Towering spires of rock standing over crystalline lakes. Pumas stalking guanacos. Glaciers slipping down their icy runways. Valleys, rivers and more all waiting to be hiked and photographed. This and more is what awaits visitors to Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
A world biosphere reserve, the park is filled to bursting with unique and often unusual plant and animal species — including seven species of orchid and a whopping 15 species of bird of prey. The exciting ecology of the area combined with breathtaking landscapes makes it one of the top destinations in the world for hikers, backpackers, photographers and nature lovers.
Torres del Paine is named after the picturesque granite spires that rise up from the Paine Massif. The area became a tourist draw in the late 1800s, but the fragility of the landscape and its flora and fauna made conserving the area a big focus. In 1959, Torres del Paine was established as a national park, and in 1978 was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Regulations for visitors are strict — including no straying from the trails when hiking — all to protect and preserve the habitat.
One of the most common mammals in the park is the guanaco, pictured here. It's hunted by pumas, and witnessing the drama of this predator-prey balance has become a draw for wildlife photographers. Birders will delight in the chance to see species ranging from the Andean condor and chimango caracara to the Chilean flamingo, Magellanic woodpecker and black-faced ibis.
Anyone interested in geology will delight in exploring Torres del Paine. Glaciers have shaped the landscape including eroding the massif into its iconic spires over tens of thousands of years, and creating ever-shifting rivers that fill the brilliantly blue lakes where visitors can enjoy a canoe excursion.
Grey Glacier is the largest of the park's glaciers and can be viewed by hiking either the W Trek or the O Circuit, two of the main routes for hikers through the park. Other spectacular glaciers to see are the French Glaciers, a hanging glacier, and the Perros Glacier.
Of course, with glaciers come a lot of water that needs to drain, so the park is filled with rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. Visitors who want to take in the amazing scenery of Torres del Paine can do so via canoe or kayak, which will allow a closer inspection of those famed glaciers.
Of course, traveling the surface of the water is just one way to enjoy the rivers and streams. Another way is to fish them, a popular activity for the park's many visitors. In fact, the park has a reputation as one of the best fly fishing destinations in the world.
Over 250,000 people visit Torres del Paine every year. Some people opt for day trips or guided activities, while others choose to backpack for a week or more, taking their time and making the landscapes a more permanent memory. No matter what you do, or how long you visit, the vistas are sure to make an indelible impression.
The best time of year to visit Torres del Pain is October through April, which is spring through early fall in the Southern Hemisphere. You'll get the longest days and fairest weather during these months.
The photos have likely sparked your interest in this extraordinary landscape. But as Laura Pattara writes, "There's nothing that can quite prepare you for your first glimpses of the Torres del Paine National Park. Even if you've spent hours clicking through photos on the internet, there's nothing that could do this place justice like an encounter vis-à-vis."