Chile is a land of spectacular mountains and volcanoes. Its backbone of the Andean cordillera extends over 4000 kms north to south forming a natural boundary with neighboring Argentina.
Certainly having some of the best mountain scenery in all South America is the Torres del Paine National Park, located some 350 kms north of Punta Arenas, the capital of Chile’s prosperous 12th Region, and seaport on the Strait of Magellan.
In Winter-time the region is inhospitable, but the southern summer, December to March, brings an increasing number of visitors. For tourists, Chile is a pleasant, economical and safe place.
Access to the National Park Headquarters is by bus or car from Puerto Natales over 170 kms of rough road. Puerto Natales has many tour operators ready to organize anything. Minibus tours for the day are very good as the driver will stop any time for photography which is not possible if you go in by regular bus, and you get to see the whole park in comfort.
The most stunning close-up view of the mountains is from the mirador near Pudeto. From the car park take a short walk to see the Salto Grande. This is a spectacular waterfall on the short stretch of river linking the two glacial lakes Lago Nordenskjold which lies in front of the Cuernos (Horns) of Paine, and Lago Pehoe. An inviting track leads across the hills for 2 kms to the mirador (lookout point) above Lago Nordenskjold.
Early morning hikers may encounter a few guanaco, or small brown “llamas”. The track winds around the lake shore and through a wonderland of flowering heaths and red embothrium. Prickly calafate and Patagonian cactus shelter little glades covered in flowering pea and green and yellow orchids. You may have to share your lunch with inquisitive foxes.
The fantastic panorama of the Paine mountains starts with Paine Grande (3248m) having a precarious summit snowfield that periodically sends avalanches crashing down onto the Francis Glacier. The Francis Valley separates Paine Grande from the awe-inspiring Cuernos del Paine, which seem to feature on every Paine postcard.
Cuerno Principal (2600m) and Cuerno Este (2200m) exhibit shear walls of light-colored granite capped by jagged peaks of black shale. The granite intrusion has been dated as occurring only 12 million years ago, making the Paine massif extremely “young” geologically. The entire area was covered by a thick ice-sheet about 100,000 years ago, which has now largely melted away to expose a well glaciated landscape.
Present day valley glaciers are slowly retreating. The Southern Patagonian Icefield, which extends northward for 200 kms is a remnant of what used to be.
Hidden behind the Cuernos lie the formidable Torres del Paine, shear granite towers that reach more than 2600 meters. South, central and north tower have all been climbed by means of pegging a 1000m rope into the wall and hauling yourself up! This requires several month’s preparation, good weather and much skill and determination.
The full impact of the Torres is obtained from the mirador atop of the moraine overlooking a glacial lake and beneath the shaly crags of El Nido del Condor (condor’s nest). HosterÃa Estancia Torres on the flat is well sited to do this as a day hike. Early morning I checked to see if the Torres were free of cloud.
I followed the 7km track up the steep valley of the Rio Ascencio to Camp Torres and beyond. There are excellent exposures of Cretaceous sedimentary strata, mainly black shales, shot through with igneous dykes. It was a 4 hour hike to reach the top of the moraine which harbours granite blocks the size of houses.
Sinister condors glided above while I peered through the mist at the frightening Torres – will the weather improve? No, of course not – this is Paine! It took me only 3 hours to scuttle back through the mist to a welcome hot shower at Estancia Torres.
Another fine walking area is above the conglomerate outcrops south of Pudeto and the jetty on Lago Pehoe. In summer the ridge tops are ablaze with “notro”, a striking red-flowering shrub
(embothrium coccineum). The glaciated landscape is dotted with tarns and wonderful alpine flora.
On the peninsula between Pudeto and the Park Entrance at Laguna Amarga from the road are seen many small herds of guanaco. Safe from the puma and fairly tame, they roam freely and like to take up majestic poses on rocky outcrops.
Pumas are rarely seen and dangerous. In March 1998, a trout fisherman was attacked and killed by a puma when he disturbed it eating its prey; this was on the shore of Lago Sarmiento about 6kms from Estancia Lazo.
Laguna Azul and Lago Grey are frequented tourist beauty spots. Lago Grey can be visited by road, or as a day excursion by boat. The motor launch MV Tzonka takes hikers across Lago Pehoe and a short walk across an isthmus brings you to Lago Grey and its icebergs. At the top end of the lake lies the huge Grey Glacier marking the end of the Southern Patagonian Icefield.
There is good fishing on the park periphery away from the milky, glacier-fed waters. The outlet Rio Serrano, only 20 minutes walk from the Park Headquarters, has big rainbow trout and salmon. A notice here informs anglers:
“Conserve our resource – 3 fish per day permitted, without exceeding 15 kilos”.
Allowing for my rudimentary Spanish this seemed both ambiguous and impossible, yet definitely encouraging!
Torres del Paine National Park is the new mecca for hikers. Whether you visit Paine as a tourist, hiker, backpacker or mountaineer, the stunning natural beauty of the area will make it an unforgettable experience.
How to Get There
Fly to Punta Arenas (ca. 4 hours) on the Strait of Magellan, the starting point for all southern excursions. You get a superb view of the Paine Mountains on the southern descent.
Punta Arenas, population 100,000, Antarctic supply base and port-of-call for cruise ships, is a nice place to rest-up awhile. Bus north to Puerto Natales (3Â½ hours, cost US$6).
Puerto Natales, population 18,000, is a delightful tourist town on the shores of a sound (Seno Ultima Esperanza) that winds into the mountains. It is the southern terminus for the huge Navimag car ferry that comes from Puerto Montt.
The summer season is December to February when temperatures are a pleasant 15Â° to 20Â°C, but the mountains have extremely variable weather often with high winds.
Accommodation in Puerto Natales is no problem – Lonely Planet lists umpteen economical hospedajes and guest houses (US$9 con desayuno), ranging upwards to the Hotel Costa Australis on the waterfront (US$142). You will find a place within a few blocks of the town center and bus terminal. Money access OK with RedBank ATM.
There are a dozen or more tour businesses in town, also your landlady may be an agent and book you a trip.
Some must-do tours are the D’Agostini boat cruise of Seno Ultima Esperanza (7Â½ hrs, US$53), the Milodon Cave (2 hrs, US$10), Torres del Paine National Park (11 hrs, US$48) and the 1Â½ day trip to Calafate, Argentina to see the huge Perito Moreno Glacier (US$90 excluding accommodation).
Allow at least a week.
Torres del Paine National Park
The National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve located 143 kms north of Puerto Natales (2Â½ hours by bus) and covers 242,000 hectares.
Entrance fee US$14.
Hikers must lodge plans with the guarderÃas at entrance points. Special fees for mountaineers.
Note: the weather can be lousy for days. Postcard-type vistas are not the norm. Relish any fine day.
The famous “Paine Circuit” is a 5-day hike (strenuous) around the mountains, staying in refuges or camping out. A popular day hike is to the base of the Torres.
Hikers may camp in designated camping spots or stay in refugios, some being free (limited one night). The Serrano Park Headquarters has backpacker-type accommodation (US$10).
Organized tour groups stay at upmarket tourist lodges such as the stunning lakeside HosterÃa Pehoe, HosterÃa Los Torres and HosterÃa Estancia Lazo.
Catering for organized groups are:
Onas et. al.
You can visit Allano’s web site by clicking here.