Known as the land of fire and ice, Patagonia’s untamed wilderness conjures up images of vast and windswept steppes, towering waterfalls and lush forests. The extreme weather of the region is matched only by its stunning scenery and diverse wildlife. After my first trip here I was hooked. Patagonia, for me, was the ultimate trekking destination. The ever-changing nature and sheer scale of the landscapes left me in awe, so much so that I never left. For the last ten years, I’ve been lucky enough to call Chile home and to have had the opportunity to guide in my favourite part of Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park.
Having spoken to countless travellers in Torres del Paine, I’ve picked up on misconceptions about refugios – Patagonia’s hiking hostels – and what they’re really like to stay in. To help potential travellers who are thinking about trekking the W Trek or a similar route, I’d like to share five things you might not know about the refugios in Torres del Paine National Park.
1. The food is simple but good
After a long day hiking, there’s nothing better than a warm hearty meal, especially if the Patagonian weather gods have been unkind. Many people that I have guided have been surprised by the quality of food on offer in refugios and were perhaps expecting it to be more basic given their remote locations.
Whilst the food is by no means five-star cuisine, it’s tasty and there are usually three courses that will leave you filled up and fueled for another day of trekking. My favourite of the fare on offer is always roasted chicken and potatoes followed by a chocolate flan. Whilst it’s true that Patagonians are big meat eaters, there will always be plant-based options provided if you advise your guide prior to the trek.
The lunches are definitely more basic than the dinners but are still perfectly good, if not slightly repetitive. However, when you realise that the food is being delivered by either a small boat or packhorse, it’s not surprising that the lunches are not glorious buffets each day!
For people wanting a little more to eat in the evenings, most refugios also sell bar meals such as hamburgers or pizzas. In fact, many even have little mini-markets which sell things like Pringles, chocolate, cookies and lots of other yummy things to keep you going during your trek. You can also purchase soft drinks and some alcoholic beverages, for example, a classic pisco sour… when in Rome! Or in this case, Patagonia.
2. The refugios are not as rustic as you might believe
Another misconception regarding refugios in Torres del Paine is how basic the accommodation is. I think many people envision a cold, dark hut with an old bed and a rusty window hanging off its hinges. The reality is far from this. The first time I entered a refugio I was greeted with a lively scene; it was atmospheric, music was playing and like-minded hikers were gathered, beers in hand, sharing stories.
Whilst there are no gleaming chandeliers, most refugios such as Los Cuernos or Domo Frances have wood-burning stoves that keep the main areas toasty. In fact, Refugio Central even comes with central heating which is incredible given the location. The refugios are all clean and well-presented, and the beds are comfortable. Not to do the refugios a disservice, but after a long day of trekking, almost any bed feels pretty good.
People craving a warm shower won’t be disappointed either. The showers are always hot and the refugios come with flushing toilets. Yes, the plumbing can occasionally play up, especially if there are lots of trekkers staying at once, but this is not surprising given how remote the refugios are.
Some of the more well-appointed refugios even come with games rooms and USB charging banks for your electronic equipment. If not, some of the staff allow you to charge your phone up behind the bar or reception. If you do, I would recommend paying a small tip of around $2-5 USD.
If you want or need to contact your loved ones or speak to work colleagues, most refugios will have the option to purchase WiFi which is generally the same price as you would pay at an airport. Don’t expect lightning-fast speeds, but it should be quick enough to get the job done.
3. Camping is sometimes better
If you’re not familiar with the set up you might be wondering what campsites have got to do with refugios. Refugios also have a campground on the same site, and the tents act like additional rooms. All the key elements you need for your stay – such as showers, toilets and hot meals – operate out of the refugios, whether you’re sleeping in the dorms or under canvas.
After a long day’s hike, a good night’s sleep in a warm bed can often seem more appealing than bedding down in a tent. Having tried both options countless times, I can confidently say that camping is actually a great way to experience Torres del Paine. Don’t disregard camping right away, even if it’s not your immediate inclination, you may be as surprised and delighted as many of the guests who I had the pleasure of guiding were.
One of the best things about camping on the W Trek is that the tents are already pitched for you prior to arriving at your campsite. This fact alone suddenly makes camping more appealing in my opinion. When you add a nice soft sleeping pad and warm sleeping bag, camping suddenly seems glorious – to be cosy and at one with nature around you simultaneously. You’ll also find you have far more privacy if you’re travelling as a couple or you’re wanting to get away from the more social side of the refugios. The tents generally sleep two people but are designed for three, which means you get plenty of space.
The campsites are beautiful, with tents spread out through the forest like small woodland homes. It also gives you a greater sense of adventure and, of course, bragging rights that you have camped in Patagonia.
My favorite campsite is located at Camp Grey. Some parts extend into the forest and there is flat ground for a comfortable sleep. The bathrooms are close by and when it’s quiet you can sometimes hear the thundering of ice as it calves off the nearby Glacier Grey.
4. The lodge workers live there and are essential to your trip
One of the things that surprised me most when I first began trekking in Torres del Paine was the fact that the refugio workers actually live in these locations permanently. I was also impressed by how hard they work. They are generally the first people on-site to get up and the last to go to bed.
The camping receptionist, for example, is not only responsible for reception. Other responsibilities include cleaning, fixing, moving and pitching tents, cleaning the camping bathrooms each morning and evening, managing payments of rented gear, cleaning the “quincho” cooking equipment, explaining the regulations to each camper upon arrival, and making sure everyone is following the rules throughout their stay.
The chefs have to be completely adaptable as ingredients tend to come and go and deliveries are often delayed. Therefore, cooking a meal for 100 people without the required ingredients means thinking on your feet quickly.
Most of the refugio and camping staff are fascinating people and have chosen to work in Torres del Paine to explore the national park, learn English and gain more experience in their chosen field such as hospitality, cookery or customer service. I always take the time to get to know the staff. They tend to come from all over Chile and all have amazing backgrounds and stories. It’s always nice to see familiar faces as a trekking guide, especially when you are a frequent visitor to the lodges.
5. Refugios are great social hubs
Refugios are the perfect places to unwind and relax after a long day on the trails. Hikers from all over the area gather around communal tables for dinner and share stories over a beer or two. This is also the time in which your guide will bring out special treats for you and your group to make your breakfast and packed lunch the following day a little fresher and tastier.
If you have the energy, then chatting to other hikers in the bar or communal areas is a great way of connecting with different people from all over the world and sharing stories. Many of the refugios have some games available and I’ve been embroiled in many a battle of Jenga late into the night. I had a group introduce me to the game Bananagrams on one W Trek I completed. I became so addicted to the game during our five days together that they ended up giving the game to me as a gift at the end of the trek! I still play it all the time and will always be reminded of them.
No matter when you decide to visit or which refugios you stay in, trekking in Torres del Paine National Park will be an unforgettable experience. Everyone you meet along the way will brighten your journey and you’ll come away with a bunch more friends than you started with.