Torres del Paine, a spectacular mountain range, lies between the Andes mountains and the Patagonian steppe in southern Chile, continuing on to the Atlantic coast. It is an area of great scenic beauty, with many ridges, crags, glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and lagoons.
Torres del Paine National Park encompasses mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers in the southern Chilean Patagonia. The Cordillera del Paine is the centerpiece of the park. It lies in a transition area between the Magellanic subpolar forests and the Patagonian Steppes. Paine means "blue" in the native Tehuelche (Aonikenk) language and is pronounced PIE-nay.
The park is located 112 km (70 mi) north of Puerto Natales and 312 km (194 mi) north of Punta Arenas. The park borders Bernardo O'Higgins National Park to the west and the Los Glaciares National Park to the north in Argentina.
Torres del Paine National Park is part of the Sistema Nacional de Áreas Silvestres Protegidas del Estado de Chile (National System of Protected Forested Areas of Chile). In 2013, it measured approximately 181,414 hectares (448,284 acres). It is one of the largest and most visited parks in Chile. The park averages around 250,000+ visitors a year, of which over 50% are foreign tourists.
The park is one of the 11 protected areas of the Magallanes Region and Chilean Antarctica (together with four national parks, three national reserves, and three national monuments). Together, the protected forested areas comprise about 51% of the land of the region (6,728,744 hectares or 16,627,088 acres).
The Torres del Paine are the distinctive three granite peaks of the Paine mountain range or Paine Massif. They extend up to 2,500 m (8,200 ft) above sea level, and are joined by the Cuernos del Paine. The landscape is dominated by the Paine massif, which is an eastern spur of the Andes located on the east side of the Grey Glacier, rising dramatically above the Patagonian steppe. Small valleys separate the spectacular granite spires and mountains of the massif. These are: Valle del Francés (French Valley), Valle Bader, Valle Ascencio, and Valle del Silencio (Silence Valley).
At the head of French Valley is a circlet formed by tall cliffs. The colossal walls of Cerro Cota 2000 and Cerro Catedral punctuate the western region of the Valley. Cerro Cota 2000 is named for its elevation; its highest contour line is about 2,000 m (6,562 ft). Cerro Catedral is named so because its east face resembles a cathedral's facade. To the north stands the granite arête called Aleta de Tiburón (English: Shark's Fin). To the east, from north to south, lie the peaks Fortaleza (Fortress), La Espada (The Sword), La Hoja (The Blade), La Máscara (The Mummer), Cuerno Norte (North Horn), and Cuerno Principal (Main Horn).
In the Valley of Silence the gigantic granite walls of Cerro Fortaleza and Cerro Escudo (Shield Mountain) stand face to face with the western faces of the Torres del Paine. Ascencio Valley is the normal route to reach the Torres del Paine lookout, which is located at the bank of a milky green tarn. The highest mountain of the group is Paine Grande, whose height was measured in 2011 using GPS and found to be 2,884 m (9,462 ft).
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field mantles a great portion of the park. Glaciers include the Dickson, the Grey, and the Tyndall. Among the lakes are the Dickson Lake, Nordenskjöld Lake, Lake Pehoé, Grey Lake, Sarmiento Lake, and Del Toro Lake. Only a portion of the latter is within the borders of the park. All are vividly colored, most due to rock flour suspended in their waters. The main river flowing through the park is Paine River. Most of the rivers and lakes of the park drain into Última Esperanza Sound via Serrano River.
Torres del Paine Biosphere Reserve lies between the Andes Mountains and the Patagonian Steppe in southern Chile continuing on to the Atlantic coast. It is an area of great scenic beauty, with many ridges, crags, glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and lagoons.
The Grey, Tyndall and Balmaceda Glaciers are remains of a once much more extensive system. The tablelands and plains are part of the Patagonian-Fuegian steppe. The evergreen forests of Verano extend to the west as far as the foot of the Andes mountains, which wise up to a treeless alpine zone.
The biosphere reserve has four well defined ecological zones:
- Pre-Andean scrubland: present in the plains and plateaux-like formations, the species found here are mostly adapted to economizing water due to their exposure to strong winds.
- Deciduous Magellan Forest: all the tree and shrub communities in this community belong to this ecosystem, where Lenga (Nothafagus pumilio) is the dominating species.
- Patagonian Steppe: to be found in the plains and plateaux-like formations, with a semi-arid cold climateand rainfall of up to 400 mm per year. Here perennial medium to low height grass communities are to be found, growing in ditch-like depressions.
- Andean desert: corresponding to a zone where vegetation only develops up to a height of 1,50 m, with cover ranging from 30% to 0% due to the extreme climatic conditions and the altitude. The association of Mulinetum espinosum (pre-Andean scrub) should be noted. Part of the flora is exclusive to the Reserve and the Province of Ultima Esperanza, with Adesmia campestris as a rare and exclusive species.
There are about 106 species of birds, some of which are endangered, such as Coscoroba Swan (Coscoroba coscoroba) and Darwin-Nandu (Pterocnemia pennata). There are 24 species of mammals of which the puma (Felis concolor) found in well-protected wooded areas, is key in controlling the population of smaller mammals. Some 570 guanaco (Lama guanicoe) are also found.
The site is designed and managed as a National Park, with no permanent inhabitants. More than 20,000 national and 40,000 international tourists visit the site annually (1999) and both national and international researchers are sporadically involved in research activities.
Lands cleared in the past for rearing domestic stock, are now being restored. Research is currently being carried out on plant succession, reintroduction of South Andean Deer (Hippocamelus bisulcus), the population structure and ecological impact of the introduced European hare.
Geological research and the preparation of a geological map are envisaged, and studies are planned on species such as condor, eagle, Magellan ostrich, Coscoroba swan, black-necked swan, flamingo and fish.
Torres del Paine Biosphere Reserve has a variety of tourist services, offered by 15 private concessions mainly geared to lodging, restaurants, transport and recreation. It receives approximately 115,000 visitors per year.