Torres del Paine National Park, in Chile, is one of the most visited parts of Patagonia. And having been there you can see why. It is stunning. The wildlife is spectacular including condors and guanacos. The hiking is well marked and plentiful, allowing you to explore even the furthest reaches of the park.
When I began researching this portion of the trip, I must say I was confused. It was very difficult to find clear information. I now realize it was not so much the information but the fact it is all very difficult to get to as well. So this post and the next post both focus on Torres del Paine National Park.
So without further ado . . .
Located close to 1200 miles (2000 kilometers) if you drive from Puerto Montt, Puerto Natales is remote. I would say the sole reason to visit here is to go to Torres Del Paine National Park. If you aren’t headed there you can skip Puerto Natales.
The second assumption is if you are headed to the park you are going to hike, this can be a short day hike or multi-day hikes. There is something for everyone.
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Anything you need for hiking can be found in Puerto Natales. You can rent gear if you need it, or buy whatever you need. The town is full of shops catering to hikers- outdoor gear, food, equipment, and tours are everywhere. So if you have forgotten something, or couldn’t bring it on the plane (fuel for you camp oven) you can get it here. Shops close in the middle of the day so be aware you can’t duck in and do your shopping between about 12:00 and 15:00.
Other than shops and a place to get yourself organized there is not a lot to Puerto Natales. We thought we would find something here to do and planned a couple of days here. We left a day early (more on that below) to head to Torres del Paine.
Getting to Puerto Natales and to Torres del Paine
Okay getting here is not easy. There are three options to get to Puerto Natales:
- Overland- this entry is from Argentina. You can drive down from Bariloche, cross the border and 1200 miles later arrive in Puerto Natales. You can also come from El Calafate in Argentina (the site of the Perito Moreno Glacier) via bus or car. Crossing the border with a rental car is difficult so not recommended.
- Take the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt- this option takes a couple of days. It is an overnight ferry service. You can put a car on the boat if you have one.
- Fly to Punta Arenas and take the bus or drive the 150 miles (250 kilometers) north to Puerto Natales. As mentioned in the Puerto Varas post, this is the option we ended up taking as the ferry was canceled.
Now you would think it is rather straight forward to fly to Punta Arenas and then catch a bus from the airport to Puerto Natales. Literally hundreds of people need to do this every day. It wasn’t. At the Punta Arenas Airport, despite having transport desks in the airport, you cannot purchase a bus ticket to Puerto Natales, nor can you purchase one on the bus (why I have never worked out). You need to go into the town of Punta Arenas to get a ticket.
Well town is 25 miles away and there is no central bus station, you have to know the bus company and go there to get a ticket. And most companies have only one bus leaving in the afternoon after the Puerto Montt flight arrives. And most of these buses are full with hikers going to Torres Del Paine National Park.
I kid you not, you cannot make this stuff up. So basically this leaves you three options:
- Head into town and stay the night so you can organize your bus ticket.
- Try and organize a bus ticket in advance.
- Or arrange a private transfer which is exorbitantly expensive.
Luckily I was trying to work all of this out and found a few posts in the Lonely Planet Travel Forums (a great place to find answers) alerting me to the stupidity of this. I couldn’t believe it- what do you mean you can’t buy a ticket at the airport or on the bus! Nope- it was true. And to make it worse, the first stop the bus makes after leaving town is the AIRPORT!
I emailed every bus company I could find servicing the route and one- that’s right one- would let me reserve the ticket, pay for it and have the bus driver bring it to the airport. (And it took a week to get the transaction done!) So I am telling you this, as it was totally unexpected (to say the least). If you go, and this has been changed, please let us know so we can update folks. The bus company we used was Bus Sur. Buses Fernandez also service this route. You may be able to get your hotel to assist you in making the booking.
Okay so we are on our way to Puerto Natales. 4 hours later we arrive. But as mentioned, Puerto Natales is not our final destination we want to go a further 150 kilometers (90 miles) to Torres del Paine National Park. The bus for the park has limited service leaving once or twice a day depending on the time of year.
So we decided we would stay in Puerto Natales a couple of days and check it out. (Tip: One day is plenty.)
A couple of things we do recommend in Puerto Natales:
Erratic Rock, a hostel, guide company and equipment rental provider does a Torres del Paine briefing every afternoon at 3 pm. If you are going to overnight hike in the park, this is highly recommended. You will get an update on the latest trail conditions and can get any questions you have answered.
Aldea Restaurant (Barros Arana 132) was the culinary highlight of our entire Patagonia travels. The food is fantastic. The menu changes regularly and is a chalkboard. Someone will come out and explain the day’s options and you order. The owner sources as much as possible locally including growing his own herbs and vegetables for things he found difficult to source. (We went here after completing the “W” hike and returning to civilization. It was a great meal to celebrate.)
Also get any food, cash and hiking supplies you need here. You do need cash in the park, credit card facilities are not always available.
The second post in this series will discuss the accommodation and hiking options in the park, so the last thing I want to cover in this post is getting to Torres del Paine National Park. You have three options:
- An expensive private transfer.
- The public bus (how most people will enter)
- Over water, via the Fiodo Ultima Esperanza and Rio Serrano.
Because we were looking for something to do and had an extra day, we took option 3, entering Torres Del Paine National Park via Rio Serrano and it was awesome! Seriously one of the best things we have done in our travels.
Our Big Entrance to Torres del Paine via Rio Serrano
The journey begins via boat from Puerto Natales. As we left the boat dock to begin our journey the light was playing tricks, it was a cloudy day with patches of sunlight highlighting patches of land along the way. The light in Patagonia is very interesting. There are a lot of reflective services, the ice, the water, the clouds and it makes for some beautiful light. (It can also be challenging to take pictures.)
As we traveled up the Fiordo Ultima Esperanza (Sound of Last Hope) there is some spectacular scenery. You sail through the Chilean Fjords passing high snow-capped cliffs. The only settlements are large estancias or ranches. These are mainly cattle ranches only accessible by water.
So really it is nature at its finest, untouched by man. Along the way you pass:
- A cormorant colony- these birds return here each year to lay their eggs and raise their young.
- A colony of sea lions, also a breeding ground.
- Condors can often be spotted over the cliff tops and they nest here as well.
- Glacier Balmaceda, a large glacier that is largely inaccessible.
Somewhere along the way on our journey, the weather totally deteriorated until it was pouring down rain and windy. By the time we got to the boat dock it was bucketing. Most people still got off the boat and walked to the glacier, us included.
Most people on the boat are day trippers, they re-board the boat and return to Puerto Natales via the same route. But for a lucky few of us, we were continuing on.
We moved to a small restaurant where we had lunch. The restaurant was located in a small clearing and had a clear view of the Glacier Serrano. It also gave us time to dry out as well as to dry our wet clothes around the fire in the middle of the room. The best part however was during lunch, the weather cleared. Suddenly it became a beautiful day with blue skies. Perfect for the next part of our journey!
After lunch we boarded a zodiac (a large inflatable raft) for the 21 mile (35 kilometers) ride up the Rio Serrano to the southern entrance of Torres del Paine National Park. This was a 2.5 hour ride through the breathtaking scenery of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. For this part of the journey we were given very heavy coats and life jackets to wear, as it was a bit chilly!
The river itself is crystal clear and light blue. Along the way you pass glaciers, mountains, animals and the highlight- the Great Southern Ice Field. Few people actually see this area because it is not accessible by motor vehicle. You walk or access it from the water.
Unfortunately all good things must end after a most exhilarating ride we arrived at the Rio Serrano park entrance and our accommodation for the night. At this point the weather was clear and we decided to hike up the nearby hill in order to get a panoramic view of the river. It was worth it!
That night we stayed in the Lodge Rio Serrano. (Our backpacks were transferred here from Puerto Natales for us.) There is also the Hotel Rio Serrano which is a newer and much nicer property in the same location. If available, I would recommend the Hotel over the Lodge. We had a great dinner at the Rio Serrano Hotel. It was a large buffet. I am not a fan of buffets but this one was well done and had a great selection of food. Being well fed we walked back to our own lodge for the night.
The next day we organized a transfer to the Rio Serrano National Park Entrance. Here we had a walk around the area while we waited for the public bus to pick us up and take us to the Laguna Amarga Park Entrance which is where we would have arrived via the bus from Puerto Natales. From here it was a quick transfer to our hotel. This is where we will start the “W” hike from. So that ends this first post, and in Part 2: Torres Del Paine National Park: Hiking the “W”, we will begin at Hotel Las Torres in Torres del Paine National Park.
We organized our Rio Serrano trip with a travel agent in town. The boat cruise, lunch, zodiac ride and hotel were all included and organized as part of the reservation. The operator for the boat ride is Turismo 21 de Mayo if you wish to just complete the first part of the trip.
For today we will leave you with the view from the Rio Serrano Hotel.