The Torres del Paine (Spanish for "Towers of Paine" and "Paine" is an old indigenous word for the color blue), three immense rock towers, give the park its name.
Other attractions include the Cuernos del Paine (Spanish for "Horns of Paine" -- horn-like mountain tops), Grey Glacier, Lago Grey, Lago Pehoé, Lago Nordenskjöld, and Lago Sarmiento.
The towers are eroded remains of an uplifted region, this created by granite plutons that uplifted overlaying sedimentary layers of which the lowest is a dark red shale. On the southern side the overlying materials have been completely eroded, leaving only several tall, rounded granitic towers - these are the actual towers of the park. On the northern side, some of the original materials remain and as these have different slope and color, form the tips of the "horns" seen in the image above. At times in the distant past the area was extensively glaciated; some glaciers remain on the eastern side of the uplift (to the left in the image) and form icebergs that flow some distance into the large and scenic Lake Pehoé.
According to the studies made to the Paleo-Indian artifacts found in the surroundings of the park, the are must have been inhabited some 12,000 years ago. The Tehuelche Indians, descendants of the Paleo-Indians gave the name of Paine to the Massif, which meant "blue" in their language.
Lady Florence Dixie, in her book published in 1880, gave one of the first descriptions of the area and referred to the three towers as Cleopatra's Needles. She and her party are sometimes credited as being the first "foreign tourists" to visit the area that is now called Torres del Paine National Park.
Several European scientists and explorers visited the area in the following decades, including Otto Nordenskiöld, Carl Skottsberg, and Alberto María de Agostini.
The park was established in 1959 as Parque Nacional de Turismo Lago Grey (Grey Lake National Tourism Park) and was given its present name in 1970.
In 1976, British mountaineer John Gardner and two Torres del Paine rangers, Pepe Alarcon, and Oscar Guineo pioneered the Circuit trail which circles the Paine massif.
In 1977, Guido Monzino donated 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) to the Chilean Government when its definitive limits were established. The park was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the UNESCO in 1978.
In 1985, a tourist started a fire that burned about 150 km2 (58 sq mi) of the park. The blaze affected the areas east and south around Lake Pehoé.
In February 2005, an accidental fire started by a Czech backpacker, which lasted for about ten days, destroyed 155 km2 (60 sq mi) of the park, including about 2 km² of native forest. The Czech government offered aid after the fire and donated US$ 1 million to reforestation efforts.
In late December 2011 through January 2012, a fire blamed on an Israeli backpacker burned about 176 km2 (68 sq mi) of the reserve, destroying about 36 km² of native forest and affecting most of the areas around Lake Pehoé and the western areas around Lake Sarmiento, but moving away from the Cordillera del Paine, the park's centerpiece. The Israeli government sent reforestation experts to the zone, and has committed to donate trees to replant the affected areas.
Nevertheless, recent paleoenvironmental studies performed within the Park indicates that fire have been a frequent phenomena at least during the last 12,800 years, which does not mean, as a traveller you do not need to be careful, especially when camping.
Beside the astonishing Paine massif and its beatuiful peaks, azure lakes, trails that meander though emerald forests, roaring rivers you are to cross on rickety bridges and radiant blue glaciers, not to mention the vast openness of the steppe to rugged mountain terrain topped by looming peaks.
Flora and fauna
Fauna include abundant guanacos, flamingos, pumas, ñandu, gray fox and andean condors.
According to the Köppen climate classification, the park lies in the “temperate climate of cold rain without a dry season." The meteorological conditions of the park are variable due to the complex orography. But you have to be prepared for harsh weather. Wind and strong sun are also issues, and the weather can go through a full four seasons in the course of a day, as locals say.
The zone is characterized by cool summers, with temperatures lower than 16 °C (61 °F) during the warmest month (January). Winter is relatively cold, with an average high temperature in July of 5 °C (41 °F), and an average low of −3 °C (27 °F).
The rainiest months are March and April, with a monthly average rainfall of 80 mm. This represents double the July–October (winter) rainfall, which are the drier months. A study of the exact chemical components of the precipitation in the park has been carried out.
Warning: The nearest guaranteed gas/petrol station is located in Puerto Natales.
There are four main entrances (porterías) to the park.
- Ruta Y-150: Laguna Amarga – The main entrance to the park, located closest to the Las Torres complex.
- Ruta Y-156: Lago Sarmiento – The least visited entrance located near the banks of Lago Sarmiento.
- Ruta Y-160: Laguna Azul – The northernmost entrance to the park, mostly used by those who renting horses for the trails located nearby.
- Ruta Y-290: Serrano – The most direct route to Puerto Natales (approximately 90 kilometers, 1.5 hours) and the closest to administration building and visitor center.
It is also possible to enter the park via Ruta Y-180/Portería Laguna Verde. However, the road ends here and it is only possible to further enter into the park on foot or on horse. This entrance is more an option for those reentering the park on an already paid pass, as entrance fees are not collected at Laguna Verde.
Buses run daily from Puerto Natales (two hours), the main connection to civilization. All normal buses pass through Laguna Amarga, where entrance fees are collected and official Conaf maps are given out, before continuing to Pudeto which is the departure point for the catamaran to Paine Grande. At Pudeto those wishing to continue on to the administration building/visitors' center will change to a different bus, regardless of bus company.
The following bus companies in Puerto Natales make twice daily trips to the park in the high season, and all follow the same schedule. Note that as of September 2013 all buses leave from the bus terminal in Puerto Natales (at the corner Avenida Santiago Bueras and España). Tickets can be purchased either at the bus terminal or at the addresses listed below.
|Puerto Natales||Laguna Amarga||Pudeto||Administration|
|Administration||Pudeto||Laguna Amarga||Puerto Natales|
- Buses Pacheco, Eleuterio Ramírez 224, +56 61 41480, .
- Buses Fernandez, Armando Sanhueza 745, +56 61 242313, .
- Buses Gomez, Arturo Prat 234, +56 61 415700, .
- Buses María José, Arturo Prat 262, +56 61 41095, .
- JBA Patagonia, Arturo Prat 258, +56 61 410242, .
In the shoulder seasons (April and September) there is only one departure and return daily (7:30AM departure from Puerto Natales and the 1PM return from the administration building), and the public buses do not run in the low season (May–August). It is avisable to confirm with the bus companies ahead of time.
From the park there are no direct buses for El Calafate but many tour operators offer them, in particular Chalten Travel. It is thus possible to go directly from El Calafate to the park and even return another day, although this is expensive (US$80 return, US$40 when returning another day).
During the high season (October to April) a CLP$18,000 entrance fee is collected on entrance for foreigners and a CLP$5,000 entrance fee is collected for Chilean citizens and residents, which means, if you are in Chile as an exchange student or working for a period of time, just show your Cédula de Identidad (Identity card given by the Civil Registry and Identification Service (Servicio de Registro Civil e Identificación)) to pay the resident entry fee (March 2013).
In the low season (May to September) foreigners pay CLP$10,000 and Chilean citizens and residents CLP$5,000 (as of August 2013).
Trail status can be accessed via the informe diario (Spanish only) on the official park website. The main trails located at lower elevations are generally open year-round. However, the backside of the Paine Massif Circuit (between Laguna Amarga and Refugio Grey, counter-clockwise) is closed in the wintertime (May–October) due to the absence of park rangers and the difficulty of the terrain. Additionally, parts of the W trek (the Frenchman's Valley, the Base of the Towers lookout, for example) are regularly closed in the wintertime due to snow accumulation, even if it is not snowing in other sectors of the park. It is avisable to check the website for the most up to date information.
Generally, most visitors to the park access the main trails (that comprise the "W" trek and the Paine Massif Circuit) either by catamaran from Pudeto to Paine Grande or on foot/by shuttle to Hotel Las Torres from the Laguna Amarga entrance. The main trails can also be accessed from the administration/visitor center on foot to Paine Grande, passing Campamento Las Carretas on the way (colloquially called the "Q" trek).
The catamaran Hielos Patagónicos runs between Pudeto and Refugio Paine Grande. One way and round trip tickets cost CLP$12,000 and CLP$19,000 respectively, backpack and luggage transport costs an additional CLP$4,000 and must not exceed 50 kilograms (December 2013). From Laguna Amarga a van runs to and from Hotel Las Torres four times a day in order to connect the Las Torres to the main bus route. The price is CLP$2,500 one way (March 2013).
The Grey II runs between Hostería Lago Grey and Refugio Grey and must be booked in advance (CLP$55,000).
The rest must be done by foot.
Torres del Paine
The lookout, Base de las Torres, is a 45-minute hike from Campamento Torres.
Accessed from Campamento Italiano, three hour hike one way.
John Gardner Pass
Located between Camping Los Perros and Campamento Paso, the John Gardner Pass is the point between the Valle de Los Perros (Valley of the Dogs) and the backside of the Circuit, and Glacier Grey.
The Glacier Grey can be seen via a short hike out onto a sandbar from Guardería Grey, from the John Gardner Pass, or from Refugio Grey on the "W".
A large pretty lake with distinctive white banks, a result of calcium deposits.
- W Trek. Bus to Visitors Centre/Administration, hike via Campamento Las Carretas to Refugio Paine Grande (17.5 km), sleep first night there, Hike to Refugio Grey or Campamento Las Guardas (beautiful view of Grey Glacier) and back to Refugio Paine Grande (15 km), sleep at Refugio Paine Grande, hike to Campamento Italiano (7.6 km), sleep there, hike to Campamento Britanico and the Mirador of Vallé Frances (beautiful view on the snow-covered summits) and back (15 km), sleep at Campamento Italiano, hike to Hosteria Las Torres (16.5 km), sleep there, hike to Campamento Torres and Mirador Torres (beautiful view of the three torres) and back (10 km). Minibus to the Laguna Amarga park gate.
- Paine Massif Circuit. Connects the two ends of the W via Camping Los Perros, Refugio Dickson, and Camping Serón, passing through the John Gardner Pass.
- Drop off at Administration, Mirador Condor, Salto Grande, Mirador Cuernos, Mirador del Nordenskjold. Catch the bus at Laguna Amarga.
- Drop off at Laguna Amarga, shuttle to Hosteria Las Torres, hike to Campamento Torres and Mirador Torres and back (10 km). Shuttle to Laguna Amarga.
- Drop off at Pudeto, by catamaran to Refugio Paine Grande, return by the same catamaran.
- Sightseeing tour by boat on Lago Grey to the Grey glacier.
Although it is possible to follow the well-marked trails through the park without assistance, the experience is greatly enhanced by joining a guided tour. The guide will point out and name flora and fauna along the way, as well as making side detours to points of interest that the casual traveler might miss. The biggest advantage is that all equipment, such as tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, crampons for walking on ice and luggage transfers, are all provided by the tour companies.
Most companies run longer tours into the park and these are generally between five to seven days duration. Numerous companies run comprehensive tours with local knowledgeable guides, many of them following the famous "W" trek, and including a cruise up the Serrano River or along one of the fjords.
Depending on the tour, accommodations are provided in tents (either in pay campsites with all facilities, including hot showers, or in the free Conaf campsites with pit latrines), in the park's refugios listed above, or in lodges or remote mountain inns.
Other activities offered on guided tours include fly-fishing, kayaking through the fjords and channels, or ice hiking.
Hotel Las Torres has a gift shop in the park. There is another one at Pehoé Camping, just 30 minutes walk south of the Pudeto bay on the shores of Pehoé lake.
Refugio Paine Grande has the only combination bar/restaurant on the W trek. Provisions can be expensively restocked at Refugio Grey, Refugio Chileno, and Refugio Los Cuernos. A small kiosk is located at Hotel Las Torres at the beginning of the trek to Las Torres. At Pudeto a small cafeteria is available and convenient to those awaiting the catamaran departure.
The only bar on the W trek is located at Refugio Paine Grande.
- Marcia, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Hotel Las Torres Patagonia has a nice bar. The menu includes salads and finger food.
There are several basic lodges in the park called refugios. Make reservations well in advance if you plan on staying in these. The cost for a dorm bed is about US$40.
- FantásticoSur Lodges, ☎ , e-mail: email@example.com. Reservations for Refugio Torres, El Chileno and Los Cuernos
- Vertice Patagonia, ☎ , e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For Paine Grande Lodge, Refugio Grey, and Refugio Dickson.
Both FantasticoSur and Vertice will ask for credit card information and charge it two weeks before arrival. There appears to be no cancellation penalty before that.
There are several campsites. Camping near a refugio costs CLP$3,500 or CLP$4,000–5,000 the other campsites run by Conaf (called campamentos) are free. Away from a refugio you may find the pitches very small and on steep ground. All campsites have at least basic toilet facilities (bring your own toilet paper). Despite warnings there seemed no need to book camping spots even in peak season.
Hiking and camping outside of designated areas is forbidden, and will result in immediate expulsion from the park if caught.
Foxes have been known to steal food, belongings, as well as bite people, particularly small children. Even among the normally temperamental weather typical in Patagonia, the weather in the John Gardner Pass can be particularly tricky.