Having ruled-out a land journey south (it’s a long way!), we flew into Punta Arenas from Balmaceda airport, a 1 hour 20 minute flight on a ‘DAP Air’ aeroplane. I’d been here before in 1991 on work business – so long ago that I didn’t really recognise the place at all!
Punta Arenas is Chile’s 2nd most southerly city, and the world’s 3rd, after Puerto Williams was upgraded from a hamlet to a city, presumably to take back the ‘most southerly city’ the title from the city of Ushuaia in Argentina. I think the criteria for a city are less stringent there than they are here in the UK! Punta Arenas is not the prettiest of cities, but it has a pleasant feel to it and is a great base for exploring the region.
We had booked a cabaña which turned out to be in someone’s back yard (past an unfriendly dog), just a ten-minute walk from the centre of town. It wasn’t anything special – but we were only there for 2 nights.
We walked along the front – the long way into town, enjoying views of the Tierra del Fuego across the Strait of Magellan (named after the explorer Ferdinand Magellan). We found ourselves in the artisan markets buying a few little bits and bobs for the kids to give to friends and also a decent sized chunk of Congrio – a kind of eel (NOT Conger Eel, as we had first thought) very popular in Chile. We’d had it in a restaurant earlier in the trip and wanted to cook it for ourselves. It has a very tasty, quite meaty white flesh – often fried (as we had it).
There had been protests in Punta Arenas, as with other major Chilean towns and cities, and the resultant graffiti was fairly abundant (the octagonal tourist information office in Plaza de Armas got its fair share – see below). However, there were no troubles during our stay, and we didn’t feel unsafe walking the streets.
We walked up to a viewpoint over the city, known as Cerro de la Cruz. It’s quite a climb up, but you get rewarded with views over the city and of the distant scenery – probably a lot nicer on a clear day!
Purely by coincidence, there were a couple of ex-colleagues of mine, from 20 years ago, in town preparing for a scientific cruise on the British research ship ‘Discovery’ which was in port. I made contact and arranged to meet a few people from the Vessel in a bar in town. We enjoyed a few beers together and I got back to our cabaña fairly late to find that Jessica, in my absence, had claimed my bed space – leaving me the sofa bed!
There are a number of museums in Punta Arenas, and we planned to visit some of them – Museo Regional de Magallanes, Museo Naval y Maritimo and the Museo de Punta Arenas. However, every one we tried was closed – either as a consequence of the recent protests or for renovation, or possibly both. So we gave up on that idea, and having walked around a fair bit, found refuge in a cosy cafe for some warm drinks. Happy kids!
The next leg of our journey involved getting to Puerto Natales (the gateway town for the Torres del Paine National Park) which we’d decided to do by car. We thought it was going to be easy to get a hire car here, but the first two places we tried had nothing available for our dates (or even the next few weeks) and it wasn’t looking good. It was the time of year (early December) when tourism starts to pick up, and we were beginning to consider other options whilst sat waiting to be seen in a third car-hire office, when we came into a bit of luck and got a good vehicle at a reasonable price (this was after all of our online booking attempts had failed). Phew! Sometimes these things work out, but advance planning for this car hire would have saved us some stress..
The following day, we collected our vehicle and headed up the ‘Ruta del fin del mondo’ (and it feels like it) to cover the 250km stretch of road to Puerto Natales, with a brief stop at the only real town on the way, Villa Tehuelches, where the notable amenities are loos, a bar/restaurant and a playpark.
We had pretty good weather for our journey and slowed or stopped to look at the ñandu and their chicks, and to admire the distant scenery. There was so little traffic, we could just pull over anywhere.
Arriving in Puerto Natales, we found our cabaña , one of four, in someone’s back field on the outskirts of the town. It was basic, but had everything we needed for a few days, and in a nice quiet location. The owner had two young kids and ours played with them on a couple of occasions, practising their Spanish and giving us a (brief) break.
Our fist trip out to Torres Del Paine was to see the Grey Glacier. We didn’t feel the need to take the boat trip to get up close (and couldn’t attempt the 6 – 7hr circular walk with the kids). Parking by the visitor centre and restaurant, a fairly short walk took us to a large beach at the southern end of Lago Grey. Huge icebergs that had drifted south after calving from the glacier were grounded here and backed by impressive, rugged mountain views. It was extremely windy and pretty cold.
We walked along the gravel beach, where some quite large chunks of transparent ice could be found in the surf, and circumnavigated the small outcrop of land at the end of the beach which gave some incredible, elevated views over the bergs.
Not too far from Lago Grey, along the gravel road Y-150 are the impressive Salto Grande waterfalls.
With many stops for views of the Torres and other scenery along the way, we passed herds of Guanaco and a few Ostrich along this route.
For our second and last day in the Torres Del Paine National park, we decided to head to the Blue lake (Lago Azul), where there is a walking track along the northern side of the lake. It’s a bit of a drive to get there, but this comes with the advantage of fewer crowds – just one or two other vehicles were there. There are some excellent views along the way, and on our return journey we detoured to see the Cascada del Paine falls
After parking by Laguna Azul, you can take the walking track as far as you want (or as far as the kids will allow in our case) and you are rewarded with fantastic views of the Torres – as long as there aren’t hidden by cloud. We were very lucky, cloud partially obscured the Torres at the start of our walk, but they cleared as the day went on. Being a lakeside walk, it’s pretty flat, although boggy in places. We turned around after exactly 3 miles which happened to take us up to the top of a small hill for outstanding views. The path continues on past Laguna Cebolla and comes to an end after Lago Paine, but as a day walk you’d have to turn around at Laguna Cebolla (a 10 mile / 16 kilometre return distance).
Our brief visit to Torres del Paine national park over, we drove back to Punta Arenas and headed to the airport for the next leg of our journey – the Atacama Desert. As usual our travels for this post are included in the interactive map below.
Conclusion: Whilst travelling with young kids is challenging and fun, to get the most out of a trip to Torres del Paine national park, read up on and plan one or more multi-day trail walks (such as the ‘W’ and ‘O’ trails) and leave the kids behind!
There are countless blogs and other sites that provide excellent guides for these trails. Note that planning several months in advance is advised in order to guarantee refugio/camping spots.