Torres del Paine - There is Nothing Like It - The Maritime Explorer


Torres del Paine – There is Nothing Like It

In my introductory post on the Adventures Abroad trip to Chile in the spring of 2024 I highlighted the big three as I called them – Torres del Paine, Atacama and Easter Island. After flying to Punta Arenas and driving the End of the World Highway we arrived at the first of them, Torres del Paine and what an arrival it was as we looked down at the Rio Serrano Hotel with its beautiful setting. Please join our small group as we explore one of the most beautiful regions on earth.

Rio Serrano Hotel, Torres del Paine
Rio Serrano Hotel

What Exactly is Torres del Paine?

Torres del Paine in its plainest sense refers to three conical towers that in the language of the nomadic Patagonian Indigenous people who occupied this area before the Europeans arrived, translates to ‘the blue towers’. They are instantly recognizable by anyone who has any interest in world travel and as the title of this post proclaims, unlike anything else on earth. However, the national park within which the Torres del Paine are located is much, much more with, to me, the even more impressive Cuernos del Paine or the ‘Horns’, a number of glaciers and a collection of beautiful lakes and waterfalls. It has been a national park since 1959 and designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978. It is one of a number of places around the globe that has been dubbed ‘The 8th Wonder of the World’. Coincidentally, Angkor Wat, which I’ll be writing about in an upcoming post, is another one. It gets just over 250,000 visitors a year of whom about half are from outside Chile. Compare that to the 4.5 million who visit Banff or Yellowstone each year and you’ll realize how damn lucky you are to get to this wondrous place.

It is surprisingly difficult to find a decent map of Torres del Paine and this one that doesn’t show the road system is the best I could come up with. From our base at the Rio Serrano at the bottom of the map we will explore as much of the park as possible by road and on foot in a day that I will never forget.

Map of Torres del Paine

It is impossible to describe the natural beauty of Torres del Paine and the effects that the light of the rising sun has on the glaciers that surround them. Sitting at breakfast looking out at the I saw something I have never seen before or since, a brilliant rosy light that looked as if some heavenly god was shining a celestial flashlight down on the glacier from above. I, along with most of the other diners, rushed outside to get a better look and I took this photo with my iphone.

Magic Morning Light

The phenomenon lasted only about a minute and by the time I retrieved the Nikon and took this picture from my room this is what I saw.

From the Hotel Window, Torres del Paine
From the Hotel Window

Going outside there was this stunning vista; those are the horns on the left side with one of the three towers in the middle. If I never saw another thing in Torres del Paine these few minutes of fabulous light would have more than satisfied me.

Torres del Paine from Rio Serrano Hotel Grounds

What follows is the itinerary we followed for the rest of the day in the order in which we saw things and I expect would be very similar to what any future AA adventurers might expect to experience.

From the hotel the End of the World Highway climbs steeply to this overlook where you get a great view of the Paine Massif which is actually a small mountain range that is not part of the Andes. A lot of the people who come to Torres del Paine make the 7 to 10 day circular trek around the massif that is considered to be one of the greatest hikes on earth. If I were 40 years younger it would definitely be on my bucket list, but for today I can only admire the fit and daring young souls we encounter at a number of places on our journey today.

The First Viewpoint, Torres del Paine
The First Viewpoint

What I can do is get Chris to take a photo of Alison and me with the Torres del Paine in the background.

At the First Viewpoint

And make a short video.

Our next stop is at the Visitor Centre where there are a number of exhibits explaining the the unique geology of the Torres del Paine as well as the flora and fauna.

Visitor's Centre, Torres del Paine
Visitor’s Centre

Outside, I spend my time getting photos of a pair of Andean lapwings who aren’t camera shy.

Andean Lapwings

From the visitor centre we drive to the trailhead for the hike to the end of Grey Lake and a view of the glacier that feeds the lake. It starts by crossing the Grey River on a modern bridge that replaced the one you see in this photo. Yes, until a few years ago that was the only way to get across this river. Calling it a bridge is quite an overstatement. Deathtrap is perhaps a better description.

Grey River with Old Bridge, Torres del Paine
Grey River with the Old Bridge

Securely across the river, the trail leads down to the very gravelly shores of Lake Grey which makes the the walking a bit sloggish, but hey, we’re in Torres del Paine!

Group Walking Alongside Grey Lake

The trail does go all the way to Grey Glacier at the far end of the lake, but that would take all day and involve a 23km. (14 mile) return trip. Instead we walk just to the end of the beach where there is a great view of Grey glacier and the lake its meltwaters have created.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine
Grey Glacier

Returning to the bus we backtrack a bit to get onto the road that leads past the horns towards the Torres del Paine. The interplay of the mountains and clouds is ever changing and quite amazing. If you are familiar with the term ‘magic realism’, then that is exactly what I felt almost the entire time I was in Torres del Paine. This place was just too extraordinary to be real, and yet of course, it is.

Mountains & Clouds

The next natural formation we stopped to look at is the Shark Fin which is a singular piece of granite that is appropriately named. For only $2,100.00 USD you can hire a guide to take you up to the knife edge on a three day trek. No thanks. Just looking at it gives me the willies.

The Shark Fin, Torres del Paine
The Shark Fin

And then we get our best look at The Horns of Torres del Paine. I’ve never seen any mountains that looked like these. The dark parts are sedimentary and the lighter is granite which is an igneous rock that is formed from cooling magma deep in the earth’s crust. Sedimentary rocks of course are formed on ocean beds from various combinations of mud, sand, rocks and organic debris. Both types are formed into mountains by orogeny that pushes them upward and often into folds such as you see in parts of the Canadian Rockies. It’s not unusual to see sedimentary rock sitting on top of the much older granite, but I’ve never seen granite in something like an ice cream sandwich between two layers of sedimentary rock. As I wrote at the opening, perhaps because I had only associated Torres del Paine with the three towers, I was even more awestruck to see The Horns and trust me, you will be too when you see them in person.

The Horns of Torres del Paine
The Horns

Our next sighting had nothing to do with mountains and glaciers, but was almost equally surprising because it too was totally unexpected. I have seen flamingoes on five continents and almost always in association with hot weather. I mean really, everyone assumes that flamingoes and tropical weather go together – that’s why the swizzle stick in the mai tai your drinking in the Caribbean is probably in the shape of a flamingo.

Chilean Flamingoes

Well someone forgot to tell that to these Chilean flamingoes that are quite at home in these subantarctic conditions.

After getting our photos of the flamingoes, it wasn’t long before we got our first real look at the Torres del Paine as we rounded a corner and suddenly there they were, peeking out from behind two other more traditional looking mountains.

First Look at the Torres del Paine

The best place to see the Torres del Paine if you are basically restricted to the road system of the park as we were, is from Grey Falls which in itself is a beautiful natural phenomenon.

Grey Falls & Torres del Paine

The towers were playing peekaboo, only showing their tops through the clouds for a brief moment and then disappearing again. However with a little patience (yes I can actually be patient for a few seconds), I did get this closeup shot. Hard to believe that some people have actually climbed those near vertical cliffs. Unlike The Horns, all of the sedimentary rock that once encased the towers has long been eroded away.

Torres del Paine Closeup
Torres del Paine

This is another spot where you will undoubtedly want to get a photo at this once in a lifetime place.

At Grey Falls, Torres del Paine
At Grey Falls

As difficult as it was, we had to finally get back in the bus and bid farewell to the towers. We were now at the farthest point from the Rio Serrano and now headed back. This is Salto Grande Falls which you can see from the roadside or take a 2 km. hike in to view from the the top.

Salto Grande Falls, Torres del Paine
Salto Grande Falls

By now we had been out for many hours and it was time for something to eat. There are no restaurants in the park proper so we had boxed lunches from the hotel.

We found a great little spot that had this view across the lake to The Horns.

View from the Picnic Spot

We also had a few guests in the shape of crested caracaras that were quite bold in their efforts to pry a piece of sandwich from our hands.

Crested Caracara, Torres del Paine
Crested Caracara

If their is such a thing as being ‘sated on scenery’, we surely were and after the picnic we began making our way back to Rio Serrano. Actually I wasn’t done yet and asked to sit at the front of the bus from where I took this video which I hope will make the reader want to book the next AA trip to Chile asap.

In the next post we’ll fly to the Chilean Lake District and take a boat ride to the Argentinian border. Hope to see you there.