Torres Del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine (pronounced pie-nee) at the continent’s southernmost tip is one of the world’s loveliest reserves, with abundant wildlife—cameloids, pumas, condors—free from human harassment for years and thus relatively unfearful of visitors.
The dramatic vista which is the memorable centerpiece of this 935-square-mile (2,425-km2) national park and wildlife treasure is almost as familiar worldwide as the Taj Mahal but uncrowded with visitors—three 6,500-foot (1,950-m) pillars of Pleistocene granite which rise dramatically from the flat steppe, reddish, purple, and gold in different lights. Around them icy-blue glaciers boom and crash as they calve through summer months on snowcapped mountains often topped with spectacular snow-plume displays, descending through waterfalls, undulating plateaus of sepias and reds, rivers and sparkling lakes of white, turquoise, and ocher, dark forests. Hillsides are splashed with flowering spring blankets of orange and purple. Chilean Nobel poet Gabriela Mistral attributed her inspiration to times spent in contemplation here.
Powerful mountain lions or pumas with the widest range of any western hemisphere land mammal—from subalpine forests to sea-level swamps and desert, from the Canadian Yukon to the Strait of Magellan—hunt here in the densest populations anywhere. They also are larger here thananywhere else. The prey base which makes this possible is an abundant population of othermammals, prime among these being furry rust-colored guanacos, particularly when young are being born. These tallest of South American cameloids seem to know they are protected from hunting and merely eye visitors with curiosity—this is the only place where sizable herds arestill a common sight. There are occasional glimpses also of stately huemules or Andean deer,once thought to be part-ibex-part-deer for their preference for high altitudes and habit of rearing back on hind legs.
Several dozen Andean condors may be seen at one time, wheeling against blue sky, sometimes swooping almost to ground level. Swift aplomado and peregrine falcons cleave the air. Bright coral Chilean flamingos in flocks of up to several thousand course overhead, long legs and necks extended, calling to one another in soft, frog-like gurgles. Black-necked swans with pure white bodies dabble elegantly on aquatic plants, alerting young with high-pitched whistles. Great and silvery grebes build floating reed nests.
Diminutive Patagonian or gray foxes and their larger cousins, Culpeo foxes, pounce on rodents and large insects, as do rare, shyer Geoffrey’s cats. European hares introduced in the 1880s are a predator’s staple as are nandus or Darwin’s rheas, New World ostriches reared by males, sometimes in huge families. Males induce females—often several females—to mate and lay eggs which males then incubate and lead about in broods of 70 or so—a startling spectacle when all run off across the steppe at speeds up to 25 miles an hour (40 kph).
Over 155 miles (250 km) of some of the world’s most spectacular walking trails wind through the park, from an easy afternoon’s hike to a more ambitious 7-to-10-day round-the-park circuit with camping. (For safety, solo trekkers are not permitted.) But much can be seen by road—bus or rental car—in day trips operating from nearby Puerto Natales, where lodging is available. First-class accommodations also are available in the park in a converted estancia and on Lago (Lake) Pehoe. Park visitors from Santiago can fly to Punta Arenas stopping over in Puerto Montt, thence by bus or boat to Puerto Natales.
Best times are snow-free November–April—but it’s spectacularly beautiful in southern hemisphere winter when persistent winds die down in May–September and most visitors are gone. Weather is unpredictable and quickly changeable at any season.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Lauca National Park, 532 square miles (138,000 ha) in the far northeastern Chilean corner is home to more than 17,000 rare vicuñas—up from a precarious 1,000 in 1970—along with mountain vizcacha that look like rabbits but leap like kangaroos, pumas, alpacas, and 150 bird species. Birds gather in huge wetland assemblages at one of the world’s highest lakes, emerald Lago Chungara, against a theatrical backdrop of snowy volcanic peaks towering to 20,000 feet (6,000 m). Diademed sandpiper-plovers are here (and around the whole area), also three species of flamingos, giant coots, Andean avocets, white-throated sierra-finches. Vicuñas often call on visitors soaking in the hot thermal baths or at the Las Cuevas park entrance, 50 miles (80 km) east of Arica (surrounded by northern reaches of high Atacama dunes and the sea) where day trips—also accommodations, at least until recently of an informal nature—can be arranged. Accommodations are also available outside the park entrance in Putre.
Adjacent to Lauca but more difficult to access are Reserva Nacional Las Vicuñas and Monumento Natural Salar de Surire, a Ramsar site of world-important wetlands with a steady population of 10,000+ birds, three nesting flamingo species including the rare James, and flocks of rheas, as well as pumas, Culpeo foxes, and a few extremely rare Andean cats.
Salar de Atacama, world’s third largest salt flat, part of which forms 285-square-mile(740-km2) Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos, (administered by CONAF out of San Pedro), lakes filled with flamingos of three species, also hot springs, eerie desert forms, and spectacular night vistas when a full moon reflects off salt crystals.
Tierra del Fuego, visually stunning 680,000-acre (275,000 ha) tract, protects old grown beech forest, alpine meadows, snow-capped mountains, unique grasslands, and globally important wetlands, with Magellanic woodpeckers, firecrown hummingbirds, culpeo fox, and guanacos.This recent gift of Goldman Sachs charitable trust to the Wildlife Conservation Society will be managed partnering with Chilean conservationists, scientists and government leaders, with ecotourism to benefit local communities.
Parque Nacional Archipelago de Juan Fernandez is three islands several hundred miles west of Valparaiso, an ecological treasure with spectacular scenery, great variety of endemic plants,exile site of Scottish mariner Alexander Selkirk, immortalized in Daniel Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe..
Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos is two small Magellanic Strait islands honeycombed with burrowing Magellanic penguins and other seabirds. Easily accessible from Punta Arenas.
Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar is 170 square miles (44,000 ha) of starkly beautiful coastal desert at Chañaral south of Antofagasta with pelicans, penguins, marine otters, and sea lions.
Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humboldt is several offshore islands with breeding Humboldt penguins; access difficult.
Pumalín Park, 1,250 square miles (3,240 km2), one of the world’s largest private parks, with fine birds, wildlife, trails, accommodations, 80 miles (130 km) south of Puerto Montt, where further information is available—Tel: (+56) 65-250-079, Fax: (+56) 65-225-145.
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TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK as well as...
Lauca National Park
Reserva Nacional Las Vicuñas
Monumento Natural Salar de Surire
Salar de Atacama
Reserva Nacional de los Flamencos
Tierra del Fuego
Parque Nacional Archipelago de Juan Fernandez
Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos
Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar
Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humbolt