On the edge of the southern Patagonian ice field, 1,860 mi/3,000 km south of Santiago, the wildlife and scenery, both in and around Torres del Paine National Park (pronounced TOR-es del PIE-nay) are spectacular. The "Torres" of the park's name are three massive granite "towers" of the Cordillera del Paine range that reach 10,000 ft/3,100 m. "Paine" comes from the native Tehuelche Indian word for the azure blue water of the many lakes from the many glaciers.
Herds of sheep and guanacos (wild relatives of the domestic llama) graze the sprawling steppes; fields of wildflowers cover alpine meadows; lush, southern beech forests cover the hillsides observed by soaring condors; and icy rivers round out the scene. A catamaran excursion visits Grey Glacier, a slow-moving river of ice that feeds Grey Lake.
Ambitious walkers can undertake a 10 day, 60 mi/100 km "O" circuit around the towers and the base of the central massif called Paine Grande or do the classic five-day, 40 mi/60 km "W" trek on the south side of the Los Cuernos range. If the weather is clear, some of the mountaintops are visible when landing in Punta Arenas.
The town of Puerto Natales, three hours northwest of Punta Arenas via an excellent paved highway, is the gateway to the park. Between Puerto Natales and the park, an early settler found well-preserved remains of a Pleistocene ground sloth at the Milodon Cave.
Those visiting the park as an excursion from Punta Arenas should allow a minimum of three days (two nights), but most visitors prefer at least four or five nights; day trips from Puerto Natales are feasible for those whose time is limited. Rainy, cold and windy days are common, even in summer. On any given day, though, the changeable weather provides windows of opportunity.
Those planning to trek in Torres del Paine should know that the refugios (hostels and campsites) are each run independently and get booked immediately by Tier 2 tour operators who work with each other to provide complete packages for tourists. The chances of booking back-to-back continuous nights trekking through the park without going through a tour operator are slim.
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