Category Archives: Guide to Patagonia

Guide to Chile: Patagonia

Our guide to Chilean Patagonia concentrates on the most emblematic and beautiful part of southern Patagonia: Torres del Paine National Park.

Within the confines of this vast park you can see every aspect of Patagonian landscape from glacial lakes to icebergs to mountains and dry grasslands.

The birdlife is incredible, from the Austral parrots perched in dwarf beech forests to the condors soaring high over the mountain peaks.

Guanacos, cousins of the Llama, roam the rolling grasslands of the southern park.

Majestic Puma range across this same area though are very rarely seen.

While there is far more to Patagonia than just Torres del Paine, there are few places in this world to match the beauty of the park.

Torres del Paine National Park

The park covers an area of roughly 180,000 hectares encompassing mountains, glaciers, lakes, meadows, grasslands, forests and rivers in southern Chile.

The hub of the park is the Cordillera del Paine – basically a lump of mountains which sit right at the end of the Andes as it blends into the Patagonian Steppe.

Immediately to the west of the mountains is one of the spurs of the southern Patagonian icefield, the largest non-polar icefloe in the world.

To the south is an area of lakes and rolling hills particularly rich in fauna such as Puma and Guanaco.

To the east of the park is basically the dry pampa or grassland that one often associates with Argentine Patagonia (Torres del Paine borders Argentina).

To the north are more mountains, in fact Torres del Paine really back onto the Fitzroy range, a famous mountain destination on the Argentine side of the frontier.

The park is 112 km north of Puerto Natales, the nearest town, and 312 km north of Punta Arenas, the nearest major airport.

To explore the park it is best to get out and about into the fresh air – this is one of the least polluted places on earth after all.

For a five day walk, the famous ‘W’ route between the glaciers and mile high Torres is ideal. This is the route we include on our Atacama Patagonia Chile walking holiday.

For a longer and more challenging hike, the Torres del Paine Circuit is the real deal as you circumnavigate the entire Paine massif over the course of 10 days.

Pura Aventura offers the Circuit as one of its most memorable walking holidays in Chile.

Alternatively, you can base yourself in one place and explore from one of the comfortable hotels or lodges just to the south of the park.

This is an option we offer on our Chile and Argentina combination holiday.

The people

People in Patagonia reflect their surroundings in a way that you don’t see so much in more tame environments.

This area was originally populated by cattle ranchers and you do still get a sense of the frontier lands down here.

People are used to incredibly solitary lives spread out across the plains and therefore do not generally indulge in small-talk.

Proper huasos (Chilean cowboys) really only talk when there is something to say although they seem to be able to make silence perfectly friendly.

You will generally find an incredibly warm welcome in Patagonia – it will just be delivered in a way with which you are unlikely to be accustomed.

Maté

The great tradition in Patagonia is to drink maté (pron. mah-tay), a sort of intense miniature cup of tea drunk sociably with everyone sitting in a circle.

The form is that one person is appointed pourer, they fill the cup (the maté) with very hot water and pass it to the first person.

Rather than drinking from the lip of the cup, you drink through a metal straw, called a Bombilla.

It will generally take two or three slurps to empty the mate at which point the cup is passed back to the pourer who refills it and passes it to the next person.

This continues, with the strength of the mate gradually easing, in a gently sociable way.

Weather and Climate

The weather in Patagonia is extremely variable, from icy wind and rain one moment to warm sunshine the next.

Bear in mind that the area is basically at sea level and at the same relative latitude as Manchester or Birmingham so conditions are not necessarily particularly extreme.

What does make Patagonia wild is that the Southern Patagonian Icefield terminates here so there is a massive area of glaciation just to your north.

Add to this the fact that there is no landmass between here and New Zealand and you have a recipe for some pretty potent weather systems.

The weather defines the physical beauty of Patagonia as it defines its people. You must not travel to this part of the world expecting clear weather.

Most of the time, rain sweeps in and then sweeps out again so you will see the mountains and glaciers in every imaginable light.

However, it is also possible that you get stuck under a weather system and it is cloudy and damp for days on end.

This isn’t a place for the faint of heart.

In winter (Jul-Aug) temperatures range from 5ºc-10ºc during the day with relatively low levels of rainfall, and dropping to below freezing at night.

In summer (Dec-Mar) temperatures are a more moderate 10ºc to 20ºc but rainfall is more common.

These are average figures – inside the park there are a range of microclimates which create more extreme conditions.

If exploring the remote side of the park (on the Circuit) you can expect nighttime temperatures close to zero, even in summer.

Cold winds are very common near the glaciers and higher up, for instance around the Torres.

Guide to Patagonia: Paine Circuit

The famous ‘Circuit’ route takes you from river meadows and grasslands, over a mountain pass to the glaciers and back past lakes and mountains, ending at the famous mile-high Torres.

The Circuit of Torres del Paine

In order to do this walk you need to leave behind the hotels and lodges in the south of the park and head into the wilderness areas of the north.

Whilst you have to sacrifice some creature comforts, but the guides, porters and refugios make it comfortable and civilised.

Walks are generally between four and five hours each day although on one day you can be walking for up to eight hours. This walk is suitable for anyone who enjoys good Alpine walking.

You stay in refuges or mountain huts during the walk if you travel on Pura’s Torres del Paine Circuit holiday though more normally people camp throughout the hike.

Refugios are not luxurious but they do allow you to shower each day and to enjoy a hot meal and glass of wine at night. On one night you sleep in a tent but these are pitched for you.

You have a team of porters carrying your overnight things from refuge to refuge so that you can walk with just a daypack.

Your guides are experts in this area, and the Park in particular. They therefore know how to pace the walk, when to sit tight and wait for weather to clear and when to head out.

This highest part of the route is around 1,300m, most of it is just above sea level.

The park is at roughly the same relative latitude as Manchester so summer daytime temperatures are usually comfortably in the mid-teens celsius. There’s an average of 16 hours daylight in the summer months so the pace can be relaxed.

“It certainly helps their enjoyment not having to carry a full pack and I appreciated the opportunity to stop for photographs, look at the wildlife and so on.”

Guide to Patagonia: Torres del Paine W Walk

By following the famous ‘W’ route across Torres del Paine from glacier to grassland you can enjoy the full impact of this variety.

Torres del Paine: the ‘W’ walk

Torres del Paine is unique because within a relatively small area, you find every aspect of Patagonian scenery: mountains, lakes, glaciers, forests and grasslands.

There is really no other place you can see such variety in such a compact area.

By following the famous ‘W’ route across Torres del Paine from glacier to grassland you can enjoy the full impact of this variety.

It is this walk which is featured in our Atacama Patagonia Chilean walking holiday.

In order to get close to the spectacular mountains and glaciers you have to leave behind the hotels and lodges which are in the south of the park.

You have to sacrifice some creature comforts, but the guides, porters and refugios make it comfortable and civilised.

Walks are generally between four and five hours and are quite accessible for anyone who enjoys hill walking in the UK.

You stay in refuges or mountain huts during the walk.

They are not luxurious but they do allow you to shower each day and to enjoy a hot meal and glass of wine at night.

You have a team of porters carrying your overnight things from refuge to refuge so that you can walk with just a daypack.

Your guides are experts in this area, and the Park in particular. They therefore know how to pace the walk, when to sit tight and wait for weather to clear and when to head out.

Rather than crossing over high passes, you are walking between the mountains and the lakes so the path is basically undulating without hard ascents and descents.

Most of Torres del Paine is just above sea level. The park is at roughly the same relative latitude as Manchester. Summer daytime temperatures are usually comfortably in the mid-teens celsius. There’s an average of 16 hours daylight in the summer months so the pace can be relaxed.

“I think the walks were correctly graded as moderate. It certainly helps their enjoyment not having to carry a full pack and I appreciated the opportunity to stop for photographs, look at the wildlife and so on.”