Feb. 22 to 26, 2019
If you Google “Patagonia” and “Chile” together, 19 of the first 20 images that come up are of Torres del Paine National Park. It’s on the cover of Lonely Planet’s travel guide to Chile, and has claimed to be the most visited national park in South America; and with good reason. The most jaw-dropping, rugged mountains just erupt from rolling hills and granite towers with vertical faces form a magical backdrop to a beautiful lake. The 242,000 hectare (598,000 acre) park has turquoise-blue lakes, over 100 miles of trails, and even a giant glacier! No where else on earth looks like Torres del Paine National Park. (Torres is Spanish for towers, and Paine means “blue” in the native Tehuelche language, pronounced PIE-nay)
To get there from Punta Arenas, it’s a 345 km (215 mile) journey that’s best broken up with a stay in the small town of Puerto Natales, the gateway town to the national park. We opted to take Buses Fernández and we rolled into town around 1:30pm. Without a place to stay for the night, our plan was to walk down the street and ask at any of the hostels we found. Luckily, the first hostel we saw was also the cheapest.
Red Point Patagonia was a small expedition company and hostel, attracting the same kind of dirtbag travelers that we were. They are close to the bus station, had cheap rooms, – and the best part – they have an entire room for indoor bouldering!
After checking in, we were shown our room for the night. The guy who signed us in pointed to a vertical ladder that led above the small room that served as the office/lobby/reception area/mud room. Much to our amazement, there was a mini loft with one small single mattress in a space akin to large coffin.
Stephanie and I laughed along with our host. Partly because we didn’t want to offend him, and partly because it didn’t matter. At that point in our travels, we had learned to take what we can, and be grateful for even the smallest room. As long as we could take off our heavy backpacks and change into fresh clothes, we were happy. And almost as a sign from above, they affectionately called that little loft “the Condor’s nest”.
We walked into town to get some supplies for Torres del Paine. We needed food for 2 nights and 3 days; we were leaving early in the morning and planned to camp wherever we could. Choosing to save money, we decided not to fight the crowds and agonizing reservation system in trying to book a 4 night trek. Instead, we would camp and do day hikes.
This old pier, reduced to rows of weathered posts, has been photographed by nearly every traveler that passes through Puerto Natales and I wanted to take my own photos of it. That’s one of the best aspects of photography; everyone with a camera or phone can take a piece of wherever they are without ever picking up a stone or flower or feather. It’s non-consumptive.
The wind started blowing stronger, making the sporadic raindrops hurt our faces. Nevertheless, there were birds to see! At the pier we had several Dolphin Gulls, Chiloé Wigeon, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes.
The best birds of the quick stop were both species of South American swans, the Black-necked and Coscoroba Swan!
Torres del Paine
The following morning, we readied our gear, packed our food, and caught the 7:00am bus to Torres del Paine. The 1.5 hour ride seemed to take just a few minutes, and we were soon looking out the window at the famous “towers”. We asked to bus driver to drop us off at Refugio Laguna Amarga; our plan was to camp at the lodge just outside of the national park boundary to avoid the strict rules of “reservations only” at all park campsites. We walked into the fancy lodge and asked for a campsite. The man behind the counter seemed confused when we said we wanted to camp there. He looked around before leaning in to tell us something.
“Don’t stay here, it’s terrible! The management is terrible, and in three days I’m leaving for good!”
He ended it with a sign universally understood, holding your flat hand level and pretending to cut your head off!
We could barely believe what we heard! Was this guy, who clearly worked there, pulling our leg? He reassured us that he didn’t have an stake in the matter and told us to go into the national park and camp. Confused, we told him that we did not have a reservation. Again, he reassured us and said that they keep some spots open for people who don’t have reservations but they don’t advertise it. Apparently, all we had to do was walk up to the campground registration desk and say don’t have a reservation.
Quite hesitantly, we left the Refugio Laguna Amarga and walked up the road in the direction of the National Park entrance. I was only a mile away, but if a bus came by we would try to hop on for a quick ride.
Along the road, in the scrubby bushes that reminded my of sagebrush, a little bird was making some noise. I snapped into “birding mode” and got a look at the shy bird hiding in the shrubs. It was an Austral Canastero! A life bird and my 6th species of bird with “Austral” in its name. The only one I missed was Austral Rail, a notoriously hard bird to find even in the best of conditions.
After catching a bus the short distance to the national park entrance, we joined the line of travelers waiting to get their tickets stamped. Luckily, we filled out the paperwork the day before at the National Park booth at the bus station, so we jumped to the expedited line. A quick check of our tickets and passports, and we were off to board a shuttle to the campground. We had to go through yet another “entrance” and ticket checking before we were free to walk into the campground and hatch our plan. We walked around to scout out were and how many open tent sites were available. We gave each other a quick pep-talk about what to say and what we would do if we were not allowed to stay. I nervously walked into the little shack that was the registration office.
“Hey, so we do not have a reservation, but I was told by a friend who works here that you have some spots available, can you help us?” I tried not to sound as nervous as I was.
The guy behind the desk thought about it for a split second and said “Yeah we have a spot for you.” We thanked him profusely and followed him to our pick of sites.
We had just enough time to set up our camp, make lunch, and start our hike. The trail to the “Mirador Las Torres” is a 18.5km (11.5 mile) round trip hike, out and back style. This was the main hike we planned to do while in the park. Skipping the expensive nightmare of planning one of the classic treks in the park meant that doing “the Towers” hike as a day trip was our only option.
We ate a big bowl of oatmeal with peanut butter, banana, and raisins in it (our classic morning food), and packed some snacks and water for the hike. We hit the trail just before noon, and the skies were cloudy but at least it wasn’t windy!
The birds started out strong, with a few Southern Lapwings, a lot of Austral Blackbirds, and a pair of Chilean Flickers in the first 15 minutes. That was the best opportunity to photograph Chilean Flickers of the whole trip, and I managed to get a few really appealing shots! Woodpeckers are one of my favorite bird families, and I think Flickers are some of the best!
The trail weaved its way up the narrow valley, crossing the river a number of times. The valley grew narrower and the trail grew steeper.
The usual forest birds were common; Thorn-tailed Rayaditos calling constantly, singing Black-chinned Siskins and Patagonian Sierra-Finches arpund every bend of the trail. We even caught a glimpse of an Andean Condor flying in and out of the clouds. It was a magical hike, with beautiful snow-capped mountains everywhere you look. I will say this though, it wasn’t all happy hiking. The final 3+ kilometers to the lake were TOUGH. Worn out trails, weaving through boulders and constant up and down made it feel like an eternity to go just 1 kilometer. The amount of other hikers started to grow, too. We were eventually in a consistent line of hikers, slowly and painfully picking our way straight up the boulder field. It was a grueling climb, especially after the full morning we had just getting there (waking up at 5:00am doesn’t help!).
In the end, the pay-off is well worth the climb. We crested the small boulder-strewn ledge and got our first view of the towers! Everything else melted away, and we were totally absorbed but the incredible and moody granite spires that faded into the fog.
We clambered down to the lake’s edge and enjoyed some well-earned snacks. Peanut butter and jelly on a tortilla, rolled up for easy packing. Delicious, and good source of carbs and calories for long hikes. We took a bunch of photos and asked a fellow traveler to take our photo in front of the lake. The fog and occasional snow flurry added to the magical feel of finally seeing that place with our own eyes.
An unexpected surprise was this incredibly tame Black-billed Shrike-Tyrant! It perched atop a granite boulder above the lake and watched all the hikers move in and out. Carefully, I walked closer and got within a meter of the bird! So close that I could have touched it!
The hike back seemed to go much smoother, I guess downhill always does. Stephanie and I talked about everything we had seen on our trip over the last 4 months. We talked about our family and friends waiting for us back home. Before long, we were just 4 short kilometers from camp. Along that stretch of trail, I stopped every hundred meters and scanned the river down below. After 10 minutes of stopping and searching, I spotted my target bird – a Torrent Duck! A female was feeding actively in the fast-flowing water. She would hop on a boulder, shake her tail and bob her head. Less than 5 seconds later, she dove back into the whitewater, searching for food. That was the cherry on top of the amazing cake that was our day. A full and amazing day exploring Torres del Paine National Park.
We made it back to camp an hour before sunset, with just enough time to make our camp dinner and crawl into our tent. It was going to be a cold night so we put on all our layers; wearing pants and socks and sweaters and jackets to bed inside our sleeping bags. It was supposed to be late summer in Patagonia, but I guess Patagonia doesn’t play by the rules. Especially when it comes to weather.
That morning could not have come fast enough. It was cold, really cold. I woke up a dozen or more times, shivering and trying not to touch the cold parts of my sleeping bag.
Stephanie and I were both miserably cold, and eagerly started making coffee and breakfast at the first sign of light in the sky. At least we could warm ourselves up that way. A hasty breakfast followed by rolling up the tent and repacking our backpacks was enough to raise my body temperature back to comfortable.
Our plan was to take the first shuttle of the morning back to the park entrance, than take a bus down to Lago Pehoé. There, we would find something to do and enjoy the best vistas in the whole national park! (at least, in my opinion).
On our walk out of the campground that morning, we saw 2 Austral Pygmy-Owls get into a bit of a fight! One bird was perched on a small shrub and a second came flying in and tackled the first at full speed! They fought as they fell to the ground, were they then split and went separate ways. That was the coolest Pygmy-Owl encounter I have had!
At the park entrance, we asked around for the right bus that would take us down to Lago Pehoé. That is an important step, as not every company goes that far down the road. It was an extra $5,000 Chilean Pesos per person ($7.75 usd) but well worth it.
A scheduled stop at Refugio Pudeto (to drop off travelers who are taking the Catamaran across the lake to Camping Paine Grande) was a great opportunity to use the bathroom and photograph the dozens of Upland Geese that were walking around the Refugio lawn.
After reminding the bus drive to stop at Camping Pehoé, we hopped off and thanked him with big smiles. Smiles that were uncontrollably caused by the view laid out in front of us. A turquoise lake stretched out towards the most incredible set of mountains I have ever seen! We ran around and danced in the beauty of the magical place we were in!
I remember saying aloud, partly to Stephanie and partly to myself, “This is why we do it. This is why we saved up and bought those plane tickets. This is why we travel!”
They say that when experiencing the feeling of complete awe and wonder, your brain is actively rewiring and making new neural connections because what you are experiencing is brand new. Your brain has never encountered anything like that before so it has no prior wiring or neural connections to call on. It’s so spectacular that it has to make new networks to record what you are seeing and feeling. They say that’s where the overpowering sense of awe comes from, and we were most definitely under it’s spell.
We found that there is a short hike up to a mirador (overlook) called Mirador Condor. A steep but short 1.2 kilometer hike to the top, often accompanied by strong winds (typical patagonian style!) was the absolute highlight of our time in Torres del Paine. Don’t be deterred by the wind. It can be strong, but it’s nothing to be worried about.
The wind was fierce that day, but it didn’t really matter when to us because we had the best view in the whole place. It was absolutely stunning! Here are a handful of the photos we managed to get up there. I’ll let them do the talking.
Once we returned the Camping Pehoé, we made a cup of mate tea and tried to soak up the weak sun rays by the lake. It was hard to look away from the mountains in front of us. It was as if we had to keep watching, taking it all in, just in case something changed. It was captivating, even more so that the Grand Canyon back in the states.
Of course, I had to look away in order to find some birds! And even though it was early afternoon, there were plenty of birds around. Austral Parakeets zoomed overhead, and Austral Blackbirds worked the edge of the lawn. Rufous-collared Sparrows and Patagonia Sierra-Finches were abundant around the picnic area. The resident Southern Caracaras walked around the campground without flying. Oddly, Stephanie watched an adult walked the entire length of the campground and picnic area. I guess they are fairly used to people and know how to look for their scraps. One immature caracara walked right up to a group of tourists and soon became the center of attention!
The perfect ending to our time in Torres del Paine was when a pair of Plumbeous Rails came out to forage on the lawn. They weren’t shy at all, one even ran under the picnic table that Stephanie was at! I grabbed the camera and tried to improve on my Plumbeous Rail photo I had captured a few days before while camping south of Punta Arenas.
I am not sure what prompted me to do so, but I pulled my phone out and played the song of a rail that I had downloaded earlier. This had an immediate reaction! Both of the birds ran towards the sound and burst into song! They screamed out their duet just meters away from me! It was so loud that if Stephanie said something to me about our camp rice being ready to eat, I didn’t hear it. I shot photos, a small video clip, and even recorded some audio of the awesome duet in front of me. What a perfect final encounter in Torres del Paine!
Right on time, we flagged down our “Juan Ojeda” bus and showed the driver the other half of our round trip tickets. We settled into our seats and watched the mountains disappear as we said our final goodbyes to Torres del Paine National Park.
We spent that night at Red Point Patagonia again, but this time in a larger and proper private room with a queen-sized bed. The following morning, we caught a bus back to Punta Arenas. We only had one more day before our flight back to Santiago and connection to Costa Rica, and we still had something we wanted to do.
Punta Arenas is the best place to take a tour to the largest penguin colony in Chile. Isla Magdalena is home to some 60,000 pairs of Magellanic Penguins! Unfortunately, our tour the morning of February 26th didn’t go as planned. The boat got about 1/3 of the way to the island and turned around. The sea was getting rough with big swells and the captain decided it would be too dangerous to try to go the whole way. Honestly, I was pretty relieved. The growing swells seemed like they could have capsized the boat if it hit at the right angle. Our new friends were just as relieved, although sea sickness did finally get to one of them. Our new friends, Georgia and Liam, happen to be staying at the same AirBnb as us! We talked over dinner and planned to go on the penguin tour together.
Although the penguin tour didn’t work out, I did see my final lifer of South America, a Magellanic Diving-Petrel during the short boat ride. The best part of all was meeting Georgia and Liam, whom we’ve kept in contact with ever since! Making strong friends along the way is certainly the sweetest part of travel.
Patagonia is a magical and powerful place. It can beat you down with bitter cold nights and ripping wind during the day, but it can also recharge you with energy and passion to keep moving forward.
Thank you to all the wonderful people we met while budget traveling across southern Patagonia; you all are the very reason we travel.
eBird Checklist for the old pier: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53116246
eBird Checklist for Mirador Torres hike: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53116533
eBird Checklist for Lago Pehoé: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53116730
eBird Checklist for Mirador Condor hike: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53115466
eBird Checklist for the attempted trip to Isla Magdalena: https://ebird.org/checklist/S53169412
Cost and Logistics
Getting to and from Torres del Paine requires a bus trip to Puerto Natales from Punta Arenas and a purchase of a round trip bus ticket from Pto Natales to the national park. The tickets to the national park we best purchased the day before, and we recommend the company Juan Ojeda as they are the only ones that go to and from Lago Pehoé.
The national park entrance fee can be purchased the day before at the bus station in Pto Natales, and we really recommend that you do! It will save you time when checking into the park at the entrance!
To camp, you need reservations (except at Lago Pehoé) but we took the word of a local and tried the “walk-up” method. It worked for us, but I have no idea if that is normal or not.
Red Point Patagonia expeditions and hostel
Expenses are listed as total for 1 person
Bus to Pto Natales – Buses Fernandes __________7,900 CLP ($12.50 USD)
Bus to/from Torres del Paine – Juan Ojeda_______13,000 CLP ($19.80 USD)
Shuttle from entrance to campground___________3,000 CLP ($4.65 USD)
Bus to Lago Pehoé____________________________5,000 CLP ($7.75 USD)
Bus to Punta Arenas from Pto Natales__________7,900 CLP ($12.50 USD)
Red Point Patagonia Hostel – *night 1* _________8,000 CLP ($12.25 USD)
Camping Central_____________________________15,000 CLP ($23.00 USD)
Red Point Patagonia Hostel- *night 2*__________10,000 CLP ($15.00 USD)
Torres del Paine NP entrance fee______________21,000 CLP ($32.00 USD)
Total spent – not including food – for 2 of us came out to 187,600 CLP ($230.00 USD)
If you would like to know more, please contact me here and I will help in any way I can!
BIRDING PATAGONIA: the Breakdown is where you can find a total list of all the relevant cost and logistic information for our whole time in southern Patagonia! It’s the master list of all the information to help you plan your visit!
3 Replies to “Torres del Paine”
Great post and fabulous photos… really enjoyed it.. thanks for sharing .. Marie
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Thanks Marie! That means a lot!
Excellent travelogue! Looks like life is good.
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