The southern end of the Andes in Chile is a land of glacier-filled mountains and foothills, circled by condors, roamed by pumas and battered by the infamous Roaring Forties. This largely untouched corner of the planet has always been an enticingly wild frontier. Now, thanks to direct flights between New York/London and Chile and the opening of some extraordinary Patagonian boutique hotels, it’s more accessible than ever. Here are 10 reasons why Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-ee-neh) National Park should be on every adventurer’s hitlist…
1 Glimpse an ice field without going to the poles
One of the largest frozen expanses outside the Polar Regions is the South Patagonian Ice Field, whose vast glacial arms bisect the Southern Andes. One of its brawniest tentacles, the Grey Glacier, creaks and groans its way along a Torres del Paine valley, where for millennia it has been dramatically carving into Lago Grey. Depending on where you’re staying, you can hike to the glacier wall in a day. Or, if you’re doing a full circuit of the park (known as the ‘O’), you’ll come up against the precipitous John Gardner Pass, where you’ll get an eyeful of the whole arm – from shoulder to lake-fringed tip – and across its six-kilometre-wide surface.
2 Ascend to the base of Patagonia’s most-prized prongs
Torres del Paine refers to the three peaks of the park’s iconic ‘Torres’ (Spanish for ‘towers’; ‘Paine’ is ‘blue’ in native Tehuelche). For many, a climb to the base of these imposing granite claws, possible in a day’s hike from the park entrance, is the highlight of the whole of Patagonia. You’re made to work for it, mind – be prepared for several hours of steady uphill and then a steep one-hour ascent to the summit. Your reward: a sight nature seems to have cooked up via Hollywood. The three peaks preside over a hushed natural amphitheatre centred on an otherworldly crater lake. Hike here as the sun rises to see them cast in fiery red.
3 Explore three distinct ecosystems and their endemic wildlife
This windswept, rugged land is home to a handful of the world’s rarest species, which roam or graze the park’s three ecosystems. Andean woodpecker, Chilean flamingo, grey fox, guanaco (the llama’s untamable cousin), hog-nosed skunk, Geoffroy’s cat and the elusive puma can all be spotted here – though Chile’s winter months of June and July are your best bet for the latter. The park is alive with colourful plant species, too. Our favourite, the wonderfully monikered ladyslippers, are delicate shoe-shaped flowers that grow behind wind-breaking boulders in order to survive strong gales.
4 Observe alien weather conditions
It’s true: you can experience four seasons in a single day at Torres del Paine. You might be trekking in shorts and shades in the morning and Gortex and gloves in the afternoon. That’s because the roaring winds, whipping their way around the tip of the continent, and the resulting soupy climate create very peculiar weather conditions: hello UFO-shaped lenticular clouds, miniature lake-born tornadoes and double rainbows. The air here is some of the cleanest on earth and so is the water: unlike at many national parks, the stream and river water here is safe to drink – and it’s delicious.
5 Explore a genuine wilderness
Bruce Chatwin wrote, ‘Walking is a virtue, tourism is a deadly sin’. Although the park has seen a rise in visitor numbers in recent years, the fact that you can still explore without a guide means Mother Nature alone will be keeping you company for the majority of treks – especially if you hike the ‘O’, which loops its way around the less busy but arguably more beautiful side of the park. Ask your hotel’s hiking concierge to help you plan a nine-day circumference of the park with tents and sleeping bags, a series of private-guided day hikes, or anything in between.
6 Beat a path through the Valle del Francés for showstopping mountain vistas
Leave your backpacks by a stream at Campo Italiano and climb a mile into the French Valley to a rocky outcrop with breath-snatching views of Glacier Francés (listen out for its rumbling tummy) and postcard-perfect Nordenskjöld Lake. Then, follow the river upstream through thick forest for a further hour or two where another, even more impressive panorama awaits. Cerro Cota (2,000m) and Cerro Catedral (2,200m) are eerie, iron-tinged peaks, the latter so named because of its resemblance to a mediaeval cathedral, or (for a more risqué reading) a female form on hands and knees.
7 Become rapt by a rainbow of rivers, lakes and lagoons
Some lakes are milky in Torres del Paine; others, electric blue; others still, emerald green. The reason? Rock particles ground by the weight of glaciers and filtered through the park’s waterways lend lakes and rivers their varying shades of colour, sometimes mixing with algae in static lagoons to produce that mesmerising green. At Torres del Paine, expect to see these remarkably contrasting bodies of water sitting side by side.
8 Stay in one of the world’s most remote luxury hotels
Hotels inside the park (or over towards Puerto Natales, the nearest town) include a clutch of futuristic eco yurts on stilts at Patagonia Camp; a design marvel shaped like a giant washed-up fossil at Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa; a sequence of honey-hued cubist lodges angled against the wind (and towards the Torres) at Awasi Patagonia; and a former meat-processing plant turned luxury accommodation, called The Singular Patagonia. All are designed for minimal impact on the environment and are staffed by hiking experts who can help plan itineraries to suit your level of ambition…
9 Tick off one of the world’s best
Don’t take our word for it: Torres del Paine is listed in many countdowns of the most exceptional national parks on the planet, rubbing shoulders the likes of South Africa’s Kruger, New Zealand’s Fjordland and the US’s Yellowstone and Yosemite.
10 Getting here is easier than ever
There are now direct flights from the UK and US to Santiago. From Chile’s capital, Santiago, you’ll then need to fly to the closest airport to the park, Puerto Natales, which is run by LAN and Sky airlines. Most hotels in or near the park run free transfers, a journey that takes about an hour and a half and gives you an Insta-worthy overview of the park’s crown-shaped cordillera.
Featured image is Grey Glacier in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field; photo via Getty