Chile's Torres del Paine National Park: Glacier Watching and Spectacular Scenery
I had hiked 10 days in Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park to get here, and got up before dawn. I felt like a pilgrim waiting for a miracle. In a way, I got one.
Along with many others I was staring at three towers of vertical granite that soar above a glacial lake, willing the sun to hurry up and rise now and for the fog to stay away.
One minute, the spires were a uniform dark grey. The next the tip of the tallest had turned orange, then gold.
We didn't have to make this into a ten-day ordeal. The trail caters to all kinds of hikers and the accommodation varies from “carry your own tent” to “very nice indeed.”
We were reminded of this on day six – slogging back down a trail we met a woman caked in make-up and not carrying a pack, obviously fresh on the trail. I am still not sure whether my girlfriend's reaction to this was pure disgust or whether there was some envy mixed in there too. Moments later we passed someone in flip-flops (not a good idea).
The Torres (or towers) themselves can be reached in a long day walk from the entry to Chile's most famous national park.
But spectacular as the Torres are, the park deserves much more than a day. The scenery is sensational and the park is home to many species of animal including the graceful guanacos (a relative of the llama), flamingos, condors, foxes and, most excitingly, pumas. I didn't see any pumas, but I did see a paw print.
Hiking the Paine Circuit
There are many options (view the official map), to suit your interests and fitness. The three most common options are:
*To hike the popular “W”, so named for the (approximate) shape of the walk, which takes five moderate days and includes the most impressive sights in the park.
*To hike the “circuit” which takes you around the mountain range in nine easy days or seven more ambitious ones.
*To pick a base inside the park and take a series of shorter treks to selected highlights.
There are other hikes nearby, which have the attraction of being less well trodden and where you are more likely to see exotic animals like flamingos. Don't like hiking? You might want to think about horse treks.
My girlfriend and I hiked the full circuit in the conventional anti-clockwise direction which means that the hike gets more impressive with every day. The full circuit can be thought of as comprising the “back section” and the “W”.
We hiked the back section over four short days (four to five hour days each) through peaceful pampas, following the Río Paine much of the way.
The highlight of this part of the journey is a night at Refugio Dickson (camping and chalet accommodation available) sandwiched between a beautiful caramel and dark grey mountain range and a gorgeous lake with views to Glaciar Dickson. [Glaciar is the Spanish spelling of glacier.]
Into the valley of glaciers
On day four we climbed over the pass and started to descend toward the more popular “W” half of the trek. Reaching the summit of the pass (approximately 1300 meters (4265 feet) above sea level) we looked down into an enormous glacier filled valley.
Glaciar Grey is 7 km/4.3 mi wide, 17 km/10.5 mi long and disappears into the permanent cloudy haze of the largest ice-field outside the official polar regions. Smaller glaciers flow down other valleys and feed the main glacier.
The trail drops down toward the glacier and parallels it down the valley, leaving hikers with tremendous views across the glacier, which almost seems close enough to touch. I love glaciers, and this one is beautiful.
Stopping early to take advantage of one of the free campsites overlooking the glacier was irresistible.
It would take about half a day to get from the pass to the facilities on the shore of Lago Grey where the glacier drops house-sized chunks of ice into the frigid waters of the lake.
Glacier watching is very popular here, and people hiking the “W” will often come this far up the valley, even though it means retracing their steps the following day. It is certainly worth the effort, although you have to be alert to see the ice actually fall.
The trail from Lago Grey runs south down the first down stroke of the “W” to Lago Pehoé, a stunningly turquoise lake, and turns left toward Valle Francés. The right fork takes you to the third of the three access points in the park (and the one I recommend starting from) and magnificent views over the lake to the mountain range.
Up the French Valley
The trail to the Valle Francés leaves Lago Pehoé and skirts two more lakes as it heads toward the striking “Cuernos” (the horns), rounded turrets of light caramel-coloured granite capped with dark slate.
Before reaching the Cuernos, the trail heads north again up the narrow Valle Francés, past the highest peak in the Paine Massif (Cerro Paine Grande) which reaches 3050 meters (10,000 feet) in height. This trail is the middle upstroke of the “W”, and involves steady climbing.
The view is tremendous. A glacier drops enormous blocks of ice from Paine Grande. The Cuernos rise steeply to the right. The valley terminates in an enormous cirque surrounded by magnificent peaks on all sides – with names like the shark fin, the castle, the cathedral and the sword – except back down the valley where the view stretches all the way to Lago Pehoé and beyond.
I took so many photos I got confused and ended up taking the same photos coming down as I had on the way up.
At the foot of the Towers of Paine
Next we head up the last leg of the “W” into the Valle Ascencio which ends in the three towering pinnacles that give the park its name.
We camped in a sheltered free campsite just a 40-minute hike from the foot of the Torres, making it easy to be there for the early morning colour show. Those who don't want to camp stay at the refugio further down the valley but this leaves at least a three-hour hike to get to the Torres.
Camping has its disadvantages though. One night I commented to our neighbour that there hadn't been much rain.
“You must have a good tent” he said. “You notice the rain more when there is a hole in your tent. We rented ours. And a pole broke on the first night.”
Waiting for a light show
The Torres are three pinnacles of granite that have stood firm while softer rock has been worn away by glaciers, rock-splitting frost, and Patagonian gales. They now dominate the skyline, rising above a long narrow lake in which the towers are reflected on a calm day.
It is an impressive place during the day. At sunrise it is astounding. In a short time the rocks turned from light grey, to light red, to darker red and then burst into gold as the sun hit them directly.
It is worth building a spare day into your schedule in case fog prevents the spectacle on your first day. We did, and we needed it.
It had been raining as we headed up the valley, so we asked the park warden if he thought the weather would change. He said it might.
It had been foggy for two days and it was unusual for the weather to stay the same for so long. It would either clear up or get much worse. Weather forecasts aren't too sophisticated here.
In fact the weather hadn't changed much the following morning. It was so foggy that none of us pilgrims knew where we were going, but hopefully followed the headlamp of the person in front of us, guessing that we were going the right way because we were going up hill.
We couldn't even tell which direction the Torres were when we got there. We didn't even know that we had arrived there but kept climbing up the ridge long after we needed to, waiting for them to emerge from the thick fog.
They finally did, about lunch time. I’m very grateful that we thought to include enough food for a spare day, because the following morning was spectacular.
Access to the Park is from Puerto Natales, numerous buses go daily during the hiking season. There are no roads connecting Puerto Natales with the northern cities of Chile.
You can get to Puerto Natales either by bus or plane via from El Calafate in Argentina (which is a great base for exploring Argentinean Patagonia), or by flying to Punta Arenas (240 km/149 mi south) and taking a bus.
The most exotic way is to take the cargo ferry from Puerto Montt, a three day trip past stunning scenery in sometimes rough seas (take seasickness tablets, infinite patience and a sense of humor and do some research before paying).
Torresdelpaine.com has listings for other operators offering trekking, photography, sailing, kayaking and horseback riding.
There are three options. Camping at CONAF's unserviced sites is free, but the more upmarket facilities (showers!) provided by the private operators cost 3,500 pesos (about US$6.50).
There are also more expensive hosterias which can arrange a wide variety of activities in the park. Camping provides the most flexibility and many operators in town can rent you all the gear you will need, but make sure you check it first.
Admission to the park is 15,000 pesos (around US$26) in high season (1 October to 30 April) and 8,000 pesos (around US$14) the rest of the year.
Starting the hike:
There are three logical places to start the trek from and the bus will take you to any of these points (see the map here):
*Guaderia Laguna Amarga (the first place the bus stops at) is the best place to start the full circuit from, and is the closest access point to the Torres. If you are hiking the “W” you could start here and exit at the CONAF office (the park administration office).
* Get off at the park office. This is a great option for the “W” because you can hike into Lago Grey with tremendous views of the mountain range across Lago Pehoé. This provides some of the best views in the park.
* The third option is easier but more expensive. Get off at the last stop and take the boat to Regugio Lago Grey. You are then at the top of the “W” and can walk back to be picked up at Guaderia Laguna Amarga.
Most users of the park need not purchase a map – CONAF provides an adequate map to all visitors. Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Patagonian Andes is probably the best guide book.
When to go:
During the southern summer (November to February/March) unless you are experienced. Even then be prepared for spectacularly bad weather, including snow.
Mark Campbell has travelled and hiked widely through Central and South America and has previously published articles in New Zealand's Dominion Post newspaper and on Travel Post Monthly.
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