I have to start by shaming myself over the fact that I didn’t do any hiking in Torres del Paine. Not the famous W or even the super easy hike to the base of the Torres. Shame on me! I made the mistake of not taking my own hiking gear and I was travelling with someone who wasn’t that keen on hiking. Next time I’ll do the W 3 times as punishment.
It would be foolish to try and say that either Torres del Paine or El Chalten has better scenery than the other. Both have a few unique features that distinguish them from each other, but both offer very much the same. I won’t string together a bunch of excessive adjectives to try and describe its beauty, just know that it’s damn beautiful.
This is where El Chalten takes the prize. Having a car is almost compulsory if you want to photograph TDP. Everything is simply too far apart to get around on your legs. It’s not impossible if you’re a fit walker, but you’ll end up spending half of your time walking around the park road. If you intend to be hiking most of the time then it isn’t much of a problem and there are also certain ways you can plan your trip to get around it if you’re not hiking. Either way you will spend a lot of time walking. At El Chalten you are never more than 500m from a grocery store or the starting points of the trails to Camp Poincenot and De Agostini. This makes it very easy to get by without a car. The other big problem is that the closest fuel station is in Puerto Natales, which is 120km away. Our car had a very small tank and we had to refill numerous times. The first time we needed fuel I drove to PN, the second time we wangled our way into buying fuel from the Explora hotel. The third time the groundskeeper from our hotel brought us from fuel from PN. $300 and a mechanic later we had learned that in Chile the word petrol/petrolio is the word they use for diesel. So if you’re going to TDP and you have your own car, make sure to take extra fuel with you. And if your car takes petrol/gasoline, in gods name don’t ask for petrol!
Prior to the trip I had been doing a lot of research on the location’s weather and I was expecting a lot of wind, snow and rain. It was however my first trip to such a climate so I had no idea exactly what to expect. As we entered TDP for the first time, the mountains were covered in snow top to bottom (almost bottom) with a slight cap of low clouds. The upper skies were filled with the most amazing lenticular clouds I’ve ever witnessed. I didn’t think much of it because Patagonia is notorious for its wind and lenticular clouds so apart from a few comp-scouting snaps I didn’t really shoot much that day. It was a pricey mistake as it never really snowed again and I never saw proper lenticular clouds again. Sadly you need to know what’s normal to appreciate what’s special. Contrary to all the warnings it wasn’t as windy or cold as I expected it to be. I spent two afternoons shooting in shorts and a t-shirt, but I also spent many mornings wearing 3 layers. There were more calm days of reflections in the lakes than there were windy days, but when the wind decides to blow it blows properly. Walking up a hill with the Magellan winds behind you is very pleasant. You just lift your feet and the wind does the rest! And don’t think for a second that you’re going to shoot near the water when that wind is blowing. My photo to lens wipe ratio on windy days was about 3:1 if I had to take a wild guess!
Accommodation in TDP is a complicated issue. Its one of the most beautiful places on earth and regardless of how much the hotels charge or how horrible their service is, they’ll still run at very high occupancy in peak times. So that’s exactly what they do. If I’m not mistaken there are 5/6 hotels in the park, but only two are situated on Lago Pehoe and facing the iconic mountains. So that’s ideally where you want to stay. I actually can’t check the prices on Tripadvisor because both are already fully booked for next year April. The one is in the $1000 per night region, which is unaffordable to Mortals. The other one is about $100 a night and a total rip-off for what you get. I’m not going to name and shame the hotel for the sake of diplomacy, but anyone who’s been there will know which hotel I’m talking about. What I know for sure is that I won’t stay there again. From a bit of snooping on Tripadvisor it seems as if Hotel Las Torres offers much better value.
What is there to shoot?
I’m happy to share some information, but my knowledge on the park is part of the return on my investment and I can’t give it all away for free. If you support my business in some way, then I’ll be happy to give you more information on a personal basis. There are a great variety of foregrounds spread throughout the park and they all have the mountains as a backdrop. It is sadly surprising how quickly the mountains lose their iconic profile when you’re not viewing it directly from the South. Iconic profile or not, those mountains are still an amazing backdrop to any photo.
- Salto Grande Falls – Its not the actual falls that everyone shoots, but the rapids above the falls. There’s the classic shot that everyone has, but you can get some variation by getting much closer to the rapids. There are also brilliant opportunities in the bays above the falls.
- Lago Pehoe – There are many great spots along the lakeshore and the various islands in it, but I can’t give all my knowledge away…go explore!
- Lago Nordenskjold Mirador – As you drive between Lago Pehoe and the park gate, you pass a mirador (viewpoint) with a parking lot on the mountain’s side. The view from there is very photogenic and you can go down to the lake below you, which has some nice Beech trees along the shore.
- Laguna Amarga – This lake just outside the park gate is a saline lake and has some pretty decent salt formations along it’s shore. The Torres del Paine are clearly visible in the background, albeit quite small.
- Cascada Paine – If you drive out of the gate and take a left at the farm buildings and then keep going about 5 minutes you’ll get to a deep gorge with the Torres del Paine in the background. There are Beech trees along the gorge slopes that make for good foregrounds. This is also a great place for long shots of the Torres.
- Lago Grey – If you drive to Lago Grey you’ll see there are small trails on your right just before you reach the parking lot. Walk through the forest and you’ll find a beautiful S-curve in the Rio Pingo with the mountains in the background and Beech trees along the river.
These are just the ones I shot, but there’s plenty I never got to. There’s the lake below the Torres, Glacier grey, forests and much much more. I made the mistake of only taking the drive around the Lago Grey on the 2nd last day. it has some brilliant panoramic scenery, open grassland and forests.
Apparently you’re very lucky if you see a Puma, so I guess I was lucky!
I was shooting at Salto Grande the one morning and none of the daily tour groups had arrived yet and there was no one else around. I had my 14-24mm on and I was at the top of the rapids when I caught something in the corner of my eye. I turned to look and saw a Puma drinking from the river halfway down the little gorge through which the much-photographed rapids flow. I put my 70-200mm on as calmly as I could (not calm at all) and by the time the lens was on he was halfway up the gorge wall, I aimed and pressed and realized I was shooting in manual on ISO100, f/14 and bracketing was on. By the time I had the settings right he was over the edge. I chased after him and just got a shot of his bum and tail. While frantically showing Martin the shot I accidentally deleted the only evidence of my sighting (thank you Nikon for putting the delete and replay buttons next to each other!). The next morning there was a dead Guanaco about 300m from the Salto Grande turn-off. My knowledge on animals is abysmal, but the one guide confirmed it to be a Puma kill. If I had been in place for the classic Salto Grande shot with a cougar drinking from the river…BBC award here I come!
What will I do differently if I go again? For starters I’ll definitely take my hiking gear with me and do the W and spend two nights at the camp below the Torres. I swear to all 7000 gods that I won’t stay at that cursed hotel again. The view simply isn’t worth the price; I’ll rather try the places at Lago Grey or Las Torres. I’ll have my Spanish-English app handy and most of all I’ll make sure I have a 2nd body next time so I can get that BBC winner!
Part 3 on El Chalten coming next Sunday.