Torres del Paine National Park was judged to be the 5th most beautiful place on the planet by National Geographic and recently came top in a poll by Virtual Tourist to select the 8th wonder of the world… so it’s pretty clear that you should expect something special when visiting the rugged and expansive park.
In terms of scenery, you can expect all sorts of natural phenomenon, from the stunning glaciers of Lago Grey to the sweeping inclines of Valle Frances to the awe-inspiring towers themselves, reaching into the sky like the last crooked teeth of some primordial behemoth. For best results, visit the towers as the sun rises. Though the stumble from your camp in moonlit darkness may be challenging and arduous, the mesmerising and ever-changing spectrum of colours which the new-born sunlight brings to the rocky palette is well worth the effort.
When it comes to the weather, you should expect the unexpected. In my four days in the park, I enjoyed one-and-a-half days of sunshine and two-and-a-half of miserable rain and furious, furious wind… and that was deemed lucky! Admittedly, I did go at the end of the season (late-March) when the chances of sunshine are slipping rapidly away. The best climate is to be found December to February; though this is also the busiest time, meaning you’ll find the park at its most congested. In any case, good weather is not guaranteed regardless of when you attend; so if you see an opportunity for a good photo, take it immediately! The heavens are wanton and wont to change their mood at the drop of the hat, clouding over that picture-perfect sky in mere minutes. And seriously, I’m not kidding about the ferociousness of those winds.
As far as the difficulty of the terrain and the trek goes, this is entirely up to the individual. A one-day trip to see the towers themselves can be arranged, whilst most hikers prefer to tackle the popular “W” trail, a zigzagging route which takes as little as three days or as many as a week, depending on how easy you want to take it or how hard you want to push yourself. For more intrepid hikers, the full “O” circuit takes around eight or nine days.
For shelter, you can choose to carry your own tent and pitch it at the various campsites dotted around the trails. Alternatively, you can do as I did and rent a tent in each place, saving you the necessity of traipsing around with it – as well as constructing and dissembling it every time. Or for those more accustomed to home comforts, there are dorms and private rooms available at each of the refugios; there is even a luxury hotel at the park’s entrance for those who are inclined to only dip their toes in the ruggedness of nature.
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Meals can be readily bought at each refugio, even if you’re not staying there. A more popular (and significantly cheaper) alternative is to rent a portable stove from nearby Punta Arenas, stock up on canned food and snacks before leaving and cook your own meals along the way. Cooking is only permitted within the specified campsites (largely due to an abundance of rampant fires in recent years) and hot showers are available at many of the refugios as well.
In short, when tackling Torres del Paine, expect the unexpected; expect rain, expect hail, expect wind and expect thunderstorms; but expect all the dazzling fireworks that go with the thunder as well.