Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is 112 kilometers northwest of Puerto Natales via Ruta 9 through Cerro Castillo; 38 kilometers beyond Castillo. A westbound lateral leaves Ruta 9 to follow Lago Sarmiento’s north shore to Portería Sarmiento, the main gate; it continues southwest for 37 kilometers to the Administración, the park headquarters at Lago del Toro’s west end.
Recently completed, a new bridge over the Río Serrano will permit access to park headquarters via Cueva del Milodón and Lago del Toro’s western shore. It’s uncertain how this will affect public transportation.
Several years ago, when a Pacific Coast shipping company placed a two-page ad in Alaska Airlines’ in-flight magazine, the landscape chosen to represent Alaska’s grandeur was… Parque Nacional Torres del Paine! While an uninformed photo editor was the likely culprit, the soaring granite spires of Chile’s premiere national park have indeed become an international emblem of alpine majesty.
But there’s more—unlike many South American parks, Torres del Paine has an integrated trail network suitable for day hikes and backpack treks, endangered species such as the wild guanaco in a UNESCO-recognized World Biosphere Reserve, and accommodations options from rustic campgrounds to cozy trail huts and five-star luxury hotels.
Popular enough that some visitors prefer the spring (November–December) or fall (March–April) shoulder seasons—the park receives more than 100,000 visitors annually, about three-quarters of them foreigners—Torres del Paine has become an international destination, but it’s still wild country.
Nearly everybody visits to behold extraordinary natural features such as the Torres del Paine, the sheer granite towers that defy erosion even as weaker sedimentary strata have weathered, and the jagged Cuernos del Paine, with their striking interface between igneous and metamorphic rocks. Most hike its trails uneventfully, but this can still be treacherous terrain. Hikers have disappeared, the rivers run fast and cold, the weather is unpredictable, and there is one documented case of a tourist killed by a puma.
Featuring natural history exhibits, Conaf’s visitors center is the Centro de Informaciones Ecológicas (tel. 061/691931, ptpaine [at] conaf [dot] cl), at the Administración building on Lago del Toro near the Río Paine outlet. It’s open 8:30 a.m.–8 p.m. daily in summer. A new visitors center is also due to open at the Lago Pehoé ranger station, the former refugio.
Ranger stations at Guardería Laguna Amar-ga, Portería Lago Sarmiento, Guardería Laguna Azul, Guardería Lago Verde, and Guardería Lago Grey can also provide information.
The privately run Hostería Las Torres (tel. 061/710050, www.lastorres.com) has an exceptional audiovisual salon with sophisticated environmental exhibits.
For foreigners, Paine is Chile’s most expensive national park—US$28 per person except May–September, when it’s only $13. Rangers at Portería Lago Sarmiento, Guardería Laguna Amarga (where most inbound buses stop), Guardería Lago Verde, or Guardería Laguna Azul collect the fee, issue receipts, and provide a 1:100,000 map that’s suitable for trekking.
Bus is the cheapest, quickest way to and from the park, but the more expensive trip up Seno Última Esperanza and the Río Serrano, by cutter and Zodiac, is a viable alternative. Transportation is in flux as the new road from Puerto Natales is due to open shortly, and bus companies may adjust their routes to come more directly to the Administración, or else to take the same route (usually entering at Laguna Amarga) and loop back on the new road.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition