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In Patagonia: Chile's awe-inspiring Torres del Paine National Park
Widely heralded as South America's most beautiful national park, Torres del Paine in Southern Chile offers outdoor-lovers everything they could want: rugged landscapes, snow-capped peaks, massive glaciers, and abundant wildlife.
Named for the towering granite columns (torres) that dominate the park's gorgeous skyline, the park also contains dozens of crystal-blue lakes, including Lago Pehoe, Lago Nordenskjold, and Lago Grey, the latter of which contains scores of breathtaking blue glaciers. (see the accompanying slideshow, complete with hilarious captions).
Located at the southern tip of South America-- the region popularly known as Patagonia-- Torres del Paine is not just one of the southernmost parks in the world, it is also one of the windiest, with steady winds averaging 50 to 75 miles per hour. In fact, this park probably wins the award for worst place in the world to have a comb-over.
You want animals? The park can do that too. How about flamingos, condors, llama-like guanacos, ostrich-like ñandúes, and, oh yeah, pumas. At the Seno Otway Penguin Colony just a few hours away, animal lovers will be able to get up close and personal with scores of penguins making their way from the Pacific beach to their nearby nests. So, so much better than the zoo.
If you decide to go, here's a little practical info that might help:
Where to stay:
On a recent trip, some friends and I stayed at Hosteria Las Torres, which was clean and in a great location, but was also wildly overpriced, with double rooms fetching more than $350 a night. Ouch. For cheaper options, try Hosteria Tyndall or the Mountain Lodge Paine Grande. If you're really on a budget or love the outdoors, you can't go wrong camping at one of the refugios for a meager $6. Tents and sleeping bags are available to rent for modest fees.
When to come:
The summer months from January to April are, by far, the best times to visit Patagonia, but even then the weather can be unpredictable. Think long and hard before trying to visit in the winter, as many roads will be unpassable. The nearby town of Punta Arenas has the closest decent-sized airport, and there are regular flights to and from Santiago for a few hundred dollars. Go already!