Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park

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With over 240,000 hectares how do you get a sense of the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile in just a day? With an excursion called the ‘Full Paine’.

It is run by the Hotel Las Torres which is situated in a bubble of private land within the national park. The tour involves a people carrier, some walking (though not much) and a boat ride. The weather here is very changeable so wear layers, strong walking shoes, and bring your camera.

The tour starts near the main gate at a disused wood and black iron bridge. It was built by a British engineer many decades ago, and was in use until 2012. It is very narrow – deliberately so – in order that the ranchers could count their cattle as they crossed the bridge no more than two abreast. The new bridge, next door, may be stronger and wider, but it’s certainly uglier. From here you can see the Paine River rush past and look out at the three towers, the condors nest and the Almirante Nieto mountain – part of the Paine Massif. As with everywhere in this park; the views are stunning.

A little further along the river we spot a large buzzard eagle sitting nonchalantly in a tree. This is just the first of a wide array of birds we’ll see including flamingos, black necked swans, upland geese, a pygmy owl, condors, southern caracara and the chimango caracara.

We soon stop for our first short walk just a few hundred metres across the yellow grasses to a rocky outcrop that affords us a great view of the Nordenskjold Lake and the mountains. The wind is bitingly cold but worth it for the view and the knowledge that pumas often rest under the overhanging rock to shelter from the elements and scan the surrounding landscape for supper.

The park has over 3,000 guanaco, a member of the camel/alpaca/llama family, and these give the puma its main food source. The 60 or so pumas in the park manage to munch their way through around 40% of the guanaco young born each year; an example of nature maintaining a natural balance – when left to its own devices. However man has interfered in the park in many ways; for example hares were introduced as a food source for humans, but the hares did what hares do – breed. Eventually the place was overrun so, in another ill thought through move, man introduced foxes in order to catch the hares. But the foxes decided that the hares were too much effort and the eggs of the native goose were much easier and tastier. So the hares continued to thrive and the goose went extinct. Today the park still has plenty of hares and foxes.

Next stop on the ‘Full Paine’ is the dramatic waterfall that links the Nordenskjold lake to Pehoe Lake. As the water enters the rapids it is murky and grey, but the action of the waterfall filters it and the water that emerges in to the Pehoe is clear and aquamarine in colour.

Despite the chill in the air lunch is an outdoor picnic at the visitor centre. With the sun shining, and a spot out of the wind, lunch alfresco is a delight. The lake laps gently just a few feet away and in every direction there are mountains. The location couldn’t be better.

Then it’s a drive, followed by a short walk over a swaying bridge, through a forest where magellanic woodpeckers cling to the trunks, and along the beach to a small jetty. We don our life jackets, climb on board the zodiac and minutes later we on the boat that will take us to the Grey Glacier – named after the colour of the lake, not the ice.

The trip to the glacier takes just under an hour as the sturdy boat navigates its way through baby icebergs glinting blue in the murky waters. The glacier looms in front of us a 25m high wall of jagged ice, deep blue crevasses and sunlit spires. Breath-taking, beautiful, awe-inspiring, stunning – all these adjectives are applicable but somehow lacking.

It takes an hour to sail from the east to west side of this tide water glacier and it’s impossible to leave the deck of the boat and tear your eyes away from this spectacle of nature. At every angle the glacier seems to look ever more alluring and cries out for yet another photo! I just know that when I get home I will have a few hundred pictures of this one glacier – and I won’t mind a bit!

Eventually it is time to turn our backs on the Grey Glacier and make our way home. A hot bath and plenty of good food await us back at Hotel Las Torres – the perfect way to end a day getting to know Torres del Paine National Park.

Fact Box:
Torres del Paine National Park
Hotel Las Torres
British Airways operates a daily flight to Buenos Aires. Fares start from £912 return including taxes, fees and charges.
To arrange a tour once in Chile contact ProTours Chile:

Chantal Cooke is an award winning journalist and broadcaster with a passion for the planet. In 2002 she co-founded the award winning radio station PASSION for the PLANET and in 2009 Chantal was awarded London Leader in Sustainability status. Chantal also runs a successful communications agency – Panpathic Communications.

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