One of Patagonia’s most impressive highlights, Torres del Paine is an adventure playground of immense proportions. Breathtaking, intimidating and utterly unforgettable, Chile’s crown jewel is a hiker’s and wildlife lover’s paradise, offering an array of intense experiences. Your Insider’s Guide to Torres del Paine National Park is your introduction to this most spectacular corner of South America.
There’s nothing that can quite prepare you for your first glimpses of the Torres del Paine National Park. Even if you’ve spent hours clicking through photos on the internet, there’s nothing that could do this place justice like an encounter vis-à-vis. Between the vertiginous granite peaks, spectacular ice fields, glacier-fed roaring rivers, turquoise lakes and verdant pampas, Torres del Paine is an absolute assault on the senses. What impresses most is the immensity of it all, and the grandiose features that are anything but dainty. This is one of the world’s wildest and most spectacular parks, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve that’s rated as the best national park in the continent. Chile has the honour of being its keeper and protector, and being the exceptional country it is, has done a fantastic job of building just enough infrastructure to make it accessible to adventurous nature-lovers, yet not so much that it’s overrun with visitors. At the end of the day, this is Patagonia, the dramatically remote and pristine southern tip of South America. There’s simply no taming this beast anyhow.
Overview of Torres del Paine
The park was created in 1959 and has recovered beautifully after spending decades as a gargantuan sheep farm. Its epicentre is the Paine Massif, which soars more than 2000m above an intensely beautiful steppe. Most visitors head here with only the Paine Massif and its arresting peaks in mind, but once they arrive they realise that equally mesmerising sites abound.
Torres is, without exaggeration, a WOW at every step.
The best way to experience Torres del Paine is on your feet, literally. A comprehensive maze of hiking trails offers trekkers a wild array of options, from day-trips to splendid viewpoints, and challenging multi-day treks around the mountain range. You can also go horseriding, kayaking, mountain biking, sailing on glacial lakes, walking on glaciers and visiting estancias. Options in Torres, like natural beauty, simply abound. You could seriously spend months here, hopping from lodge to lodge, and still not see it all.
A phenomenal wildlife-watching destination to boot, Torres is home to the largest concentration of endemic Patagonian fauna, which thrives in its verdant forests and plains. This is the Kruger of South America, that one park where you have the best chances of spotting pumas, foxes, condors, hawks, falcons, skunks, hares, maras, ibis, swans, geese, flamingos, and huge colonies of guanacos, Torres’ signature resident. There are 26 species of mammals living here, as well as hundreds of unique birds. On any given day, the animal spotting is abundant.
It’s the combination of scenery and animal encounters that make this arguably the finest park in all of South America. Not to mention the fact that a healthy smattering of beautiful lodges means you could go all Bear Grylls during the day meandering through the wilderness and still enjoy the comforts of a warm bed, sumptuous meals and a sneaky vino or two at night. Of course, plenty of rustic and basic refugios and camp sites means you can also rough it full time, if you wish, for that all-encompassing Torres experience. Either way, when you’re immersed in the outstanding beauty of this magnificent place, you’ll always feel a million miles away from civilisation.
Highlights of Torres del Paine
The Paine Towers – The three peaks from which the park gets its name are its most iconic and celebrated centrepiece, although an impressive number of jagged and breathtaking mountains peek through the horizon at every turn. The North, Central and South towers stand at an average altitude of 2,400m and, even though other peaks are higher, these are still the most eye-catching of all. The blue hue of the rocks is what ‘Paine’ refers to, and the colour is a direct contrast to some of the other peaks in the park which are black and multi-coloured. Being the fabulous stars of the Torres del Paine show, views of the Torres can be soaked up from an abundance of viewpoints.
Cerro Paine Grande – The highest peak of the Paine Massif, Cerro Paine Grande rises 3,500m above sea level.
Los Cuernos – Peaking at 2600m in altitude, the Paine ‘hornes’ are spellbinding rock formations which actually dominate the landscape for much of the W-walk.
Grey Glacier – Arguably the easiest of the highlights to reach, and the one which requires minimal effort and time, the Grey Glacier is part of the enormous Patagonian ice Field. You can reach the glacier by taking a boat trip over Lake Grey, and the leisurely cruising affords endless chances for exceptional photographing.
Nordenskjöld Lake – This emerald-hued lake is an absolute visual splendour, framed by fields of pristine wilderness. Several viewpoints around the shores of the lake offer ample chances for leisurely explorations.
Laguna Amarga – Marking the eastern entrance to the National Park, Laguna Amarga is a phenomenal introduction to the wonders beyond the horizon. On a clear and cloudless day, can see the reflection of the Paine Towers in its pristine waters.
French Valley – The dramatically beautiful French Valley is the middle section of the famed W-walk. Many rate this as the most challenging part of the hike but also the most rewarding. This section of the park really has it all, with comprehensive views to peaks, glaciers, valleys and lakes. Lucky really, that one tends to hike this section slowly, so at least there’s plenty of time to soak up the vistas.
Salto Grande – This relatively small but powerful waterfall is an easy and rewarding addition to a day-trip into the Torres del Paine National Park and you can extend your walk to include viewpoints of Nordenskjöld Lake and the Cuernos.
Laguna Azul – This startling blue lake isn’t just a feast for the eyes, but the hike to reach is regarded as a great ‘intro’ workout for more adventurous endeavours. Gentle enough to test your stamina yet still affording exceptional scenery with every step.
Hikes – When it comes to activities in Torres, hiking reigns supreme. Each lodge within the park offers an impressive array of day hikes to various viewpoints, all offering magnificent chances for wildlife and nature viewing. You can pretty much pick one at random and you’ll no doubt hike past – or have perfect views of – any of the famed highlights mentioned above, as well as many others. They are simply too numerous to list them all! The two most popular multi-day hiking excursions are the W-walk (named for the shape of the trail when traced on a map) and Circuito Grande, the O.
The W-walk covers approximately 50km of Torres del Paine’s most unforgettable landscapes and takes about 4-5 hard days’ hiking to complete. By taking a guided trip, all your refugio accommodation and food will be included, as well as the entry fee into the park. Given the arduous logistics of doing it alone, from carrying food and camping gear for the whole trip or pre-booking everything (lest you leave yourself hungry and with no warm place to sleep) doing a guided trip is recommended, especially during high tourist season.
The O incorporates the W as well as a trail around the northern edge of the Paine Massif, for a total of about 100km. This is a very challenging yet immensely rewarding expedition that can take anywhere from 7 to 10 days to complete, depending on your speed. Those who have completed it rate it as the most sensational hike on the planet and we certainly couldn’t agree more. If you’re a serious hiker and looking for that bucket-list notch on your belt, then you really couldn’t pick a more worthy challenge. A startling 1,200m pass (John Garner) grants incredible views over the Patagonian Ice Field. Note that if you do wish to do the full O circuit, you will have to camp out in tents on some nights, as refugios are few and far between on the northern stretch.
Once you are in Torres del Paine you’ll discover that there are numerous options for day hikes, following just sections of the trails which make up the W and the O. Make sure you pack plenty of time here and your chances for unbelievable adventures, in one of the world’s most spectacular reserves, will be infinite.
Best time to visit Torres del Paine
The Austral summer months of November to April marks the peak visiting season in Torres del Paine, with January and February seeing the highest concentration of visitors. Travelling here during the shoulder months (Oct/Nov/Dec/March and April) is considered ideal, and you can even brave the freezing winds and temperatures and visit in winter, when lakes freeze over and the parts of the park are dusted with snow. The views are out of this world, although you’ll have to rug up considerably.
Patagonia’s infamously unpredictable weather means that chances of seeing everything, and nothing, are ever-present in visitors’ minds. This is why time is of the essence. Not what time of year to visit, but how much time to dedicate to your visit. Torres del Paine isn’t a place you’ll want to rush through. And you couldn’t anyway: its enormous size means that 3 days is the absolute minimum amount of time one needs to reach it and explore at least one corner of it. Add an extra day or two as bad-weather insurance and you’ve got yourself to a spellbinding and rugged adventure, if you don’t wish to tackle a multi-day hike.
How to visit Torres del Paine National Park
Puerto Natales is the hub for road transport into the Torres del Paine National Park, and the closest airports are in El Calafate (where you can include a day-trip to the astonishing Perito Moreno Glacier) and Punta Arenas, another unmissable stop on any tour of Patagonia.
Where to Stay in Torres del Paine
Accommodation in and just around the perimeter of the national park abound, with comfort levels to suit just about every budget. If you’re looking for an exceptional experience, don’t look past Tierra Patagonia, a sensational luxury lodge that even our own Meg Hall had the pleasure to experience on one of her trips. You can read her blog post right here. Most luxury lodges include day trips to various attractions, food, drinks and will include park entry fees as well, so it’s worth looking at the all-inclusive prices for the superb value they really are. There are also unique stays (like the Ecocamp Patagonia) and innumerable other accommodation options.
Here at Chimu Adventures, we pride ourselves in personally vetting the tours and accommodation options we offer (it’s our pleasure, really!) and can’t wait to help you plan your own unforgettable adventure into the Torres del Paine National Park, one of the world’s most astounding destinations. Contact us for more info.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”