Wednesday, September 1, 2010

On Foot in the Paine

When I first hiked the Paine Circuit in 1981, there was no guide but a sketch map provided by Chile’s Corporación Nacional Forestal, which administers Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, plus tips provided by its rangers in a language that I understood imperfectly at the time. Surprisingly, it’s taken nearly three decades for someone to publish in English (or any other language, to the best of my knowledge) a guidebook to the park and its trails. My own Moon Handbooks to Chile, Argentina and Patagonia cover the park in some detail but, because they’re comprehensive guides that cover much greater areas, there’s not room for the detail of a specialized hiking guide.



Published in the UK by the walking guide specialist Cicerone, Rudolf Abraham’s Torres del Paine is the only guidebook of which I’m aware that focuses (almost) exclusively on Chile’s most famous national park and the hikes within it. Following the introduction, it details eight walks - four treks and four day hikes - seven of them in Paine and one in Argentina’s Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, starting from El Chaltén. It also includes brief descriptions of a couple other walks and a few other excursions including the rarely visited Sierra Baguales and Argentina’s popular Moreno Glacier.

The key walk, though, is the Paine Circuit, which Abraham describes in easy to understand stages that can be combined, as desired, in various days of hiking. He also covers side hikes off the main trails, such as the one up the Valle Francés, which can be taken while undertaking the circuit or the so-called “W’ route, which is rather shorter. The guide includes full-color maps and photographs, though the maps are good enough for orientation only - though they give a sense of the topography, they lack scales and the contour lines do not even indicate the intervals between them. Nor do they include the heights of the summits.

Abraham also includes a fairly substantial entry on the town of Puerto Natales, the gateway to the park, and sketchier entries on Punta Arenas, Santiago and, oddly enough, the UNESCO World Heritage city of Valparaíso, two hours northwest of the capital. Apparently Abraham, as an avid photographer, couldn’t resist Chile’s most photogenic city, even if the single photograph of it seems out of place in the introductory section, among depictions of wildflowers and park landscapes.

Practical information, such as bus transport to the park and accommodations with it, is arranged in easy-to-read tables. There are occasional Spanish language errors and typos in the text, but the material is always serviceable.

Paine’s trekking season starts soon as, with relatively low trail elevations in Paine and Los Glaciares, the snow there melts early. At 200 pages, the book’s compact size (roughly seven by 4.5 inches), light weight and weather-resistant cover make it a suitable companion on the trail - as a complement to my own more comprehensive efforts, of course!

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