Mountain landscape
Chile,  Landscape,  Lens-Artists

To touch the sky: the Torres del Paine

As a lover of mountain scenery, I have long wished to visit the high Andes of Patagonia, and specifically the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. This is named for the three distinctive peaks at its heart, the Torres or Towers, but these are just a few of the majestic mountains contained within its boundaries. Add numerous lakes, glaciers and rivers, and this is a landscape to tug at the heart strings and demand attention.

It is hard to do it justice, either in words or in photos, but I will do my best.

The mountains are calling and I must go.

John Muir

Getting to the national park

We travelled to the National Park, as many people do, via Puerto Natales. The drive took about two hours, including a stop of about ten minutes or so at the Laguna Amarga park entrance, to pay our fee and register (as all park visitors must do).

The scenery was stunning throughout, but especially in the latter stages of the drive, with great views of the Paine Massif, including the Torres themselves. After a few days of rather dismal weather in Chile’s Lake District it was a huge relief to see blue skies here. And when finally we got our first glimpse of the Torres, I was delighted to realise that, even if the clouds descended again, at least we had seen them. Little did I know then that they would be visible, more or less, throughout our short stay here.

Seeing the park without hiking

We packed a huge amount into the day and a half we were here. What we didn’t do however, was hike. Many visitors are drawn here for the trekking possibilities, including the famous “W” (so-named for the rough shape of the route). But I have never been a long-distance walker; and these days various health problems (in particular, some rather dodgy knees) make that impossible.

If you are in the same position and are wondering, as I did, if the Torres del Paine are for you, I would say – go! As long as you can manage to walk a few kilometres you will certainly see the park’s amazing landscapes; even if, like me, you are unable to fully escape its crowds. But the mountains are giants and we are dwarfed by them, so truly the crowds are very easy to ignore; and in any case they are not on the scale of, say, Yosemite or Yellowstone.

This is a place for those who, like me, are drawn to wild places and the grandeur of nature; those who are fascinated by how the forces of nature have shaped our planet. The mountains are indeed calling.

Mountain landscape
On the road to the Torres del Paine NP

The Full Paine

On our one full day here we took a tour offered by our hotel, Las Torres: the ‘Full Paine’. This was billed as ‘giving guests the fullest introduction to Torres del Paine National Park in the shortest amount of time’, which I think is a fair description. We travelled by road through the park, stopping at various places for (mostly) short walks.

Lakes Nordenskjöld and Sarmiento

These two lakes lie quite near each other but are quite different in appearance. Nordenskjöld is a milky turquoise in colour while Sarmiento is deep blue. Our guide explained that this is because the former is fed by the Rio Paine, which brings melt-water down from the glaciers into the lake’s easternmost point, and then exits via the Salto Grande into Lake Pehoé. Sarmiento on the other hand is a ‘stand-alone’ lake, unconnected to the river system, and thus has no icy melt-water.

There are various viewpoints along the road overlooking the lakes; but before we even reached these our bus stopped and our guide led us in the short climb up a nearby ridge from which we could see both at the same time. From this spot Nordenskjöld has the Paine Massif as a stunning backdrop, with the Cuerno peaks (the ‘Horns’) in the foreground and the Torres off to the right and more distant. To the left are, I believe, Punta Bariloche and the Cumbre peaks, with the Glacier del Francés just visible in some of my shots.

The photos here were further enhanced by the bright red clumps of the Guanaco Bush; so-called because it is a favourite food of these animals. We didn’t see any guanaco here but were to spot some later in the day, and many more the following morning.

Salto Grande

Lake Nordenskjöld spills into Lake Pehoé via the Salto Grande. The falls are reached by a short walk of about one kilometre on a stony but level path. When we were here the wind was incredibly strong, making what could be quite an easy walk into something rather more challenging. But the scenery along the way is stunning; it would be well worth the effort even without the reward of a waterfall at the end of the path! I took one of my favourite photos of the park here.

Mountain landscape with dead tree
On the walk to the Salto Grande – a favourite photo

When we reached the falls the wind was if anything even stronger, as the overlook is quite exposed. The falls themselves are not high; but the water spills over with great force and the turquoise colour adds greatly to the scene. Even some distance above the water I could feel the spray on my face and hear the roar.

Waterfall in a barren landscape
Salto Grande

A little way upstream are some rapids where the colour is if anything more intense. The path follows the water’s edge a little way towards these and some of our group headed along that way; but I preferred to stay where I was, enjoying and photographing the falls and for a short while having a little corner of this special place to myself.

Lake Pehoé

We enjoyed a fabulous picnic at a spot near Lake Pehoé. This was an excellent bird-spotting area. My favourite was the pretty Patagonian Sierra Finch. The only other one I have been able to identify was a Rufous-tailed Plantcutter – maybe my readers can do better!

Our lunch was interrupted at one point by the visit of an inquisitive armadillo who just had to be photographed!

Armadillo
Armadillo

After lunch we drove on to Lago Grey to take a cruise to Glacier Grey. I’ve already described that mini-adventure in an earlier post, Glacier Grey – or should that be Turquoise so won’t repeat myself here.

The following day we squeezed in a visit to a couple more of the park’s beautiful lakes. At the start of our drive we passed close to the Rio Paine; we stopped briefly for photos as a couple of guanaco were crossing the river here.

Guanaco in a river
Guanaco crossing the Rio Paine

Laguna Amarga

This is one of the smaller lakes in the park and the first that many visitors see, as it is located close to the National Park entrance station of the same name. It is well known as a spot to see flamingos although there were disappointingly few on the day we visited; and those that were there were at too great a distance for photos. Thankfully we had got fantastic flamingo shots earlier in our trip at the Salar de Atacama so were only mildly disappointed at this; and there were other sights to enjoy here, including another native bird, a rhea. The rheas found here are of the species known as the Lesser or Darwin’s Rhea; they were recognised as a new species by the famous naturalist while he was in the middle of eating one!

Large brown bird with long legs and neck
Lesser or Darwin’s Rhea

We stopped at the viewpoint at the lake’s eastern end, from where you can get wonderful shots of the turquoise water with the Torres del Paine as backdrop. As on the previous day we were blessed with bright weather and the towers were fully visible. It was however again very windy (Patagonia is always windy) which presented a few challenges for photography as the wind whipped my hair in front of my face. It also meant that we couldn’t get any shots of the Torres reflected in the waters of the lake such as I have seen posted elsewhere. But it was still a very scenic spot in which to stop and definitely worthwhile.

Laguna Azul

We spent most of the morning however on the shores of Laguna Azul, which lies a little to the north. Again reflections were in short supply because of the wind; but in every other respect this was a beautiful spot, with the deep blue lake the foreground to a classic view of the Torres, which from here you can see lined up in a row rather than overlapping each other as from most other viewpoints.

We took a walk along the stony beach at its eastern end, from where the best views can be had. The wind was strong but nothing like as much so as it had been the previous day at Lago Grey. I really enjoyed this walk, stopping often for photos.

When we reached the far end of the beach we encountered a small herd of guanacos. This was the largest group we had so far seen on our travels (or indeed were to see anywhere). Our guide from the hotel heard what he was sure were two guanacos fighting. So we hurried towards the spot, arriving just in time to see, although not photograph, the last stages of the fight before one of the ‘ladies’ ran off. Clearly they had been fighting over a male and equally clearly the one that remained had won!

As we walked along the road back to our small bus we were able to get even closer to these beautiful animals and capture what I consider to be iconic Torres del Paine shots; guanacos in the foreground and behind them the blue waters of the lake and the Torres and Paine Massif beyond.

Mountain landscape with grazing animals
Landscape with mountains and grazing animals

Cascada del Rio Paine

Our last stop on this half-day tour was at the Cascada del Rio Paine, another beautiful spot. The falls are not very high; but the force of the water here, and the backdrop of the Paine Massif with the Torres peeking up in the background, make it well worth a visit. A bumpy track leads from the road up to Laguna Azul to a parking area. From here it is a short walk to several viewpoints overlooking the falls. It’s worth walking along from one to another as the views change as you do so.

Waterfall with mountains beyond
Cascada Paine

These falls are not so much visited as the Salto Grande; our small group had this spot to ourselves (as we had the Laguna Azul). With a final wonderful view of the iconic Torres, this was the perfect place to say farewell to this stunning part of the world.

Tall pointed mountains
The Torres del Paine from the Cascada Paine

Despite the infrastructure that makes it easy for tourists to visit, the Torres del Paine is very much one of the world’s wild places. It is certainly one of the wildest places I’ve been. I hope that this week’s Lens-Artists Challenge host Dianne, who is passionate about the natural world and I know loves mountains, will enjoy visiting it with me.

I visited the Torres del Paine in 2016

52 Comments

  • Sue

    What absolutely stunning scenery…an area I would have loved to have seen when young and fit…..an Argentine friend told me how marvellous it was a few years ago, and your images are testament to that

  • rkrontheroad

    So dramatic, the photos are great, especially your favorite of the tree. I’ve done a three day trek on horseback in the mountains of Patagonia on the Argentina side, but didn’t get over to Chile. Hope to do so another time.

  • Marsha

    Sarah, I’d have to agree with you on many accounts. That is one of the wildest places I’ve seen. Each one of you pictures is stunning in its own way. The views move from calm reflections of the mountains to the fearsome turquoise water falls and always back to the imposing mountains. Spectacular journey. My knee is wonky today so I’m sympathetic for your lack of hiking right now, but you did just fine. It didn’t look like there was another soul in sight. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Marsha, I’m happy you enjoyed this so much! Our small group did manage to have some of these sights to ourselves, which helped with the photos 🙂 It’s a stunning place and one I’m so pleased to have been able to visit!

  • Teresa

    WOW Sarah, you’re such a lucky girl to be able to see that place in person! Even just by looking at your photos is already so magical! Thanks for sharing them to us!

  • JohnRH

    WOWWWWW. What a special treat to be able to visit and tour there. ‘Paine’ is one of the wildest places I’ve seen, only from pictures though. Your Muir quote hangs in our living room. One of m’lady’s most favorite.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      You’re absolutely right John, it was a real treat 🙂 But so are most travel experiences in their very varied ways, don’t you think? If you (and your lady) love mountains, this is a wonderful place to see them!

  • ramblingranger

    Thanks for taking me with you to Patagonia, Sarah! So many beautiful images that I can’t pick a favorite. I really love the twisted tree and the milky turquoise water of the falls. The larger picture of the lake, road and peaks in the Laguna Amarga section illustrates the immensity of the landscape particularly well, and those iconic images of the guanaco and the torres, wow! Thank you so much for sharing. I will be sure to revisit the next time I want to do a little armchair traveling!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Dianne, I’m glad you enjoyed your visit to this wild place 😀 You’ve picked out some of my own favourite photos. And when you consider that the road in the Laguna Amarga one is the main access road to the park it shows how accessible this wildness is too!

  • Natalie

    Fantastic photos, Sarah. You’re lucky to see the Torres and wildlife. Some of my friends went and unfortunately the Torres were behind the clouds the whole time and they couldn’t get good photos. I went to the Atacama desert and loved it there.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Natalie 🙂 Yes, I’ve heard about that happening to some visitors. We’d just had a couple of days of very poor weather in the Lakes District including a very disappointing boat trip in which we saw almost no scenery, so I was a bit concerned that we might not see the Torres at all but it cleared up at just the right moment. Hotel staff told us they’d been invisible for the previous few days!

  • Anna

    TdelP definitely rates as one of my most favourite holidays ever! You’ve captured the sights and colours so well. The lakes are just magical with their variety of blues! Now that I am more into hiking these days as well I’d love to go back and do the whole “O” circuit and not just the “W” that I did.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you John 🙂 So we were there the same year?! Yes, the armadillo was an unexpected bonus – we were told he hangs around the picnic area there as he knows he’ll pick up tasty scraps 😉

  • Susanne Swanson

    Wow! I’ve never seen mountains quite like that before and I have seen many mountains! So magical they almost look unreal. And the lakes and wildlife are wonderful too. You’ve certainly whetted my appetite to go! But if I don’t make it, I’ll just come back to look at your post occasionally! 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Susanne 😊 I’m glad I’ve given you an appetite to visit here. It really is a stunning landscape and no, I’ve not seen mountains quite like this anywhere else. I hope you get here one day!!

  • Jane Lurie

    Hi Sarah, Great post with fantastic photos. This was a memorable trip for me, too. In fact, I traveled with Tina (and our husbands) there, as I see her comment above. You captured the essence of the area in your terrific write-up. We did a great deal of hiking, which at times was very challenging and a bit scary – that’s what makes the best stories. Staying in the eco-camps at the base of the Towers, and photographing them at dawn was most memorable.
    I always enjoy your posts- thanks.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Wow, that sounds like an amazing trip Jane! Sadly I knew I wouldn’t be able to hike to the base of the towers, otherwise we might have spent longer there and fitted in at least that one hike. Have either of you posted about your experiences there? I’d love to read more / see photos 🙂

  • wetanddustyroads

    WOW!! So many spectacular scenes … I did not know where to look 👀👀. This is a place we would love to visit (with our hiking gear) and after seeing all your beautiful photo’s, Torres del Paine just jumped to the top of our list!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      If you enjoy hiking this really should indeed be top of your list! If I could see beauty such as this within a mile or so of the roads through the park, just think what you could see on a longer hike!!

  • Tina Schell

    Well clearly great minds do think alike Sarah 😊. I too thought the Torres magnificent. I’m amazed at how much you were able to see in such a short visit. We did many VERY long hikes and drives in our 3 weeks there and loved every minute of it. It is such an amazingly beautiful part of the world, and yes, still so wild and untouched. In hindsight I’m very sorry we didn’t go on to Antartica which is a very short hop and I’m certain we’ll never be back in that part of the world. Ah well, we cannot do everything, can we?? Terrific post and images!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Wow, you had three weeks there?! We only had three weeks to spare for our whole trip to Chile, and that included four nights on Rapa Nui 😀 Of course I was still working then so we had to be careful with how long we could stay away, but I would have loved longer in the Torres del Paine and the Atacama too. Although not being able to hike long distances I suspect three weeks would have been too long perhaps?

      We visited Antarctica on a separate trip some years previously, via Buenos Aires and Ushuaia. We spent a day in the Tierra del Fuego National Park which gave me a taste for this beautiful landscape and put Patagonia firmly on our wish-list!

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