Getting to Torres del Paine National Park was a dream come true. I still can’t get over it. The first sight of the Chilean Patagonia took my breath away. It’s intimidating and utterly unforgettable. A paradise of pristine rivers, roaring waterfalls, massive ice fields, and vertiginous granite peaks. Without a doubt one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.
Nothing can quite prepare you for your first glimpses of the Torres del Paine National Park. Even though we’ve spent hours watching videos and clicking through photos on the internet, on our first encounter with Chile’s crown jewel we realized that no photo can do justice to this place. It gives you a feeling of immensity, of power, and at the same time it makes you feel quite small – both metaphorically and literally. Torres del Paine is as wild as it is beautiful, so in order to have a great time here there are a few things that you should know BEFORE touching down in Patagonia.
Transportation options for getting to Torres del Paine
The park is located in Southern Patagonia, 2500 km south of Santiago, the capital city of Chile. The closest airport to the park is in Punta Arenas, about 320 km south and has daily non-stop flights from Santiago.
There is no direct route from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine. The road goes through Puerto Natales, a gateway town where hikers and climbers gather before and after their assault on the mountains, glacial lakes and backcountry trails of the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park.
Two daily buses run from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine: one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The ride takes approximately 2 hours from Puerto Natales to the Laguna Amarga ranger station, including a rest stop on the way. The buses stop at three places in the park: Laguna Amarga, Pudeto, and at the park’s administration center.
• Riding the bus vs. renting a car
The most cost effective form of getting to Torres del Paine is by bus. There is no centralized bus terminal in Punta Arenas; each individual bus company has its own office from which its buses leave. If you plan to ride the bus, be prepared to spend more time on the road. Bus schedules in Patagonia are fairly relaxed, so you shouldn’t be in a huge hurry. People complain that sometimes busses stop at random places to pick up single passengers, thus making the schedule pretty chaotic and unreliable. I can’t confirm that since we didn’t travel by bus, but you might want to check some forums before deciding.
The best way of getting to Torres del Paine and experiencing the park is definitely by car. Having your own means of transportation not only gives you independence, but it also saves you precious time and allows you to get to places that otherwise would be difficult to reach. But despite the many obvious advantages of renting a car, there are quite a few considerations to keep in mind before deciding if driving in Patagonia is the best choice for you.
1. Car rental in Chile is not cheap. We rented an ordinary car (Renault Symbol, manual transmission) and paid close to 1,500 US dollars for 18 days. You don’t need a 4-wheel drive for Torres del Paine, but of course a bigger and better car would help. However, renting a 4-wheel drive for the same number of days would have costed us close to $3,000.
2. Although several major international car rental agencies operate in Chile (including Avis, Hertz, Budget and Europcar) don’t expect an American or European standard kind of vehicle. Their cars are old and poorly maintained. We had a flat tire on our second day in the park, the break cable was hanging loose under the car (we had to tie it with a rope till they sent us a mechanic to fix it), a “service engine soon” light stayed on in the board during our entire rental period. We tried changing the car, but the second one had issues as well.
3. There is only one road from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales (Chilean route 9). It’s a good, two-way fully-asphalted highway all the way. After Punta Natales, the asphalt continues for another 50 km to Cerro Castillo, where it crosses into Argentina. From here, the road that continues to Torres del Paine is partly asphalt, partly gravel, but in the park all roads are gravel only. The roads are in good condition and do not throw up huge amounts of dust, or stones, but you can’t drive faster than 50kph/30mph.
4. There are NO gas stations in Torres del Paine. The nearest gas station to the park is in Puerto Natales (1.5 – 2 hrs away). Also, there are no gas stations between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales (250 km). So if you rent a car, you have to carefully plan your trip so you don’t run out of gas. Some hotels in the park may offer their guests a small amount of emergency gas at a pretty high price, but you can’t count on that. Ours didn’t, so we bought two gasoline canisters and carried them around in the trunk. They proved to be a life saver on a couple of occasions.
5. Roads in and around the park are not well marked. Sometimes they are indicated by the name of a place that’s the least likely option you may think of. Other times, the places indicated change along the same road. It helps if you have in mind a few other names close to the one you’re actually looking for.
Inside Torres del Paine National Park
Despite its remoteness, Torres del Paine has a pretty good tourist infrastructure. Inside the park you can choose form campgrounds, refugios, hostels (like Hostería Pehoe, Hosteria Torres and Hostería Lago Grey), or more luxurious hotels (like Hotel Explora, or Hotel Las Torres Patagonia). There is also a small cluster of hotels in Puerto Natales that are more reasonably priced than those inside the park. However, driving every day in and out of the park is not easy.
• Public toilets
There are very few public toilets in the park. You can find some around the main gates of the park, in Pudeto, and at the Grey Station. Hotels, Refugios and campgrounds also have public toilets. It is a good idea to use a toilet when you find one. Of course, using nature’s “public toilet” is always a possibility, but there are not many good hiding places in the park to do your business. Toilet paper is supplied, but it safer to carry some with you, in case some facilities run out of it.
• Wifi and Cell phone service
WiFi is available in the park, but is slow and expensive ($4/hr at the refugios). If you rent a hotel room, WiFi is complimentary, but it’s still very slow. You can use it to check your email and maybe reply to a couple of urgent messages, but not much else. There is no Cell phone service in the park, so less chance to fall into a ravine while texting. Plan to relax and forget about this enslaving technology for a few days. It’s well worth it.
Be advised that everything you buy in Torres del Paine is about five times more expensive than outside the park. If you need any kind of hiking gear, sports equipment, batteries, or need to stock up on food, or snacks, do it before you enter the park. There is a huge duty-free shopping center called the Zona Franca in Punta Arenas, with several blocks of stores. Also, there are quite a few nice shops in Puerto Natales where you can buy or rent camping equipment, or food for backpackers •
• What about drinking water?
You don’t have to bring water with you while hiking in the park, which is a big plus. There are plenty of streams of water in Torres del Paine, all coming directly from the glacier. Just keep in mind that the closer the running water is to the road, the more polluted it is. So make sure you refill your bottles up the stream if you want to be safe. Tap water at hotels is safe to drink.
What you can do and see in Torres del Paine
The best way to experience Torres del Paine is by foot, but having a car in this huge park is a big plus. Distances and times were greater than we expected. Keep in mind that all roads in Torres del Paine are gravel. The park is a maze of hiking trails, varying from moderate day-trips, to challenging multi-day treks around the mountain range. The scenery of Torres del Paine is just incredible! The colors are surreal, the air is crisp, the nature is unique and you can find plenty of wildlife around you. There are a few landmarks in Torres del Paine that you shouldn’t miss when visiting the park.
• Las Torres – 3 huge granite towers, which are also the symbol of the National Park – can be seen from different trails in the park, or by doing a long day hike to the base of Las Torres.
• Los Cuernos del Paine – a group of spiky granite peaks with two distinct colors, all of which stand at over 2000 metres high. You can easily see them from the road and from different points in the park, or you can do an easy day hike to Mirador de Cuernos.
• Glacier Gray – a 6 kilometers wide and over 30 meters high glacier that is fed by Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The best way to experience it is by taking a catamaran trip from Hotel Lago Gray. You can also go horseback riding, kayaking, mountain biking, sailing on glacial lakes, walking on glaciers and visiting estancias. You could easily spend months in this park and still not see it all!
Chilean Patagonia is unbelievably beautiful. If you liked Torres del Paine, you’ll surely enjoy visiting Carretera Austral, a quiet and lesser visited area with very similar scenery.
And if you found this post useful, don’t forget to check out my other articles about Chilean Patagonia. Get helpful tips for planning your trek in Torres del Paine, read my suggested packing list for Patagonia and get itineraries ideas for day trips in Torres del Paine.
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