In the South of Chile, right near the Magellan’s Strait and within the lands of Chilean Patagonia, stands one of the most amazing peaks in the world. Paradise for intrepid climbers, idolized land by nature lovers and stunning challenge for hikers looking for a beautiful landscape, the Cordillera del Paine dramatically rises above the plain steppe combing the wind with its sharp peaks.
The Cordillera del Paine (Paine Range) is formed from three peaks called Torres Del Paine (Towers of Paine), a nearby group called Cuernos Del Paine (Paine Horns) and other formations topped by Paine Grande (Big Paine), all made of massive granite blocks that erect in the Southern Andes Range, reaching the 3050 m in its highest point, the Paine Grande. The entire mountain lies within the limits of the Torres del Paine National Park, about 150 km from the nearest city Puerto Natales, 280 km to Punta Arenas and approximately 2000 km to the capital Santiago de Chile.
But not everything ends with the mountains. The Grey Glacier and Grey Lake will make the delights for those willing like to see the pure blue ice, and great assort of native fauna will bring the joy to the younger ones with Guanacos, Flamingos, Pumas, Condors and Rheas.
The park was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978.
Torres del Paine
The mountains of the Paine Range are obviously the main attraction of the park. The highest peak in the Paine Range is Cerro Paine Grande (Mount Big Paine) reaching 2884 m, placed in the western slope of the Valle del Francés (Valley of the French) and to the east from the Grey Glacier.
Between Paine Grande and the towers itself, in the east slope of Valle del Francés, stands the Cuernos del Paine (Paine Horns). Cuerno Principal is its higher horn and reaches 2,600 m and Cerro Espada (Sword Mt.) reaches 2500 m. Other horns are Cerro Hoja, Cerro Máscara, Cuerno Norte and Cuerno Este. Cerro Fortaleza (Fortress Mt.) stands behind and reaches 2881 m.
But the most famous of the peaks are the three Torres del Paine or Towers of Paine, shaped in vertical walls by the forces of glacial ice. The South Tower of Paine (2860 m and also named Di Agostini) is the highest of three, followed by the Central Tower (2800 m) and the North Tower (2246 m, also named Monzino). All of them have their own stories of climbers’ fatality and success, efforts and pain, and the privilege to be in the objectives of the newer ones. You’ll be able to see their figures if you look closer to the mountain, and you’ll meet them in the shelters.
Grey Lake and Grey Glacier
In the eastern area of the park, in the southern end of the Patagonia Ice Field, the blue ice of the Grey Glacier extends between the mountains slopes until its melting zone in the Grey Lake, where calmly floating icebergs can be found. The Antarctica and Lenga Beech forest around the lake and the snowed peaks behind give the final contrast to this pictoresque landscape.
Getting to Grey Lake by car is easy following the main road. From there you’ll be able to see the glacier with dozens of ice fragments floating in the water. Willing to get closer you will have to hike or take a boat, in which case you’ll be able to sail in front of the huge ice walls of the glacier. You also can see the glacier and the lake from John Garner Pass, following the big circuit of Paine Mountain Range.
Around Cordillera del Paine there are some other glaciers and lakes like Dickson Lake, Nordenskjöld Lake, Pehoe Lake, Grey Lake, Sarmiento Lake and Del Toro Lake, although they are not as stunning and reachable as the Grey Glacier.
* Boats are running between Hostería Lago Grey and Refugio Grey, with an approximate cost of 80$ p/p. Book it on advance.
Visiting the park – What to do
After paying the entrance fee, about 30$ (15$ in low season), you will have to choose how to move. If you came here by a car hired in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales, you’ll be able to enter with it, just paying more. If it’s not the case, a minivan runs between Laguna Amarga and Hostería Los Torres, in order to connect to the big busses, 4 times a day, and there’s also a boat running from Refugio Pudeto to Paine Grande.
But Torres del Paine National Park is one of the most amazing hiking destinations in the world, se we recomend you just put on your boots, fill your backpack and hike all the way around the park. You can follow clearly marked paths and trails using widespread and well mantained mountain shelters or if you prefer camping in special zones. You will be provided basic facilities and, more important, good information and advices.
If this is your final decision, you can choose to take a day trip just to see the towers, take the 5 days popular W route, or tour the whole park in 8 to 9 days.
The best time for visiting the park is from late December to late February, during the summer in southern hemisphere. The weather is bearable (although cold, you are near a glacier!) and the days are very long given the extreme latitude. Dress warmly and be prepared for one of the strongest wind you have felt in your life. In winter the weather is too extreme and days are too short.
Here you have some basic routes:
Popular day tours:
- From Administration hike to Mirador Condor – Salto Grande – Mirador Cuernos – Mirador del Nordenskjold. Then catch the bus to Laguna Amarga Gate or come back to Administration.
- From Laguna amarga entrance, take a bus to Hostería Las Torres, hike to Campamento Torres and Mirador Torres to see the view of the three towers and go back (12 km). Then go back to the Laguna Amarga gate.
- Get down in Pudeto and reach Refugio Paine Grande by boat. Hike to Refugio Grey and take a boat to Hosteria Lago Grey. Then, go back to the entrance by bus.
If you take a day tour, you will see not so much of the whole park. Torres del Paine is a remote destination, so my advice is that if you get there, don’t stay just one day. And if you have only one day, better hire a car and move fast through the drivable paths, then hike a little to get to places unreachable by car. Otherwise, if you have a good accommodation outside the park or near the entrance, you can do a day tour every day, though my advice is to do a route and stay in the mountain shelters or hotels within the park.
W Circuit (5 – 6 days)
Like the name says, W Circuit has the shape of a W, with the main stops at the five points of the letter, usually starting at one of the base points of the W. You can organize the route as you want, even doing it in four days. Here you have one example of the route made in 6 days:
- From Administration – Visitors Centre, you should hike to Campamento Las Carretas and from there to Refugio Paine Grande (17.5 km), near the Lake Pehoé, and with good views of the Paine Horns. Sleep the fist night there.
- Next day hike to Refugio Lago Grey or Campamento Las Guardas –with beautiful views of the Grey Glacier-, depending on your accommodation plan. You can choose to sleep there or go back to Refugio Paine Grande (11 km one way).
- Third day reach the Campamento Italiano (7.6 km) and sleep there. From there you can see the Lake Nordenskjold and the way up to the Valle del Frances.
- Fourth day hike to Campamento Britanico and the go up the Valle del Francés until Mirador del Valle del Francés, admire the stunning views of the snowed rocky summits of the Paine Grande and Cuernos del Paine (Paine Horns), one of the most beautiful sights of the park, and go back to sleep in Campamento Italiano. (15 km go and back)
- Walk to Hosteria Las Torres, a large hotel in the base of the mountains, and stay there for sleep (16.5 km).
- Hike to Campamento Las Torres and Mirador Las Torres and get in touch with the beautiful view of the three Torres Del Paine. Go back to Hostería Las Torres (12 km). Take a minibus to Laguna Amarga Park Gate.
Long circuit (8 – 9 days)
The long circuit is basically the “W” circuit without backtracking, connecting the two ends of the W around the back of the mountains. If you take this circuit, you can lodge at Campamento los Perros, Refugio Dickson and Campamento Seron.
* Remember that boats and buses provide transport between Hosteria Las Torres, Refugio Pehoé and the two main park entrances, Laguna Amarga and Administration. Also remember that as a national park, you are not allowed to stray from the paths. You must camp in specified zone and campfires are prohibited all over the park.
The main base city to get to the park is Puerto Natales. Daily buses run to the park gate taking two hours to arrive, a little bit less if you go by private car. The bus frequencies vary depending on the season; from November to February are departing Puerto Natales at 7.30 AM and 14.30 PM, arriving at 9.30 and 16.30 to Laguna Amarga entrance respectively (entrance open from 8.30 AM to 20.30 PM). As said, from there you can get to Hostería Las Torres with another shuttle. Normally, you will reach Puerto Natales from Punta Arenas, the capital of the region, or from any other city with public transport.
From El Calafate, in Argentina, there are no public buses, but some private operators offer them. This way you can connect with another one of southern South America main sights: Perito Moreno Glacier.
Puerto Natales is a small cold city placed in Montt Admirel Gulf. It’s an active place, with tourist, hiking and climbing culture, and with an acceptable offer in lodge, gastronomy and excursion organization.
The port and the fishing activity might be the most interesting thing in the city, without forgetting the Historic museum. On the way to Torres del Paine National Park you can stop at some popular sights like Cueva Del Milodón, a cave of doubtful interest, honouring an extinct Patagonian mammal, Silla Del Diablo (a nearby rock with not more interest than the cave) and Rio Serrano village (with stunning views of the Paine Horns). From Puerto Natales, other possible excursions could be to Cerro Dorotea and Laguna Sofia, or you can go to one of the numerous “Estancias” and try a little of horse riding through the steppe.
Punta Arenas is the capital of the Chile’s southernmost region, Magallanes and Antartica Chilena, holding the main airport in Southern Chile and placed in the waters of the Strait of Magellan. After being a Spanish colony called Puerto del Hambre due to the difficulty to obtain food and water, the city was established as a penal colony and renamed Punta Arenas. In 1927 was renamed Magallanes, but 1938 it took back its actual name.
The main sight in Punta Arenas is Nao Victoria Museum -with a full-size replica of Magellan’s ship- and the sea port with some sunk vessels. But the most remarkable objects are little bit away from the city, the pretty nice Bulnes Fort, and the amazing penguin colonies in Seno Otway National Park, about 35 km away from Punta Arenas. If you are lucky, you can even see a killer whale!
Resuming, Torres del Paine is one of these sites that are worth crossing half the globe. It’s not only about seeing one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth, but about a concentration of many different sights, landscapes, views etc. Crazy mountains, amazing glaciers, a beautiful blue low sky and short penguins hanging around.
Just remember: be prepared for that severe wind!