Blown Away in Patagonia

Chilean Hinterland

We'd read about Torres del Paine in advance. A passage in South America's National Parks (1990, The Mountaineers Press) described the park's ensemble of glaciers, jagged peaks, beach forests, lakes, and Andean desert as "spellbinding . . . setting standards of sheer sensory impact against which all other parks are thereafter measured."

We couldn't disagree. From the north-facing Explora Hotel, we looked across Lake Pehoe's whitecaps to the Paine Massif. Dominating the right side of the canvas were three duotone peaks dubbed Los Cuernos, or"the horns." Their pinkish-gray granite rose into black sedimentary spires peaking at 8,530 feet (2,600 meters). On the left of the canvas loomed the 10,007-foot (3,050-meter) Paine Grande, with its beard of hanging glaciers. The remnants of a batholith thrust that forced apart the southern continents 35 million years ago, the Paine Grande's height may seem unimpressive on paper — to the north, the Andes boast more than 45 20,000-foot peaks. But as our hotel was only 200 feet above sea level, the vertical impact was dazzling.

Torres del Paine is one of 30 national parks in Chile, comprising 20 percent of its territory. It was first designated parkland in 1959, and was named a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve in 1978. Annual visitors have grown steadily from a mere 5,000 two decades ago to approximately 80,000 this year, with most coming between December and February.

Though dramatic, the increase in visitation is hardly crush level. California's Yosemite Park with 761,000 acres (slightly larger than Torres's 599,000 acres) was choked with 3.6 million visitors last year, or 80 times more people. Still, Torres's resource-strapped rangers struggle to maintain roads, trails, and campgrounds.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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