Torres del Paine is one of the most famous national parks in the world, and for a reason, as you will see later. I have always wanted to visit this place since I was a child. Two attempts in the past had failed. On the first occasion, there was a catastrophic fire in the park and I could not enter the park. I went to the Carretera Austral instead. Some years later, flights and accommodation were already booked, my travel companion got seriously ill and I had to change my plans again. Fingers crossed that we will have more luck this time.
(Note from the editor: in the last weeks we have been often in remote places with no internet and no electricity. Therefore we have currently a delay of about 6-8 weeks between real life and our blog posts. We were in Puerto Natales already in December).
From Puerto Natales, it’s an 82 km drive on the shorter western route to the Serrano entrance of the Torres del Paine NP.
The road leads through an already very stunning landscape before reaching the NP. And it is a far more exciting drive than the other option to the eastern park entrance.
But the road is a bit tricky to drive. It’s mostly paved with a good surface. But then suddenly really huge potholes appear at certain sections. If you see them too late it’s very easy to seriously damage your tires or even your axles on this road. Driving very slowly, even with a 4×4 or SUV is highly recommended. I think it’s far more likely to damage your car on this road than on any gravel road in Patagonia.
At the park entrance, you have to show your ticket which you should buy in advance online. It takes about 30 minutes to fill out the form. If you press the wrong button or have an unstable internet connection you sometimes have to repeat the process several times. Plan enough time for this. At least the site can be switched to English and payment with an international credit card worked well.
You have the choice between two different tickets. For 35 US$ you can stay up to three days in the park and for 49 US$ you can stay more than three days in the park. The latter ticket is limited to a maximum of ten days for re-entry. This means if you pay 49 US$ you can theoretically stay as long as you like in the park but only if you don’t leave the park after ten days. Re-entering with the same ticket is only possible within the first ten days. It’s not officially documented on the CONAF website and therefore important to understand if you plan to stay longer. Our plan was to stay for about two weeks in the park.
Shortly after the park entrance, we had our first views of the famous mountain range (with the Cuernos and Torres) and the stunning blue lakes.
Finding accommodation in Torres del Paine is not easy. The nicer options are costly. We are talking about thousands of €/$ per night. Even the very basic options cost 200 to 300 € per night and are often fully booked half a year in advance at least for any trips during high season.
If you don’t want to spend that much money and/or book far in advance there are only two options. Either stay outside of the park, for example in Puerto Natales, and drive every day for a couple of hours to the park and back. Or camp in the park at one of the three campgrounds. If you are interested in serious landscape photography at sunset and sunrise only the latter option will work.
We decided to stay for the whole time at the Lago Pehoé campground. It’s perfectly located in the center of the park and we had a stunning view of the Cuernos directly from our tent.
We reserved the campsite in advance using this link. We even got a written confirmation of our reservation via email. But when we arrived nobody knows anything about our reservation and no site was reserved for us. It wasn’t a big problem for us since there was still enough space available. But it seems the reservation system is not really working and sites are distributed first-come-first-serve. Not sure if I would even bother to make a reservation next time. It’s probably more important to arrive early at the campground because most people stay only one or two nights there.
The campground costs about 45€ per night for three people and offers toilets, hot showers, and weather-protected tables for cooking at each site.
Since there are no supermarkets in the park and the food you could buy there is limited to overpriced fast food it’s important to do some shopping before you leave Puerto Natales and bring everything you need for your stay.
The same is true for patrol. There is no gas station in TdP. The next one in Chile is in Puerto Natales. There is theoretically a closer one in Argentina, but since border crossings take a lot of time this is no real alternative. Depending on what you do in the park you can easily drive a couple of hundred km in the park in a few days. We had two jerry cans of 20 liters each to help us through the two weeks in the park. But after one week in the park, we had a strong desire for fresh bread, vegetables, and sushi 🙂 and drove one day back to Puerto Natales for a few hours.
The only real disadvantage of the Lago Pehoé campground is, that there is neither electricity nor cellphone coverage. WiFi is also not available. If you drive about 5 km in the direction of the Serrano entrance or climb on some of the hills near the campground you get at least some cellphone coverage.
Sadly for two days our view of the Cuernos was obstructed by a Rotel Tours bus. On the first evening, they even occupied our space, stumbled over our tents, and used our table without talking to us. Later we learned that their tour guide wasn’t there on this first evening due to some technical problems with their vehicle which seemingly led to some strange behavior of the group. My guess is, that many of them have probably never been to a campground before and assumed that Rotel Tours had rented the whole campground (which of course was not the case). After some clear instructions from the tour guide the next day the problem was solved.
Luckily two days later they left and we had again our lovely view of the Cuernos.
In Germany, there is a tradition that on St. Nicholas Day (6th of December) kids can find small gifts in their shoes. Even camping at the other end of the world and Linnéa not really being a kid anymore (she’s 18) we continued with this tradition.
Torres del Paine is not only a place of spectacular landscapes but also has abundant wildlife. Interestingly the Lago Pehoé campsite was one of the best places in Torres del Paine to watch wildlife, especially birds (the bird images were as always on this trip mostly shot by Linnéa).
On the first day in the park, we drove after a quick stop at the Salto Chico to the Lago Grey.
Our first hike in the Torres del Paine NP led us to the Mirador Lago Grey. It was extremely windy on that day but it was nevertheless a beautiful trail with stunning views of floating icebergs on the Lago Grey.
Lago Nordenskjöld, Cascada Rio Paine and Laguna de Los Cisnes
During the next few days, we explored the eastern parts of the Torres del Paine NP, including the Lago Nordenskjöld, the Hotel Las Torres, and a long trip to the Laguna Azul. We even drove along the Y-160 north of the Laguna Azul for many km until we were stopped by a landslide.
North of the Laguna Amarga entrance you can find the Cascada Rio Paine.
Very interesting was the pattern of the completely dry Laguna de los Cisnes (located close to the junction of Y-150 and Y-156).
Salto Grande and Mirador Cuernos
One of the most interesting shorter hikes in the TdP NP is the trail to the Mirador Cuernos. After a few hundred meters you reach the spectacular Salto Grande.
It was again an extremely windy day and I was nearly blown from the boardwalk while taking pictures of the falls.
The landscape along the trail is really wild and stunning.
The mirador at the end of the trail is a bit underwhelming. On this trail, the journey is the reward, not the viewpoint at the end. If you have the time for only one trail in TdP I would recommend this one.
Directly from our Lago Pehoé campground starts the trail to the Mirador Condor. It’s a short but steep trail, especially the last section. But from the top, you have a stunning view of the Lago Pehoé and the surrounding mountains. And as the name of the trail implies there is also a high chance of seeing a condor.
Sunset at Lago Pehoé
My favorite place for landscape photography in TdP is directly at the campground Lago Pehoé.
The bay behind the campground is in my opinion one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The combination of beautiful plants in vibrant colors in the foreground, stunning mountains in the background, and an awesome blue lake in-between is hard to beat.
I was there nearly every sunset. At least on the days with acceptable weather.
Sunrise at Lago Pehoé
The best light for photography at the Lago Pehoé was probably around one hour before sunrise (although I hate it to get up at 3 a.m. and find it much more comfortable to shoot at sunset).
Besides that the light is beautifully soft in the morning another advantage of shooting at/before sunrise is that at that time there is very often much less wind than in the evenings.
We didn’t do any of the multi-day hikes in the park during our stay because Kerstin had injured her knee on a hike a couple of weeks ago and was still not able to do any longer hikes. In addition, any multi-day hikes in Torres del Paine need to be planned and booked well in advance. Due to their complicated reservation system and high popularity, you can’t just arrive there and start hiking. Since we needed the flexibility on our trip to stay as long as we want in any place we like this kind of planning in advance was not feasible for us.
Most people we talked to didn’t understand why we stayed two full weeks in the park without doing any of the multi-day hikes. But if you are serious about landscape photography you need time. On about 50% of the days, the weather is just not good enough for serious photography. In addition, the best light at sunset and sunrise often lasts only for a few minutes. Considering this two weeks is not a lot.
Altogether Torres del Paine is a spectacular place and one of the best places in the world for landscape photography. But it’s also an extremely well-known and popular place. One has to share the place with thousands of other tourists from all over the world every day. Even at midnight or 4 a.m., you won’t be alone at the interesting viewpoints. Due to this, it doesn’t really feel like a wild place. It’s therefore not my overall favorite place in Patagonia but I’m very happy to have spent some time there.
Next, we will explore a far more remote place that is rarely visited by any tourists.