By Camil Frois
Photos: Tom Alves
Each seasonal shift results in a new variation on a spectacular display of colors, ranging from the infinite white expanse of valleys to red-gold forests to turquoise lakes gilded by the sun setting at ten in the evening.
The famed Torres del Paine, granite peaks that lend their name to Chile’s most important national park, muscle upward to a height of some 10,000 feet; they preside over a panoply of landscapes in a utopia that protects mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, forests of Chilean cherry, and meltwater lakes.
Entering the vibrant region of Magallanes, the site of this protected area that sits more than 1,200 miles south of Santiago, is a harbinger of the rare experience to come. The easiest way to get there is to disembark at Punta Arenas and then undertake the 155-mile journey to Puerto Natales, the last vestige of so-called civilization before reaching the Park. Much of the trip is solitary; you won’t see another soul for most of the journey. Your companions consist mostly of condors circling above the mountains or flocks of sheep.
Explorers and tourists can choose from several lodging options, ranging from elegant hotels ―one at the foot of the Torres, another plunked on an island in a lake where visitors can relax with a drink in front of a fireplace with panoramic views of nearly 600,000 acres of natural landscapes— to a network of mountain hostels and campgrounds dotted along the park trails. There are two circuits: the W (four days of hiking) and the O (a complete, 8-day tour of the park). A comforting glass of wine awaits after either option, making for a warming, relaxing way to end a day spent slogging along mountain trails 10,000 feet in the air; expeditions by boat or on horseback are also available.
The international appeal of the spell cast by the area’s natural beauty is not a new phenomenon. Considered one of the most isolated regions on the planet, Patagonia begins south of Buenos Aires and extends to Tierra del Fuego, the renowned “end of the world.” In this region, the snowy peaks of the Andes intrude on the horizon, glaciers continue to crumble, and fingers of the Pacific Ocean reach in through the fjords among forests that give visitors goose bumps. Every season has its charms, but the most inspirational time to enjoy this wonderful outdoor experience is summer, when the temperature is more pleasant and the days are longer.
In addition to welcoming enthusiastic hikers and trekkers, Torres del Paine attracts those longing to experience outdoor life in style and comfort. All the activities here focus on mountains and much-visited lakes like Sarmiento, Pehoé, Nordenskjöld, and Grey, the latter in the extreme southwest of the area. On the other side stand the imposing granite peaks that lend their name to the Park. Aside from hiking, outdoor activities include driving tours, boat trips to the foot of the Grey Glacier, horseback riding lessons, kayak excursions, and sport fishing. You might return from a short excursion to enjoy the pleasures of a table well-set with grilled and barbecued foods, washed down with the finest wines. You could also fill those free moments with a massage in the great outdoors, picking fruit from the hotel’s apple orchard, or doing absolutely nothing in front of the fireplace.
Although the Torres del Paine trail is among the easier hiking options, it still requires some effort and entails a round-trip hike of nearly eight hours. Make sure you bring sturdy boots and a walking stick, not to mention a windbreaker, a waterproof cape, sunglasses, and a willing disposition.
The day we spent visiting the crème de la crème of the Park’s attractions, Patagonian nature showed its claws, giving us a taste of the obstacles it can place in the path of hikers. The temperature hovered around 43 degrees when we left the hotel, and we were glad to see the sun warming the forests of Chilean cherry. Along the way, we were buffeted by 50-mile-per-hour winds and we faced a sudden rain squall before triumphantly reaching Torres, only to find ourselves caressed by small snowflakes.
The first stretch of road, between the Ascencio River and Mount Almirante Nieto, is flat and can be traversed on horseback. At the halfway point, we earned the right to a rest at the Refugio El Chileno hostel, where strong hot mate helped take away the chill. Hikers share the wood tables with other travelers who are likewise refreshing themselves with hot drinks and conversation. Despite the agreeable atmosphere, we were eager to reach the Torres, so we quickly hit the trail again. The second part of the journey must be made on foot, along a steeper 3-mile section on the way up. To my chagrin, I watched older European hikers steam ahead, while I tried to cover up my attempts to catch my breath by requesting the guide make photo stops. Fortunately, no one noticed the ruse, except perhaps other tourists who proffered words of encouragement: “The view is worth it. Only a little farther!”
They were right. When I finally walked up in front of those enigmatic rock formations, I understood the magic of this place. The clear sky burnished the mountains rising behind a resolutely green lake. After snapping dozens of photos, we sat on the shore of the lake to study the scene. It is as if a granite city of skyscrapers nearly 10,000 feet tall had whimsically been dropped here, standing alone and imposing, for all time. In fact, that is more or less what happened. The granite rocks arose from tectonic cracks, while weaker sedimentary rocks suffered the effects of glaciers and strong winds, creating a chain of peaks independent of the Andes. This rather curious composition makes this Chilean park one of the most famous in the world.
Among Lakes and Glaciers
The following day, some travelers opted out of the long hikes and struck out on easier trails, like the one to Salto Grande, a waterfall that crashes into Pehoé Lake. The lakes are magnificent; the wind lashes the surface, whipping up jets of water that dance in a riveting ballet. The spectacle is ideally appreciated with a tranquil picnic on the shore on one of those more relaxed days.
Another unmissable hike takes you to the Grey Glacier formations on the other side of the Park. Along the way, you might see other lakes, steppes, and Andean forests populated by guanacos, foxes, condors, and deer. Once at Grey Lake, we sail a catamaran to the Grey Glacier. This was the first time I had come so close to a glacier, and I watched as several small blocks of ice calved away. The crash is exciting and hints at how intense and wild life is in Patagonia, where resilient tourists face the challenge of the terrain.