Torres Del Paine was once an isolated mountain massif that stood silently in the deep south of Chile against the battering Patagonian winds and the grinding of glaciers. It is now a Mecca for backpackers, a must do on the gringo trail and has as much brightly coloured Gortex striding along its trails as you will find anywhere else in South America. Torres Del Paine National Park conserves a wide variety of habitats and an abundance of spectacular Patagonian flora and fauna. You can find puma here alongside and abundance of guanacos and the rare huemul deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus) which features on the Chilean coat of arms but has been largely extirpated from its historic range. Amongst its wetlands you can find Chilean flamingos whilst Andean Condor and the extreme sports fanatic of the bird world, the torrent duck, are found within the mountain peaks of the Cordillera del Paine. It's these mountains, especially the three dramatic sounding Towers of Paine that draw in tourists like ants to a picnic. With such dramatic scenery and an easy five day hike through wonderful terrain on offer I too paid up, joined the throng and added my boots to the estimated 70,000 other pairs that head to Torres Del Paine every year. Such an influx is an undoubted boon for the local economy however tourism is having a negative impact on the park too. In the last 10 years two fires stared by irresponsible tourists have burnt out of control over 29,000 hectares of the park!
A mountain of gold
Torres del Paine is more than a national park for many who live in the south of Chile, It is a gold mine that brings in dollar waving tourists in need of everything from sturdy boots to sufficient energy bars to power the entire Chinese Olympic team for a year.
Its easy to be dismissive of the hiking around Torres del Paine. Its not extreme in any way and every other backpacker you meet in South America will have done it or is planning to do it. However by being dismissive you overlook the reason why the main camp sites are over crowded and why it is full of loud novice hikers complaining that the walking poles they picked up for $2 the day before have broken after only an hour. The truth of the matter is that Torres del Paine is SPECTACULAR! The hiking here is a pleasure and around every corner you'll have your breath taken away either by scenery that makes your heart ache or by a gust of wind so strong it will feel like someone has punched you in the guts. I found that by choosing the quieter camping areas (especially those without dormitories) setting of early in the morning and seeking out the quiet spots whenever I wanted to stop, rest and take photos I was able to enjoy, pretty much by myself, what National Geographic decided was the 5th most beautiful place in the world. I even had 15 minutes alone at the base of the towers themselves as the sun rose thanks to the decision to kip in a rocky cave the night before rather than camp with the masses. If you truly want to have Torres Del Paine to yourself then you'll have to climb the Paine Towers. Personally I'd ditch the portaledge, look past the parks popularity and focusing on stretching your legs whist taking in the beauty.
Life clings on at the base of the Paine Towers
Wind rips across Lago Grey
People talk about the wind in Patagonia as if it is a savage living entity; "The Roaring Forties", "The Furious Fifties". After weeks of still air I was doubting the beasts savage reputation. That was until I saw gusts rampaging across Lago Grey kicking up rainbows as they went and finally hurl the surface water they had picked up into my face as I stood a full 2 km from the lake. As I got closer still to where the wind was channelling down a valley I saw a woman blown off a rock and took to holding onto trees whenever I saw a particularly strong gust barrelling across the lakes surface. After rounding the corner on the lakes shore I met a petite girl with a massive rucksack staggering towards me. There were lines where tears had been pulled horizontally out of her eyes. I couldn't tell if she had been crying or the wind was just making her eyes water. "Are you OK?" I asked, "J-just try to stay on the ground" was all she said before weaving off once more. As she stumbled away beneath the weight of her mighty bag it did indeed look as if the wind were toying with her the way a cat plays with a mouse, tossing her first one way and then another and threatening to launch her into the air (again?) at any moment. Two days later I watched a young backpacker couple struggle to put up their tent in the windiest spot they could possibly have chosen. Turning the un-pegged-down tent so that its open door faced full into the onslaught resulted in it ballooning in size and being ripped from thier hands, I watched amazed as the tent was lifted at least 50 metres into the air and dropped several hundred metres off the shoe where it promptly sank into the lake. The stunned backpackers eventually shut their mouths (in case the wind did the same to them) and trudged off to another campsite with a dormatory so that they could pay up and sleep inside.