Torres del Paine National Park
Photo Credit: Flickr user Mirko Thiessen
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Lady Florence Dixie, in her book published in 1880, gives one of the first descriptions of the area and refers to the three towers as Cleopatra's Needles. She and her party were the first tourists to visit what is now called Torres del Paine National Park.
Several European scientists and explorers visited the area in the following decades, including Otto Nordenski√∂ld, Carl Skottsberg and Alberto Mar√≠a de Agostini.
Gunther Pl√ľschow was the first person to fly over the Paine massif.
The park was established in 1959 as Parque Nacional de Turismo Lago Grey (Grey Lake National Tourism Park) and it was given its present name in 1970. In 1977, Guido Monzino donated 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) to the Chilean Government, and its definitive limits were established. The park was designated a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978.
In 1985 a Japanese tourist started a fire that burned about 150 km¬≤ of the park. The blaze affected the areas east and south around Lake Peho√©.
In February 2005, an accidental fire started by Czech backpacker Jiri Smitak, which lasted for about ten days, destroyed 155 km¬≤ of the park, including about 2 km¬≤ of native forest. The fire consumed an area located on the east side of the park and away from the most popular attractions. The Czech government issued a letter of apology and donated 1 million US dollars to reforestation efforts.
In late December 2011, another fire burned (as of 1 January 2012) 128 km¬≤ of the reserve, destroying about 36 km¬≤ of native forest and affecting most of the areas around Lake Peho√© and the western areas around Lake Sarmiento, but moving away from the Cordillera del Paine, the park's centerpiece. An Israeli camper was detained on suspicion of causing the fire. He and his family claimed his innocence and there was no evidence directly linking him to the fire. Despite the camper being found innocent, the Israeli government sent reforestation experts to the zone and has committed to donate trees to replant the affected areas.
The landscape of the park is dominated by the Paine massif, which is an eastern spur of the Andes located on the east side of the Grey Glacier, rising dramatically above the Patagonian steppe. Small valleys separate the spectacular granite spires and mountains of the massif. These are: Valle del Franc√©s (French Valley), Valle Bader, Valle Ascencio, and Valle del Silencio (Silence Valley).
The head of French Valley is a cirque formed by impressive cliffs. To west rise abruptly the colossal walls of Cerro Cota 2000 and Cerro Catedral. Cerro Cota 2000 is named for its elevation; its highest contour line is about 2,000 m (6,562 ft). Cerro Catedral is named so because its east face resembles a cathedral's facade. To the north stands the granite ar√™te called Aleta de Tibur√≥n (English: Shark's Fin). To the east, from north to south, lie the peaks Fortaleza (Fortress), La Espada (The Sword), La Hoja (The Blade), La M√°scara (The Mummer), Cuerno Norte (North Horn), and Cuerno Principal (Main Horn).
Silence Valley is where standing face to face the gigantic granite walls of Cerro Fortaleza and Cerro Escudo (Shield Mountain) with the western faces of the Torres del Paine. Ascencio Valley is the normal route to reach the Torres del Paine lookout, which is located at the bank of a milky green tarn. The highest mountain of the group is Paine Grande, although its elevation has not been determined with precision yet.
The Southern Patagonian Ice Field mantles a great portion of the park. Glaciers include the Dickson, the Grey, and the Tyndall.
Among the lakes are the Dickson Lake, Nordenskj√∂ld Lake, Pehoe Lake, Grey Lake, Sarmiento Lake, and Del Toro Lake. Only a portion of the latter is within the borders of the park. All are vividly colored, most due to rock flour suspended in their waters. The main river flowing through the park is Paine River. Most of the rivers and lakes of the park drain into √öltima Esperanza Sound via Serrano River.
Much of the geology of the Paine Massif area consists of Cretaceous sedimentary rocks that have been intruded by a Miocene-aged laccolith. Orogenic and erosional processes have shaped the present-day topography, glacial erosion being the main one responsible for the sculpturing of the massif in the last tens of thousands of years. A good example of the latter are the Cuernos del Paine, whose central bands of exposed granite strongly contrast with the dark aspect of their tops, which are remnants of a heavily eroded sedimentary stratum. In the case of Las Torres, what once was their overlying sedimentary rock layer has been completely eroded away, leaving behind the more resistant granite.
Torres del Paine National Park is adorned with beautiful vegetation. Among them are the evergreen Embothrium coccineum, which produces vivid red flowers grouped in corymbs, and Calceolaria uniflora, of striking shape and colors. The park has 7 documented species of Orchidaceae, including Chloraea magellanica.
In the park 85 non-native plant species have been recorded, of which 75 are of European origin and 31 are considered to be invasive.
The park contains four vegetation zones: Patagonian steppe, Pre-Andean shrubland, Magellanic subpolar forests and Andean Desert. The vegetation of the Patagonian steppe is dominated by Fescue species (mainly Festuca gracillima), which are resistant to harsh winds and weather conditions that are typical of the Patagonian region. Some of the dominant plant species of the Pre-Andean shrubland are Mulinum spinosum (a cushion plant) and Escallonia rubra, which are frequently associated with other species, including Anathrophyllun desideratum and Berberis buxifolia. The Magellanic deciduous forest is home to various species of trees such as the Nothofagus pumilio and Nothofagus antarctica. Above tree line in the Andean Desert, Escallonia rubra, Empetrum rubrum and Senecio skottsbergii take the place of Nothofagus pumilio trees.
Guanacos are one of the most common mammals found in the park. Other mammals include foxes and pumas. It is also home to the endangered Chilean Huemul.
The park contains breeding populations of 15 bird of prey species. and two others are likely reproducing here. Among them are Andean Condor, Black-chested Buzzard-eagle, Rufous-tailed Hawk, Cinereous Harrier, Chimango Caracara, Magellanic Horned Owl, Austral Pygmy-owl, to name but a few. Other birds occurring in the park include the Chilean Flamingo, Darwin's Rhea, Coscoroba Swan, Black-necked Swan, Magellanic Woodpecker, Magellan Goose and Black-faced Ibis.
The national park is a popular hiking destination in Chile. There are clearly marked paths and many refugios which provide shelter and basic services. Views are breathtaking. Hikers can opt for a day trip to see the towers, walk the popular "W" route in about five days, or trek the full circle in 8‚Äď9 days. Hikers are not allowed to stray from the paths in the national park. Camping is only allowed at specified campsites and wood fires are prohibited throughout the park.
Visiting the park is recommended between late December and late February, during the southern summer. Not only is the weather more hospitable, but daylight hours are very long given the extreme southern latitude. Outside of this time frame, the weather becomes too extreme for the majority of the public, and daylight dwindles to only a few hours a day.
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