Patagonia is the exotic, mountainous, meteorologically unpredictable but very photogenic region at the southernmost tip of South America. While this area is shared by both Chile and Argentina with beautiful locations on both sides in this guide I will be focusing on the Chilean side and more specifically Torres Del Paine National Park as that’s where I have first hand experience. Patagonia is a popular hiking and outdoorsman destination and in more recent years has started to become a photography hot spot. Because of this I find there is minimal information out there specifically related to photography so this is my attempt to impart some based on my experience.
The most common way to arrive in Patagonia is by way of flight from the capital of Chile, Santiago. You’ll be arriving at Punta Arenas one of the bigger cities in the region. From here there are buses available to Puerto Natales which is the biggest city closest to Torres Del Paine National Park. One could also rent a car from here but we decided to bus it to Puerto Natales and rent a car there. We made this our base camp with Torres Del Paine being about 1.5 to 2 hours drive so it was relatively close.
Lodging is available in Puerto Natales for very budget friendly prices. There are hostels from the $15+ a night range and AirBnbs for $20+ a night. Overall plenty of options all around. One thing to keep in mind is the layout of the park allows for many car accessible locations but some of the best and closest views are only accessible via hiking trail from campgrounds. I will go more into details in the next section but camping at least for some of the days you will be in the area is recommended if not only to avoid making the drive at early hours of the morning. Another alternative is to rent a campervan from a company like “Wicked Campers” which operates in the region. There are hotels inside the park too but they’re more of luxury level accommodations from $200+ per night.
Although I wouldn’t stay at these hotels they have restaurants open to non guests and we scored a delicious breakfast buffet at Lago Grey for a surprising $15. Some of the campgrounds have cafeterias and snack shops too. Food is cheap in Puerto Natales with plenty of restaurants, bars, and supermarkets.
The entrance fee to Torres Del Paine is about $30 for noncitizens and $9 for citizens. This gets you three days during which you can enter and leave the park so it might make sense to camp out on the last day in order to extend your access.
Locations in Torres Del Paine are at the same time plentiful and limited. The park essentially surrounds a section of the mountain range featuring such iconic peaks as Paine Grande, Los Cuernos, and Los Torres. This means your best compositions will involve a foreground element with a view of some angle of the mountains. Fortunately there are views aplenty. Forests of uniquely shaped dead trees dot the landscape making for interesting compositional elements. As mentioned above there are several roads crossing the park but they will generally give you north facing shots of the mountains as light hits them at different times of the day. To really get close and have a wider selection of angles one has to hike the park.
There are two main trails, the W and the O. The W covers the trails to the south of the mountains in a “W” shape. The O trail includes that but is more of a circuit of the entire range including the front and back. My experience limits me to the road accessible trails and viewpoints so that’s what I will be covering here. Los Cuernos is the most prominent landmark in Torres Del Paine and can be described as two very uniquely shaped peaks that look like horns hence its name.
Two of the closest and most photogenic angles I found were the Sendero Mirador Cuernos and the view from Hotel Explora. To arrive at the Sendero Mirador Cuernos you park in the parking lot just off the main road and hike the trail which takes about 1 hour and 45 minutes. On the way there is a large waterfall which makes a great subject for long exposures. Lighting is best during late sunset and there is a platform from where you can shoot as well as a small trail that can take you a little closer to the waterfall. Continuing on at the end of the trail you will reach a lake with the perfect and quite close view of Los Cuernos. There are usually dead branches around which can be used as foreground elements and although it can be windy a long exposure will smooth out the water nicely.
The second best view of the mountain range is from Hotel Explora which lies at the south end of the park. It’s a little far from Los Cuernos but offers a great wide vantage point. There is a wooden pathway from which you can get an elevated view of the area including a large section of the mountain range or alternatively you can go down the edge of one of two lakes near the parking lot. The lakes make perfect reflections of the mountains sometimes almost without the need for an ND filter. I shot this location for sunset, astrophotography and sunrise and was rewarded with great shots every time.
Mirador Base Torres
By far the most popular shot in the Park is from the Mirador Base Torres Trail. This is the image which most often pops up when you google Torres Del Paine National Park. This composition showcases a beautiful blue lake with a close up perfect view of the Torres. The reason of course I’m not showing you an image of my own is due to certain logistical issues reaching this location. The trail to Mirador Base Torres opens at 8am and closes at 6pm. This means there’s no way to arrive for sunrise as it is a 3-4 hour hike unless you’re camping at the beginning of the trail. The reason I wasn’t able to visit the location for sunset either is because they deny entrance to the base camp after 1pm I suspect to avoid having hikers making the return trip in the dark. All this can be avoided if you’re camping in the park which is why I strongly suggest it if you have the appropriate camping gear.
Cascada Rio Paine
There are a couple notable waterfalls in the park the most popular of which is the Cascada Rio Paine. This is a large impressive waterfall but due to its width and angle at which you can shoot it is difficult to get a good shot of. There’s no access to the base of it although one can reach the waters edge at the top of the waterfall. This, however, doesn’t make for a good composition and I would suggest an alternative. On the way to Cascada Rio Paine there’s a small trail off the main road. Follow this and you’ll reach a river and a decently sized waterfall which you can walk down to the shore for a shot if you desire. There’s a few compositions that can be shot though I was there around noon so the lighting wasn’t the best and I ended up just shooting video.
One honorable mention is Laguna Amarga. This spot is technically outside of the park so if you were planning on doing any droning this would be a great place to do it legally. There’s a small lake here with a great although somewhat distant view of the mountain range. It was too windy for any good shots when I was here but I was able to get a couple decent time lapses. Local wildlife tends to congregate here too so there’s a good opportunity to shoot the Guanacos and I actually saw some flamingos in the water as well.
Lago Grey is off to the west of the park and is named after the glacier it’s next to called Glacier Grey. A 45 minute walk from the parking lot gets you to the shore of the lake where you can see large icebergs floating in the water and small chunks occasionally breaking off and washing up making for interesting foreground elements. There’s a small trail that leads to a viewpoint from which you can see the lake, the distant glacier, and some of the mountain range. This makes for a great time lapse location if you’re lucky enough to have clouds available. To reach the actual glacier one can take a ferry for about $120 or 3-4 hour hiking trail along the shore of the lake which is probably the best option since you’ll have the opportunity to look for interesting foreground elements from the ground.
Hopefully this guide has inspired you to visit the distant exotic wintry landscapes of Patagonia. There are even more views and compositions to be shot on the Argentinian side of the mountain range, some other interesting hikes in the area such as Cerro Castillo, and also a visit to the end of the world Tierra del Fuego where you can visit a King Penguin sanctuary for wildlife shots. You can find my travel video, vlog, and travel tips video linked below.