Torres Del Paine, Etched Into Memory

By Kerry Christiani

Torres del Paine is like nowhere else on earth. My first encounter with this remote, wild, wind-lashed national park, between the Andes and the Patagonian steppe in southern Chile, was back in 2003, when I hiked the famous ‘W’. It was an experience so mind-bending it is etched in my memory as if it were yesterday. Ever since, Torres del Paine has taken on a mythical quality in my imagination, with its landscapes of singular beauty.

And what beauty! As you walk in quiet wonder here, you’ll soon forgot the uphill slog as your gaze is drawn to doe-eyed guanacos grazing on grasslands that skirt brooding peaks; you’ll literally draw breath as ice calves from immense, surreally blue glaciers that appear to stretch into infinity; you’ll pit yourself against raw, elemental forces to trek alongside azure, frigid lakes that ripple in the perpetual howling winds; and you’ll stop dead in your tracks as a condor glides on the surging thermals, almost close enough to hear the whoosh of its mighty three-meter wingspan.

I’ll never forget such moments; nor will I forget camping on the shores of Lake Grey listening to icebergs chink on a starlit night, hiking deep into beech forests turning russet and gold with the onset of autumn, or catching my first glimpse of the fang-like Torres del Paine (‘Paine Towers’) and the snarling Cuernos del Paine (‘Paine Horns’). Just shy of 3,000m (9,842 ft), these Tolkienesque mountains looking freshly minted for Mordor are dark, forbidding and often blanketed in clouds. Standing before them, you can’t help but feel tiny.

A Unesco Biosphere Reserve since 1978, Torres del Paine is vast, spanning 2,400 km² (972 miles²), and nature here works on a grand scale. But despite its proportions, the park is extremely accessible and geared towards hikers of all levels. The busiest months are December to January (austral summer), with longer days and moderately warmer climes. The best time to visit for fewer visitors yet still stable conditions is spring (October to December) and autumn (March to April). In winter (May through September), winds drop but so too do temperatures – often below zero – and some areas may be off-limits due to snowfall. Days are shorter, sure, but the rewards are having the trails almost to yourself, crystal-clear skies and a fresh dusting of snow for stellar photo-ops.

You don’t have to be a hardcore, seasoned hiker to make the most of Torres del Paine. A network of excellent lodges, guided hikes, well-developed infrastructure and organized activities – from kayaking in off-the-radar corners of the park to horseback riding across the pampas – means you can linger for as little as a day and still get a real flavor for the park’s phenomenal wilderness.  The challenging 18km (11 mile), eight-hour Base Hike, for instance, leads through the Ascensio Valley, crosses hanging bridges and teeters up and down the slopes to eventually arrive at a glacial lake with close-ups of the Paine massif that beggar belief.

Strike out a little further on a multi-day hike and you won’t regret the extra effort. Best hiked from west to east (or counterclockwise) for prime views of Los Cuernos and to lighten the load on the toughest ascents, the ‘W’ is an absolute classic. Allow around four days for this hike, which delves into a trio of valleys to reveal park standouts such as the vertical granite towers of Las Torres, the waterfall-laced Valle del Francés (French Valley) with its hanging glacier, and the Grey Glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, carving its way through the park glacial superhighway. Tag on several extra days and you can tackle the big one: the so-called ‘Circuit’, which dips into the spectacular backcountry of the park on an epic seven- to 10-day trek.

What moments will you commit to memory? Perhaps it will be hiking around the topaz, looking-glass waters of Lake Pehoé, or seeing the jagged granite pillars of the Paine massif blushing in the fiery light of a Patagonian sunset. Or maybe you’ll be lucky enough to spot a nimble-footed huemul, an endangered Andean deer, deep in the Valle del Francés. Each hiker takes away a different impression of Torres del Paine, but one thing is for sure: nobody leaves without falling hopelessly in love with this place of alpine trails and hostile, heart-breaking beauty.