Text and Photos: Tom Alves
There are places where the force of nature is so intense, wild, and extreme that it is difficult to define how we feel in the face of an experience of such magnitude. Dear reader, please forgive the excursions into verbal flights of excess in this narrative, but words cannot possibly do justice to the enchantment of this place. Patagonia simply cries out for superlatives.
Lakes of turquoise or ineffable blue, colossal glaciers, steeply rising mountains, majestic forests of hundred-year-old trees, streams of cold, clear water, and fields painted in the colors of flowers harmonize beautifully. When God created the universe, he evidently decided to make this area, curiously known as “the end of the world,” the very definition of perfection. This may well have been a deliberate effort to finish up creation with a flourish by adding this crown jewel.
The region known as Patagonia extends for thousands of miles across southern Argentina and Chile, combining incredible beauty with stark desolation in one of the planet’s most sparsely populated regions, a severe expanse that can often be bone-dry. Fierce winds sweep the area during much of the year, as evidenced by the landscape of gnarled trees bent in the direction of the prevailing winds. The winters, especially as we approach the more southern sections, are extremely harsh, turning settlements into virtual ghost towns for part of the year. Using their innate ability to adapt, humans have learned to accept and respect the wild nature that prevails in Patagonia.
The age-old difficulty of populating and developing such harsh lands may have preserved Patagonia, leaving its rich biodiversity essentially intact. It is not only a perfect ecotourism venue, but an intelligent alternative for local economies. In this respect, Torres del Paine National Park is one of Patagonia’s most fascinating landmark destinations.
The park is a textbook example of how tourism and environmental conservation can go hand in hand. Located in the Chilean province of Magallanes at the country’s southern tip, the park possesses some of the most beautiful scenery in the world: the Cuernos (Horn) Peaks, Valle del Francés (French Valley), and the sculpted peaks dubbed the Torres (Towers) del Paine. The protected area was created in 1959 and UNESCO named it a Biosphere Reserve in 1978.
It was recently chosen as the eighth wonder of the modern world in a survey sponsored by the website www.virtualtourist.com. It is not surprising that many tourists find their way here: 197,000 guests, mostly international, visited in 2014.
Vast in size —some 560,000 acres— the park boasts many lakes, glaciers, mountains, steppes, and forests of lenga beeches (almost the only trees that have successfully adapted to the region’s extreme climate) that are home to a vibrant range of native animals, including guanacos, South Andean deer, foxes, greater rheas, flamencos, condors, and the magnificent puma, which can be spotted with a little luck, especially during the first and last hours of daylight.
The bounty of nature is enhanced by an excellent tourism infrastructure that ranges from campsites and mountain lodges to luxury hotels and restaurants for every taste, all inside park borders.
Many different trails offer multiple options for exploring the protected area, including short paths along the highway that lead to a strategically-placed observation bridge with a panoramic view. Trails beginning at the Pehoé campground finish at the Paine Massif and Lake Pehoé.
Lovely waterfalls, such as Salto Grande and Salto Chico, are within a short hike. It is likewise easy to reach the trails near the Azul and Amarga lagoons and the Grey glacier, all of which are well worth a visit. Other available activities include horseback riding, biking, and kayaking. Hotels can generally organize these activities, thus ensuring maximum convenience and a fabulous trip to be recorded for posterity by the cameras inevitably tethered to modern visitors.
These attractions are all family friendly, as confirmed by Brazilian visitor Alexander Paredes, his wife Layse, and their two children, who toured all of Patagonia over the summer. They tell us that visiting Torres del Paine was the culmination of a dream. Four days of travel on foot, by car, and on horseback took them to any number of marvelous sights. Alexander explains that the children were fascinated by the local animals and they considered camping to be the highlight of the visit. These experiences will remain forever engraved on their hearts and minds.
A series of diverse roads take visitors on the must-do tour to the base of Torres del Paine, “paine” meaning blue in the Tehuelche language. These nomadic hunters and gatherers (also called Aonikenk) emigrated from northern Patagonia in the second half of the first millennium, and the name they gave this rock formation reflected the predominant color as seen from a distance.
The eleven-mile round-trip hike to the Torres lookout point takes six to eight hours. It can be done in one day, but visitors might do better to spend the night at one of the campsites along the trail. The lookout point blesses early-risers with a spectacular sunrise; on a clear day, the Torres look red, producing a unique and magical sight.
Despite the difficulties of the initial ascent, the effort is well rewarded by untamed, gorgeous, and challenging brush. This is one of those genuinely memorable experiences that linger long after departure. Relaxing with a hot shower after a day of suffering, discomfort, cold, and exhaustion puts the feat in perspective and gives you a feeling of having purified your soul. You can feel the sublime splendor of nature pulsing through your veins.
The park also boasts intriguing hiking trails for adventure lovers in peak physical condition. For example, there is the “W” trail (four to five days) that encompasses the base of the Torres, Lake Nordenskjöld, the Cuernos Peaks, Valle del Francés, and the Grey glacier; or the “O” trail, which circles the entire park, including the “W” route and the John Gardner Pass, Lake Dickson, and the Serón Reserve, which are considered the most beautiful places in the area by many. This trail covers some eighty-seven miles and requires seven to nine full days. The area is well sign-posted and there is infrastructure for hikers like campsites and lodges with showers and good food. For those seeking more of a challenge, some campsites have no facilities, but arrangements can be made through the lodges, allowing hikers to lighten their loads by not carrying food or camping equipment.
The hiking trails are complemented by catamaran cruises on Lake Grey, where visitors glide from one glacier to another and enjoy a close-up view of icebergs.
Torres del Paine offers many varieties of tourism, from hard-core hiking to shorter, more comfortable road trips, but any approach to touring the park will surely be an unforgettable experience. Torres del Paine exemplifies the best of nature.
The climate is influenced by the Antarctic and the Southern Ice Field. This so-called Trans-Andean climate is characterized by fierce winds, particularly in summer. Temperatures are even lower in some high altitude areas due to the presence of snow and ice. As might be expected, the warmest months are in spring and summer (September to March), when temperatures rise as high as 73 °F during the day. Fall weather is changeable, but the greenery runs riot with glorious colors as the trees flame red and yellow, delighting photographers. For safety reasons, several routes are closed in winter because the temperature drops considerably, even dipping below freezing.
How to Get There
Puerto Natales (71 miles away) and the larger but more distant (nearly 250 miles away) city of Punta Arenas are the gateways to the National Park.
Where to Stay
The park has many hotels, inns, and campsites. Hotel Las Torres (www.lastorres.com) stands out for its quality, comfort, and wonderful location. The Fantástico Sur (www.fantasticosur.com) and Vértice (www.verticepatagonia.com) companies manage all the lodging and food services for the hiking trails. If you are arriving on wheels, the best choice for a campsite is Camping Pehoé (http://campingpehoe.com), which provides excellent facilities on the lake of the same name, very near some of the park’s most impressive views, such as the Paine Massif, the Cuernos Peaks, and the Chico and Grande waterfalls.