Torres del Paine, Finding Beauty at the End of the World
As our bus climbs upwards through winding Andean roads, an unexpected stop is suddenly announced and passengers slowly begin to descend one by one. Grateful for the chance to stretch my legs after hours of traveling, I grab my water bottle and hop off the bus as quickly as possible. My feet hit the gravel road beneath me, startling a herd of timid guanacos grazing peacefully nearby who pause to assess my intrusion. Camera in hand, I quietly snap a few photographs of the herd, while taking in the fresh air and pristine wildlife that surrounds me. “¡Mirá, mirá!” whispers a fellow passenger from the bus, pointing directly behind me with her mouth agape. Slowly, I turn and lay my eyes upon three magnificent granite structures looming monstrously above me, and immediately become mesmerized in their humbling presence.
Torres del Paine caught my attention when it made the cover of National Geographic in 2013 as the fifth most beautiful place in the world, but it wasn’t until I gazed out upon its massive structures of ice and granite with my own eyes that I understood how remarkable this corner of the world truly is.
Taking in the view at Laguna Amarga, Torres del Paine
Roughly 150,000 travelers from around the world visit this protected wildlife region each year to stroll with the guanacos, and take in the beauty of some of the continent’s most adored mountains, glaciers, lakes, rivers, and wildlife. But a park that spans over 240,000 hectares of diverse wildlife, trails and breathtaking views understandably leaves tourists scratching their heads, begging the essential questions: how do I enter, what’s there to see and how much will it cost me?
Guanacos, close relatives of the ‘Llama,’ making their way towards Torres del Paine
Any seasoned hiker will insist that you a use a trip to Torres del Paine to spend days exploring the trails that traverse the enormous park’s territories and would surely scoff at anything remotely less adventurous. The ‘W Trek’, known as such for its W shaped trail foraged throughout the park is arguably the most well-known trail in the park, as it covers most of the essential viewpoints and highlights. But unless you’re physically, financially and emotionally prepared for five days of strenuous hiking, highly temperamental weather, and either camping each night or sleeping in $40 USD refugio dorm beds rumored to be ridden with bed bugs, you may be inclined to follow in my footsteps and take a shame-free guided day tour of the park.
A guided day tour of the park is not only ideal for those of us traveling on a budget, or short on time. It also serves as a fantastic alternative for anyone who is unable to rent a car and professional hiking equipment, but is eager to see the highlights of Torres del Paine. Apart from camping in the park, or staying in refugio dorm beds, the only other accommodation option available to tourists are expensive hotels located within the park which typically charge several hundred dollars per night. Long story short, it was a no-brainer for me to opt for a day tour trip into the park to cover all the sights.
On the trail, hiking towards Lago Nordenskjöld
Though many day tours begin in Puerto Natales, the closest Chilean town to Torres del Paine (70mi), which has just recently become a tourist hot-spot full of restaurants, parks, backpacking stores, and hotels/hostels, our SayHueque organized-trip began on the Argentine side of Patagonia in El Calafate. Though the trip requires a (very) early morning pick up at your Calafate hotel, within a few hours we found ourselves crossing the Chilean border and climbing steadily up into the Torres del Paine Park.
Lago Sarmiento, Torres del Paine
Once in the park, we stopped first at Lago Sarmiento, where we caught our first glimpse of Chilean Patagonia’s famed beauty. From this viewpoint, we began to understand why the indigenous term ‘paine’ (meaning blue in Tehuelche) was used to describe this national park as the lake, full of large calcium deposits, sky, and mountains all bore shades of mesmerizing blue.
Laguna Amarga, Torres del Paine
As we continued on our journey, we stopped at Laguna Amarga, aptly named for the bitter taste of its unusually high concentration of salt. A quick stumble down to the shore of the lagoon to taste the waters while onlookers gape at you with disdain will leave you convinced that this lagoon was indeed wisely named for its unpleasant taste.
Lago Nordenskjöld, Torres del Paine
After about an hour of driving, we made our way towards Lago Nordenskjöld named for the Swedish-Finnish explorer of the same name who ‘discovered’ the lake in the early part of the 20th century. We spent the better half of an hour gazing at the lake, speechless, soaking in its serenity before heading down the trail to our next destination, Salto Grande.
No trip to Torres del Paine is complete without a view of Salto Grande, the outfall of Lago Nordenskiöld’s waters. Call me crazy, but I’d be inclined to label this waterfall Iguazu’s Southern Sister. Sure, the waterfall itself is not anywhere near as gargantuan nor as deafeningly loud, but its sheer beauty alone poses as solid competition for Iguazu. The fall’s turquoise waters and perfectly framed mountains in the background are without a doubt a must-see for any travellers in Torres del Paine. Plus, the sight of excited tourists clambouring alongside you for a view of the falls with extended selfie-sticks in hand are… equally memorable.
Salto Grande, Torres del Paine
After our excursion to Salto Grande, we slowly marched and grumbled our way towards our bus to wrap up our trip in Torres del Paine. Though there were whispers of plans to escape the bus and hide out indefinitely in the park, we decided to comply with the tour guide and, unfortunately, made our way back to civilization.
Details and Tips:
Park Entrance: Torres del Paine currently (March, 2016) has an entrance fee of $30 USD valid for three days entry which can be paid in USD, Argentine, or Chilean pesos. Note: the exchange rate used for Argentine pesos was lower than the official Argentine rate, meaning paying in dollars or Chilean pesos is to your advantage.
What to Wear: Torres del Paine is a microclimate, meaning temperatures, precipitation, wind-speed, and other factors can change in a moment’s notice. If traveling in the Chilean summer, it’s still best to bring a few removable layers, and a rain jacket as well.
To Day-Trip or Not? Although an abridged trip to Torres del Paine may not provide that indescribable sensation of achievement that accompanies a rigorous hike, a day trip proved to be an accessible, affordable and recommendable way to view the Torres del Paine essentials. Many travellers do choose to camp in the park for their three allotted days, and explore different trails each day.
Expat-Fact: Foreigners living in Argentina as tourists (shhh!) will be thrilled to know that they can take advantage of a simple day trip from Calafate to Torres del Paine to renew a three-month Tourist Visa for Argentina. After all, exploring Chilean Patagonia will come as a breath of fresh air to any expats accustomed to regular boat trips over to Uruguay… although the meal prices in Torres del Paine may remind you of dining out in Uruguay’s Colonia del Sacramento…