Torres del Paine National Park, named after the three granite towers that rise in the centre of the park, is one of the indisputable highlights of Chilean Patagonia. In the park, there are many opportunities to get out into the great outdoors and savour the landscape. The W circuit is a four to five day year-round trek which encompasses the best of the park’s scenery. Mountain refuges offer shelter overnight for hikers keen to experience the dramatic rock faces, mountain peaks and glaciers. If that’s not enough, there’s the longer Paine circuit, which has the W at its heart but offers at least a further two days of wow-factor hiking though it’s closed in winter.
Lakes and rock formations provide a stunning backdrop
If your time or fitness level rules out serious hiking, don’t feel you’ll miss out. Driving the park’s gravel roads is straightforward except in all but the worst weather. Begin by entering the park at the southern entrance, as it’s closest to Puerto Natales and stop at the lookouts overlooking Lago Toro and Lago Grey. Follow the road as it hugs the shore of turquoise Lago Pehoe before turning off to make a detour to Salto Grande, a low but impressive waterfall just off the main road. It’s an easy two hour hike to and from Mirador Cuernos where you’ll have a superb view over Lago Nordernskjold of the Cuernos del Paine, sedimentary rock formations that stand about 2600m high.
Head north to see the wildlife
Back on the road, in the north of the park, make for Laguna Amarga. On a clear and windless day, the Torres are reflected in its waters. Public buses run this route, connecting the nearby visitor centre with the one in the south of the park and also on to Puerto Natales. The road crosses a pass which is one of the best places to spot some of the park’s wildlife, such as herds of guanacos, a slimmer and daintier version of a llama.
You’ll need to be luckier to spot ostrich-like rheas, pumas and grey foxes. A little further on the Cascada Paine is a beautiful double waterfall situated in front of the granite towers and a lovely spot for a picnic.
Take a boat out to the glacier
Getting out onto the lakes is essential and the best place to do so is on Lago Grey. This long ribbon lake is fed by Grey Glacier, reached by boat. Trips take around three to four hours, with plenty of time allowed for sailing in front of the glacier’s face, offering unforgettable close-up views of the blue crevassed ice. It’s also possible to take kayaking trips to the glacier, though the winds that blow down the lake can make the water a little choppy. Arrange your boat trip with Hotel Lago Grey at least a day in advance as some sailings are fully booked.
Getting to Torres del Paine National Park
Most visitors fly in to the southern city of Punta Arenas and make the three hour journey north by car rental or bus to Puerto Natales, from where it’s another hour or two on gravel to reach the park. Accommodation options are plentiful in the park with several excellent hotels such as Explora and Tierra Patagonia within the park and the excellent Patagonia Camp just outside on the shore of Lake Toro. All of them offer a full excursion programme. At the other end of the budgetary spectrum, there are plentiful options for camping.