Local name: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
The background of the Torres del Paine National Park consists of a massive block of granite mountains, pushed up by the nearby Patagonian ice cap. The life line nourishes rugged rivers, robust icebergs, wild waterfalls and bright blue lakes. There is a rich fauna and flora. The absolute pride is the Andean condor, the largest bird in the world. Man is a guest in these surroundings.
These are big names: Patagonia and the Andes mountains. They meet each other in their crown jewel: Torres del Paine. This is nature at its absolute best. It is one of the most rugged territories in the world. The elements wreak havoc here on a daily basis. One day, snow storms may sweep through the mountains, while the valley basks in the sun. Four seasons in one day is quite normal here.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the area was used to keep cattle and for logging. The land had been occupied for use by English and German farmers. In the fifties of the previous century, the government claimed back the land. Although not many tourists see it, the landscape underwent dramatic changes because of the thousands of sheep that walked here for a long time. The farmers burnt much of the land, after which the new grass could be consumed by grass eaters.
Actually, the most rugged parts are still intact, simply because neither people nor animals could reach them. It wasn’t until 1930 that the last bits of this remote territory were placed on the map. Because of its beauty, the area surrounding the lakes and the glacier was declared a national park in 1959, which brought about a change in the manner how this territory was perceived. Nowadays, an increasing portion of the area is protected and the park now covers 1,810 km2. It is interesting to see how the vegetation (and the animals) recovered from massive overgrazing and forest fires, except for a few species such as the Taruca, or north Andean deer, which is still threatened with extinction.
Despite human intervention, scientists consider Torres del Paine as a relatively untouched territory where various eco-systems come together, where the air and the water are still clean and vital parts of the eco-system have been preserved. In other words, all the animals and plants for which this territory is a natural habitat, are still present here. In the park, 24 species of mammals and 105 species of birds were counted. The animals have adapted to the rugged circumstances. The majority of them live here all year long and (almost all of them) are noticeably used to having people walking around.
The territory is relatively young. According to scientists, the Paine-massif is about 12 million years old, a baby compared to the Alps in Europe or the Rocky Mountains in North America. The mountains here are heavily eroded, resulting in three granite monoliths. These are the famous Cuernos del Paine (or Tres Torres), of which the Cerro Paine Grande is king, with its 3,050 meters. The peaks are a striking pinkish red in colour, edged with a rim of black slate.
The number of plants in the park is over 200, with seven species of orchids. They particularly grow in the alpine grasslands. The park has some large forests, which are dominated by the Antarctic beech. This species of beech has elegantly curling leaves. You also have the Chilean fire bush (with brightly coloured flowers), the wine palm and countless conifers, bromeliads, ferns, and bamboo. The wind plays a specific role, as it gives shape to most trees, some of which are completely horizontal.
The vast Campo de Hielo Sur, the southern Patagonian ice field, is the largest ice field in the southern hemisphere. This massive stretch of ice measures 14,000 km2 in size and has 48 large and over 100 smaller glaciers. Four of these glaciers end up in Torres del Paine: the Grey Glacier, the Dickson Glacier, the Zapata Glacier and the Tyndall Glacier. They are the beating heart of this territory. The ice is extremely powerful, the glaciers push the mountains upward and feed the wilderness with water, while the cold winds of the ice fields control the climate. This is a sinister place, unmatched in its beauty.
Search for the elusive cougar (or mountain lion)
Torres del Paine is one of the best places to spot a cougar (or mountain lion). With a renowned biologist and a tracker you can hit the trails during the day (and at night!) to find these animals. The search takes mostly place in the eastern part of the park, where these elusive animals are regularly spotted.
There are no guarantees, but your chances of an encounter are increased considerably. Besides, the information from both the biologist and the tracker will be more than worth your while.
More information: www.fsexpeditions.com/torres_del_paine_national_park_chilean_patagonia/pumas_of_torres_del_paine.php
Walk to the Zapata Glacier
There is no doubt about it. In Torres del Paine you must hike for at least half a day (but actually a minimum of three days). Only then will you be able to appreciate the immensity of this unique park.
There is a large choice of hiking trails, as these amount to over 250 kilometers in total. The hike to the stunning Zapata Glacier is one of the most popular one. You may also decide to walk parts of several longer walks in the park.
Hike the famous Torres del Paine circuit
The journey can be completed in five days, but the average is seven to eight. Many hikers will leave early, before the light comes out on the trail. This way, they hope to encounter a cougar (or puma). Most hikers prefer to go counterclockwise because of the spectacular view en route. You may go by yourself, with a group or with a guide. The start of the trail is often at the ‘Guarderia’ at Laguna Amarga, but there are several other points of departure. In winter this route is often closed due to snow. Prepare well and you will not be disappointed.
Kayak past the ice bergs of Campo de Hielo Sur
The Tyndall and Serrano River are ideal to explore by kayak. You will come across well-proportioned ice bergs and a very few other tourists. Eventually, you will have a view of the Tyndall glacier. The majestic ice mass and the start of the enormous Campo de Hielo Sur. This trip is also possible in a zodiac.
Explore on a horseback
Torres del Paine is well-suited for horseback riding. It is a natural way to see a lot of the area. The horses feel absolutely at home here. You can go out for a few hours, but also go on a trip for a couple of days.
The guide will ensure your safety and prevent you from getting lost. The various hotels, of which Explora Lodge is the famous, provide the service of renting horses. Make sure you can understand your guide, so you may learn a lot from him about the area and everything there is to see here.
See ice falling at Lago Grey Glacier
The Lago Grey Glacier is by far the easiest of all four glaciers to reach at Torres del Paine. You can take a boat to the ice and sit back. In the meantime, the landscape continuously changes and chunks of ice float by constantly. In the end, the enormous ice mass of the Campo de Hielo Sur emerges. Just wait for the sound of the ice crumbling away.
Conquer the Torres with rope and crampons
Those looking for a real challenge can climb several mountains here. Mountain climbing in Torres del Paine may not be developed very much, but the park has various trails. One of those is the Torres, or at least part of it. The view will constantly change here. You need a permit to go climbing, which you need to arrange in advance. You can do this at several tour operators, who will then also provide a guide.
Enjoy the ice of the Grey Glacier
With crampons, you can climb the Grey Glacier for an hour, half a day or a whole day. Here you will see the forces of nature at work. The enormous mass of ice determines the climate of the entire region.
You can go by boat to the foot of the glacier and from there you can get on the ice. If you go with a guide, you will learn a lot the ever changing ice. For instance about climate change. And the consequences of this, which are measured constantly here.
Watch the sunrise at The Tres Torres
If you want to experience an extraordinary sunrise, you should go camping at Campiamento Torres. This is the final campsite during the journey to the foot of the Tres Torres. You will be able to witness the sun slowly illuminating the granite blocks in the early hours of the day. An entire spectrum of colours will pass by. this is by far one of the best ways to really feel Torres del Paine.
The best time for a visit to the park is between November and April. Springtime (October, November and December) is considered to be the absolute best, because this is when many flowers are in bloom. The busiest time here is during the summer months, from January to March.
In all the other months, snow could pose a problem. If you are not bothered by this, you should visit the park in May or in September. The weather conditions are often reasonable in these months and you will be virtually alone. Many of the hiking trails (and roads) will be inaccessible in the heart of winter (July, August and September). The ferries will not go during this time.
If you go on a multiple-day trip of hiking and camping, you should be prepared for cold nights. Temperatures may drop to minus five degrees Celsius in summer. In any case, many campings will rent out tents, mats and sleeping bags. Camping out in the wild is not allowed.
Every year, some tourists become lost here. Most of the trails have proper signs, but a mistake is easily made. Changing weather conditions can surprise even the most experienced hikers, which is why it is prohibited to go out on the trail alone. Those going on longer trips are strongly advised to inform others of their plans.
If you wish to spend the night in the refugio’s (a type of mountain cabin) it is recommended to arrange this in advance. Most of them provide facilities to cook on wood.
More information: www.lastorres.com
How do I get there?
The nearest town is Puerto Natales (at 110 kilometers), but most visitors come here from the more southern Punta Arenas. The distance between Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine is just over 300 kilometers.
There are daily buses, but many travelers also rent cars at the airport in Punta Arenas. There are direct flights from Punta Arenas to the capital Santiago.