Destination guide: Torres del Paine, Chile
The Torres del Paine National Park is one of the most visited destinations in Chile, especially by European tourists. This natural site belongs to the Chilean National System of Protected Wild Areas and has everything from mountains, valleys and forests to rivers, lakes and glaciers. It is worth pointing out that this natural attraction was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
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Torres del Paine
Soaring almost vertically more than 2000m above the Patagonian steppe, the granite pillars of Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) dominate the landscape of what may be South America’s finest national park (www.pntp.cl; admission high/low season CH$15,000/5000). Before its creation in 1959, the park was part of a large sheep estancia, and it’s still recovering from nearly a century of overexploitation of its pastures, forests and wildlife.
Most people visit the park for its one greatest hit but, once here, realize that there are other (less-crowded) attractions with equal wow power. We’re talking about azure lakes, trails that meander through emerald forests, roaring rivers you’ll cross on rickety bridges and one big, radiant blue glacier. Variety spans from the vast openness of the steppe to rugged mountain terrain topped by looming peaks.
Part of Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve system since 1978, the park is home to flocks of ostrich-like rhea (known locally as the ñandú ), Andean condor, flamingo and many other bird species. Its star success in conservation success is undoubtedly the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), which grazes the open steppes where pumas cannot approach undetected. After more than a decade of effective protection from poachers, these large and growing herds don’t even flinch when humans or vehicles approach.
When the weather is clear panoramas are everywhere. However, unpredictable weather systems can sheath the peaks in clouds for hours or days. Some say you get four seasons in a day here, with sudden rainstorms and knock-down gusts part of the hearty initiation. Bring high-quality foul-weather gear, a synthetic sleeping bag and, if you’re camping, a good tent. It is always wise to plan a few extra days to make sure that your trip isn’t torpedoed by a spot of bad weather.
However, the crowning attraction of this 1810-sq-km park is its highly developed infrastructure, which makes it possible to do the whole ‘W’ hike while sleeping in beds, eating hot meals, taking showers and even drinking the random cocktail. Make reservations ahead of time.
Plan a minimum of three to seven days to enjoy the hiking and other activities. Guided day trips on minibuses from Puerto Natales are possible, but permit only a glimpse of what the park has to offer. In 2005 a hiker burned down 10% of the park using a portable stove in windy conditions. Sloppy camping has consequences. Be conscientious and tread lightly – you are one of 120,000 yearly guests.
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