Torres del Paine National Park

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The name Patagonia evokes mystical images of towering peaks and sky-blue glaciers. It is therefore surprising to learn that most of the vast region covering southern portions of Argentina and Chile consists of relatively flat, desert-like prairie and is not particularly spectacular. However, it is along the spiny Andean border between the two countries where Patagonia derives its mythic reputation. Widely considered to be the star attraction of the region is the Torres del Paine National Park, located in southern Chile.

Thrusting dramatically upward from the flat pampas (prairie) is a range of chiseled, jagged, snow-covered peaks. Principal among them are the three Paine Towers, monolithic spires sculpted thousands of years ago by a sea of glacial ice. “Paine” (pronounced “pie-nay”) means blue in the native Tehuelche language, though the rock is primarily pink granite. The Central Tower, highest of the three at about 3,400 meters (roughly 11,000 feet), draws some of the best mountaineers in the world. Equally awesome are the Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine), knobby, two-colored mountains that appear like a turreted castle.

The national park (about 2,400 sq. km) was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978 and is one of National Geographic’s 50 places to visit in your lifetime. The park’s varied terrain includes Magellenic forest, muddy bogs, alpine meadows, glacial lakes and rushing rivers. Visitors can make a day hike up to the towers, trek the popular “W” route in about five days, or go for the full circuit, spending about eight or nine days. One can also take a short cruise across Lago Grey up to base of Glacier Grey, an extension of the third-largest ice-field in the world. The crack and boom of calving glacial ice is an unforgettable experience.

Torres del Paine is a fantastic destination for wildlife viewing as well. One can spot the guanaco, a more lithesome member of the llama family, endangered from years of over-hunting for its delicate fur. The Patagonian Gray Fox, the Huemul (Andean Deer) and the elusive Puma also occupy the park. The diverse microclimates support over 120 species of bird, including Black-necked swans, Patagonian Woodpeckers, Austral Parakeets and even Chilean Flamingos in the salt lagoons. It’s not uncommon to glimpse the majestic Andean Condor with its ten-foot wingspan. The Lesser Rhea is a rare and rather awkward-looking ostrich-like bird also found in the park.

Visitors to Torres del Paine must be prepared for Mother Nature’s less hospitable side. The weather is notoriously unpredictable, and can include pummeling winds, rain, sleet or snow, even during the best season for visits (December to March). The iconic towers may be shrouded in clouds upon arrival. Rain or shine though, Torres del Paine is Patagonia at its most spectacular and grandiose.

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