113km (70 miles) N of Puerto Natales; 360km (223 miles) NW of Punta Arenas
This is Chile's prized jewel, a national park so magnificent that few in the world can claim a rank in its class. Granite peaks and towers soar from sea level to upward of 2,800m (9,184 ft.). Golden pampas and the rolling steppes are home to llamalike guanacos and more than 100 species of colorful birds, such as parakeets, flamingos, and ostrich-like rheas. During the spring, Chilean firebush blooms a riotous red, and during the autumn, the park's beech trees change to crimson, sunflower, and orange. A fierce wind screams through this region during the spring and summer, and yet flora such as the delicate porcelain orchids and ladyslippers somehow weather the inhospitable terrain. Electric-blue icebergs cleave from Glacier Grey. Resident baqueanos ride atop sheepskin saddles. Condors float effortlessly even on the windiest day. This park is not someplace you just visit; it is something you experience.
Although it sits next to the Andes, the Torres del Paine is a separate geologic formation created roughly 3 million years ago when bubbling magma began growing and pushing its way up, taking a thick sedimentary layer with it. Glaciation and severe climate weathered away the softer rock, leaving the spectacular Paine Massif whose prominent features are the Cuernos (which means "horns") and the one-of-a-kind Torres -- three salmon-colored, spherical granite towers. The black sedimentary rock is visible on the upper reaches of the elegant Cuernos, named for the two spires that rise from the outer sides of its amphitheater. Paine is the Tehuelche Indian word for "blue," and it brings to mind the varying shades found in the lakes that surround this massif -- among them the milky, turquoise waters of Lagos Nordenskjöld and Pehoé. Backing the Paine Massif are several glaciers that descend from the Southern Ice Field.
Torres del Paine was once a collection of estancias and small-time ranches; they were forced out with the creation of the park in 1959. The park has since grown to its present size of 242,242 hectares (598,338 acres), and in 1978 was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO for its singular beauty and ecology. This park is a backpacker's dream, but just as many visitors find pleasure staying in lodges here and taking day hikes and horseback rides -- even those with a short amount of time here are blown away by a 1-day visit. There are options for everyone, part of the reason the number of visitors to this park is growing by nearly 10,000 per year.