Article updated April 2015
Patagonia is the name given to the southernmost reaches of Chile and Argentina. It is characterised by fantastic mountain peaks, long stretches of rural farmland and on the west coast, fjordlands. It’s an incredible display of natural beauty that should not be missed.
Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine (sounds like Pine-eh) National park is one such example of the aforementioned natural beauty, conveniently rounded up and plonked down in the depths of Chilean Patagonia. Los Cuernos (the horns) are the most well-known feature, but there are many other gorgeous visions to behold inside the park. Do yourself a favour and go the distance to visit – it’s worth it.
The national park is well-cared for and managed by a competent staff of park rangers. A certain amount of common sense is assumed – they’re on hand to give recommendations and information; but visitors should be adequately able to cope with drastic changes in weather and of course, to keep their rubbish and carbon footprint to themselves.
Before it was declared a national park in 1959 (and a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978) the land in and around Torres del Paine was used for agricultural purposes. It has been majorly affected by fire damage, in both 2005 and 2011.
You will need to buy your entry permits at one of the administration offices. You can buy these on arrival. Ticket prices depend on the number of days you wish to spend visiting the park, which is open all year.
For useful facts, including more information about entry fees, how to prepare and what weather to expect, visit TorresdelPaine.com, an extremely helpful local website. If you need any equipment, Punta Arenas will be your last major centre to buy supplies. Credit cards are accepted in the hotels and petrol stations, and there are cash machines in some of the petrol stations as well.
When to Go
High season is October – March. The weather is said to range significantly, and spring (September – November) is recommended as one of the best times. During the low season, accommodation, tour and trekking options are severely limited. Winter weather is very cold indeed, and not a time recommended by many Chileans to visit. However, my experience there in July was excellent, due mainly to luck, I’m sure. If you’re going to go in winter, prepare yourself thoroughly and be aware that the days are much shorter – sunlight hours were between 9am and 4pm.
What to Do
The obvious option for keen walkers is the W-Trek. This is a (on average) 3-day trek, taking in the highlights of the park. Visit FantasticoSur for information about accommodation that is available on the trek. The beauty of this system is the flexibility – if you organise your own trek, you can take your time and stay longer in places if you want to, as long as you’ve booked it ahead of time. Places at the refugios (the hostels) sell out well in advance, so begin planning months ahead. Campsites are also available, but you will usually have to carry your own equipment. Refugios close for winter, as do most hotels and hostels nearby. Check individual websites for information about vacancies, and whenever possible, travel to your hotel during daylight hours – some of the signs are extremely difficult to spot when driving at night.
As well as doing the trek, the other popular option is to self-drive. This is obviously a great option for increased comfort and flexibility (and for photographers who like to stop a lot). Many people hire a car in Punta Arenas, drive to Puerto Natales and then onto Torres del Paine. Self-driving can be a cost-efficient option if you’re travelling with friends, and the flexibility of making your own plans is a real bonus. The only drawback with this option is the lack of petrol stations close to the park, which means you need to plan efficiently. Filling the tank in Puerto Natales before and after visiting the park (about 150 kms away) is the safest option; during summer, petrol can usually be found in Cerro Castillo, if you’re heading east. For travellers on their way to El Calafate, Esperanza in Argentina also has a station open year-round. There is talk of other options but it would be best not to rely on these unconfirmed sources.
A third option is to explore the area via tours. Many will leave from Puerto Natales. Visit the tour operator websites and check reviews to find a tour that suits you. Activities within the park include trekking, kayaking and horse-riding. Some of the tour operators in the area include: Fin del Mundo, BlueGreen Adventures, EcoCamp Patagonia, Cascada Expediciones, Comapa Turismo and turismo aonikenk.
Keep your camera close to hand at all times – this place is a dream to photograph. Watch out for guanacos (see picture below) and condors!
On your way to and from Torres del Paine (from the south, the most common option), you’ll pass the Milodon Cave (Cueva del Milodón). It’s only $3,000 CLP (maximum) per person, and while you don’t get to see remains a real historic giant sloth, there’s impressive cave, some interesting facts to read and a giant sloth statue to keep you entertained while the grown-ups take forever.
Trek times range from 40mins to 8 hours+, to several days. The best plan is to assess what you can fit in; depending on the time you have available, time of year, daylight hours, your fitness and so on. Ask at the information office if you want a good recommendation – several of the staff speak very good English. Also talk to other travellers, get advice, and see what’s good during your visit, weather-wise.
People I have spoken to tell me that the tracks are generally clear; however, I recommend that you always speak with a staff member at the administration office before leaving to get the most up-to-date status of your desired walking route. Trekking in the snow can sometimes lead to complications if the track becomes unclear.
The W-Trek, as mentioned before, is a track with multiple accommodation options, so that hikers can choose the length of their walk. This allows people to do the trek in the average time of 3 days, or longer, if desired, to allow time to take in extra hikes along the way.
What to See
Los Cuernos – do not be worried about missing these. They’re conveniently situated so that you can see them from almost everywhere.
There are a great range of options. I recommend you read reviews, especially on TripAdvisor, to avoid any unwelcome surprises. There are several campsites available throughout the park and along the W-Trek; budget hostels/ hosterias; cabins (cabañas); and very expensive plush hotels. I visited in winter and stayed in one of the only options in that time, a cabaña at Hosteria Lago Tyndall. Though basic and small, it was warm, with plenty of hot water, an extremely friendly manager and an idyllic location. It comes with my recommendation.
How to Get There
Fly to Punta Arenas, get a bus to Puerto Natales and then another to Torres del Paine (try Pacheco Buses and Bus-Sur). You should be able to organise transport to your first Refugio or the administration office, depending on the bus company you travel with. If you’re driving, it’s a good idea to find a decent roadmap before arriving in Punta Arenas, as the ones on offer are not very detailed. Try buying one from Amazon before the trip.
You could possibly also travel from Santiago by bus to Punta Arenas with Pullman; however, as I have had difficulty using their website I would recommend visiting one of their offices to ask about tickets.
If you like boat trips then consider taking the ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales before setting out to explore the park!
Things to See Nearby
While you’re all the way down in the southernmost reaches of the continent, why not add in a trip to El Calafate, Argentina, and the glacier region. When crossing into Argentina, you will definitely need your passport, and if you’re from Australia, Canada or the U.S.A., you may need to pay a reciprocity fee. If so, you must pay online before you arrive at the border, as they will ask for your receipt. You’ll also need to get permission to take any hire cars into Argentina – contact your hire company about this when booking.
Further south is the lands’ end town of Ushuaia. While the town itself is not apparently much to look at, it’s a departure point for boat tours to Tierra del Fuego surrounds, and Antarctica.
Trips to Antarctica are not cheap, but if you can afford it, don’t miss this fantastic opportunity. Check out prices at companies such as G Adventures, Antarctica Travels, Intrepid, Adventure Life and Polar Cruises.
Note: This story was accurate when published. Please be sure to confirm all details directly with the sites in question.