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Backpacker Magazine – November 2013

Best Scenery: Torres del Paine Circuit, Chile

by: Kim Phillips

Rise early to catch sunrise on the Torres Del Paine peaks. (Ordelheide)
Rise early to catch sunrise on the Torres Del Paine peaks. (Ordelheide)
Grey Glacier. (Photo by Joerg Bonner)
Grey Glacier. (Photo by Joerg Bonner)

You’ve probably seen a photo of these famous towers before (check the cover of this issue). I’d certainly spotted Chile’s most iconic peaks in more magazines than I could count. And to be honest, I’d come to Torres del Paine prepared to be a little disappointed. Yes, I’d heard the place is jam-packed with one-of-a-kind rock formations, shimmering lakes, and massive glaciers. But I still wondered: Could seeing Torres del Paine in person possibly live up to the hype? 

Nonetheless, when Matt and I started our South American odyssey five months ago, we knew we’d end up here at the Hotel las Torres trailhead, the start of the park’s signature nine-day, 76-mile Circuit Route. Skeptical as I was, I had to see this place for myself.

The stars were still out on the second morning when we rose before dawn at Campamento Torres. We climbed to the base of the park’s famed Torres del Paine rock formations, three 8,000-foot granite towers set behind a long, teal-colored pool, and grabbed seats in the boulderfield above the lake. I waited for the usual peachy hues of sunrise to color the sky. Instead, without buildup, sunlight struck the top half of the Torres formations, instantly turning them electric shades of crimson. How stunning was it? The hikers around us broke into applause. 

Scene after high-caliber scene further chipped away at my skepticism. After a day of trekking past aquamarine lakes and peak-rimmed meadows, we climbed the trail to a ridgetop. Below us, a grassy spit jutted out into the blue-green waters of Lago Dickson; a wall of snow-capped peaks and a sprawling glacier towered behind it. The best part: Campamento Dickson, our third camp, sat at the very tip of the spit. 

On day five, we ascended a talus-filled basin to Paso John Gardner. I knew from the map that we’d see Grey Glacier from here, but the sight of it literally stopped me in my tracks. I’d seen glaciers before, dozens of them, but this one commanded my attention like no other: The vast, 17-mile-long ice sheet filled the 3-mile-wide valley in front of me. I had to turn my head 180 degrees to take in the span of where it flowed down from the mountains to the north to where it calved into Lago Grey, 3 miles south. 

And now I was seeing everything with fresh eyes. By the time I watched the sun set on the French Valley the last night of our trip, I had to admit it: Torres del Paine truly is better than what I’d heard. Picture the love child of all the classic U.S. parks: a landscape featuring Yosemite’s granite monoliths, Glacier’s turquoise lakes, Canyonlands’s molded monuments, Acadia’s sunrises. But more so—a lot more. Don’t take my word (or the picture above) for it, though. Torres del Paine is the kind of place you’ve got to see for yourself to believe. Trust me: You won’t be disappointed.

Do it Fly to Punta Arenas, Chile; bus to Puerto Natales, then to the park.

Permits/fees
$35/person

Camping/refugios
Camping lets you skip crowded huts and better pace your days: $8-$18/person/night; no reservations
needed. Refugios: $35-$50/person/night; reserve at torresdelpaine.com.

Season
December through March

Maps
Pick up a free map at the park entrance station.




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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
dsswaney
Mar 29, 2014

Yes, the whole circuit and not just the 'W'. You get away from the day-tripping (boat-on-the-lake-access) crowds for two days, and experience mind-blowing granite scenery. And don't miss the side trip into the Valle del Frances, where an easy climbing route takes you into a wilderness Yosemite-like experience.

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