If anywhere can make you feel like a dwarf before nature, it’s Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia.
If the rugged Cordillera del Paine mountains are the 600,000-acre park’s backbone, the 9,300-foot granite spires form its heart.
Along Torres del Paine’s western edge, massive fingers of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field claw down broad valleys, melting into dreamy blue and gray lakes. Glacial ice tumbles down steep mountain flanks, feeding rumbling rivers so pure you can drink straight from the stream.
In terms of scale, this is a landscape that refuses to be contained. Good luck trying to fit it all into one photo frame. Instead, immerse yourself in the park’s natural grandeur.
Nine ways to satisfy your thirst for adventure in this Patagonian wonderland:
Trek the “W”: Hiking opportunities in Torres del Paine rank among the best in the world. To hit the park’s biggest highlights in 4-5-days, follow this 32-mile W-shaped route, which zigs along the south side of the Cordillera del Paine. You can tackle this trek from either direction, but if you’re the kind that likes to save the best for last, start from the west, so the park’s famed torres (towers) serve as a climactic finale.
Hike the Full Circuit: If you’re interested in experiencing the quieter side of the park—and if you have the time; this trek takes about 10 days—do the full circuit. The “O,” as this 75-mile route is familiarly known, loops around Torres del Paine’s namesake peaks, culminating in the 4,000-foot summit of John Gardner Pass, which delivers a mind-blowing view of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
Bunk in a Refugio: Along the W and the O routes, privately run backcountry refugios, (think shared bunk rooms, dining halls, and bathrooms) provide scenic—and affordable—spots to lay your head for the night. Vértice Patagonia operates several fine refugios and campsites on the western part of the circuit, while Fantastico Sur runs several on the eastern side (both companies also offer guided treks). Want to really rough it? There is an abundance of free, park-run campgrounds to choose from.
Sleep in a Geodesic Dome: Not up for a full trek? No problem. Gaze up at the stars from your bed in one of EcoCamp Patagonia’s domes, which are found on the eastern edge of the park within view of the famous granite towers. You’ll rest easy knowing you’re staying at a sustainably designed and operated retreat.
Walk on a Glacier: To feel like a tiny ant in a huge world, don crampons for a walk on Grey Glacier, which tumbles into Grey Lake. Big Foot Patagonia is the sole outfitter to offer glacier trekking packages in the park, starting from their base camp near Refugio Grey (one of Vértice Patagonia’s properties). Hike in for the night, or hop a boat from Hotel Lago Grey at the lake’s southern end.
Hop on a Horse: Saddle up and explore the park like a South American gaucho. Hotel Las Torres and Estancia Torres del Paine offer day trips on horseback. If you’re up for a multiday adventure, check out Chile Nativo’s “Last Frontier” tour, which National Geographic Traveler highlighted in its “Tours of a Lifetime” feature in 2014.
Kayak Past Icebergs: Big Foot also runs kayaking day trips on the milky waters of Grey Lake. Paddle by chunks of floating blue ice as you stare up at glacier-scoured shores and listen to the distant cracks of Grey Glacier as it crashes into the lake.
Track Pumas: Ever present but seldom seen, wild pumas roam the wilds of Torres del Paine. Hotel Las Torres can take you tracking in daylight hours, while SouthWild offers multiday trips that guarantee a sighting.
Climb the North Tower: Scaling one of the park’s sheer granite towers is the apex of adventure in Torres del Paine. If you can’t take your eyes off the jagged summits, contact Erratic Rock for a two-week guided ascent of the 7,400-foot North Tower.
> When to Go:
Torres del Paine’s climate is as rugged as its landscape. Summer—December through February—brings the best weather, though it can feel like four seasons in one day. Be especially cautious of the wind during this time; as warm air collides with cold glaciers, stiff gusts can nearly blow trekkers off-trail.
But optimal weather conditions, not surprisingly, coincide with peak season, and it’s during the summer months that the park’s trails and campgrounds are most crowded. So shoot for shoulder season—October, November, March, and April—unless you want a lot of company. For peak season, make your arrangements at least four months in advance.
> Getting There:
Torres del Paine National Park is a long way from anywhere—more than 1,200 miles from Santiago as the crow flies. The closest commercial airport is located in Punta Arenas, near the southern tip of South America. From there it’s a half-day’s drive to the park via Puerto Natales. If you sign up for a guided trip, your tour operator will arrange transport.