Okay, not really. I’m writing in Punta Arenas with a latitude of 53°S, the same distance from the equator as Dublin. But on our lopsided planet one can’t go a whole lot further south by land unless you’re in Antarctica (which would be awesome). And on the personal level, closing out Patagonia really does represent a conclusion of sorts: we’ve now hit all of the hard-to-reach areas we laid out as goals when we began our year of global wandering. Our travels aren’t over – we make our way to Mexico next – but they are perhaps winding down should we find an appealing entry back into the alternate reality of modern society. So yes, in some ways I write from the End of the World. For now.
Okay, enough of that! What transpired since we left Argentina and crossed back into Chile to Puerto Natales? Well the point of coming here is to visit Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the most lauded of Patagonian destinations. This chunk of concentrated scenery rises like a huge island from the surrounding steppe and lakes and was visible to us from over 100km away as we approached from flat Argentina. It might be the most distinctly demarcated park I’ve seen other than, say, the Grand Canyon.
To call Torres del Paine a popular destination is an understatement. Everyone and their mother – literally, we talked to them – comes here to hike the “W”, a 4-day trek that covers the main sights of the park: Glaciar Grey, the French Valley, and the Torres themselves. To do this one bunks overnight in a series lodges (refugios) or camps nearby; and in order to accomplish this, one needs reservations of the appropriate sequence and timing. Obtaining these is challenging not only due to popularity but also because the campsite management is split between two 3rd party companies. There is no single place physical or online where one can check availability or make bookings.
Earlier as we traversed northern Patagonia I had taken a stab at making reservations online, but things already seemed chock full. Plus the process was obnoxious and we didn’t know when we’d reach the park anyway. So we figured we’d give ourselves plenty of time in the area once we arrived – surely with some flexibility we’d be able to make things work! If we couldn’t find bunks everywhere we’d just rent some camping gear, no problem.
Well, not really. Our first 36 hours in Puerto Natales – gateway to Torres del Paine – was one cold dose of reality after another. Not only were the refugios booked solid for the rest of February, the campsites on the W were too. So much for the 9 days of flex time we had saved! Furthermore it’s a lot harder than we envisioned to do day hikes out of town: P-Nat is 2 hours away from the park by bus with the earliest not reaching the south end of the park – starting point for Glaciar Grey and the French Valley – until 11am. From there you still have to take a boat to the trailhead and each hike is at least 7 hours, so you’re really stressed for time if you want to make the last boat/bus back. There were some camping options further outside of the park but this almost seemed like the worst of both worlds, and the high cost of rental gear plus windy, wet weather were dispiriting.
Hike to Base De Las Torres
Unsure how to proceed, we decided to at least make the doable day trip to the base of the Torres and then re-evaluate. We caught a 7:45 bus to the park entrance and passed herds of guanaco (llama-things) and ñandu (ostrich-things) on the scenic ride in. At the park entrance we joined the busy line to pay the hefty $35 USD entry fee each (compare this to hiking at El Chaltén – free!), and after another short shuttle we were finally off and hiking.
The trail to Mirador Base De Las Torres starts with a rather steep uphill through scrub, then abruptly turns a corner from the sheltered leeward face to an open valley ledge where – if it’s windy – a wall of air rips west to east and nearly knocks you off your feet. It was windy.
Fortunately it’s not far before you drop down into tree cover for much of the rest of the way up. We passed a couple busy campsites and then reached the steep uphill finale where again we were exposed to very strong gusts along with occasional bursts of rain.
3.5 hours after starting we reached our destination and an incredible view. The low clouds lifted just enough for us to see the entirety of Las Torres reaching high over the aqua glacier-melt laguna at our feet. Photos truly do not do this view justice. I had seen plenty of pictures before getting here and honestly didn’t expect the granite monoliths to be that impressive compared to other sights we’ve seen. Wrong! It’s mindblowing.
While we drank in the view we were buffeted by at least 50kph gusts that shot through the boulder-walled depression in all directions and tore waves of spray off the water. Above us the overcast layer that was flying eastward at a hurricane pace of 150kph lowered just enough that the peaks of the Torres began to carve chaotic wakes in the sky. Wild! Phenomenal!
The gusty conditions continued to get more intense. As we were picking our way down the rocks we weren’t quite blown off our feet, but we definitely had to catch and brace ourselves several times, guarding our faces against flying grit and gravel. We were happy to reach the cover of trees! The weather wasn’t done with us yet, however. The rain that had largely held off became steadier and heavier for our return leg. The last couple hours of hiking became a slippery slog through heavy precipitation and we were well and truly soaked through by the time we reached the shelter of the welcome center.
As we thawed out and waited for the bus, we pondered the alternate universes in which we may have succeeded in securing a campsite and where we would now be trying to make the best of a very wet and windy situation. Oof. I doubt we would have been fully prepared for this!
So that was our first – and as it would turn out, only – visit to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. We tried to find ways to get going early enough that we could at least see the French Valley too, but anything other than the regular buses was stupidly expensive ($180 for a taxi!?). We tried to find people to share an early ride, but no luck. We decided it wasn’t worth going to excessive lengths to make something happen – we’d already seen so much! So we just did some sightseeing around Puerto Natales.
For a nice picnic we hiked up to nearby Mirador Dorotea where we got a lot of views of big Andean condors playing in the gusts.
We also went to a local showing of outdoorsy documentaries at a warehouse-turned-gallery: Chile’s top entrants for the BANFF Mountain Film Festival, and climbing-focused Reel Rock 12. It was a lot of fun watching this stuff while surrounded by some pretty serious outdoor enthusiasts!
The final stop of our tour de Patagonia was Punta Arenas, where we would catch a flight back up to Santiago. This port on the Strait of Magellan is the first actual city (barely) that we’ve stayed in since Lima!
Punta Arenas has seen a lot of ups and downs with a lot of history and industries – prisons, wool, gold, oil, fish, border spats, tourism and Antarctic exploration. Cuisine here whether it’s high end or streetside is centered on seafood; centolla – king crab – takes the premier spot. It’s really fresh and really good. Plain, in empenadas, in lasagna… yup.
A popular day trip here is to hop on a small boat and putter out into the strait to Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos on Magdalena Island to see a colony of Magellanic penguins. It was pretty fun! On the boat ride out we were escorted by Commerson’s aka panda dolphins, which are all things adorable – small (labrador-sized), black and white, and playful.
Magdalena Island is not very big, and the entire surface (except for the lighthouse) is riddled with penguin burrows. 60,000 pairs – who mate for life – bunk here. It’s the end of the breeding season and the now-juvenile young have struck off on their own, with the parents are sticking around to fatten up, molt, and regain their sanity.
On the trip back the boat swings out to nearby Marta Island which hosts 100,000 elegant imperial cormorants as well as a thousand or so somewhat less elegant sea lions.
So that’s it for Patagonia – tomorrow we fly back over all the ground we’ve covered in the past month. This region is so unique that I’ve felt compelled to write a separate summary of all that we’ve learned, so that will be upcoming! Next destination: a short stop in Valparaiso, Chile.