Nothing really prepares you for your first sight of PARQUE NACIONAL TORRES DEL PAINE (torresdelpaine.com). The Paine Massif, the unforgettable centrepiece of the park, appears beyond the turquoise lakes long before you get close to it. The finest views of the massif are from the south bank of Lago Nordenskjöld, whose waters act as a great reflecting mirror. If driving through the park, take the southern entrance to constantly have the best views in front of you.
The centrepiece is made up of the twin peaks of Cerro Monte Almirante Nieto (2668m and 2640m). On the northern side are the soaring, unnaturally elegant Torres del Paine (“Paine Towers”), the icon of the park, and further west the sculpted, dark-capped Cuernos del Paine (“Paine Horns”). To the west of the park is the broad ice river of Glaciar Grey, and on the plains at the mountains’ feet, large herds of guanacos and the odd ñandú (rhea) still run wild; you’re more likely to spot these than the park’s more elusive fauna: pumas and the rare huermúl deer.
In January and February the park is crammed with holidaymakers, so the best months to visit are October, November and December or March and April. Although in winter (June–Sept) temperatures can fall to -10°C (14°F) or even lower, freezing lakes and icing over trails, the small numbers of visitors, lack of wind and often clear visibility can also make this another good time to come – just wrap up warmly.
This may not be the place to taste true wilderness, but there are still plenty of places to lose the crowds. The two most popular hikes are the “W”, so-called because the route you follow looks like a “W”, up three valleys, taking you to the “stars” of the park – Las Torres, Valle del Francés and Glaciar Grey, and the “Circuit”, which leads you around the back of the park and encompasses the “W”; allow seven to ten days for the “Circuit” and at least four for the “W”.
The best way to tackle the “Circuit” is anticlockwise, as it also means you’ll have excellent views of Glacier Grey in front of you rather than behind you when you come to tackle the most challenging part of the hike – the Paso John Gardner.
It’s also best to do the “W” anti-clockwise, leaving the steepest hike to Las Torres until last, by which time you will have consumed most of your supplies. The first leg of the “W” is the hike there and back from Paine Grande Lodge to Glaciar Grey, described above. You can leave your gear at the lodge.