Like all other Patagonian towns, Puerto Natales is easily negotiated on foot. There is a tourist office located near the town entrance, and there are plenty of agencies in the town center for those who wish to plan their own excursions. The best local restaurants are located around the central plaza and along the seafront. Also, be sure to visit the towns fantastic chocolate shop for the perfect early morning wake up or late afternoon tea. The charming little cafe is located about halfway between the central plaza and the waterfront, and offers a variety of cakes, sweets, cookies, and hot chocolate drinks. If you have some extra time on your hands before heading off to Torres del Paine, visit the municipal museum or stroll around the city center to take in the pleasant small-town ambiance.
The four-hour cruise up the Seno Ultima Esperanza to the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers is one of the most beautiful and popular excursions from Puerto Natales. Along the way, you will pass an old meat freezer (frigorifico), as well as waterfalls, several estancias, and colonies of sea lions, cormorants and other birds.
Another popular point of interest is the "Cueva del Milodon". A visit to this immense cave, located about 25 km Northwest of Puerto Natales on the way to Parque Torres del Paine, is included in most of the organized tours to the park. It was here, in the late 1800s, that Captain Hermann Eberhard discovered a well-preserved ground sloth nearly four meters high that had become extinct in the early Pleistocene Age. The site has a small visitor center with exhibits on the natural history of the area and a full-size replica of the animal in the cave.
Parque Torres del Paine:
This magnificent national park was created in 1959, and was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978. Most visitors will see only a small fraction of this enormous park, which has an area of approximately 242,141 hectares. In addition to the unbelievable geological formations and natural scenery, visitors will have the opportunity to witness many species of flora and fauna that inhabit the park: llamas, guanacos, foxes, pumas, condors, ñandú, geese and a wide variety of other birds.
The park is located about 100 km from Puerto Natales along a scenic route that passes lakes, mountains, villages and farms. The most popular options for visiting the park include passenger van tours, day trips from within the park, and backpacking. Several agencies in Puerto Natales can help arrange passenger-van day trips that cover the parks main sites in a single day. The three majestic "Towers" (Torres) for which the park is named are sighted as the tours near the park entrance alongside Lago Sarmiento. After entering park, the tours then proceed to the scenic Mirador Cuernos overlook near Salto Grande that afford beautiful views of "the Horns" ("Cuernos"), with their spectacular hanging glaciers. You will then pass beautiful Lago Pehoe on route to lunch at Hosteria Lago Grey, with its gorgeous views of the lake and Glacier Grey. After a filling lunch and a visit to the black-sands at the edge of brilliant, electric-blue Lago Grey, the vans return to Puerto Natales.
Those who wish to spend several days in the park for a closer look at the many spectacular formations may elect to stay at one or more of the hosterias, refugios (also called albergues), or campsites scattered throughout the park. Hosterias offer the highest level of comfort, with restaurants, guides, and organized daytime excursions and evening activities, while refugios offer only the most basic necessities: a roof over your head, bunk lodging, a kitchen, showers, toilets, and a drying rack for wet clothes. The principal campsites typically have toilets and showers, and sometimes grill stands for cooking.
The most common trajectory for backpackers follows a W-shaped route that transits between Glacier Grey and the Torres, and typically takes 3-5 days to complete. In addition, more adventurous hikers may attempt to complete the entire circuit around the Cordillera del Paine, the central mountain range that encompasses the Towers and Horns and passes alongside Glacier Grey. The "W" and the complete circuit may be hiked in either direction, but hikers must begin at one of the road-accessible trailheads: Hosteria Las Torres (located at the east edge of the "W", closest to the Torres), Posada Rio Serrano, or Hosteria Lago Grey (at the west edge of the "W"). From Hosteria Las Torres, the trail rises steeply and follows the east edge of Almirante Nieto peak into a gorgeous canyon high above the Rio Ascencio. The steep trail then descends to the rivers edge at the Chilean camp, and follows the river for about an hour through a pleasant forest before heading straight up along a stream through boulders and scree for another hour to the base of the Torres. Hikers typically return to the Hosteria or Chilean Camp at the end of the first day, hike to the French Valley on the second day, and continue on to Glacier Grey on the third or fourth day. There is also an adventurous hike from Hosteria Lago Grey to Mirador Zapata, Glacier Zapata and the Southern Patagonian ice field, and from the entrance guard station to Laguna Azul.
Choose your visiting time carefully, since there are dramatic differences in the number of visitors during high and low season. In low season (Chilean winter, from about July to November), it is possible to hike all day and only encounter a handful of other hikers, but visitors will have fewer daylight hours for hiking and are more likely to encounter inclement weather conditions. Weather conditions and daylight hours are considerably more favorable in high season (December to April); however, hundreds or thousands of visitors usually crowd the trail.
A large portion of this text was written by Traveler - Writer Craig Milroy.