Torres del Paine was right on the top of my nature bucket list. When I saw photos, I could barely believe it existed. I created images in my head of one day trekking through lush valleys with nearly no one else in sight. I imaged the snow-capped mountains, similar to the likes of the Himalayas. From the photos online it was an easy fantasy to construct.
But sadly, if there is a prime example of Instagram vs. Reality, this park might be it.
Now I’m not saying it looked completely different. It was still beautiful. Sadly though, so many other factors got in the way of its beauty that during my last couple of days there I could barely see past them.
Being completely honest– I actually couldn’t even wait to leave. Even leaving a day earlier than planned felt like waiting too long. Then two days after leaving the park I left Chile completely, knowing I needed a drastic change of pace.
If you’re planning a visit, I don’t want to deter you from going. There are just some expectations you should have and a few things to be aware of.
Here was my experience:
Torres del Paine in high season is a zoo
Having loved every trek I’ve been on whether it was the Camino, in Nepal, or in Brazil, I knew I wanted to stay in the park as long as possible. With a friend and tour leader by my side, we planned on doing the entire “O circuit”. Not only would it trace a larger area of the trails in the park, but it would get off the beaten path from what 98% of visitors see.
We spent a few days preparing everything necessary. We meticulously packed meals and made homemade trail mix. We made campsite reservations where possible and talked to different people about the starting point we would take.
As prepared as we were there was one thing we didn’t anticipate: the crowds.
On the more popular “W” portion, we were constantly surrounded by people. It wasn’t really peaceful in the slightest and large groups sometimes dominated. The campsites were huge expanses of tents right up against each other. The cooking areas were constantly loud and crowded.
While I’m not completely a cynical old grouch yet, I was dumbfounded that other people didn’t seem to be bothered by this.
Wasn’t this supposed to be a nature escape?
Now sure, I decided to come to Torres del Paine in high season. My fault. When we started to do the backside of the park which most visitors never see, you can probably understand my confusion when (sometimes) it was just as bad.
The facilities are not equipped for the amount of people
While there were less people on the backside of the park, the campsites were substantially smaller. This made things feel equally as crowded. The worst part? It was too crowded to even shower.
While I don’t mind being dirty and grimy for a few days, the intense wind made my hair become a nest of dust and chunks of dirt. After a couple days I needed a shower so badly I could barely stand it.
The problem? The shower line was over an hour. The amount of stalls were so unequipped for the amount of people that it required standing in a line holding all your possessions as the wind blew past. Did I mention I was pretty exhausted already? It was about the last thing I wanted to be doing.
I showered as little as possible out of necessity.
Luckily, this wasn’t also the case on the trails and I got some solitude and release. It was amazing to go for a few hours without seeing anyone else and just appreciate the surroundings.
It’s not all mountainous, stunning landscape
Usually any stunning landscape can make up for shortcomings in an experience. This should of been the case too.
But what if I told you that some days just really weren’t too impressive?
Walking the “O’ counterclockwise, the consecutive day and a half from Las Torres are nothing to write home about. In all honesty, I felt if I could of just been hiking the foothills of some mountains in Southern or Central California. It was very dry, the peaks weren’t visible and the vegetation was very sparse. Sure, it was nice to be in nature, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone to travel thousands of miles for it.
Other days of course, we saw some of the most stunning vistas and glaciers I’ve seen. Reaching the top of John Garderner pass and seeing the Southern Patagonian ice field was a moment I’ll never, ever forget in my life.
It still gives me chills thinking of that moment.
Overall, for the amount of effort and money it takes to plan such a trip like this, my expectations may have gotten in the way.
The insects were not forgiving
I’m not a baby when it comes to the outdoors. Besisdes traveling almost consistently for the last few years, I spend my summers almost entirely outdoors. Most of my job requires me to live from campsites to campsite.
Insects add a whole other obstacle to nature, and I’d never seen anything like the mosquitoes on the backside of Torres del Paine.
As soon as the sun would dip under the tops of the mountains, they would come out in full force. If you happened to still be walking, god save you. The mosquitoes would swarm around your head, constantly buzzing and attacking any space of exposed skin they could find, sometimes even with bug spray. This proved difficult. If you were covered in clothing it becomes very hot carrying the pack. If you were exposed, you’re constantly subject to their sneaky attacks.
At camp I would slather on more bug spray, put on my thickest yoga pants and zip up my jacket to where only a small rectangle of skin was exposed on my face. All of us campers would talk from beneath our coats in fear the swarms of mosquioes would instantly enter our mouths.
This didn’t even save me. The mosquitos were able to bite through most of the pants I brought, even thick elastic. For some reason too, they loved my behind especially. Both cheeks were covered in itchy, swollen bites. Attractive, I know.
Probably the final straw for me was this. After all the work we had spent to get to Puerto Natales and to the park itself, and all the preparations we did for an 8 day trek to then be charged a hefty fee and not feel like it was going anywhere, left a bitter taste in my mouth.
I don’t mind paying a high price when I receive value in return. This just didn’t completely seem the case.
Maybe I’m being petty. Maybe I’m a bit jaded. Or maybe I just have really high standards for the national parks I visit. But where is the money going from the entrance fees and campgrounds?
We asked this to different Chileans we met. Many seemed to agree on corruption. Since the parks became managed by private campsites, the fees to camp went up. Even though the fees went up, nothing benefited. Facilities weren’t added either, not even to match to rise in tourism.
While Torres del Paine is the cash cow of all the national parks in Chile, I can only hope that the money I spent to enter really is helping all the parks around the country. As for the private campgrounds (many of which you have no other option to camp at), I’d hope they start implenting some real solutions.
While this post does seem overwhelmingly negative, in reality my experience wasn’t entirely. I don’t regret it. Much of the park was beautiful and my trekking buddy and I shared some amazing experiences. Still, if I had the chance to do it again, there’s a lot I’d do different.
- Don’t visit Torres del Paine in high season (January & February)! Choose a shoulder season instead. (I visited in early February)
- If you have the money, stay in a few refugios. I never even considered this due to the cost. They sure are nice though, and I would have loved the luxury of a bed and a cooked meal after a long crowded day of walking.
- Bring the best bug spray you can find. I HATE wearing bug spray and rarely do, but in this instance it is necessary if doing the ‘O trek’.
- Bring lots of dry shampoo and wet wipes to avoid those bathroom lines. (Then again if you avoid high season, the lines would be more manageable)
- Going to be there in the peak of high season anyway? Maybe consider a multi-day trek around El Chalten and in Cerro Castillo National Reserve. Seeing Fitz Roy in El Chalten and hiking around Cerro Castillo were some of my favorite Patagonia experiences. They were also less crowded.
Have you visited Torres del Paine in high season? What are your thoughts?