Pura's 10 minute guide to Torres del Paine
Torres del Paine is a special place. It's home to all of Patagonia's different ecosystems; immense glaciers spill into icy lakes, dry pampa grasslands stretch to the horizon, granite massif rises sharply out of the ground. Some of the continent's very best walking trails thread their way through it all.
No wonder it attracts 300,000 people a year.
Planning your visit
Handling Paine with care is therefore important. The simplest way, and the way most approach it, is to book into one of the luxury all-inclusive adventure lodges which are dispersed throughout the park. The upside to this is that you get good food, good guiding and a comfortable place to relax at the end of a long day's walking. Finding the right one for you takes a bit of experience (or a good conversation with us). But you'll be pretty happy when you get there.
The downside is that, you are basically doing the same as everyone else. You have little flexibility to take yourself off to a quiet corner to try and get a real sense of Paine's wild side, which can be difficult to experience when you're following in so many freshly-trodden footsteps. The veneer of luxury offered by these lodges doesn't help such an endeavor either.
Another option is to go hardcore and hike the multi-day W trail, staying in the more basic refuges en route. It remains one of the world's great hikes and a challenge worth taking on if your minded to do so. The obvious advantage to this approach is that you unlock the full diversity and beauty of the national park with each passing day. Hikes are long, though inclines are generally quite gentle. It's not something to be undertaken lightly though and staying in refuges isn't for everyone.
What else then? Well I'm not going to suggest that you day-trip it in from Puerto Natales, so let's set that aside. Another way to approach Torres del Paine is to self-drive. This option works particularly well if you cross over the border into Argentina to do some hiking in the Fitz Roy region, visit Perito Moreno Glacier (without the crowds) and stay on a traditional working cattle farm. Better yet, pair the above with a couple of weeks driving along the Carretera Austral, for the definitive Patagonia experience. Basically, some tailored variation of our Ruta Uncovered itinerary.
Having your own wheels gives you the flexibility to set your own pace, according to your interests and energy levels. You can still do all the iconic hikes, but if you know the lay of the land (which you will do), there's still parts where you can get away from the crowds and find a bit of solitude, just you and the guanacos.
Why it's personal to us
Torres del Paine will always retain a special place in the story of Pura. It was way back in 1994 that Thomas Power, Diego Martin and Xabier Etxarri met and became friends. Together they walked just about every trail in the national park and then decided they wanted to share it. The seeds for Pura Aventura were sewn. Xabier still has the pleasure of guiding people around these parts, he knows them better than anyone. That's not an idle boast - he literally wrote the book on this place, which is still used today to train new guides.
Since then we've spread our horizons up the length and breadth of Chile, across Latin America and closer to home in Spain and Portugal. But our link to Chile, to Patagonia and to Torres del Paine remains as strong as ever. It continues to feature heavily on many of our itineraries, even if it does have to share the spotlight with our Carretera Austral road trips. You'll find some trips linked to at the bottom of this article, combining Torres del Paine with the Atacama, the Carretera and even Antarctica. An adventurous spirit is well rewarded this far south. Staying for longer, far beyond the usually prescribed three nights, is fundamental.
The lay of the land
As we hinted at earlier, Torres del Paine is rather special because of the landscapes encompassed within the park. The sheer diversity of the scenery is as impressive as its ability to move you. The view across the turquoise Lago Pehoé to the Cuernos or watching the sunrise over the Torres are arguably the pinnacle of Patagonian postcard views. Grey Glacier is mesmerising from both afar and up close. Waterfalls tumble powerfully into a foamy mass. Grassy steppe stretches out to the horizon. The odd gaucho hut comes into view. Guanacos roam in herds, stalked from afar by reclusive pumas. Condors can be seen at close quarters, as can foxes, flamingos, rheas and austral parakeets. It is pure Patagonia.
This sight could not be anywhere in the world but Patagonia
Walking in Torres del Paine
The most emblematic feature of the park is the granite peaks of the Torres, tucked away in the heart of the massif. Seeing them rise up straight out of the plain some 1,500 metres above the small lake emphasises their majesty and rewards a long 18km walk to get there. We could shower you with a barrage of hyperbolic adjectives at this point, but instead let's share Thomas Power's memory of arriving here at sunrise.
"The first rays of direct sunlight hit the very top of the towers, turning them the most exquisite rich orange pink colour. The light edged down the sheer rock face until all of the towers glowed, then the snow field at the foot of the cliffs, then the surrounding peaks. It just kept on coming, each precious, privileged, lucky minute adding to the one before."
Sunrise at the towers - note the person at the bottom for scale
The Torres Base walk is part of the multi-day W hike, which weaves together a wonderful cross-section of the landscape of Southern Patagonia and brings you into contact with the flora and fauna of the park. Porters carry your luggage ahead for you, leaving you free to concentrate on the walking, allowing your experience to develop step-by-step. It requires a lot of effort and a sacrificing of creature comforts for a few days, but if you like the idea of a challenge then you'll love it. Walks typically last four to five hours and it's important to note that you are generally walking between mountains, not climbing them. The rise and fall of the path therefore is less dramatic than you might expect. Days are long here, so there's no need to rush and guides can help place the scenery into greater context and tell stories as you go.
Our favourite day walks are those which showcase its diversity, as well as revealing its most jaw-dropping views and creating moments like the one Thomas experienced. Rather than delve into them here, we'll direct you to our top 5 Torres del Paine day walks, where you can enjoy reading about them in their fullest splendour.
What else to do
As much as the national park rewards a stretch of the legs, it's important to have some downtime too so that the experience doesn't pass you by. There's also a lot to do here and many other ways to explore. Hop on a saddle and let the horse do the walking for a few hours. Board the boat for a close up encounter with Grey Glacier. Strap on some crampons and walk across it. Gather up your courage to take a dip in a freezing cold glacial lagoon. Or just sit and watch, glass of wine in hand, and soak it all in. Eat delicious Patagonian food and try sipping yerba mate. Sit in front of a roaring fire as the wind blows outside. Make new friends; swap travel stories, compare walks and discuss plans. Look up at the night sky, just like Thomas Power did.
"The Milky Way was a clear brush stroke sweeping across the sky above. It is the only time in my life that I have actually ducked my head looking at stars - I thought I was going to be squashed."
The view which made Thomas duck
How and when to visit Torres del Paine
To properly do it justice, we'd urge you to stay here for at least four nights. Five would be better, anything up to seven nights is worth it. That's enough time to get out and about, away from the crowds and to feel like you've really explored the park. Three nights is a standard arrangement, but sells Torres del Paine short. You're exploring at the end of the world, distant lands formed over millennia - it's not something to be rushed.
To reiterate, if anyone ever recommends you do it as a day trip from Puerto Natales then you might like to consider beating a hasty retreat - all you'll get is a whistle-stop tour of the most easily accessible viewpoints.
This far south, the switching of the seasons between hemispheres is at its most dramatic. So our summer is their winter and definitely not the best time to be exploring Torres del Paine. October brings spring flowers and the awakening of the park's lodges after their long hibernation. The wind blows hard in November and the biggest crowds arrive in January and February, so it pays to plan your visit carefully in these months. March and April bring autumnal colours to close the season, with visitor numbers tailing off.
Where else to visit
The Atacama Desert, the Chiloé archipelago, Argentine Patagonia and the Carretera Austral are ideal partners for Torres del Paine to make a special two to three week itinerary. If you're a really adventurous type with time to spare, go south instead, all the way to Antarctica. If you want the definitive Patagonia trip, then I'll direct you once again to our 45-day Ruta Uncovered trip below, incorporating an expedition cruise to Cape Horn.
If you're seriously thinking about visiting Torres del Paine then we think our credentials are pretty strong. We know this area like the back of our hand and that experience has spread through the rest of the country. We now have a base here, Pura Chile, which consolidates 25 years of knowledge and relationships to help us deliver truly bespoke and memorable holidays. Torres del Paine is far too special to settle for a standard package trip.
If you pick up the phone or drop us an email, we'll help steer you through the important decisions so that all you have to worry about is finding a good pair of walking boots.
The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.