The fifth most beautiful place in the world according to National Geographic, and it’s not hard to see why. The Paine Massif soars over lakes of crystal blue water and glaciers that wind down from the Southern Patagonian Ice cap. Standing proudly overhead are the towers themselves, three 2,500m giants of granite.
Torres del Paine (meaning “Blue towers” in a mixture of Spanish and the native Tehuelche language) is a 250,000 hectare national park in the far south of Chile, part of a network of protected land that extends to almost seven million hectares, or over half of the region’s land. The park attracts 150,000 visitors a year and is one of the most popular destinations in South America. We visited the park during our five thousand kilometre drive from Punta Arenas to Santiago and it was one of the true highlights of the trip.
Visitors – who mostly come in December, January and February to take advantage of the southern summer – can climb, hike, drive and/or take boat trips through the park. The highlights are the famous Grey Glacier and the towers themselves, visible from a viewpoint accessible via a 22km round-trip hike. More adventurous hikers can attempt the five day ‘W’ route that visits all the key sites, or the eight day ‘O’ route, first pioneered in 1976, that completes a circuit around the massif.
The Grey Glacier was our first destination in the Park. We took a boat from Hotel Lago Grey to the face of the glacier, rising out of the lake of the same name. At its peak the glacier is 6km wide and is over 60km long, although unfortunately satellite imagery shows that it has receded substantially over the last thirty years.
The boat will take you right to the face of the glacier, a thirty metre wall of ice glowing in a million different shades of blue. Like all glaciers it is slowly sliding down the valley, being replaced with fresh snow fall at its source. If you are lucky you will see it ‘calve’ a new iceberg into the lake.
The true size of the glacier becomes obvious when you spot the few brave kayakers in the water who have travelled the length of the lake to touch the ice and seem so insignificant in comparison. Our boat was much more comfortable and we enjoyed the Pisco served on the return journey. With a block of 6,000 year old ice, of course.
The following day we hiked to see the towers themselves. Hidden by the massif in much of the park, the best view is from the Mirador Base las Torres or “Viewpoint at the base of the towers” behind a lake an eleven kilometre hike from the Hotel Las Torres.
The 22km round trip hike is the right hand side of the ‘W’ route and has two refugios and a campsite on the route. It is well signposted and the walk is relatively easy until the scramble up a boulder field at the end. Hundreds of walkers complete this route daily.
There is plenty of camping accommodation inside the park, and also some (expensive) hotels. We stayed at the Pampa Lodge on the outskirsts of the park, a beautiful wooden lodge built and managed by a Patagonian champion endurance horse-racer.
Look out in the park for Patagonian wildlife, including birds of prey (the Caracara), large cats (the Puma), the camel like Guanaco and the Ostrich like Rhea. Guanaco and Rhea are often found together because the Rhea feeds from larvae in the dung of the Guanaco.
How to get there: Fly to Punta Arenas in Southern Chile from the capital Santiago. Several flights leave every morning with national carrier LAN. Hire a vehicle and drive north via Puerto Natales (fill up here – there is no fuel in the park).