There are few places in the world that really haunt you, stay with you long after you’ve left. The raw unforgiving land of Patagonia will forever rate as one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
The weather was kind to us, it must be said. Very kind. But even so, the fragility of the weather we experienced was clear. Gust of winds that knocked us sideways was described, by our guides, as a light breeze by Patagonian standards. Every morning, with a fine forecast for the day, we were told in no uncertain terms to bring everything, effectively packing for what felt like a polar expedition. The weather could change in an instant, they said. Weather predictions were not to be trusted… at all.
In some ways I’d love to recount a story of how the weather turned. A story about braving the elements, reflective of Patagonia’s unforgiving nature, but the weather really was very kind. Breezy (and I use that term lightly) but beautiful. Still the unusually kind weather was not without its own kind of unpredictability.
Allow me to start from the beginning.
Day 1 – Puerto Natales
After 3 days in Santiago, Holly and I were happy to be leaving the city (especially the hell hole that is Santiago airport!). We departed on the early red-eye (an aviation term for any flight departing through the night) direct to Punta Arenas, where we then caught a three-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales – the last major town before Torres del Paine.
As we turned out of the airport our first sight, a contorted tree bent over in one direction gave clue to the region’s unrelenting winds. We pressed on with eager anticipation, desperate for the landscape to unfurl its ever increasing beauty (or at lease I did – natural beauty seems to serve as a cue for Holly to have a nap). The countryside, barren and flat at first, slowly began to roll, a sallow blend of colours, not much changing as we hugged the boarder with Argentina. It wasn’t until Puerto Natales that Patagonia really began to show her face.
(You can fly direct to Puerto Natales however the flights are far less frequent being a much smaller town. As such most travellers (either due to cost or availability) enter the region via Punta Arenas. The bus connections from the airport to Puerto Natales are frequent and very comfortable. For only 8000 pesos each we managed to book with a company called Buses Fernandez who picked us up directly from the airport. There are two other major bus companies that do the same.)
As we approached the township of Puerto Natales, Patagonia opened up, striking us with views across the neighbouring fjord to distant snow-capped mountains; a sudden vibrancy from the brightly coloured corrugated-tin houses before it. We got off the bus and made our way to the recently opened Vendaval hotel we had booked. The long journey and lack of sleep had me pass out not long after we were shown to our room…
(We felt Vendeval was very reasonable considering the quality of accommodation. Our room had stunning views and the staff were very pleasant. Attached is a decent restaurant and rooftop bar. Highly recommended. For beer aficionados, located in the towns main square you can find Baguales, a craft brewery serving up some decent local brews and pub grub. Dinner wise Holly and I booked at a restaurant called Lenga where we experienced possibly the best meal of our entire holiday! The restaurant serves up modern Chilean fare from a chef who was clearly passionate about show-casing the area’s beautiful produce. Highly highly recommended.)
Day 2 – EcoCamp
The following day Holly and I were picked up by our guide Pablo. He gave us a quick briefing about the morrow’s trekking options before driving us to our EcoCamp in the heart of Torres del Paine national park. Joining us on the way we had the pleasure of meeting a spry, well-traveled American couple who, in their sixties, had just completed a two week cycling tour of the Lake District. They were quick to recount a number of stories about their travels and where they were from. It seemed talking was one of their major talents! Sweet as they were, it was all I wanted to keep my attention on the dramatic landscape outside – forever increasing in beauty, always hinting at more to come. What seemed like a tricky balance dividing attention, Holly settled by taking one of her deep scenery-induced naps…
Along the way Pablo was quick to point out the local wildlife. An abundance of graceful guanacos, grazing sheep, cows and horses dotted the hillside in random herds. Bird-spotters would be their element here. It didn’t take long to spot the wings of Chile’s iconic Andean condor soaring in the sky high above – the first of countless sightings. On far planes up-to our track we also spotted nandu (a native bird similar to an ostrich), flamingos and even the southern caracara, a local member of the falcon family, perched proudly on the roadside palisade, unbothered by our presence as the driver came to a stop nearby.
Our first sighting of Torres del Paine came about a half hour from our accommodation from a lookout point the other side of Lago Sarmiento de Gamboa. The view was nothing short of spectacular. Few clouds dotted the sky save those crowning the Torres mountain range and a beautiful lone lenticular in the foreground. As we edged ever closer the raw beauty became increasingly imposing, a suitable apogee to everything that had come before.
By the time we made camp our excitement levels were fit to burst. The green domes of EcoCamp sat beautifully in the lee of Cerro Paine mountain, the tips of the towers poking out behind, seemingly taunting us. So close, but still so far. We dropped our bags in our quaint dome prior to exploring the grounds, taking a yoga class in the yoga dome, of course, before retiring to the bar dome and an exquisite dinner. The days first trek and perhaps the most scenic part of the W trail, the dramatic French valley lie in waiting for us the following morning. I slept well that night. Very well.
(Eco camp provide insulated geodesic domes interconnected via risen walkways to protect the local fauna from erosion. Depending on your budget you can room in standard domes with shared compositing bathrooms or larger luxurious ones with private bathrooms. There is also a welcome dome, two dining room domes, a bar dome (my favourite) and even a yoga dome. The price is expensive but when you factor everything that you get I believe, not unreasonable. Included in the price are all your meals (plus wine with dinner and an aperitif beforehand). All your transfers to and from Punta arenas or Puerto Natales, and the various areas in and around the park. Excellent and knowledgeable guides for all your excursions, the entrance fees, all on site staff and of course everything else needed to make this a zero carbon outfit. It was a slick operation from start to finish. As I like to say, you’ll forgot the price tag 5 years down the line. What you won’t forget is the experience, and this was truly a 5 star experience. I can highly highly recommend booking with them.)
Day 3 – Valle Frances
Day 3 began in earnest, quickly devouring breakfast before making our box lunch and packing for the days hike. The weather forecast was decent but Pablo insisted we pack everything – including thermals, fleeces, gloves and hat. We departed at 8am in time to make the 9am ferry crossing of Lago Pehoe to Mountain Lodge Paine Grande where we were to start our 15km hike. On the way we stopped at a another lookout point of the Torres mountain range because today, “we had a good view”. They didn’t lie.
The crossing itself was gusty to say the least. The winds, uninterrupted across the lake, occasionally picking up spray from the front of the boat’s wake and pelting us violently. Perhaps sitting on the open air roof top wasn’t the wisest decision. Holly seemed less than impressed huddled between myself and another passenger, keeping her gaze inward. I, on other hand, loving every second, giggling to myself. The start of the days epic adventure.
We debarked the vessel at near 10am. The sky back across the lake showcasing a beautiful display of diaphanous lenticular clouds as far as the eye could see. It was largely overcast that morning but the clouds skirted above the mountain range giving away some breathtaking panoramas. “How often do the skies obstruct the views here?” I asked. “Often”, Pablo replied, “we are lucky today”. I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
As we climbed over the first hill, our guides stopped to explain one of the most hauntingly spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. Dead forest scattered the mountainside as far as we could see as if the apocalypse had been. In 2011 while trying to start an illegal campfire, a visitor inadvertently set ablaze some 16,000 hectares of the park. “This area was the worst affected” we were told. “We don’t get natural fires here.” The intense winds had seen the fire spread both rapidly and extensively. I could only imagine what hell it must have looked, the entire mountain side glowing, a raging inferno. The dead forest was a stark reminder of humanity’s tendency towards destruction and how fragile and unforgiving the natural world can be in response.
We pressed on hugging Cerro Paine Grande to our left with Lago Skottsberg out to the right, stopping frequently to take in views of the majestic Cuernos del Paine range ahead. The central bands of pale granite contrasted sharply with the more heavily eroded sedimentary black stratum on top. (Glacial erosion over the years has exposed the solidified magma chamber that once formed between layers of sedimentary rock. The towers themselves are examples of exposed magma with all the surrounding sedimentary rock since eroded.) Glaciers sat atop Paine Grande like melted icing, the countless cascading cataracts seemed to grow bigger as they disappeared then reappeared, eventually passing underneath us – sometimes deceptively as a trickle, other times a torrent as we crossed precariously, balancing on horizontal tree trunks or rickety hanging bridges. Eventually we made our main destination, the lookout point just past Campamento Italiano and our stop for lunch before returning to catch the 5pm ferry. Something we didn’t want to miss.
I placed my bag at Pablo’s feet. Desperate for the loo, I mentioned I was going off to find a suitable spot. “That’s fine”, Pablo said “provided you don’t come across a Puma”. I laughed nervously. “Thanks Pablo, yes that could be awkward” I said, imaging myself attempting to look as large as possible with my trousers down…
After my brisk foray into the bushes, Holly and I found a spot behind a large boulder to have lunch, a poor attempt to protect ourselves from the capricious winds, half my sandwich flying away before I could take a bite. This must be one of the most difficult places in the world to eat outside, I thought. The view of the breathtaking Frances glacier feeding the Rio Frances however, made it more than worthwhile.
On our return it was all I could do to keep myself from falling over as I repeatedly looked backward. Another extraordinary lenticular hovering like a flying saucer had formed to the south of Cuernos del Paine behind us. The sky clearing around simultaneously. Pablo took notice as I told him about my fascination with clouds as a pilot. Lenticular clouds tend to form over mountainous terrain with high winds. I don’t see them all that often, even as a pilot, but here they seemed as easy to spot as the guanacos. As beautiful as they are we tend to avoid them. You can expect some heavy turbulence flying through clouds like that, I remarked.
During one of our last stops, Pablo and our other guide, Valentina, stopped to teach us about some of the local trees and edible berries you can find all over the park. “Are any of them poisonous?” I asked. “No, but the local indigenous use to dry the roots of the Calafate plant and smoke them for stronger connections with the gods”. That evening I ordered myself a well earned local draft beer that was made using the Calafate berry. I wasn’t sure about a stronger connection with the gods, but it did serve to assuage my aching legs…
Day 4 – Baguales
Our forth day, second trekking, took us outside the national park to a private area of land to track and hopefully spot wild horses, or ‘baguales’ as they’re known locally. Our bus left a little later today, stopping at a number of lookout points on the way to spot condors and snap yet more breathtaking panoramas.
We stopped at Laguna Azul to register and swap buses into something more suitable. Our guide for the day, Harold, met us there. He then drove us to the starting point of our trek after a slow 30min drive off-road, to a beautiful valley approximately 20-25km north east of EcoCamp. We began with a briefing over coffee and biscuits (and Baileys for anyone so inclined) about the organisation and what they hope to achieve.
‘Patagonia Baguales’ was set up in 2008 in order to better understand the ecology of the Baguales and specifically their interactions with each other. One interesting study is their relationship to pumas, Harold told us, their main predator. The survival rate of foals is approximately 20 percent which helps balance the herd. He implied this was a good thing, a natural thing. “It’s survival of the fittest. The herd remains strong because only the strong survive.” The puma are both the enemy and friend.
Our goal for the day was to follow a predetermined route through the valley in the hopes of spotting and observing the Baguales. This was far from guaranteed. They are notoriously shy – easily spooked. At any rate we would have the opportunity to spot more bird life and guanacos (of course) on what would be a beautiful hike through a stunning valley. They weren’t wrong.
We each helped ourselves to hiking poles and a set of binoculars before setting off in hopeful anticipation. The ground was softer than yesterday, a welcome brake from the harder hiking trails. In fact there were no trails here, the valley being off limit to the public. Instead we waded through knee high grass – a blend of greens and yellow topped by a soft purple coating from the local hordeum that littered the plains as far as the hills surrounding the valley. All of which was swaying gently in unison, the winds forever changeable.
We trudged gently, eventually making our way through a small forest that sat between the walls of a narrowing cleft, stopping to admire a pair of Magellanic woodpeckers. “Are they monogamous?” I asked Harold. “Yes, well, that’s the theory, but in practice we haven’t found this to be the case exactly.” “Ah, just like humans then”, I remark. We all had a good laugh.
Eventually the cleft opened slightly as the slopes either side relaxed. We took a quick breather before climbing the right bank. At the top a magnificent view across the neighbouring valley took everybody by surprise. We hadn’t climbed that high but the view said otherwise. Out to the left a lake rises to the foot of gently sloping hills. The towers looming further behind, shrouded in cloud. Out to the right the sweeping valley dotted with patches of forest meeting the lake in the middle. Our path heads down that way and back up another hill to our final look out point. We had hoped to spot the herd from here but the elusive Baguales were nowhere to be seen.
We dropped down into the valley, wading through the open plane to a spot halfway across, underneath some trees, for lunch. On the way we spot the curious faces of some black-face ibis poking out above the knee-high grass, jumping locations as we edged closer. I was happy for the respite. The winds uninterrupted over the open planes were picking up fistfuls of pollen causing my hay-fever to flare. I paused to take in the surrounds. If yesterday was mighty and majestic, then today was up close and personal. A different, but no less kind of beautiful. The pain is worth it I told myself.
We pressed on climbing the hill we had seen directly opposite from the other side of the valley. The slope is steeper here, our movements more sluggish following our long lunch break. Once we reached the top the plan was to head back, tracking the other side of the valley from where we had come, doing a loop to our start point. At this point we’d all but figured the baguales were keeping to themselves today. Then, halfway up the hill, Harold stopped. He was inspecting some large mounds of horse manure. “It’s fresh”, he said. “They were here not long ago.”
Our pace quickened as we reached the summit and our final look out point. Then, from afar, Harold descried them. They looked nothing more than a group of black and brown dots huddled together, easy to miss with the naked eye. Luckily our guides knew what they were looking for. The entire herd was grazing by a creek, the other side of the valley. Harold setup a powerful monocular on a tripod for better observation, each of us taking turns to have a peek. Success, albeit far from the romantic notion I had in my head of the herd galloping, blithely and unruly, across the planes in far closer in proximity.
In the distance the entire Torres del Paine mountain range had become obscured, a lour front moving in was headed our way. We turned back on ourselves and made our way to the simple hovel from which we began. The front following us, looming like a gigantic shadow, always one step behind. We spotted several guanacos grazing, completely subsumed, unbothered by our presence as we passed by. A far less timid creature.
Two of our guides had run ahead to prepare some snacks and beer, a welcome surprise, by the time we arrived. I helped myself to a cold beer as we sat and chatted with the rest of the group, the front finally catching up with us before we left. A light spit turning to rain was developing as we tumbled into back of the van. We felt lucky that the weather had held out till now.
We were supposed to finish the day with a traditional Chilean BBQ on the shores of Laguna Azul before heading back to our camp. However, when we arrived, our guide from Ecocamp met us to explain it had been cancelled. After a very unusual five days of straight sunshine, the glaciers had started to melt must faster than usual. Unknown to us, this had caused the river levels to rise rapidly, flooding the low lying road we needed to cross in order to access our camp. All exacerbated by the front that had moved in. We had to get back and quickly, before our large van – or any vehicle for that matter – was unable to wade across.
Luckily we made it. The speed at which our driver was going, suggested genuine concern we might not have. It was just as well. The following day the national park was all but shut to the public – the only way in via boat where they ferried small groups of 4 in a trickle across the flooded road. We ended up having Torres del Paine national park to ourselves! I was happy in the knowledge that we, at least, would be able to embark on the most famous (and usually crowded) section of the W trail. The base of the parks namesake towers.
Day 5 – Torres del Paine
During the night the wind had come at us hard, our dome rustling and creaking, a constant pitter-patter as the rain unabated. It gave me a warm fuzzy feeling reminding me of my childhood when a typhoon would occasionally roll through Hong Kong. Often school would get cancelled and we’d lie in, happy in the knowledge we had the rest of the day off. I slept very well that night.
When we rose we were greeted by an eerie silence. The sky was a clear postcard blue – few clouds save some wispy remnants clinging gently to the tops of the Torres mountain range, ready to bear all she had to offer. Luck is funny thing. We were having it all.
Today Holly and I were in separate groups – Holly opting for the gentler hike (being that she was 7 weeks pregnant!). Me, I was going for broke. The base of the towers was one of the most difficult single day hikes EcoCamp run, an enervating 25 kilometers there and back. Our group left early and in good stead. The breathtaking weather spurring us on.
It became apparent not long in, that we’d have to split the group in two. A family with two young children were taking significantly longer. Pablo and Valentina stayed behind while Maya, a pleasant young lady from Seattle, led the rest of us. When I wasn’t stopping to take pictures, I kept pace with her. Today was all about the hike and we had our march on.
Our first major climb started at the base of Monte Almirante Nieto to the mouth of the Valle Ascencio (ominously nicknamed the windy valley) where our track ran the middle. We turned the corner at our first ‘peak’ before descending down Ascencio to Campo Chileno. Our efforts rewarded with staggering views down the valley, the handsome Cerrio Paine sitting proudly out to the right. We didn’t linger, conscious of the progress we still had make.
The next 8km or so followed the valley back and forth across the roaring Rio Ascencio through beautiful beech forest. Sunlight scattering the high foliage created a beautiful bright-light, poker dot pattern on the woodland floor. A cute sierra finch feasted on the trail mix we’d inadvertently dropped as we took a breather at Campo Chileno, just shy of halfway.
We pressed ever onward, stopping only to fill up our water bottles from the glacial runoff, or ‘find’ the loo. Eventually we made it to the turn off for the final climb, a gruelingly steep one and a half kilometers up an igneous boulder field where, at the top, our ultimate reward – the extraordinary and awe-inspiring towers stood in waiting. Despite having seen numerous postcard perfect photos, nothing had quite prepared me for the sight of them in the flesh. It was a moment that will stay with me forever.
As we clambered laboriously, our first glimpse, the tips of the towers poking out from behind the steep rock-strewn hill before it, kept our incentive going. Hikers nearing the top, no bigger than peas held at arms length from where we stood, were dwarfed by them. A stark perspective of their epic size. Before we knew it we found ourselves in same spot, looking down from where we had come, other hikers now seeing that same perspective with us as their reference.
We hugged the trail round the mound of rubble to our left as the path levelled out, nearing our salvation and then, we arrived… The boulders either side gave way to the three granite towers standing shoulder to shoulder, rising vertiginously from the still grey-blue lake beneath. As I tired to regain my breath, I couldn’t. Light translucent cloud skirted over their heads like smoke from the barrels of three gigantic cannons, standing tall, guarding their land. This most majestic Patagonia.
I wish my words and pictures could do them the justice they deserve, but some things can only be seen in person for one to be truly moved. The feeling reminded me of when I first traveled to South America some eleven years ago, of sunsets on the Amazon, the ancient wonder of Machu Picchu. It was those moments that set in motion my lifelong wanderlust, a fire that has only grown in intensity over the years. This was no different, another log to the flame.
We spent the next 40mins or so clambering the rocks opposite, vying for the best possible view from which to enjoy lunch before making the long trip home. The hike hadn’t felt that bad at all, I thought. Little did I know this was a battle of attrition. The return journey was where the pain really started to show.
The trip back down the precarious scree felt much harder somehow, my knees complaining as we struggled to keep balance. Mercifully we made it to the bottom without falling, taking a quick breather before following the trail back out of Valle Ascencio from where we had come. A young Swiss lady in our group and I had joked that if the towers were our motivation on the way there, an ice cold beer (or perhaps three) was it coming home.
As we trudged steadily back, a few of us began to lose our balance, stumbling over loose rock and tree roots. It was clear we needed to take it easier on the return run. We stopped to take in Cerrio Paine, now out to our left, from a clearing in the trees. Large dark strata covered her western bluff, contorting inward toward a deep fissure formed from a glacial waterfall, still roaring, cutting ever deeper toward her heart.
Despite our more laboured movements we continued to make good progress, taking another break at Campo Chileno before our last major climb. This time a caracara greeted us, sitting boldly on a nearby rock, an impressive and fearless creature. I guessed that leftover detritus from campers made this a good spot for bird watching.
Before we knew it we found ourselves descending the southern side of Monte Almirante Nieto. At the bottom it was only a flat 2 km to EcoCamp. Salvation at hand. Maya remarked it’s not over till it’s over. “The last hill, that small climb back up to EcoCamp at the very end, that’s the worst bit.” I only wish that had been the worst bit.
When we finally made it to the bottom we sat to wait for Katherine, an Australian lady, who had been labouring behind, stopping to take countless photos of the sweeping panorama ahead of us. After 20 minutes however, and still no sign, we began to worry something may have happened. We wondered if she had taken a wrong turn, however Maya assured us that all the different trails rejoin as this point of the track, so she couldn’t have. Maya decided to head back to check she was ok. Then, comically, as Maya disappeared up one trail, Katherine appeared plodding down another, a mound separating them. We all looked at each other in exhaustion. I dropped my back to the floor. “I’ll go get her” I said, then set off at a jog in the hopes I could catch her before she had climbed much further.
I tired my best to keep running as my legs complained in agony. The hill we had climbed so easily that morning, felt a very different beast now. As I turned the first corner and out of sight behind the same mound Maya disappeared, I caught sight of her. She was far further then I had imagined. I shouted her name then beckoned her back before collapsing in a heap, my legs having turned to jelly.
The last two kilometres following that felt like I was climbing another mountain. The last small hill a final taunt following the days efforts. When we finally arrived I headed straight to the bar dome and ordered what was one of the most well earned beers of my life.
Day 6-7 – Punta Arenas
That night I had got up to use the toilet, a short walk from our dome, and found myself awestruck yet again as I stared upward at the night sky. It was gin clear, a brilliant display showcasing exactly why we named our galaxy the Milky Way. There is no end to the magic here I thought, sad that we had to leave that morning.
When I woke I checked my Fitbit to see what the final count of yesterday’s effort was. Just over thirty kilometres and some forty thousand steps, nearly half of which were uphill. No wonder I couldn’t feel my legs. We gathered our belongings before jumping into our transport that took us all the way back to Punta Arenas, a five or so hour ride. Probably not what my legs needed.
The river had died down but we still had to swap into a 4×4 in order to wade across the flooded road out of the park before swapping vehicles again. On the other side a very long queue of unhappy campers were waiting for a lift across. We really were lucky.
Eventually we made it to Punta Arenas and our accommodation for the final two nights stay. That afternoon was spent wondering the strange dilapidated city of Punta Arenas – little more than a base for tourists nowadays, it was once an extremely important port due to its position on the Magellan Strait (that connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific) before the opening on the Panama Canal in 1914. We crashed early that night.
Our final day started bright and early for what was a fantastic tour to see the Magellan penguin colony. The major reason for our short stay in Punta Arenas. After that we simply wondered the streets again, visiting a few more sights, reflecting on the epic journey we had just undertaken.
(We spent our 2 nights in Punta Arenas at the cheap and cheerful Hostal Dundo Ivo. Our room was nice enough and they provided a basic breakfast each morning for free. It was a bit of a walk into the centre of town – about 15 minutes or so – but doable. What really made the accommodation was the extremely friendly owner, Juan Pedro, who simply couldn’t do enough. He tried very hard to find the time to take us around and show us the town. Unfortunately this didn’t happen but he did share his knowledge of the history of Punta Arenas and where to go/what to do. If you’re on a budget we can recommend it. Food wise we had a disappointing meal at the extremely popular La Marmita – unsure as to what all the fuss was about, however we did enjoy a surprisingly good pizza at Mesita Grande. Sotito’s restaurant is something of an institution if you fancy trying some of local seafood – the King Crab in particular being very famous here. They’re are a number of lovely cafes around including Wake Up Café de Especialidad and Café Tostado. Beer aficionados should try to book a brewery tour of Cervecería Austral, who do a number of lovely beers including one made using the local Calafate berry. Sights-wise, Museo Naval y Maritimo provides a good overview about the ports history, including a documentary about Ernest Shackleton and his crews remarkable survival story during their Trans-Antarctic exhibition of 1914-17. The public Cemetery of Punta Arenas is a beautiful spot to wander around, full of numerous intricately designed mausoleums. As for tours, we only did the one, but can highly recommend booking with Solo Expeditiones to see the stunning Magellanic penguin colony on Isla Magdalena. The crew did an outstanding job making sure everyone had a great time. I’d book well in advance.)
As I said in the beginning, Patagonia is easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Like all the remote corners of our extraordinary planet, this tip, halfway to Antarctica, always hinted at more. The treasures are truly endless. I only wish we had given ourselves more time. As we departed on our flight North I vowed to myself two things. The first was that I would return, and the second, next time, I would go all the way…