Discover the Beauty of the O Circuit in Torres del Paine National Park

Primordial Beauty and Personal Challenges in Torres del Paine.

I remember very well that day from a few years ago when I dared, alone, to embark on the O Circuit (Macizo Paine). That day, crossing the famous John Garner pass in Patagonia and in Torres del Paine National Park, known for its strong winds and adverse weather, I thought that never in my life had I been so amazed by the simple and primordial beauty of nature. I had just come from a long and exhausting journey that had taken me to most Latin American countries over almost two years, carrying my backpack from place to place.


That southern spring of 2013, I had decided to explore and get to know Patagonia, and by coincidence of life, I had found work inside the most beautiful and visited national park in Chile: Torres del Paine. During those beautiful months I spent working at one of the hotels in the park, I discovered the great healing power that nature has on our minds and, above all, our spirits.


During the days off I had between one shift and another (that's how it works in Patagonia when the workplace becomes your home and your colleagues become friends), I had taken the opportunity to explore the trekking trails of Torres del Paine; starting with the simplest ones like Mirador Cóndor or Mirador los Cuernos, camping for a few days on the shore of the isolated and tranquil Laguna Azul, and of course, walking the world-famous route known as the W Trek.



Torres del Paine, O circuit. View to the Lake Dickson / Photo: @marco_rosso86


Being originally from northern Italy and living near the Dolomites, I already had previous experience with mountain hikes, including a bit of rock climbing and mountaineering knowledge. Still, the mountain environment in Italy and Europe in general is much different; first of all, the summer weather is much more stable and easy to predict. Many times, we are used to walking in shorts and short-sleeved shirts since the temperature remains pleasant throughout the day. Telephone and internet connections are practically widespread in all corners of those mountains, and there is no lack of the possibility of reaching the summit of a hill or crossing a pass at two thousand and some meters and easily making a call or sending photos to your friends. Since childhood, I got very used to mountain huts, which in the Dolomites are practically around every corner, normally 3 or 4 hours from each other, and in case a storm or bad weather comes, you know where to seek shelter and a cup of hot coffee.


Generally, there are no campsites on the trekking circuits, so for me, the challenge of facing this type of route also involved carrying the tent, sleeping bag, food, and all the equipment necessary for a 7/8-day trekking expedition.


Spring gave way to summer, my knowledge of Torres del Paine was gradually expanding, as well as my confidence and ability to carry a loaded backpack for several kilometers, especially in a hostile environment like that of Patagonia. Finally, the opportunity arose to accumulate a few days off from work. It was February, and I felt ready to leave my comfort zone and face the challenge of exploring and getting to know the "hidden" part of this natural wonder.



Torres del Paine, O circuit. John Garner Pass / Photo: @marco_rosso86


The Macizo Paine Circuit, internationally known as the Torres del Paine O Circuit, is a seven or eight-day route that must be completed counterclockwise around the peaks of the Macizo Paine. In total, we are talking about walking independently for more than 100km, stepping on a variety of terrains such as extensive plains swept by the wind, pristine and humid Magellanic forests where the chance of coming face to face with a Huemul, the endemic deer of this corner of South America, is quite high; descending steep slopes with snow presence during the summer or zigzagging up granite blocks of moraine deposit as you approach the Base Torres viewpoint or the incredible rocky amphitheater of Mirador Británico in the French valley.


It is difficult to choose one part that is more beautiful than others since the scenic beauty of this route lies in the fact that each day is different from the others. If you were to ask me today what I loved most during that first journey, I would undoubtedly say the day I crossed the John Garner pass, connecting Los Perros camp with Grey camp or Paso. From my personal point of view, that was an experience that marked a before and after in my life and convinced me once and for all to stay and live in Patagonia.


The ascent to the pass is done first by crossing the final part of the Lenga forest that fills the Los Perros valley, here it is very common to come across fallen trees, water puddles, and a lot of mud especially if it is raining or has rained in the previous days; therefore, my advice is to carry gaiters in your backpack. Leaving the forest, we are much more exposed to the inclemencies of the Patagonian climate, and from there we have about two and a half hours more of ascent to reach the John Garner pass. In this stretch, you find the typical vegetation of the high desert, which of course is very scarce since during the whole winter and until late spring this area is covered with snow. The trail in this part is almost absent, and the path is marked with cairns or stakes because sometimes the clouds can be covering this area and visibility drops a lot. To cross this area, you need to have good orientation and previous knowledge of mountain navigation; while the day is nice and beautiful, there will be no inconvenience, but if there is snow residue, heavy rain with low visibility, and gusts of wind typical of Patagonia, you have to be very careful and in some cases, if you are not with a park-authorized guide, the park rangers will not let you cross the pass if the conditions do not allow it.



Torres del Paine, O circuit. Glaciar Grey panoramic view / Photo: @marco_rosso86


I personally had, on one occasion with a group, to cross the pass with these types of conditions, and the truth is that we had to walk very compactly, keeping a distance of a couple of meters from each other due to the very low visibility, also limiting the stops since the wind, the cold, and the hail or snow that fell quickly lowered the body temperature. And that was at the beginning of summer, as I told you, the seasons don't count for anything here.


Once we crossed the John Garner pass, we find ourselves in a totally new world, at our feet is the imposing mass of the Grey glacier with its 35 km in length and 240km2; beyond that, the snowy peaks of the Patagonian Andes where you can see other smaller glaciers that make up the Southern Patagonian Ice Field such as the Centinela, Pingo, or Tyndal glaciers. The descent is also quite delicate; first of all, right after crossing the pass and having reached a first panoramic balcony over the glacier, you have to turn sharply to the left (that would be south) and not continue descending as the slope of the hill would naturally indicate. With scarce visibility conditions, there have been people who lost their way and the main trail and who unfortunately lost their lives in this very delicate sector. 



Torres del Paine, O circuit. Glacier Grey view to the Ice fields / Photo: @marco_rosso86


Once you reach the forest, the vegetation protects us again from the weather, but you have to be very careful where you step since the slope becomes quite pronounced, and the presence of roots and sometimes mud makes this sector quite problematic, especially if you are carrying a backpack with 15/18 kg of weight. Again, my advice for facing this part and the others on the circuit is to bring some good trekking poles!


Once this descent, which lasts approximately 30 to 45 minutes, is over, a somewhat easier part follows in which the Grey glacier hides behind the always green Coigües that characterize this sector, and finally, you must reach Paso camp no more than an hour and a quarter, an hour, and a half from the pass. This camping area is managed by CONAF and although it is free, you need a prior reservation to stay overnight; in addition, all walkers have to register so that the park rangers at the end of the day have a count of how many left Los Perros and how many are passing through Paso.



Torres del Paine, O Circuit: Hanging Bridges - Photo: @marco_rosso86


The second part of this long and exhausting day continues to enchant the walker. The trail continues along the western slope of Cordon Olguin, with gentle ups and downs that allow you to continue sighting the Grey glacier located to our right; nowadays there are three suspension bridges that add safety, speed, and spectacularity to the route. Previously, when I did my first journey, you had to cross down and up wooden and steel stairs, which were quite unstable especially when it was windy or wet; so don't worry, with the current state of the trail and with the bridges, you will reach Grey camp and refuge in about three hours of walking from Paso. In my opinion, this is the part of the entire Macizo Paine Circuit that will be well marked in your memory for its unforgettable scenic beauty.


The O Circuit of Torres del Paine is an experience that will not only amaze you with its incredible views, varied landscapes, and well-maintained trails, but rather it will be an experience of challenge and personal improvement. I invite you then to travel to Puerto Natales to encourage you to know this wonder of nature that Chile has known how to care for and preserve, but above all, I invite you to leave behind the comforts of the city and the everyday to venture out and be surprised by what we can achieve simply by carrying what is necessary on our backs and facing the rigorous climate of Patagonia, so capricious but that make us feel alive and present in this beautiful world!


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