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The land around Puerto Natales held very little interest for Spanish explorers in search of riches. A not-so-warm welcome from the indigenous peoples encouraged them to continue up the coast, leaving only a name for the channel running through it: Seno Última Esperanza (Last Hope Sound).
The town of Puerto Natales wasn't founded until 1911. A community of fading fishing and meat-packing enterprises,
with some 20,000 friendly residents, it has recently seen a large increase in tourism and is repositioning itself as a vacation town. It's now rapidly emerging as the staging center for visits to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgins, and other attractions, including the Perito Moreno Glacier across the border in Argentina. A lot of tourism is also generated by the scenic Navimag cruise that makes four-day journeys between here and Puerto Montt, to the north.
Although there are fewer hotels and restaurants to choose from than in Punta Arenas, the town has added a string of hip eateries, cafes, and boutique hotels in recent years, and is starting to challenge the more staid larger city as a hub for exploring the entire region.
Serious hikers often come to this area and use Puerto Natales as their base for hiking the classic "W" or circuit treks in Torres del Paine, which take between four days and a week to complete. Others choose to spend a couple of nights in one of the park's luxury hotels, and take in the sights during day hikes.
If you have less time, however, it's quite possible to spend just one day touring the park, as many people do, with Puerto Natales as your starting point. In that case, rather than drive you'll want to book a one-day Torres del Paine tour with one of the many tour operators in Natales. Most tours pick you up at your hotel between 8 and 9 am and follow the same route, visiting several lakes and mountain vistas, seeing Lago Grey and its glacier, and stopping for lunch in Hostería Lago Grey or one of the other hotels inside the park. These tours return around sunset.