Take 5: Torres del Paine National Park in One Day

Travel Lists Chile
Take 5: Torres del Paine National Park in One Day

Every year, around 150,000 visitors make the pilgrimage to Torres del Paine National Park, on the southern tip of the Andes in Patagonian Chile, lured by the promise of some of the most spectacular geological formations and scenery in the Southern Hemisphere. But there’s more than one way to tackle the 935 square miles of stunning scenery. Hikers can walk the “W” route in around five days, or make the journey round the full “Circle” route in eight or nine days.

Those who are so inclined can even partake in one of the many day trips on offer around the region, and experience the exceptional wonders of Torres del Paine in a morning and afternoon.

Here are five of the best, biggest and boldest sights you can pack into a single day in Torres del Paine.

1. Bluer-than-Blue Bodies of Water

Are they aquamarine or sapphire? Minty or cerulean? Milky green or grayish white? In the end, words are insufficient to describe the vivid, eye-confounding blues of the lakes of Torres del Paine.

Again, there’s a scientific explanation for the striking hues: glacial rock flour that has tinted the water over many centuries. But, again, science can only do so much to prepare you for the sight of the park’s various lakes, each one a slightly different hue of blue: Dickson Lake, Nordenskjöld Lake, Grey Lake, Sarmiento Lake, Del Toro Lake and Lake Pehoé (pictured at top). The latter, especially, a cool vast pool of turquoise, looks like a locale from a children’s picture book, magical cottage-dotted isle and all.

It’s difficult to say in which weather conditions the vividly colored lakes of Torres del Paine are more astonishing. Under moody gray skies, the lake waters look stupefying and unreal. Under clear, cloudless skies, both sides of the horizon seem locked in a dazzling battle of blueness.

2. Soaring Mountainscapes

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The 12-million-year-old stone formations of Torres del Paine tend to excite geology buffs, but you don’t need to be an expert to appreciate the monumental, granite towers of the Paine Massif.

The main attraction, emblematic not just of the national park but of Chilean Patagonia as a whole, are the three granite peaks of the Torres del Paine themselves (the name is Spanish for “Towers of Paine,” “paine” being the indigenous name for “blue”), easily the most photographed sight in Chile. And the most visible: the tallest of the peaks extends 9,350 feet above sea level.

Alongside the Torres del Paine, Los Cuernos (pictured above) are striking not only for their tusk-like, saw-teeth shape, but their color markings: a streak of exposed granite.

There are also plenty of roadside spots in the Park to park a vehicle and gain some altitude on foot, all the better to appreciate panoramic views of the other, dramatically named peaks around: Cerro Catedral (named for its resemblance to a cathedral’s façade), the Aleta de Tiburón (Shark’s Fin), Fortaleza (Fortress), La Espada (The Sword), La Hoja (The Blade) and La Máscara (The Mummer).

3. Vanishing Ice

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There’s more reason to visit Grey Glacier than ever before—it’s thinning and rapidly losing volume, another casualty of climate change.

Not that it looks anything less than mighty. A 100-foot-high wall of ice, the glacier sits in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, at 6,487 square miles, the Southern Hemisphere’s largest reserve of fresh water outside of the Antarctic.

On the pebbly southern shoreline of Lake Grey, you’re likely to be battered by wind and rain (let this serve as a reminder to pack your waterproof/windproof gear: Patagonian weather is notoriously erratic). But the views of the glacier, a frozen expanse stretching as far as the eye can see, are well worth it.

After a climb up Paso John Gardner just under a mile, you’ll find yourself at an ideal vantage point to appreciate not only the awesome immensity of the glacier, but the snow cone-blue icebergs that have calved from it, sailing slowly across the lagoon before melting and being claimed by the icy water. Time to bust out your flask of scotch from your inside pocket.

4. Raging Cascades

By waterfall standards, the Salto Grande—the largest waterfall in Torres del Paine, its name literally meaning “large waterfall”—isn’t really all that big. An outflow from Nordenskjöld Lake, it takes a plunge of around 50 feet, on its way to becoming the Pehoé Lake.

Still, there’s a reason the Salto Grande regularly makes lists of the best waterfalls in South America. What it lacks in height, it makes up for in volume and power. Peer over the brink and try not be awed by the force of the glacier-fed water passing through its steep, narrow ravine to the basin below.

It’s also obvious why the spot is a favorite for photographers: the wild, ever-colorful waters set against the solemnly still backdrop of the Torres and Cuernos of the Paine Massif. And keep an eye out for some of Torres del Paine’s unique wildlife …

5. Unique Bird and Animal Life

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A stunning diversity of habitats equals a stunning diversity of wildlife for the interested animal-spotter. Most visitors will likely encounter the quizzical glance of guanaco (pictured above), a close camelid cousin of the llama, grazing around the park. More watchful visitors may even spot the South Andean deer, the Andean grey fox or Patagonian Hairy Armadillo, while even more intrepid travelers might even spy puma (at a prudent distance) or the Patagonian hog-nosed skunk (at a prudent distance, for different reasons). 

For the keen birder, the region boasts a huge variety of birdlife, from the humble Darwin’s rhea (Charles Darwin “discovered” the species while in the middle of eating one) to the elegant Chilean flamingo. Torres del Paine is especially known for its 15 bird of prey species—keep your eyes on the skies to stand a chance of spotting the famously vast wingspan of the Andean Condor.

All going to plan, you can be back in your lodgings by dinnertime. Many restaurants offer guanaco on the menu—arguably the perfect ending to a perfect day.

Darryn King is a writer in New York.

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