Chile: The Paine Circuit

Peak experience: taking in the surreal beauty of Torres del Paine     Photo: Lars Howlett/ Aurora

Trek Length: 6–10 days, 60 miles, plus two recommended side hikes totaling about 35 miles
Maximum Altitude: 4,000 feet
Physical Challenge: 1 2 3 4 5
Price (Self-organized Trek): $500–$600
Price (Group Trek): $1,500–$4,200
Prime Time: December–March
Staging Cities: Punta Arenas, Chile or Chamonix, France
Recommended Outfitters: Bill Russell's Mountain Tours, Camp 5 Expeditions, and Distant Journeys

The Rhapsody: Torres del Paine, the jagged massif jutting 6,000 feet out of the Patagonian pampas in southern Chile, is Himalayan-quality drama in a tiny package. The highest peaks lie clustered in an area only about ten miles square, making the 60-mile Paine circuit perhaps the finest trek on earth in terms of sheer visual impact. The Paine draws lots of day hikers who stick to the Ascensio Valley, Francés Valley, and the more accessible south end of Torres del Paine National Park. Thankfully, though, the company is not all human: You'll see pink flamingoes, ostrichlike flightless rheas, grazing guanacos, and more condors—clouds of them—than anywhere else in the world.
The Route: Trekkers fly to Punta Arenas and then drive to Puerto Natales and on to Torres del Paine National Park. The circuit trek typically starts near the main entrance to the park, proceeding north along the Río Paine to Lago Paine before heading west along the backside of the massif to Lago Dickson. From there you'll start climbing toward glacier-fed Laguna de los Perros and up over windy John Gardner Pass, the high point of the trek. You'll then descend steeply on a rugged, slippery trail toward huge Grey Glacier. The route turns south, paralleling the glacier and Lago Grey to Refugio Grey, a trekkers' hut with food and hot showers. From there the usual route continues along Lago Grey and down the Río Grey back to civilization.Accommodations throughout the trek are a mixture of designated campsites (BYO tent) and well-stocked refugios with bunks, hot showers, and meals.

Guides and Outfitters: Independent trekkers won't need a guide, but national park authorities do not permit solo trekking. If you're on your own, you'll have to pick up a hiking partner on the spot. Most trails are clearly marked, but a good up-to-date map is a must. For refugio reservations or information, call Andescape (011-56-61-412-592, www.chileaustral.com/andescape). A bunk will run about $17 per night, or $39 with three meals. A number of local outfitters in Puerto Natales offer treks in Paine. Try Concepto Indigo (011-56-61-410-678, www.conceptoindigo.com). And two American outfitters operate the full Paine Circuit trek: Mountain Travel­Sobek and Southwind Adventures (for contact information for these U.S. outfitters and those on the following pages, see "Trekking Yellow Pages," page 71).

Read Up: In Patagonia (Penguin USA, $14) is Bruce Chatwin's famed travelogue. Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle (Penguin Classics, $12) is a must for history buffs. For logistical advice, try Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Patagonian Andes ($18). —D.N.

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