Patagonia is famous for housing a great variety of wildlife, unspoiled nature and ancient indian cultures. Archaeological findings date back to 8,000 B.C., from Pre-Columbian civilizations to the skilled Mapuche indians known for mastery in weapons making and agriculture of the 16th century. But Patagonia is not only an open air archaeological gallery, it also bears the Andes mountains, one of the longest rock formations on Earth and, amid it, the famous touristic destination and trekking paradise of Torres del Paine National Park in the Cordillera del Paine mountain chain.
Raising among turquoise lakes, rapids, waterfalls and flatlands, lie these massive granite and stark sedimentary rock protuberances, which were formed back in the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs still wandered on our planet. A good example of this erosion is the Cuernos del Paine, whose central bands of exposed granite contrast strongly with the dark aspect of their tops, which are remnants of a heavily eroded sedimentary stratum. In the case of Las Torres, what once was their overlying sedimentary rock layers have been completely eroded away, leaving behind the more resistant granite.
Cordillera del Paine mountain chain inside Torres del Paine Park in Southern Chilean Patagonia
The characteristic layers of sedimentary rock that forms Cuernos del Paine seen from Lake Pehoe
Often, travelers have the same questions about Torres del Paine: - but how does it “work” there? Is it mainly for backpackers? What has to be seen? It’s... in Patagonia, right?
And if those are the questions, what follows is usually some supplementary concern: “Ah, but I don’t like camping..” or “It’s too far away!”. It seems that the destination is a mystery, too “tough” or tricky for the average traveler. Not really. Torres del Paine is a very adaptable destination and very rewarding for any kind of adventure for any type of adventurer.
HISTORY OF THE NATIONAL PARK
Established in 1959 and part of the 11 protected areas of the Magallanes Region (named after Ferdinand Magellan) and Chilean Antarctica, the park is located 112 km north of Puerto Natales and 312km north of Punta Arenas. It borders Bernardo O’Higgins National Park to the west and Los Glaciares National Park to the north in Argentina and measures about 240,000 hectares. With over 150,000 tourists every year, 60% of which are foreign, Torres del Paine is one of the largest and most visited parks in Chile. The park was first baptized as Parque Nacional de Turismo Lago Grey (Grey Lake Tourism National Park - 1959), before receiving its present name in 1970. In 1976, British mountaineer John Gardner and two Torres del Paine rangers, Pepe Alarcon, and Oscar Guineo, pioneered the Circuit trail which circles the Paine massif. In 1977, Guido Monzino donated 12,000 hectares to the Chilean Government, helping to establish the park limits. One year later the park would become a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
Despite the random and unpredictable weather in the region, when visibility is clear the landscapes reaffirm its non-official nickname as “The Most Beautiful Park in Chile”. Torres del Paine is the bearer of the famous Grey Glacier, the W-Trek, the O-Trek and also one of its most well known attraction and postcards, the three distinctive granite peaks called Torres del Paine (Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche/Aonikenk language).
Lady Florence Dixie (Scottish traveller, war correspondent, writer and feminist), in her book published in 1880, gave one of the first descriptions of the area and referred to the three towers as Cleopatra’s Needles. She and her party are sometimes credited as being the first “foreign tourists” to visit the area that is now called Torres del Paine National Park.
View of the three towers forming Torres del Paine
This is the image that will stick into your memory every time you hear “Torres del Paine National Park”. The highest peak is 2,000 m high and is called Central, while to the left you have Monzino and to the right, De Agostini. They were named after Guido Monzino and Alberto Maria de Agostini, both italians, who were the first to ascend the three peaks in 1957 (Guido was also the first italian to climb Everest, his expedition took place in 1973). The hike to the base of the towers is the most popular activities at the park.
The turquoise colored lake embraced by the Towers is fed by the melting of snow accumulated over the crest of the mountain chain. This vivid color is due to the rock flour suspended in their waters. Other lakes surround the area as well, like Dickson Lake, Nordensnkjöld Lake, Grey Lake, Sarmiento Lake, Pehoe Lake and Del Toro Lake.
Lago Grey (Grey Lake) is located on the West face of the massive and is famous for housing Glacier Grey, the largest of the glaciers in the park. A peninsula of ice divides the glacier into two arms. This peninsula commonly called the island or Nunatak (an exposed, often rocky element of a ridge, mountain, or peak not covered with ice or snow within, or at the edge of. an ice field or glacier), becomes apparent a little more with each passing... The eastern arm measures about 1.2 km while the western arm has a width of around 3.6 km. The glacier is over 30 meters high. The head of the glacier in its path towards the interior of the park has about 15 km in length.
WILDFIRES AND LOW PRECIPITATION
The rainiest months are March and April, with a monthly average rainfall of 80mm. This dry weather mixed with its flora made mostly by Fescue species (evergreen or herbaceous perennial tufted grasses), which are resistant to harsh winds and weather conditions that are typical of the Patagonian region, but not green and humid enough to avoid being so fire prone.
In 1985, a japanese tourist started a fire that burned about 150 mk² of the park after throwing a lit cigarette butt on the ground. The blaze affected the areas east and south around Lake Pehoé. Not much later, 20 years before the first registered fire after the area became a park, an accidental fire started by a Czech backpacker, which lasted for about ten days, destroyed 155 km² including about 2 km² of native forest. In late December 2011 through January 2012, a fire started by an Israeli backpacker burned about 176 km² of the reserve, destroying about 36 km² of native forest and affecting most of the areas around Lake Pehoé and the western areas around Lake Sarmiento, but moving away from the Cordillera del Paine, the park’s centerpiece.
Flora still recovering from the last big wildfire in 2012
Nevertheless, recent paleoenvironmental studies performed within the Park indicate that fires have been frequent phenomena at least during the last 12,800 years. The real problem is the recovery of these areas, Native forest regrow very slowly and reach maturity only after approximately 200 years. Revitalising scorched areas is therefore not just a matter of replanting small trees, but also providing them with the required growing conditions. Wildlife living in the park are also affected by the fires, causing them to move to different habitats in search of food and shelter.
FAUNA AND FLORA
The flora and fauna of the Torres del Paine Park is a treasure coveted by documentalists and photographers from around the world. As a tourist, you will also have the opportunity to observe them within a close proximity.
However, as indicated by CONAF (National Forestry Corporation), one must always bear in mind the unpredictability of nature and the potential risks associated with direct contact with nature. Therefore, always remember to respect the trails of the park and never leave your garbage behind.
Traveling to Patagonia will provide you a close encounter to their wildlife, with 26 species of mammal such as the endangerewd Huemuls (South Andean Deer), Guanacos (a variation of the Lama), Chingue (Patagonian Skunk), Pumas (Cougar), Gato Montés (Wild Cat), Zorros Colorados (Red Fox) and Zorrinos Patagónicos (Hog-nosed Skunk), and also over 100 species of bird such as the Condor Andino (the largest flying bird in the world), Carpintero Magallánico (Magellanic Woodpecker), Cachaña (Austral Parakeet), Ñandu (Rhea) and the Choique (Darwin’s Rhea). You will also have a glimpse of their Patagonian Steppe made of desert shrubs and tuft grasses resistant to harsh winds & weather and also the Pre-Andean Shrubland that consists in evergreen shrubs like the edible Calafate. The story goes that once you eat the Calafate Berry, you will be destined to return to Patagonia. You will also visit the Magellanic Deciduous Forest made of deciduous Antarctic Beech trees lining the park’s gorges. And finally the Andean Desert mainly made of a group species tolerant to low temperatures and high precipitation.