We didn't think we'd make it to Torres del Paine.
We knew it was beautiful, but we also thought that the only worthwhile way to see it was to hike for several days. If you've followed our journey through Latin America, you'll know that we're not averse to the odd multi-day hike. In fact, the five day Quilotoa Loop trek was probably our favourite activity in Ecuador. But, the big difference is that the Loop was in summer and the accommodation en route was very cheap; that's not the case with Torres del Paine where accommodation costs upwards of $40 USD per person a night (without meals) and we'd have to rent warm weather gear.
We, particularly Emily, are also not huge fans of camping or the cold. One night we can just about cope with, but over the course of a few days, we know we'd both be thoroughly miserable. So, trekking 'The W' or 'The O' in the middle of the Patagonian winter was not exactly something we were itching to do as we hopped on our three night ferry in Puerto Montt.
After we arrived in Puerto Natales - the gateway town to Torres - we spoke with an English guy who had just returned from the trek. Of course, the hike was gorgeous, one of the best things he had ever done; but that's not what we were listening to as, come on, it's Torres del Paine, OF COURSE it's going to be stunning. Rather, it was the fact he had woken up in his tent with drool frozen into ice and that he had to defrost his rice which struck us as the most important pieces of info. As we watched a pair of bubbly young Dutch girls head out the door to start the hike, who hadn't heeded his advice to rent an extra jacket, our hearts went out to them.
So, we had to seek out an alternative. This time, we would let ourselves be the lazy tourists, rather than the intrepid travellers.
There are a number of one-day tours on offer in Puerto Natales which bus you around the national park, allowing you to see some of the most iconic spots in a day. Usually, we only take tours if they are good value and/or allow you to have an adventure which isn't possible on your own or with public transport so, in this case, it appeared to offer us the ideal solution. We could stay warm in the bus, see the best of the park and, maybe, spot a puma from the safety of the vehicle.
So how does it work? We were picked up from our hostel at 8 a.m. before driving for around an hour to a little tourist trap shop, where you can buy some souvenirs, grab a coffee and go to the bathroom before carrying on to the park entrance. Along the way, you'll see some wonderful landscapes through the windows and maybe even a couple of gauchos, whist stopping to photograph some of the mountains or to watch a herd of curious guanacos.
Full-day tours don't include the cost of entry to the park which, unfortunately, is expensive. Day-trippers like us and hundreds of others have no option but to pay $18,000 CP (£16.6/$25) for a 3-day park pass in high season which is obviously pretty redundant for 99% of us. It's a real shame that Chile exploits tourists in this way, rather than offering a more reasonable pricing structure.
Once you've entered the park, the bus will trundle along winding gravel roads to bring you to the main spots like the stunningly blue Sarmiento de Gamboa Lake, the gorgeous waterfalls and, of course, Lago Grey which is home to giant icebergs. And, if the weather is right, you'll have the iconic three 'Blue Towers' looming in the background wherever you go.
Along the way, our guide explained some more about the flora and fauna of the park. Packs of wild horses grazed, giant condors hovered overhead, the odd rhea (the ostrich's South American cousin) peered at us curiously whilst herds of adorable guanacos frolicked. A girl from Hong Kong thought she saw a puma from the window, resulting in a rapid reversal of the bus but, either she imagined it or the cat had already high-tailed it out of there.
The positive of the bus tour is that it allows you to see all this from the comfort of your own seat, however, for photographers like us, it was frustrating that we weren't able to take more ad-hoc stops along the way as there were so many incredible shots we missed. Of course, this is understandable as, if every tour bus stopped whenever you saw something amazing, these tours would last forever. However, this is definitely a consideration for someone whose main goal is to shoot some of these amazing landscapes - if you can afford it, a rental car may be the better option.
At around 3 p.m., we started the journey back to Puerto Natales via the area's other main tourist spot - the Giant Milodon Cave. Our curiosity had been piqued about this due to the statue of a giant sloth in town, plus the fact that a sloth appears on most street signs. However, having done a little more research into the story and the attraction (in short, giant prehistoric sloths were pretty common here 10,000 odd years ago and the remains of one were discovered in this cave in 1895), we weren't too fussed about visiting.
Throw in that the entry isn't included and is a ridiculous $4,000 CP (£4/$5.5) for foreigners, and we decided to stay put in the bus whilst the rest of our group visited. Thankfully, our guide was absolutely fine with this and, from the feedback of those who visited, we really didn't miss much at all.
During our visit to Torres, we were unlucky to be accompanied by dark cloud throughout the day which obscured much of the park and the Three Towers themselves. Nevertheless, we still found the scenery breathtaking. As we were leaving, the rain decided to pour and a howling wind swirled. It was at this moment, as our driver switched on the heating, we both looked at each other and smiled; we'd much rather have been snuggled up in our tour bus rather than out there alone in the hills.
before you book
Of course, the best way to truly experience Torres del Paine would be through a hike. The sense of accomplishment, the chance to go at your own pace and to be alone in the wilderness is something that no tour can replicate. However, for people who don't want to hike, are short of time or have mobility issues, the full-day tour really is a great way to still see one of the most beautiful places in South America.
Tours are easy to find in Puerto Natales (we went via our hostel Yagan House) and start at a reasonable $25,000 CP (£23/$35) per person. This includes your transport and guide but the cost of entry to Torres del Paine national park ($18,000/£16.6/$25) and the Milodon Cave ($4,000/£4/£5.5) are separate and paid by you upon arrival.
Note that in low season (15th April - 30th September), entry fees to Torres del Paine reduce to $10,000/£9/$14 for foreigners.
Our tour did not include lunch, but there is a stop along the way for 30 minutes or so at a little restaurant. As expected, this is pretty expensive so we'd definitely recommend you to bring your own packed lunch, plenty water and some snacks to have throughout the day.
The majority of the full-day tour is spent on the bus driving to, around and from Torres del Paine. Most tours stop at the little souvenir cafe in the morning and a 30-minute lunch break next to a restaurant, some picnic benches and bathrooms. There is some walking involved (no more than one hour in total), although it's nothing too strenuous and is exclusively along sign-posted trails.
In terms of clothing, we would recommend you wear hiking shoes or good trainers and bring a rain jacket / windbreaker along with you, just in case.