Some say Paine was an early settler. Others say the name comes from an ancient Indian word meaning blue hearkening to the intense blue of the area's lakes. Whatever the name comes from or means, this is a spectacular park, comparable to Yellowstone or Yosemite in the U.S. Founded in 1959, Torres del Paine takes in 450,000 acres. In 1978 UNESCO recognized it as a World Biosphere Reserve, and advocates are now lobbying to have the park inscribed as a World Heritage site.
If there's one place you ever get to in Patagonia, this should probably be it. Read about hiking Torres del Paine.
The park is part of the Paine Massif, which lies inside the continent from, or east of, the high central Andean spine. The massif are medium high mountains emerging suddenly from the plains of the Patagonian steppes. The mountains are granite, capped by crumbly sedimentary rock that used to lie on the valley floor. Before the park was acquired by the Chilean government, it belonged to ranchers who overgrazed and also burned down forests to increase pasture area. The park is still recovering from this devastation, and will be for a while. But it's a chance to see what nature will do, if given a chance. Natural recovery can also be seen, though the glaciers of the park are in quick retreat up to 56 feet a year for the last 90 years, creating a fascinating study of plant succession and soil build-up from bare rock to forest. The flora of the park ranges from grassland to southern beech forests. Many parts of the park were too remote for the cattle ranchers, and exist today in a pristine state.
The animal stars of the park are the Guanacos and the Rheas. Rheas are an ostrich-like bird. Guanacos are wild South American cameloids, related to the domesticated llama and alpaca. Native peopleshunted both across the plains, using every part for food and sheltering hideand feathers. When the Europeans came, the Guanaco were slaughtered to make way for cattle, andalmost became extinct.
When to Go
The best and most popular time to visit is during the South America late spring, summer, early fall, which is roughly November through April. Otherwise, you'll have to deal with snow. But if you do go in winter, you still get spectacular scenery and two nice perks: the persistent winds die down between May to middle September, and the park is quiet, peaceful, and almost completely depopulated.
What to Do
The nearest town to the park is Puerto Natales. From there you can take a bus to the park's administration center at Lago Pehoi. The administration center occupies a compound of old ranch buildings. At the administration center you can pay your nominal fee, pick up a free map, take that one last hot shower, and take off to explore.
Like Yellowstone, Torres del Paine is an impossible park to exhaust. The most popular hike is to Lago and Glacier Grey, which is the first leg of the world famous Torres del Paine circuit.
The Lago Grey hike starts at the administration center. You hike across grassland, then along the milky Rao Grey. Eventually you reach the clear blue Lago Pehoi. Following well marked trails, in about half a day you can reach Glacier Grey, where you can explore the snout of the glacier and its chilly blue glacier caves.
But that's the teaser. The full Torres del Paine Circuit takes off from there. What follows is 8 or 10 days of constantly surprising terrain. You'll walk through forests, squish through bogs, ford streams, negotiate rocky gullies, and witness some of the most beautiful country and wildlife in the world. There are two ways to do this circuit, either clockwise or counter-clockwise. If you want to go clockwise, you actually do start out on the Lago Grey hike described above. The problem with that is that even though you save the roughest part for last, you end up in the most undeveloped part of the park (just when you wanted a hot shower and a good meal).
Thousands take this trek every year, so the way is usually pretty clear even if the trails aren't immaculately maintained (which they're not). The first stage, which takes you a day or two, takes you through one of the most developed parts of the park to the Lago Paine, first seen after walking through a small mountain pass. Lago means lake, and Lago Paine is glacial lake in a high mountain valley surrounded by mountain peaks. From there you pass through open grassland and bogs to Lago Dickson at the other end of the valley.
On about the third day you head out into the wildest parts of the park. You'll negotiate the rambunctions Rmo de los Perros until you finally arrive at you campsite near the Laguna de los Perros, a lovely small lake. After spending the night, you'll continue on to the highest point on the circuit, a mountain pass overlooking the Ventisquero Grey, a massive glacier. You'll descend and spend the night above the glacier. In the morning you'll follow a forest trail along the glacier trail lots of fallen logs - and finally reach camp near a dramatic waterfall. The next day you'll continue along the glacier (like we said big glacier) finally reaching Lago Grey, which you'll follow for a bit before heading down to Lago Pehoi, a turquoise lake, where you'll camp. At this point you can either return to the administration center or you can spend another day to reach the feet of the Cuernos del Paine mountain peaks, an awesome location.
Sleeping & Eating
Take a tent, unless you want to confine yourself to the village at the administration center. There are at least seven standing refugios, or shelters, but these can be overcrowded or in extreme disrepair. If you want to spend some money and indulge yourself, you can stay at Hosterma Pehoi, which is at Lake Pehoe, not far from the administration center.
If you're doing the circuit, you must bring in a week's worth of food. The offerings at the administration center are slim and expensive. For foragers, many of the refugios have gardens planted around them, offering calafate berries, rhubarb, currants, and gooseberries. Mushroom gatherers should bring along a book that'll help them make positive ID of the delicious puffballs and other mycological treats of the region. Edible greens and wild herbs can be found, especially in the moist meadows.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication