Soaring almost vertically more than 2000m above the Patagonian steppe, the granite pillars of Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) dominate the landscape of what may be South America's finest national park. Before its creation in 1959, the park was part of a large sheep estancia, and it's still recovering from nearly a century of overexploitation of its pastures, forests and wildlife.
Most people visit the park for its one greatest hit but, once here, realize that there are other attractions with equal wow power. We're talking about azure lakes, trails that meander through emerald forests, roaring rivers you'll cross on rickety bridges and one big, radiant blue glacier. Variety spans from the vast openness of the steppe to rugged mountain terrain topped by looming peaks.
Part of Unesco's Biosphere Reserve system since 1978, the park is home to flocks of ostrichlike rhea (known locally as the ñandú), Andean condor, flamingo and many other bird species. Its star success in conservation is undoubtedly the guanaco, which grazes the open steppes where pumas cannot approach undetected. After more than a decade of effective protection from poachers, these large and growing herds don't even flinch when humans or vehicles approach.
When the weather is clear, panoramas are everywhere. However, unpredictable weather systems can sheath the peaks in clouds for hours or days. Some say you get four seasons in a day here, with sudden rainstorms and knock-down gusts part of the hearty initiation. Bring high-quality foul-weather gear, a synthetic sleeping bag and, if you're camping, a good tent. 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.
However, the crowning attraction of this 1810-sq-km 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. It's essential to make reservations ahead of time.
If you want to sleep in hotels or refugios (rustic shelters), you must make reservations in advance. Plan 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.
At the end of 2011, a raging fire burned over 40,000 acres. The fire took weeks to contain, destroyed old forest, killed animals and burned several park structures. An international visitor was charged with accidentally setting the fire while trying to start an illegal campfire. The hiker denied setting the fire but paid a US$10,000 fine and agreed to help with reforestation efforts.
The affected area, mostly between Pehoé and Refugio Grey, is essentially the western leg of the W trek. It is now open for visitation but visitors should should be prepared for a landscape that is charred and ashen. The panoramic views remain, but it may take centuries for the forest to recover.
Be conscientious and tread lightly – you are among hundreds of thousands of yearly guests.