Torres del Paine National Park is the jewel in Patagonia
's crown. The eponymous Torres del Paine (Towers of Pain) and the dramatic Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Pain) feature on most postcards of Patagonia because they capture the beauty and grandeur of this picturesque place.
Hiking the multi-day "W" or "O" treks is the most famous thing to do in Torres del Paine
, and hiking is definitely a highlight of any visit there; however, there is much more you can do in and around Chile's most famous national park.
1. Stay on an estancia (ranch)
Patagonia is not only famous for spectacular mountain scenery; it is also famous for windswept plains. The endless grasslands are home to gauchos, or South American cowboys, and sheep and cattle ranches (estancias) are scattered throughout the countryside. Staying at a ranch is a unique opportunity to experience country life in this remote land. Several estancias offer an opportunity to stay near Torres del Paine
and get a taste of cowboy life.
The accommodation is typically very comfortable and includes breakfast and dinner, with a packed lunch available for when you venture out and about on the property. There are plenty of things to do. In addition to hiking around the expansive fields, ranches typically offer walking tours, bicycles and horseback riding. You can also gain a deeper knowledge of rural life in classes about local cowboy culture, rodeo demonstrations and sheep shearing (in season).
This is a great way to round out your Patagonian experience.
2. Lake Pehoe catamaran
There are two main boat trips you can take in Torres del Paine without staying at an expensive resort. The most famous lake in the park is the bright aqua blue Lake Pehoe.
You can take a catamaran across the lake, enjoying sensational views along the way. The boat, run by "Catamaran Hielos Patagonicos", leaves Pudeto three times a day in season (you can take an early morning bus from Puerto Natales to Pudeto if you don't have a car). The 30-minute ride ends at Paine Grande. There is a refugio (hostel) at Paine Grande where you can camp or stay on a dorm, or start a day hike to French Valley
. There are stunning views of Paine Grande from here, so even if you don't hike, the boat ride is well worth it! There is a small store, a casual restaurant and picnic tables, so it is an easy place to spend a few hours (or days).
When taking the catamaran, you board the boat and then buy a ticket onboard from a tiny ticket booth inside. You need to show your ticket to get off. If you are hiking, you can take your pack, as this is also a popular start or end point for the "W" hike.
The last boat back from Paine Grande to Pudeto connects with a bus back to Puerto Natales.
3. Glacier Grey cruise
The other main boat trip in Torres del Paine is on the aptly-named Grey Lake. Whereas Pehoe Lake is an iridescent blue, Grey Lake is a pearly grey color, loaded with sediment from the Grey Glacier.
The four-star Lake Grey Hotel runs sightseeing boat trips three times/ day in season from nearby the hotel along the length of the lake to the face of the glacier. You do not need to stay at the hotel to take the boat trip. Many cheaper hotels and hostels nearby will arrange a day trip for you if you don't have a car. You can also purchase your tickets online or at the ticket office near where the boat leaves from.
If you are driving, note that the ticket office and check-in desk is NOT at the hotel - it is a small distance further along the road. There is a cafe there where you can buy a cheap lunch.
After checking in, there is a fifteen-minute walk to get to the boat. You will cross a narrow bridge and walk through a small wood before emerging on a pebbly, sandy shore. It is a bit of a trudge on an uneven surface to get to the boat from there, but if the weather is clear, there are stunning views of the Cuernos del Paine peering over the tops of a low mountain ridge on the other side of the lake.
The catamaran cruises past multiple bright blue icebergs, remnants of the distant glacier, floating around the milky lake. You will eventually arrive at the Grey Glacier, where there are not one, but three 'faces' to the glacier. The boat gets up close and personal with the glacier, which is about six kilometers wide.
An alternative to just doing the sightseeing cruise is to take the first boat in the morning, disembark near the glacier and hike up above and beside the glacier. The trail crosses several steep, narrow swing bridges that span deep ravines. There are incredible views of the glacier below, and the never-ending expanse of the Great Southern Patagonia Icefield that it stems from. This is the third largest body of fresh water in the world!
If you do this, be aware that you need to pay full price for the return boat back to the Grey Lake Hotel.
On the return trip, the crew members break a chunk off one of the glaciers and chip it up into thousand-year old ice cubes. The cruise comes with a complimentary drink ticket, so you can enjoy a pisco sour over glacial ice! It's a perfect way to end your day.
4. Hike on Grey Glacier
Seeing Grey Glacier from the catamaran is great, but if you are even more adventurous, you can actually hike on the glacier! To do this, you will need to stay in the nearby Refugio (Hostel) Glacier Grey. You can get there on the catamaran or hike from Paine Grande.
The ice trek leaves from near Refugio Glacier Grey and starts with a boat ride to the island that is in the middle of the glacier. The island separates the face of the glacier into separate sections.
The first part of the hike, about an hour, is uphill and rocky. From there, you don crampons so you can safely walk on the ice, and step onto the glacier. Walking on the ice needs an expert guide who knows the terrain well, in order to be safe, but is an amazing experience. There are holes, caverns, tunnels and rivulets of water creating patterns in the ice. It is truly amazing.
The entire experience, operated by Bigfoot Patagonia, takes about five hours. It's not that cheap, but is worth the spurge. You need to be between the ages of 14 and 65 to participate.
If a full-on ice trek seems too intimating, there is a three-hour "lite" version called "touching the ice". This is the same boat ride and hike to the glacier, but instead of walking on the ice, you touch it and hang out by the glacier's edge.
5. Kayaking on Grey Glacier
Ice trekking is not the only adventure activity that you can do at Glacier Grey
. You can also kayak around the lake and get close (at a safe distance) to the face of the glacier itself. This activity is also run by Bigfoot Patagonia and leaves from the same place near Refugio Glacier Grey and where the catamaran drops you off if you have taken it there.
After getting kitted out and a quick lesson in kayaking if you need it, you head off with a guide towards the nearest face of the glacier. Chances are good you will pass icebergs that have calved off the glacier. This is a rare opportunity to get really close to an iceberg, which are often a vibrant blue color and have crazy shapes and patterns in them.
You will also get closer to a glacier than many people ever do, rowing about 100 meters near the glacier wall. Seeing the ice wall towering above you from the water's level is a truly unique perspective.
You need to be reasonably fit for this, as you will paddle about six kilometers in total, and between the ages of 16 and 65. The trip is about 2.5 hours, so you also have time to do a short hike into the hills above the glacier if you have the energy.
6. Horse-back riding
Just outside the southern entrance to the park is the Rio Serrano area, where there is a luxury hotel, but several hostels as well. There are a couple of fun activities to do there.
This is a great place for horseback riding. You can book a guided tour of varying lengths - your hostel or hotel can help arrange it for you. You don't need to be experienced - though if you are not used to riding, a shorter trip will be better, as you will end up using muscles you didn't even know you had!
Short rides of two or three hours take you to nearby lakes or waterfalls. Longer five- or six-hour trips go to a viewpoint over Glacier Tyndall or Brush lake. An overnight trip to Brush Lake is also possible. There are frequent views of the mountains of Torres del Paine National Park in the distance on clear days.
If you really love horse riding, you can also arrange five- and ten-day trips, staying at estancias along the way. Obviously, these are more expensive, but are an opportunity to experience Patagonia in a way that few people do.
7. Fishing in the Rio Serrano
The other activity you can do at the Rio Serrano area is fly fishing. Rio (River) Serrano and Rio Grey wind their way around the area and both have great fishing. Trout and salmon are common.
It is easy to make arrangements online or through travel agencies in Puerto Natales or your hostel or hotel in Rio Serrano to out fishing for the day (or multiple days) with a local. They will help arrange a fishing license for you. They will also typically outfit you with clothing and gear, so you don't need to take it with you.
Fly fishing involves wearing waders and standing in the middle of the river. If you've never tried it before, it is harder than it looks, but the fully-interactive nature of it means it is never dull. Your guide will not only teach you how to fish and read the rivers, but will also explain more about the local area's geology and history. All this while surrounded by the incredible beauty of the Patagonian Andes.
You need to return the fish back to the river, so this is for the thrill of the catch, not the eating.
There you have it.
Seven ways to enjoy Torres del Paine National Park
(in addition to the hiking - or just sitting in awe and admiring the scenery)!