To the End of the Americas: Torres del Paine

by Richard Sheehan | August 1, 2004

© Richard SheehanAfter an eight-hour flight from Atlanta to Santiago, I have a two-hour layover in the Santiago airport before a four-hour flight south to Punta Arenas, Chile. That trip is followed by an almost six-hour drive north over a relatively flat and barren plain before finally reaching Chile’s most famous national park, Torres del Paine (pronounced Pine-ee).

At Torres del Paine, you can face some of the worst and certainly most variable weather in the world, making photography potentially unpleasant if not impossible – unless you like photographing in 50+ mph wind and horizontal rain. You have an extremely limited variety of wildlife, basically guanacos and Patagonia grey fox. Avian photographic opportunities are close to nonexistent, even if you bring a 600mm lens. Most birds there are almost as shy as the late Howard Hughes. And you are virtually guaranteed to have grey, overcast skies every day.

So I have but one question. “How soon can I return?”

Torres del Paine is included on UNESCO’s Biospheric Reserve List, National Geographic’s 50 Places of a Lifetime, and is second on National Geographic Traveler’s Destination Scorecard. The Torres del Paine themselves, the granite towers for which the park is named, and the Cuernos del Paine, or Horns of Paine, are world icons. If you’ve seen the clothing brand Patagonia, you have seen a representation of the Torres. It is the brand logo for all Patagonia apparel.

My “excuse” to visit Torres del Paine involved none of the above, however. My younger daughter currently lives in Chile and this trip was the opportunity to visit her. My other daughter joined us and we spent a week hiking in the park. The trip was primarily to hike and visit with my daughters; photography was secondary—although I suspect that my daughters might debate that point.

Hike © Richard Sheehan

My aging back is not up to the rigors of sleeping on the ground in the “refugios” on the trails. There are, however, a handful of hotels in the park, and the Explora, where we stayed, offers excellent accommodations and a simply incredible view. You can take spectacular sunrise shots of the Cuernos right from your room, literally without getting out of bed if you have set up the tripod the night before. That was my daughters’ suggestion; they were much less enthusiastic than I about getting up before 6 a.m. (National Geographic’s January 2004 issue has a three page shot taken about 50 yards from the hotel—which I didn’t know until I got back!)

The general lack of tourist facilities implies relatively few visitors. In the Chilean summer season you will, however, find company on some of the trails. On others you can walk all day and see no one. The average age of the hikers is probably under 30, and most of them were camping so their schedule was a bit different than ours.

The hiking ranges from easy to “interesting.” The longest day was over 20k, with over 100k for the week. The biggest difficulty may be simply watching your footing. The scenery is simply spectacular. That makes it all too easy to forget to look down and watch the roots and rocks on the trails.

The only hike that I would label difficult was that to the base of the Torres. The last hour to the Torres is spent scaling a steep moraine field. Add a camera around your neck and a tripod that you are carrying in your hand because you only have a light backpack, and it becomes a bit of a challenge. Balancing on the way down actually was more difficult than going up. Luckily, no points are deducted for style, since for much of the descent over the moraine I probably looked a bit like I was doing a crab walk. Nevertheless, the view was well worth the trek.

We hiked to the Torres on the day when it looked like the weather would be the best, and we were lucky that it was perfect. The spires of the Torres were clear against a deep blue sky with a grey/green glacial lagoon at the base. I contemplated returning on an overcast day with the hope for dramatic skies and the Torres peaking from the clouds. That will have to wait until the next visit.

The variety of wildlife really is quite limited. Nevertheless, what is present is ridiculously cooperative. Much like the Galapagos, humans simply are not viewed as predators for guanacos and fox, although pumas are heavily hunted outside the park. Pumas are present in the park, and I missed a mother and three cubs by a day. Again, that is just a reason to return.

While I spent only one morning with guanacos and grey fox, getting good shots of both, including close-ups and environmental shots, is incredibly easy. The only problem is getting them to occasionally look your way. After five minutes with a guanaco herd, you become part of the scenery. They will nurse or lie down and sleep within ten feet. The fox were equally relaxed. While lying on the ground to take a fox photo, one went totally asleep, eyes closed and tail over its face. Another walked over to investigate what I was doing. A cautionary note: if in an attempt to “get low” you sit or kneel or lie down, be careful to avoid the “mother-in-law” plant. It may not be a cactus, but it has the same effect! The guides pointed out some big plants but sitting on a tiny one can still cause a large pain.

Back to the weather. You can pretty much guarantee that the weather will be absolutely miserable at times. At one point I was trying, relatively unsuccessfully, to photograph clouds and rain moving in before a storm. The wind had me standing at a 45-degree angle trying to lean and shoot into the wind. A tripod is pretty useless under those conditions! Nevertheless, the one constant is that the weather is always changing. Grey sky at times is a given, but clear sky or dramatic sky may occur “out of the blue.” Perhaps the best light occurred just after sunrise on what appeared to be a bleak, overcast, grey day. For just a few moments, the rising sun peeked through below the clouds causing the top of “the Big Paine” to glow. It took a frantic 50 meter sprint to a spot where I had shot sunrise the prior day to catch the glow. Ten seconds after I took the shot, it was gone.

Cuernos © Richard Sheehan

The Cuernos

I asked our driver to the Torres if there was any standard weather pattern. He suggested it was most common to see clouds early and late but clearing midday. Not exactly the best situation for photography. My experience was exactly the opposite. Most mornings dawned relatively clear, and clouds were likely to develop during day, with luck dissipating by evening. Since from the most common angles the Cuernos receive morning light, that pattern works well. The Torres themselves would be a great sunrise shoot, but unless you are planning on camping it would also be a tough four-hour hike in the dark including the abominable moraine field. Even if you were camping, you would still face the moraine field before sunrise. (Did I mention that I didn’t like the moraine field?)

My wife says I must return and take her. Well, actually she said that she wanted to go, but I think I’m invited as well. The only question now is whether to return during the Chilean summer or to try a trip during their winter and have somewhat different photo opportunities. (And a puma would be more likely in the winter!)

The suggestions of a “fauna” guy if you go? Pack as lightly as possible when hiking, but make sure you have apparel for all seasons because you can easily get all four in a single day. No hike in the park is flat, and two cameras plus four lenses plus tripod plus … does increase the degree of difficulty—with no points added for degree of difficulty. We did only day-hikes and were lucky to have a guide who packed lunch. (Salmon sandwiches are something to which I could easily become addicted!) Wide-angle is a must. With my widest lens a 28mm on a 1Ds, I have done more stitching than I expected. Accept that you will also do composite images as well. There are many times when the dynamic range will exceed five stops. A tilt-shift lens is a great addition to your bag, preferably 24mm but I had only a 90mm and used that with stitching, both horizontal and vertical.

If you go, may the light be with you.

About the Author

Richard Sheehan has been interested in photography for over thirty years and has been a serious digital shooter for the past five years.

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