Parque National Torres del Paine, Patagonia
Parque National Torres del Paine, in Patagonia but on the Chilean side, it is reputed to be ‘trekker’s heaven’ and South America’s finest national park. Soaring vertically more than 2,000m above the Patagonian steppe, the three granite pillars of Torres del Paine dominate the landscape and must be one of the most photographed natural features on the continent.
The weather can change suddenly and without warning. You can arrive in wall to wall rain, falling from the sky as if from a power shower but, after lunch, the sun can appear to a pleasant and dry afternoon. When the wind blows, it will tear angrily at tents and corrugated roofs, it is relentless and gusts with such strength that remaining upright requires total attention especially when walking on a ledge; communication can be made downwind but not the other way. Welcome to the Patagonian wind. It is said, that the park will give all four seasons in an hour.
There are two big hikes: one that circumvents the massive mountains and takes 8 days and the second that is known as the W circuit that delved into the three valleys within the mountains and takes 4/5 days. To warm up on arrival take the easy route to Los Cuernos (& the shortest on the W circuit) alongside a small laguna & Lago Nordenskjold. The first major trek will be to the mirador at the base of the towers themselves. It is possible to take horses to the first refugio, but it is just as easy to walk, taking approximately the same amount of time - two hours. On reaching the base of the final climb to the towers there is another 45minutes of knee popping scramble over big boulders to reach the viewing point. This is as close as anyone can get without strapping on climbing gear for a vertical ascent of the granite. If you are lucky the sun will come out to display the Torres del Paine in all their glory. Find a seat, leaning against cold rock, to enjoy the most magnificent view in the park.
Next up is the Valle Frances that involves a boat trip to get to the start of the hike that follows the shoreline of Lago Pehoe before turning into the valley that cuts into the mountains alongside Los Cuernos, behind Torres del Paine. The walk is excellent, taking in azure lakes, emerald forests and roaring rivers while crossing on rickety bridges before being confronted with a glacial slab of ice. At the top of the valley you can sit back again and enjoy the spectacle of Glacier Frances.
The final leg of the W is the longest trek; around 24 km up Largo Grey to the base of the Grey Glacier. It is the most beautiful walk of the three with glorious views of the lake and the glacier for the second third of the trip. Wander through forests and over streams and waterfalls until you emerged in front of the glacier.
If time is on your side take a horse-ride out into the park. Horses in this part of the world are dirt cheap and they are not treated particularly well and get very jumpy when one of the gauchos starts whistling or hollering. However the horses are totally secure for the tough environment that coping with the steep and slippery slopes they manage to keep three feet on the ground at any one time. Some of the trail along ridges with sheer drops to one side were particularly alarming, but from the top of the hills, the views over the parkland were magnificent and worth every ounce of horse sweat. When the sun is out, the rain gone, the wind has stopped you could truely believe that summer does come to Patagonia for a day. A glorious way to finish your time in the park.