Introducing Parque Nacional Torres Del Paine
Jutting out some 2800m above the Patagonian steppe, the Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) are spectacular granite pillars that dominate the landscape of what may be South America's finest national park (admission high/low season US$17/8.50). These breathtaking spires are flanked by the summit of Paine Grande (3050m) and the sharp tusks of black sedimentary peaks known as Los Cuernos (The Horns; 2200m to 2600m). Yes, these are the famous Patagonian mountains that you see on posters and book covers all over the world.
But the park is not just mountains. Trails meander through emerald forests, alongside and over roaring rivers, past radiant blue glaciers, azure lakes and up to jaw-dropping lookouts. You can hike into the vast openness of the steppe, heading to less-visited lakes and glaciers, all the while keeping an eye on the looming peaks. That is when the weather is clear. Unpredictable at best, weather systems can sheath the peaks in veils of clouds that hold for hours, if not days. Even then, the park has its allure - but it is always wise to plan a few extra days to make sure that your trip isn't torpedoed by a spot of bad weather.
Part of Unesco's Biosphere Reserve system since 1978, it shelters flocks of ostrichlike rhea (known locally as the ñandú), Andean condors, flamingos and many other bird species. The park's outstanding conservation success has undoubtedly been the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), which grazes the open steppes where its predator, the puma, cannot approach undetected. After more than a decade of effective protection from poachers, the large and growing herds of guanacos don't even flinch when humans or vehicles approach.
For hikers and trekkers, this 181,000-hectare park is an unequaled destination. High-quality foul-weather gear is essential; a warm synthetic sleeping bag and wind-resistant tent are imperative for those undertaking the Paine Circuit and recommended for those doing the extremely popular 'W.' However, the crowning attraction of this park is its highly developed infrastructure, which makes it possible to do the whole 'W' hike while sleeping in beds, eating hot meals, taking showers and even drinking the random cocktail. Make reservations ahead of time, or you'd better pack your tent and sleeping bag because accommodation is in short supply. Plan to spend anywhere from a minimum of three to seven days to enjoy the hiking and other activities. Guided day trips on minibuses from Puerto Natales are possible, but permit only a glimpse of what the park has to offer.
The park is 112km north of Puerto Natales via a decent but sometimes bumpy gravel road that passes Villa Cerro Castillo, where there is a seasonal border crossing into Argentina at Cancha Carrera. The road continues 38km north, where there's a junction to the park's little-visited southern Laguna Verde sector.
Three kilometers north of this junction the highway forks west along the north shore of Lago Sarmiento to the Portería Sarmiento, the park's main entrance and where entrance fees are collected. It's another 37km southwest to the Administración (park headquarters).
The best trekking maps, by JLM and Luis Bertea Rojas, are easily found in Puerto Natales.
Last updated: Mar 2, 2009
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