Since we were starting from and returning to Puerto Natales all in one day, our first day in Torres del Paine involved the most driving. In the morning we entered via the Amarga gate on the northeast side of the park, and in the late afternoon exited via the southwest Serrano gate.
See below for an interactive map of our travels in the park.
The road to the Amarga gate was paved until the town of Torres del Paine, where it switched to gravel. Crews were working on a new road during our visit, so I imagine this will be an easier ride in the near future.
When we arrived at Laguna Azul the small park office was closed (the bathrooms were thankfully open though), so we set out to take some photos of Laguna Azul with the stunning mountains in the background. There were significant waves on the lake this day due to the high winds!
We continued into the park, stopping along the way for guanaco portraits. We saw herds of these guys all over this side of the park, sometimes in the road. They were not particularly scared of people and fond of wrestling and pronking about.
Our next stop was the powerful Cascada del Paine with spectacular views of Cordillera Paine, the three famous spiked towers of Torres del Paine.
Before heading into the paid portion of the park, we took a quick detour to Laguna Amarga. The clouds were starting to roll in so the lake wasn’t as emerald green as it would have been in the sunshine.
Registration for the park was a bit convoluted. I had to fill out paperwork for each of us, including passport information, pay at one window, then go back to the main desk (where I got the application) to have the paperwork and park passes stamped. Perhaps it was the language barrier but it was implied we needed to ‘check in’ each morning at whatever gate we used to enter the park. However, when I did so the following morning, the park staff seemed confused as I already had a valid pass. We did confirm that the entry fee of 21K CLP (~$28 USD) is good for three consecutive days, but we were never stopped coming or going at any time during our visit, so I am not sure how this is policed?
At this point we were hoping to walk some of the Fauna Trail that runs from the Amarga gate to the Sarmiento gate but a big sign posted at the trailhead told us that the trail was now one way only from the Sarmiento side AND you needed a guide. Boo.
We decided to drive down to other entrance (Lago Sarmiento) to see if getting a guide was possible – and it turns out that this road in the park is fairly boring with few views. Once we got there we found out that the park staff can’t act as guides – you need to hire a tour company to do the hike. Which basically sounds like the ultra-luxury resorts in the park wanted to keep trails to themselves… Instead, the park ranger suggested we do the quick hike to the Lago Sarmiento viewpoint but mentioned we couldn’t hike all the way to the lake because of conservation efforts. Double boo.
At least there were lots of flowers among the grasses and some pretty lake views.
On our way through the park, we stopped at several other miradors of lakes along the main road – it was extremely windy here!
Our next stop was the popular Salto Grande overlook. A lot of buses come here so the crowds ebb and flow throughout the day. The falls itself is loud and powerful with lots of mist, and has a beautiful jewel-toned aqua color. It was hard to get a photo of the whole thing!
We drove past the parking area for Salto Chico but the four ‘public parking’ spots were taken, so we saved that for another day.
Clouds were really starting to build to the north, so we decided to start our drive back to town. Along Pehoe Lake the sun came out briefly which let us capture the beautiful glacial water colors.
Given the rather large entry fees (for foreigners naturally), we really expected the park to be in better shape. Roads were very rough, rangers weren’t much help, and several hikes were no longer possible. Where is the money going?
TDP is completely doable as a day trip from Puerto Natales, but it does make for a fairly tiring day. You can drive through the entire park in less than 90 minutes and it takes longer than that to reach TDP from Puerto Natales. Our next two days we’d have lodging in Rio Serrano just outside the park which made for a decidedly better experience.