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.
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.
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.
If you want to sleep in hotels or refugios (rustic shelters) or at camping sites, you must make reservations in advance. Plan a minimum of three to seven days to enjoy the hiking and other activities.