Torres del Paine National Park

The Spectacular Landscape of Torres del Paine National Park

Tom Sharpe|July 7, 2017|Blog Post

Tom Sharpe is a geologist originally from Glasgow, Scotland, who has spent the last 35 years as a geology curator in the National Museum of Wales. He is a Chartered Geologist, a Fellow of the Geological Society, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, as well as a member of a dozen other geological and polar societies. Here, Tom shares his excitement about one of his favorite places on the planet. 

 

It’s always exciting to catch that first glimpse of Torres del Paine National Park on the drive north from Punta Arenas, Chile. The mountains are so distinctive, they’re immediately identifiable rising above the low terrain around them. And, late in the day, if the weather is fine, the mountains take on a golden hue as they catch the light from the setting sun; there are few more spectacular places to watch the ever-changing light on the mountains as the sun sets.

Few places, too, tell their geological story more clearly than the bare, vertical cliffs of these mountains, with a layer of pale gray granite sandwiched between dark rocks above and below. Erosion by glaciers during the last ice age has opened up cracks and weaknesses in the rocks to cut deep, steep, narrow valleys and create the isolated mountain pinnacles for which Torres del Paine is so famous. The Torres del Paine massif is a discrete mountain block lying to the east of the main Andes chain, measuring about 11 miles east to west and six miles north to south. The highest point, Cerro Paine Grande in the western part of the massif, is about 9,500 feet high and a spectacular mountain in its own right—but you can’t help but have your eye drawn to its neighbors, Cuernos del Paine, or the Horns of Paine, and peeking out from behind, the Towers of Paine, or Torres del Paine.

The Towers, which give Torres del Paine its name, are three narrow, bare, vertical granite spires about 8,000 feet high—their exact heights aren’t known—in the eastern part of the massif, and only really visible from that side; but the Cuernos dominate the view from the south and display the geology for all to see. Like the Towers, the sheer rock faces of the Cuernos are made up of a pale gray granite; though here the granite is capped by a black sedimentary rock. The same black or dark gray sedimentary rock forms the low ground around the base of the mountains. It’s mainly shale or mudstone, a rock unit that geologists call the Cerro Toro Formation. It was deposited as slurries of mud and sand swept down into the deep water of a sea that covered this area 86 million years ago. You can see these rocks along the roadside and along the edges of the lakes at the foot of the mountains.

About 12.5 million years ago, molten rock pushed its way up a crack in the earth’s crust just to the west of Paine Grande. It never reached the surface, but instead spread out sideways to the east, prising apart layers of the black shales of the Cerro Toro Formation. As the molten rock cooled, it solidified as a sheet of granite. This happened not just once, but three times, with each successive granite sheet pushing in below the one before it. This took place over a period of just (to a geologist!) 90,000 years and at a depth of about 2.5 miles below the earth’s surface. Together, the three granite sheets are about 6,500 feet thick, and their full thickness is exposed in the cliffs of the Cuernos. So, the black rocks you see at the top of the Cuernos were once continuous with the black rocks at the base of the cliffs. Although the rocks at the top are sedimentary rocks, they are sometimes described as metamorphic because they have been affected by the heat from the cooling granite.

Since then, this part of the crust has been lifted up and erosion has worn away the many thousands of meters of rock that once lay on top of the granite to expose these rocks at the surface.

We have the ice age to thank for the wonderful rock exposures we see today, and that make this place a geologist’s dream. Ice has exploited lines of weakness such as natural cracks (joints) or faults in the rocks to cut deep U-shaped glacial valleys like the Valle del Francés which separates Paine Grande and the Cuernos, or the narrow defiles that isolate each of the Towers. Glacial erosion along two sets of faults is also responsible for the deep valleys now occupied by the azure-blue lakes in the lower ground around the mountains. It’s a truly spectacular landscape, and without doubt, one of my favorite places on the planet.

 

To see this stunning national park for yourself, join our upcoming Patagonia by Land & Sea expedition. 

Related Blog Posts

  • Isla Coiba, Panama
    Infographics

    Endemic Birds of Cuba [Infographic]

    September 20, 2017 | Infographics

    According to a story in USA Today, some 85 million Americans enjoy watching and/or photographing birds, ranking it 15th on the list of the most popular activities. A 2011 survey by the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that around 18 million people each year take trips exclusively for birdwatching, with many participating in competitions to spot as many species as possible.

    Read More

    Raja Ampat, Indonesia
    Blog Post

    25 Fascinating Facts About Coral Reefs Around the World

    September 15, 2017 | Blog Post

    If you’ve spent any time snorkeling or scuba diving in places like Australia, the Galápagos Islands, or

    Read More

    Who was Ferdinand Magellan?
    Blog Post

    Patagonia Glaciers: An Icy Wonderland at the Edge of the Americas

    September 14, 2017 | Blog Post

    Glaciers account for some of the most jaw-dropping scenery on the planet. There are glaciers on every continent on Earth; but the most impressive are usually found in polar and high alpine regions, where cooler temperatures allow them to grow to colossal sizes. The Patagonia glaciers are among the most iconic scenes of life in southern Argentina and Chile.

    Read More

  • Easter Island
    Blog Post

    Birth of Easter Island's Birdman Cult

    September 6, 2017 | Blog Post

    In 2013, new digital imaging technology allowed scientists from the University of Southampton to more closely study the Hoa Hakana­nai'a statue in London’s British Museum.

    Read More

    Local Boy, Essequibo River, Guyana
    Blog Post

    Carib Indians and Other Indigenous Communities of Guyana

    September 5, 2017 | Blog Post

    They settled in Guyana upward of 3,000 years ago, producing masterful carvings, ceramics, and reed basketwork. They were known as fierce warriors, aggressively protecting their territory in northern South America, as well as the island region that now bears their name, the Caribbean.

    Read More

    San Blas Archipelago, Panama
    Blog Post

    Snorkeling in Cuba & Panama: A Q&A with Marine Biologist, Jack Grove

    September 1, 2017 | Blog Post

    Snorkeling and scuba diving rank among the world’s most popular travel activities, particularly in tropical regions such as Central America and the Caribbean.

    Read More

  • Island Sky
    Blog Post

    The World's Best Small-Ship Cruises

    August 24, 2017 | Blog Post

    The cruise industry tends to favor a “bigger is better” approach, with behemoth 5,000 to 6,000-guest ships becoming the new norm.

    Read More

    Isla Coiba, Panama
    Blog Post

    Endemic Birds of Cuba & Panama: A Birdwatcher's Checklist

    August 21, 2017 | Blog Post

    According to a story in USA Today, some 85 million Americans enjoy watching and/or photographing birds, ranking it 15th on the list of the most popular activities.

    Read More

    Georgetown, Guyana
    Blog Post

    Guyana - From Colonial Roots to Caribbean Republic

    August 18, 2017 | Blog Post

    If the third time’s a charm, then Christopher Columbus’s third voyage to the “New World” definitely delivered one of the Caribbean’s most captivating discoveries: Guyana. Columbus spotted Guyana’s coast during his 1498 journey, although Spanish conquistador Alonso de Ojeda would be the first European to set foot in the country a year later.

    Read More

  • San Blas Archipelago, Panama
    Blog Post

    The Best Caribbean Islands for Seeking Seclusion

    August 15, 2017 | Blog Post

    Mass tourism can be a major buzzkill. Many Caribbean destinations have been tainted by overdevelopment, with major cruise lines unleashing thousands of travelers swarming their bustling colonial cities. But the best Caribbean islands offer visitors a chance to get away from the crowds and savor the peaceful tranquility of unspoiled nature.

    Read More

    Jaguar
    Blog Post

    Guyana's Jaguar, Nature Unleashed

    August 10, 2017 | Blog Post

    It has been clocked at astonishing speeds, particularly on long straightaways. A hugely successful racing model, its compact, sturdy frame is a marvel of efficiency that puts the competition to shame.

    Read More

    Antarctic Sunset
    Blog Post

    The Best Places for Stargazing Around the World

    July 25, 2017 | Blog Post

    On August 21, the moon will pass in front of the sun and the sky will turn completely dark in the middle of the day. Total solar eclipses like this occur approximately once every 18 months, but they’re usually only visible from less than half a percent of the Earth’s surface. This will be the first total solar eclipse visible in the United States since 1979.

    Read More