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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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