When to Come & What to Bring

This is not the easiest of national parks to visit. The climate in the park can be abominable, with wind speeds that can peak at 161kmph (100 mph) and rain and snow even in the middle of summer. On average, the windiest days happen between mid-November and mid-March, but the only predictable thing about the weather here is its unpredictability. Note: Come with your expectations in check -- it's not uncommon to spend a week here and not see the towers even once due to bad weather.

Spring is a beautiful time for budding flowers and birds; during the fall, the beech forests turn colors, which can be especially striking on walks up to the Towers and to the glacier. The winter is surprisingly temperate, with relatively few snowstorms and no wind -- but short days. You'll need to stay in a hotel during the winter, but you'll practically have the park to yourself. Summer is, ironically, the worst time to come, especially from late December to mid-February, when the wind blows at full fury and crowds descend upon the park. When the wind blows, it can make even a short walk a rather scary experience or just drive you nuts -- just try to go with it, not fight it, and revel in the excitement of the extreme environment that makes Patagonia what it is.

I can't stress enough the importance of bringing the right gear, especially waterproof hiking boots (if you plan to do any trekking), weatherproof outerwear, and warm layers, even in the summer. The ozone problem is acute here, so you'll need sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat as well.

Visitor & Park Entrance Information

Your visit to Torres del Paine will require logistical planning, unless you've left it up to an all-inclusive tour or hotel. Begin your research at www.torresdelpaine.cl, an English-language overview of the park and its surroundings, including maps, activities information, events, photos, hotel overviews and links, and more. The park service, Conaf, has a relatively unhelpful Spanish-only website at www.conaf.cl.

The park's administration and visitor center can be reached at tel. 61/691931; it's located at the southern end of the park. The park is open year-round from 8:30am to 10:30pm. The entry fee is $30 (£20) for adults; during the winter, the cost is $16 (£11) adults. If staying outside the park, get your ticket stamped for multiple visits.

Getting There & Away

Many travelers are unaware of the enormous amount of time it takes to get to Torres del Paine. There are no direct transportation services from the airport in Punta Arenas to the park, except with package tours and hotels that have their own vehicles, or by chartering an auto or van (try Viaterra; tel. 61/410775; www.viaterra.cl). The earliest flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas arrives at around noon; from there it's a 3-hour drive to Puerto Natales. The last bus to the park leaves at 2:30pm for the 2-hour journey to the east side of the park. Thanks to a new road, the west side (where such lodgings as explora, Patagonia Camp, and Hosteria Lago Grey are) is now only 1 hour from Puerto Natales. If you're relying on bus transportation (and if you are not staying at an all-inclusive hotel), you will likely need to spend the night in Puerto Natales. If you've arranged a package tour or hotel stay that picks you up at the airport, remember that the 3- to 5-hour trip from here can be very tiring if you've just taken a 4-hour flight from Santiago.

By Bus -- Several companies offer daily service from October to April. During the low season, only Bus Sur offers service to the park. Buses to Torres del Paine enter through the Laguna Amarga ranger station, stop at the Pudeto catamaran dock, and terminate at the park administration center. If you're going directly to the Torres trail head at Hostería Las Torres, there are minivan transfers waiting at the Laguna Amarga station that charge about $5 (£3.30) one-way. The return times given below are when the bus leaves from the park administration center; the bus will pass through the Laguna Amarga station about 45 minutes later.

Trans Via Paine, Bulnes 516 (tel. 61/413672), leaves daily at 7:30am via Laguna Amarga. Gomez, Arturo Prat 234 (tel. 61/411971), also leaves at 7:30am, returning from the administration building at 1pm. Buses JB, Arturo Prat 258 (tel. 61/410242), departs also at 7:30am, returning at 1pm. The cost is around $16 (£11) one-way.

By Tour Van -- If you don't have much time to spend in the park or would like to get there at your own pace, check into the minivan tour services that plan stops at the Salto Grande waterfall and carry on to Lago Grey for a walk along the beach to view giant icebergs.

By Car -- Heading north on Pedro Montt out of town, follow the dirt road for 51km (32 miles) until you reach Cerro Castillo. From here the road turns left and heads 47km (29 miles) toward the park (keep your eyes open for another left turn that is signposted TORRES DEL PAINE). You'll come to a fork in the road; one road leads to the Lago Sarmiento Conaf station, another to the Laguna Amarga station. If you are planning to head to the Torres trail head and Hostería Las Torres hotel complex on your way out, then take the Lago Sarmiento entrance; it's faster, and you'll get to view the striking blue waters of Lago Sarmiento. You can park your car at the Hostería Las Torres, the park administration center, the Pudeto catamaran dock, or the Lago Grey ranger station. To get to the western side of the park (to such places as Lago Grey and Lago Pehoe, and to hotels such as explora and Patagonia Camp), take a left just north of town toward the Cueva de Milodón cave, and continue north to the Conaf Station. Check with the park service at www.conaf.cl or ask your rental-car agency for updated road information.

Crossing Lago Pehoe by Catamaran -- Day hikes to the Glacier Grey trail and backpackers taking the W or Circuit trails will need to cross Lake Pehoé at some point aboard a catamaran, about a 45-minute ride. The cost is $22 (£15) one-way or $36 (£24) round-trip. Buses from Puerto Natales are timed to drop off and pick up passengers in conjunction with the catamaran (Nov 15-Mar 15 leaving Pudeto at 9:30am, noon, and 6pm, and from Pehoé at 10am, 12:30, and 6:30pm; Oct 16-30 and Mar 16-30 from Pudeto at noon and 6pm, and Pehoé at 12:30 and 6pm; Oct 1-15 and Apr, from Pudeto at noon, from Pehoé at 12:30pm; closed May-Sept). Hikers walking the entire round-trip Glacier Grey trail can do so only taking the 9:30am boat and returning at 6:30pm from mid-November to March 15.

Getting to the Park by Boat -- Zodiac-catamaran combinations that take visitors from Puerto Natales through the Ultima Esperanza Sound and up the Río Serrano, or vice versa, are available. This is an interesting alternative to getting to the park via bus or van, but it's an all-day affair. Also, you'll need to arrange transportation with your hotel to or from the administration office. Along the winding turquoise river, visitors are taken through territory that rivals Alaska, past the Tyndall and Geike glaciers, and eventually to Serrano Glacier. Here they disembark for a walk up to the ice, then board another boat for a 3 1/2-hour ride to Puerto Natales. The one-way ride costs $95 (£43) per person, depending on the season. You can also do a round-trip journey leaving from and returning to the park for about $68 (£45). Onas's zodiac is an adventure, and their guides are fun (tel./fax 61/614300; www.onaspatagonia.com).

Active travelers will be interested in following the same Río Serrano route but by kayak, about a 3-day journey. This trip is suitable for travelers on their way back to Puerto Natales, to take advantage of the river's downward current; at night, travelers camp out on shore. Check with Indomita (tel. 61/413247; www.indomitapatagonia.com), on Bories 206, in Puerto Natales.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.