Hiking and Recreation in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine

Viewed from a trail lined with scrub, raw stone dusted with snow rise up in peaks.

Hiking in Torres del Paine National Park. Photo © Jan Reurink, licensed Creative Commons attribution.

Some of the Andes’s youngest peaks, the Torres del Paine are among the most emblematic in the entire range. Some 10 million years ago, a magma intrusion failed to reach the earth’s surface, cooling underground into resistant granite; in the interim, water, ice, and snow have eroded softer terrain to liberate the spires as one of the world’s most dramatic landscapes.

So strong a draw are the Torres that some visitors pressed for time settle for day tours that allow only a few hours in the park. Others walk to the base of the Torres from Hostería Las Torres, a relatively easy day hike where it’s hard to avoid the crowds. A longer and more tiring alternative, up the steep canyon of the Río Bader, provides a different perspective and the Andean solitude that many hikers seek.

Cuernos del Paine

Many park visitors misidentify the Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine) as the Torres. Located almost immediately south of the Torres proper, the saw-toothed Cuernos retain a cap of darker but softer metamorphic rock atop a broader granitic batholith that, like the Torres, never reached the surface before cooling. It’s the contrast between the two that gives the Cuernos their striking aspect.

As with the Torres, day-trippers can admire the Cuernos from the highway through the park. The best views, though, come from the “W” trail along the north shore of Lago Nordenskjöld, between Hostería Las Torres and Lago Pehoé.

Paine Circuit

Nearly three decades ago, under a military dictatorship, Chile attracted few foreign visitors, and hiking Torres del Paine was a solitary experience. On a 10-day trek over the now-famous circuit, the author met only three other hikers: two Americans and a Chilean. Parts of the route were easy-to-follow stock trails (the park was once an estancia—ranch), while others, on the east shore of Lago Grey and into the Río de los Perros Valley in particular, were barely boot-width tracks on steep slopes, or involved scrambling over granite boulders and fording waist-deep glacial meltwater.

In the interim, as raging rivers have destroyed bridges at the outlets of Lago Nordenskjöld and Lago Paine, the original trailhead on Lago Pehoé’s north shore no longer exists. Completion of a trail along Lago Nordenskjöld’s north shore several years back, though, created a new loop and simultaneously provided access to the Torres’s south side, offering easier access up the Río Ascencio and Valle del Francés on the shorter “W” route to Lago Pehoé. Where the former circuit crossed the Río Paine and continued along its north bank to the Laguna Azul campground, the new circuit now follows the river’s west bank south to Laguna Amarga (a Laguna Azul exit or entrance is still feasible, though, by crossing the Río Paine by a cable raft at the river’s Lago Dickson outlet, with help from the staff at Refugio Dickson).

In the interim, trail maintenance and development have improved, rudimentary and not-so-rudimentary bridges have replaced fallen logs and traversed stream fords, and comfortable refugios (shelters) and organized campgrounds have supplanted the lean-tos and puestos (outside houses) that once sheltered shepherds. Though it’s theoretically possible to complete most of the circuit without a tent or even a sleeping bag, showering and eating at the refugios, hikers must remember that this is still rugged country with unpredictable weather.

Most hikers now tackle the circuit counterclockwise from Guardería Laguna Amarga, where buses from Puerto Natales stop for passengers to pay the park admission fee. An alternative is to continue to Pudeto and take a passenger launch to Refugio Pehoé, or else to the park’s Administración (involving a longer and less interesting approach); both of these mean doing the trek clockwise.

At least a week is desirable for the circuit; before beginning, registration with park rangers is obligatory. Camping is permitted only at designated sites, a few of which are free. Purchase supplies in Puerto Natales, as only limited goods are available with the park, at premium prices.

Accommodations and Food

Accommodations and Food

For counterclockwise hikers beginning at Laguna Amarga, there is no refugio (shelter) until Lago Dickson (roughly 11 hours), though there is a fee campground at Campamento Serón (4–5 hours).

All the refugios are presently under concession to Puerto Natales’s Vértice Patagonia (Esmeralda 671, tel. 061/412742, camping US$7 pp, refugios US$30 pp, bunk with full board US$68 pp, breakfast US$10, lunch US$13, dinner US$18), including Refugio Lago Grey and Refugio Lago Dickson, where there are also campgrounds and backpackers still crash at the old puesto (outside house), plus the Campamento Río de los Perros.

Both refugios resemble each other, with 32 bunks, kitchen privileges, and hot showers, but without sheets or sleeping bags, which are technically available for rental but sometimes scarce. Refugio guests have shower priority over campers. Rental tents, sleeping bags, mats, and camp stoves are also available.

Replacing the cramped and overcrowded Refugio Lago Pehoé, the Paine Grande Mountain Lodge (tel. 02/1960051, US$44–61 pp, full board package US$78–95 pp, camping US$9, camping with full board US$51, breakfast US$10, lunch US$13, dinner US$17) is the newest option along the Paine Circuit. For camping, rental tents, pads, and sleeping bags are available. There’s also phone and even (expensive) Internet access.

The “W” Variant

From Guardería Laguna Amarga, a narrow undulating road crosses the Río Paine on a narrow suspension bridge to the grounds of Estancia Cerro Paine, at the foot of 2,640-meter Monte Almirante Nieto. The estancia (ranch) operates a hotel, refugios (shelters), and campgrounds, and the staff also shuttles hikers back and forth from Laguna Amarga for US$5 per person.

From Estancia Cerro Paine, a northbound trail parallels the route from Guardería Laguna Amarga, eventually meeting it just south of Campamento Serón. The estancia is more notable, though, as the starting point for the “W” route to Lago Pehoé, a scenic and popular option for hikers lacking time for the full circuit. On the western edge of the grounds, the trail crosses the Río Ascencio on a footbridge to a junction where a northbound lateral climbs the river canyon to Campamento Torres, where a short but steep trail ascends to a nameless glacial tarn at the foot of the Torres proper. Weather permitting, this is an easy day hike from the estancia, though many people prefer to camp or spend the night at the refugio.

From the junction, the main trail follows Lago Nordenskjöld’s north shore, past another refugio and campground, to the free Campamento Italiano at the base of the Río del Francés valley. While the main trail continues west toward Lago Pehoé, another northbound lateral climbs steeply up the valley, between the striking metamorphic Cuernos del Paine to the east and the 3,050-meter granite summit of Paine Grande to the west, to the free Campamento Británico.

Hikers in search of peace and quiet can make a strenuous detour up the Valle Bader, a steep rugged river valley that’s home to a climber’s camp at the base of the Cuernos. The route is mostly unmarked, but experienced cross-country walkers can handle it.

Accommodations and Food

Accommodations and Food

Technically outside park boundaries, most of the “W” route belongs to Fantástico Sur (Sarmiento 846, Punta Arenas, tel./fax 061/360360, bunks: US$37–46 pp, US$80–89 pp with full board; camping US$9 pp; breakfast US$10, lunch US$14, dinner US$19, full meal package US$43), which runs the 96-bunk Refugio Las Torres Norte and the new, nearby Refugio Las Torres Central (US$41–50 pp, US$84–93 pp with full board) on the estancia’s main grounds; the 36-bunk Refugio Chileno in the upper Río Ascencio Valley; and the 28-bunk Refugio Los Cuernos (cabañas US$131 d with breakfast and hot tub, US$174 s, US$217 d with full board), all of which also have campgrounds.

Fantástico Sur’s refugios are more spacious, diverse, and attractive in design than the Conaf refugios, and the food is better as well. Camping includes hot showers. Refugio Los Cuernos also has two-person cabañas. Refugio Las Torres Central is slightly more expensive than the rest of the Fantástico Sur refugios. Rental tents, sleeping bags, mats, and stoves are also available.

Other Trails

After heavy runoff destroyed the once-sturdy bridge at Lago Paine’s outlet in the early 1980s, the Río Paine’s north shore became, and has remained, isolated from the rest of the park. A good road, though, still leads from Guardería Laguna Amarga to Laguna Azul’s east end, which has a campground and cabañas, as well as the Sendero Lago Paine, a four-hour walk to the lake and a simple refugio (shelter). A trekkers’ alternative is the Sendero Desembocadura, which leads north from Guardería Laguna Amarga through open country to Laguna Azul’s west end and continues to Lago Paine, but this takes about eight hours. From the north shore of Lago Paine, the Sendero Lago Dickson (5.5 hours) leads to the Dickson Glacier.

Several easy day hikes are possible near Guardería Lago Pehoé, directly on the road from Laguna Amarga to the Administración visitors center. The short Sendero Salto Grande trail leads to the thunderous waterfall, at Lago Sarmiento’s outlet, that was the circuit’s starting point until unprecedented runoff swept away the iron bridge to Península Pehoé in 1986. From Salto Grande, the Sendero Mirador Nordenskjöld is a slightly longer but still easy walk to a lakeshore vista point, directly opposite the stunning Cuernos del Paine.

From Guardería Lago Grey, 18 kilometers northwest of the Administración by road, a short footpath leads to a sandy beach on Lago Grey’s south shore, where steady westerlies often beach icebergs from Glaciar Grey. The longer and less visited Sendero Lago Pingo ascends the Río Pingo Valley to its namesake lake (5.5–6 hours); a basic refugio and two free campgrounds are along the route.

Further Recreation

Though popular, hiking is not Paine’s only recreational option.

Despite similar terrain, Paine attracts fewer climbers than Argentina’s neighboring Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, perhaps because fees for climbing permits have been high here. At present, permits are free of charge; before being granted permission, though, climbers must present Conaf with climbing résumés, emergency contacts, and authorization from their consulate.

When climbing in sensitive border areas (meaning most of Andean Chile), climbers must also have permission from the Dirección de Fronteras y Límites (Difrol) in Santiago. It’s possible to do this through a Chilean consulate overseas or at Difrol’s Santiago offices or, preferably, online; if you arrive in Puerto Natales without permission, it’s possible to request it through the Gobernación Provincial (on the south side of Plaza Arturo Prat, tel. 061/411423, fax 061/411992), the regional government offices. The turnaround time is 48 hours.

While climbing and mountaineering activities may be undertaken independently, local concessionaires can provide training and lead groups or individuals with less experience on snow and ice. Rutas Patagonia (tel. 02/1960761, half-day trip US$130 pp) has a Refugio Grey base camp, where it leads half-day traverses of Glaciar Grey’s west side. Except for warm, weatherproof clothing, the company provides all equipment.

Kayaking specialist Indómita (Bories 206, tel./fax 061/414525, , US$600–742 pp, depending on group size) arranges guided three-day, two-night descents of the Río Serrano.

Río Serrano–based Baqueano Zamora (Baquedano 534, Puerto Natales, tel. 061/613531) offers horseback riding within the park. Just outside the park boundaries, though, Hostería Las Torres has its own stables. Other operators are now allowed to enter the park with their horses on trips that take as long as two weeks from Puerto Natales.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.

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