How to hike the W Circuit in Patagonia
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
A Luxury Travel Review of Explora Ecolodge, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
I hadn’t heard of Explora Ecolodge when I first fell in love with Patagonia. But I had ogled magazine photos of the iconic rock towers and read about the multitude of hiking trails in the area for more than ten years. So needless to say, Torres del Paine National Park and hiking the ‘W’ trek had been on my “Bucket List” for quite a while. I assumed active travel by way of backpacking or through-hiking was the only way to see the area. But over time, I started reading about different lodges and huts that were located in or near the park. Explora kept resurfacing as a top choice in compelling traveler reviews from many sources. I also knew that there were many more areas to cover in the park, aside from just what the W circuit trail covered. So I spent a lot of time researching options for optimizing our vacation time and creating a hybrid travel itinerary. Besides, given the monumental travel effort it takes to get to the National Park (See our full Patagonia & Mendoza itinerary here), I knew that at least seven days in the park was needed to complete my desired experience.
Research changed our plans
When I started to plan our trip, I began by researching the best time of year to travel and the associated weather. It’s a fine line for my husband and I, when considering when to travel: we obviously want the best weather for journeys like this one. But we also prefer to avoid tourist season crowds. So with this in mind, we chose the end of January – which is late Spring/beginning of the Summer season in this area. In late January, there will be fewer people, but the weather may be a bit unpredictable, varying from day to day or even hour to hour. This in general, IS Patagonian weather. So reliably predicting weather more than 12-24 hours in advance is difficult. In other words, if you spend only 3-4 days here, the chances of exploration with contiguous sunny days are minimal. But if you stay in the park longer, the chances do improve.
Another logistical consideration was this: if we chose to backpack and camp our way through the W circuit, we would need to start at one end and hike one direction, hiking the routes in a certain, unchangeable order. Even if we planned to allow more time to accommodate an unpredictable rainy day, the camp sites along the trek, which are booked several months in advance, force you to move along to accommodate new hikers. In other words, you can’t just hang out an extra night to wait out the rain.
For us, since my husband is a professional photographer, our goal was not only to complete the three major legs of the W circuit but also to explore other shorter treks in the National Park that were noteworthy for their landscape beauty. So despite being the most cost-effective option, backpacking in unpredictable weather was ‘out’ for us. So we started looking at lodges within the area. We discovered a few and most included meals and transportation to trail heads. Dollar for dollar, the differences in price were small. But the differences in guest reviews and location were what made Explora Ecolodge the easy choice for us. I won’t lie. Staying at Explora is a vacation investment. But exploring this area is one of those Once in A Lifetime Journeys, and for us, it was worth every penny.
An Ideal Setting
Explora is an all-inclusive luxury Ecolodge that sits in a perfect location on the shores of Lake Pehoe and right in the middle of Torres del Paine National Park. As for relative location to the W circuit, the lodge is directly across the lake from the middle route to French Valley. This allows you to do each of the renowned hikes in any order you prefer, on any day. All other lodges are located either outside the park or at either end of the Cordillera, requiring longer drives or pre-arranged rides to trailheads.
How it works
Explora allows 4 or 8, 3 or 6 night stays depending on season. If you are staying here in combination with an Antarctica trip or another longer trip around South America, then a 3-4 day stay may be adequate. But don’t except to do all the hikes in the ‘W’ rain-free, in only 3 days/4nights. You may get lucky. But as I mentioned, the optimal enjoyment of each trek is fairly dependent on the weather each day, even if you have good gear. If you are an avid hiker and this is a destination trip, then having seven full days will allow modification of plans as needed, and the opportunity to see almost the entire park while there. We did all three legs of the ‘W’ circuit, but had the flexibility of doing each leg in any order. We saved the scenic Base of Towers hike for the clearest day, and the more forested hike to Glacier Grey for a cloudy day. We also were able to complete a fourth full day hike, three half day hikes, one afternoon of horseback riding and save one morning to sleep in.
The property has 49 rooms that take full advantage of the surrounding landscape. With minimalist design and advocating intentional disconnection from everyday life, rooms are not equipped with television or Wi-Fi (but you did have access in the common areas). The rooms are fairly simple and face either the Salto Chico waterfall or the Cordillera Paine. We splurged and went for the front view and were in absolute heaven. Not only was my husband able to take amazing photos right from our room, but every morning we woke up to sunrise light on the peaks that left us breathless. I have not stayed in a room anywhere in the world quite like this. Although the rooms are simplistic in design, they showcase the surrounding environment – which is really what you are here for! However, nice touches like twice a day maid service, luxurious linens, nice bath products and chocolates each night on your pillow, provide an upscale feel to the room. The bathroom is gorgeous and the plush, oh-so-comfortable bed is a welcome treat after a long days hike. Explora is the ultimate example of Active travel meeting Luxury travel.
The property is comprised of the main lodge, the spa and a dock with a private boat. In the main building, there is a full-service bar, dining rooms both upstairs and downstairs (quieter), a room dedicated to nightly education and a lounge area that is perfect for viewing sunset with cocktail in hand. There is Wi-Fi service in the lounge area, if you must touch base with the outside world.
There is also a gear shop that includes rain jackets, hiking boots and other casual resort wear, in case you forgot something. They did not have much supply of toiletries such as deodorant or toothpaste, so carry those things with you in your carry-on, in case your luggage is delayed. Go here for more International Travel Tips.
The Explora full-service spa is separate from the main building and faces a lovely glacial-blue lake. A network of boardwalks and wooden stairs make it easy to connect to this building, as well as other areas of the property. You pay extra for massages and other treatments. But the outdoor hot tubs, the indoor sauna and indoor lap pool are included with your stay. We loved that they had a small fridge in the pool house, stocked with complimentary juice, water, tea, snacks, beers and sparkling wine. You just help yourself and pick which hot tub you want to soak in. Tip: the one furthest from the building is the hottest. Needless to say, that’s where you found us after every full-day hike.
We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food here! This lodge is a five hour drive from the next major town, Punta Arenas. So I can only imagine the logistics and planning that go behind meal preparation. Since most hikers are up early, breakfast is a simple buffet, but with many options. You can also ask them for a menu if you are not in a hurry, which includes small pancakes and eggs made to order. For lunch and dinner, Explora uses the same menu. But it changes each day, on a 3-4 day schedule. Each daily menu has several options for an appetizer, three or four options for the main course and usually a few options for dessert. What I liked about this, was when there were two to three things on the menu that looked terrific, I knew I could order it for dinner, if I didn’t have it for lunch. Or if something was particularly good at dinner, and you stay the full seven nights, on Day 4, you will have the same menu that was offered on Day 1. So you get to have it again! Some guests may not see this as a benefit, and wish there were more options. But we were quite satisfied. Every dish came beautifully plated and with the attention of a high end restaurant. If you consider what it takes to serve this level of quality food in such a remote location, it makes brilliant sense. We are impressed that they carry it off as well as they do.
A typical day
Full day hikes start as early as 7am at Explora and may have you back as late as 5pm, depending on overall group pace. Half day hikes, the gaucho barbecue and horseback riding start later or in the afternoon. After several days, we were into the routine and joked that it felt like were at a camp for grownups. The evening before, the guides will come around to see which of the 50-plus guided hikes or horseback rides you are interested in. They bring maps and route descriptions and check the weather forecast in order to help you make the best choice. Then they tell you when to be ready the next morning. Explora provides transportation, by van or boat (French Valley hike), to and from every trailhead. I can’t tell you how nice it was to have this logistical step handled by such an organized team. All we had to do was wake up, show up and load up.
When you select a full-day hike, you get a packed lunch and are provided a lot of snacks to take with you. The guides also go the extra mile and set up a spread that often includes crackers, charcuterie, cheeses, hot cocoa, coffee, tea and sometimes even a little Kahlua. And at the end of our full day hikes? There was cold beer waiting for us in the van for the ride home. Nice touch.
In the morning before we left, the guides would go over the route plan again and what to expect. Explora provides trekking poles, if you need them. The hiking group size was never more than eight guests, and our initial fears that the fitness level would be too varied within a group were soon put to rest. Guests who gravitated towards the harder, full day hikes were very fit. And if there was any slight variance in pace, the solution for us…was connection. The hikes are a great way to make new friends, find commonality in your mutual love of nature and hear interesting stories from all over the world. We had a blast and still keep in touch with some of the friends we made at Explora.
When you return to the lodge at the end of the day, you have time to either head to the hot tubs, relax in your room or check out the nightly education slideshow . Then it’s time for dinner and some good conversation with your new hiking friends. You will most likely be in bed and sound asleep by 10pm.
All of the 50+ hikes provided by Explora are guided. You cannot go on your own. This is a safety feature, but also why would you? Transportation and guide service is included in your stay and the guides, who come from all over the world, are terrific! Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, patient and bilingual, the guides made our trip that much more memorable. Tipping is recommended but not required. And this can be done at the end of your stay, as a group or designated for individuals. Believe me, by the end of your trip, you will want to tip your guides. They are that good.
A great hybrid travel experience
We loved that Explora offered a variety of explorations. If you are not very fit , but your travel partner is an avid hiker, you still have options to enjoy a short stay at Explora Patagonia: get a massage or spa treatment, horseback ride with the Gauchos, do one of the shorter, more causal walks, or just enjoy a day reading in the lounge with those gorgeous peaks right in front of you. In my opinion, Explora is not really suitable for children under the age of 12-14 years old. We did see one or two children younger than this, but there was not enough for them to do. Explora is all about Hiking, horseback riding, relaxing and connecting to nature.
Besides what we think is obvious value in what we have described thus far, the customer service and their willingness to go-the-extra-mile, are two more reasons that makes Explora Ecolodge the obvious choice for this area. Here are two examples that prove my point.
On our first day at Explora, there were three older ladies traveling from Australia. Despite their enthusiasm and contagious laughter, they were not the most athletic guests we had seen and they even chuckled that they “didn’t realize that this was a place with so much hiking”! But the guides didn’t even flinch. They wanted the ladies 3-day experience at Explora to be memorable. So, they not only created itineraries specifically for their ability level, but they also made a sort of ‘photography tour’ for them, driving them from one scenic spot to another in the park. This was not even an excursion that was typically offered.
Next, on our sixth day, we wanted to combine two half day explorations that were not typically paired together. For logistical purposes and smooth timely transportation to locations in the park, the guides choose morning and afternoon half day hikes that are easily synced together. But it was a sunny bluebird day and we were determined to see one particular lake area and then go horseback riding in the afternoon – two itineraries not typically synced together.
The guides initially scratched their heads, not quite sure how to make it happen. But after 30-45 minutes of coordination amongst themselves, they found a solution. They knew we were fit hikers and if we were willing to be at a pullout on the main road at a particular time, the van going to the gaucho stable in the afternoon could pick us up. Perfect. Granted, we were scrambling to get there on time, as the lake trailhead was a good 1.5 miles from the roadside. But we made it just as they pulled up. My point is, they were willing to do what was necessary to make our week enjoyable, even if it included a bit of atypical planning by the employees.
Explora has several other locations in South America, including Rapa Nui (Easter Island), the Atacama desert and Peru’s Sacred Valley. We even heard rumor that there are plans for future resorts in remote areas of Europe, New Zealand and Iceland. Fantastic!
There is no doubt that we will do another Explora trip. This is not only because of the terrific experience we ourselves had in Torres del Paine, but also because of the rave reviews we heard from return guests who had similar service at Rapa Nui and Atacama. Explora believes in the power of experience and does a fantastic job at introducing people to remote natural areas of the world. The lodges are environmentally responsible and sustainably driven, supported by professional, rigorously selected guides and deliver a level of service that says that you, as a traveler, are a priority to them.
All I can say is, go. Just go!
You can email me and thank me later.