stove up to a lookout and have coffee while overlooking a beautiful vista, and when we tried this we were quickly and harshly reprimanded by a guide. We learned later of the massive fires that have been started by camping stove accidents in the last 10 years and how serious the fines and jail time is for offenders. If you are hoping to have lunch or dinner out in the park between day-hikes, then don’t count on being able to use a stove, even in parking lots or on picnic tables.
Lastly, if you have a car, consider the hitchhikers. Clearly picking up a hitchhiker is always a risk, but when we found ourselves with wheels and in position to help out those backpackers just trying to get across the park, we found ourselves giving rides to all kinds of people- middle-aged Chilean couples, Australian permaculture famers, etc. We felt that it was a safe and easy place to pay back some of the luck we had thumbing our way down the road and were happy to give back while we could.
Not a hitchhiker, but Patrick doing an excellent impression of the trees in the park
Also not a hitchhiker (a native guanaco!)
The experience of car camping in Torres del Paine National Park can’t and shouldn’t be compared to trekking it for a week, but what we found in driving the roads and day hiking was wild and exciting in many other ways.
By hiking out to overlooks before the sun had quite come up or waiting until the day tour groups evacuated the most popular spots, we managed to enjoy many classic park views either by ourselves or nearly alone. On our last morning we packed up our tent in the windy dark, and as we slowly drove the deserted park roads back towards town we spotted massive jackrabbits, one after another, as they leapt out across the road. The sun rose on the mountains in the rearview mirror and filled the sky with rainbows, and even though we hadn’t set foot on the O or the W, we were still satisfied that we had seen the very best side of Torres del Paine National Park.
Torres del Paine, By the Numbers:
Minutes In the Rental Car It Took Us to Roll Down the Windows and Crank Up 80's Dance Jams: Maybe 3?
Hours from Puerto Natales to the Serrano Park Entrance: The GPS said 4 hours, we drove it in 3 and if we were in a truck we might have been able to make it in 2
Cost of a Hostel Dorm Bed in Puerto Natales: $8,000 Chilean Pesos/ $12 USDpp
Cost of a Campsite in Camp Pehoe (In the Park): $10,000 Chilean Pesos/ $15 USDpp (Camping rates per person seems to be a distinctly South American phenomenon)
Apparent Bedtime for the Group of 30+ Motorcycle Enthusiasts Staying in Our Campground: 9pm (Surprising, right?)
Number of People at the Salta Laguna Overlook at 8am: 2 (Patrick and Rosie)
Number of People at the Salta Laguna Overlook at 8:30am: 21 (Patrick and Rosie and a tour bus full of Germans)
Total Hours Spent in the Park: Only 41, and it was absolutely worth the effort of getting there