Landing in Punta Arenas, Chile, after 24 hours of travel means facing the feeling of having arrived at the end of the world. But like every end, it is also the opportunity for a beginning.
So I am excited about the four days of outdoor emotions to come around such an icon of nature as the Torres del Paine National Park, aptly named a few years ago as the eighth natural wonder of the world.
PHOTOS: Claudio Magallanes
We are in the region of Magallanes, the twelfth region of Chile, and the only one east of the Andes.
Terra Australis Incognita. The end – of the beginning – of the world. The landscape on the way to Puerto Natales is arid, barren, and even arid. Five hours and 250 kilometers of road through an immense, sparsely populated steppe, barely dotted with ranches separated from each other by vast cattle ranches.
In the picturesque town of Puerto Natales, we are welcomed by our Local Destination Expert Gonzalo Fuenzalida. “The biggest attraction of the area is the famous W trail in Torres del Paine, although wildlife watching and horseback riding activities are gaining ground.” And although the high season is from October to April, he tells us that they can work all year round.
Terra Australis Incógnita
The landscape is rugged, still, solitary. There is a stark contrast between the ochre tones of the earth, the forests of “ñirres” and “lengas,” and the pristine snow-capped mountains and hanging glaciers that dot the horizon.
We see animals of all kinds from the van that our guide Armando takes care to name: bandurrias, caiquenes, and caranchos fly. Small cactus called “cojín de la suegra” (mother-in-law’s cushion) and other thorny bushes called calafates to grow on the waste ground. Among them lurk wild guanacos, of which 40% of the young specimens die each year, devoured by pumas. The pink bodies of two Chilean flamingos are reflected in a nearby pond. We see some baguales (wild horses) galloping around and friendly ñandús, similar in appearance to ostriches but smaller in size. Horses, cows, and sheep graze in immense estates cartesian cut by fences and trim, and large ranches follow one another every so often. An immeasurable nature stopped in time.
As we head north, we make out part of the attractive and untamed Southern Ice Field in the distance. A little more, and the dazzling Paine Massif comes into view. A pair of giant condors fly overhead.
“We try to provide as pure an experience as possible, and always working with local people, such as gauchos,” Gonzalo tells me. We are at Tercera Barranca, a ranch with privileged views of the Torres del Paine. Some workers are cutting down some trees. But, Patricio, an attentive and cordial worker of the hacienda, tells me, “the needs of tourism are not the same as those of the work of yesteryear. Before we tried to protect ourselves from nature, now it is time to open up to it.”
We moved to the “El Gringo” post. The posts are places away from the ranches equipped with beds and a kitchen where the gauchos could go and stay in case they had to guard cattle in other areas. In addition, they were a perfect option for gauchos with economic difficulties since they spent a long time isolated, but with a roof and food. But, unfortunately, this is not the case with Moncho, the baqueano whose exotic features are responsible for the name of the post and from whom – like a good gaucho – it is hard to get even monosyllables out of him.
We dress for the occasion with leggings, gloves, and helmets, and according to the level of previous experience, we are given the horses of the Chilean Creole breed. Although it is highly recommended to use sunscreen and sunglasses (this area of the planet is more exposed to radiation due to the ozone hole), the gauchos do not use either.
Excited, we started the ride enjoying from the first moment the hypnotic landscape of the Paine Massif, with the Almirante Nieto Mount, the three Towers, and the famous Condor’s Nest. We get used to the different rhythms: at a walk, at a trot, and even at a gallop. It is not as easy as it may seem, and the riders who have previous experience are noticeable. My horse “Chingao” is rebellious, and despite my efforts, I don’t get the feeling that I am the one holding the reins… Along the way, we are surprised by the amount of wildlife that accompanies us and that we can see at a glance: rheas, guanacos, armadillos, and condors.
“During the ride, we enjoyed the hypnotic landscape of the Paine Massif: Mount Admiral Nieto, the three Towers, and the Condor’s Nest.”
In the Park, there are about 25 pumas counted, and as in other areas, there are also problems with poachers (usually the gauchos themselves, who even smoke them to eat them after hunting). But, precisely, the hunger is getting tight after three hours on horseback. Finally, we stop in front of the Blue Lagoon, which offers another chromatic contrast to the color palette of the landscape. The first European to contemplate the same scene was the Scottish Lady Florence Dixie, traveler, war correspondent, writer, and feminist, who arrived from Punta Arenas after a three-month expedition on horseback. When she came to this same place, the sight reminded her of a building in London, “Cleopatra’s Needles,” so she baptized them.
It is noticeable that we have acquired a little more expertise on the horses on the way back. We trot and ride more and better. We galloped at full speed in the last sections, trying to be the first to arrive. All in all, it was six hours of riding for a total of 18 kilometers. For a novice, the experience is intense and painful! The next day stiffness will run through practically every muscle in the body, from the neck to the feet. Moncho and his partner heat some water for a mate back at the post. “In 20 years, there won’t be any gauchos left, the young people want to live in the city, and it doesn’t pay well. They don’t usually retire, and they work until they die.”
Bright ochre and pink snow. A dog wakes up and barks at a skunk passing casually along the road. The light of dawn falls on a map of the area that reflects the enormous possibilities for exploration in the area. Today is the Park’s most famous trek to the Mirador de las Torres. On the way, the calm waters of Swan Lake reflect the colossal walls and glacier of Paine Grande.
A guanaco perches haughtily on a ridge, probably a sentinel of the herd we meet meters later. The road winds its way to the starting point of the trek, much further than it looks on the map. We cross the Paine River, the main river of the Park, which rises in the distant Dickson Glacier and passes through forests burned due to 2006 and 2011 fires.
Now they are stricter with regulations, and the fines are much higher, and even inside the Park, you can only smoke in designated places. In addition, the entrance to the Park costs 18,000 pesos for foreigners, valid for as many days as it takes as long as you do not leave the Park, which can only be done three times.
“Two hours of steep and sustained ascent are the first filter for tourists unaccustomed to mountain trekking, although, in summer, the trek can be covered by up to 300 people every day.”
The trekking begins at the foot of Mount Almirante Nieto, ascending the Valley of Ascencio Brunel, the most famous horse thief of the XIX century. Also known as the “Demon of Patagonia,” he was thought to be a sorcerer since he was seen in several places far away from each other at the same time. Although the reason was more earthly: they were three brothers.
Two hours of steep and sustained ascent are the first filter for tourists unaccustomed to mountain trekking, although, in summer, the trek can be covered by up to 300 people every day. “Every year, there are more accidents with unprepared people,” Armando tells me, “it is not uncommon to meet backpackers with no preparation for the mountain.” Once at the Refugio Chileno, the most exhausted can hire a descent back on horseback. For those of you who have doubts, the views of the Central and North Towers next to the Condor’s Nest will undoubtedly spur you to make a penultimate effort.
Here begins the real ascent: 280 meters of elevation gain remaining on a hard and steady slope before reaching the screen of the moraine, whose colossal granite blocks and tongues of snow put each walker in place. Nothing happens. A few more meters and the reward for the effort is shown before us: the Mirador de las Torres, a natural amphitheater modeled by the force of glacial ice at the foot of the Laguna de las Torres (still frozen in spring), and the massive granite walls of the South Tower (2. 850 m), the Central Tower, and the North Tower, as well as the Nido de Cóndores and the north face of Mount Almirante Nieto.
Among icebergs and glaciers
“You’d better not scream, even if you’re excited.” It’s true. We are excited, nervous, agitated, excited! It is not usual for most of us to be sitting in a kayak a few meters away from an iceberg several meters high. Still, our guide’s warning does not go unnoticed: a small block of ice breaks off the iceberg, and our faces immediately reflect the fear of a bigger one falling. At the southern end of Grey Lake, in the so-called “Iceberg Cemetery,” where the icebergs that break off from the Grey Glacier, which originates in the South Patagonian Ice Field, end their journey.
Our guide José Luis, 32 years old and a native of Mexico, has given us some practical classes on paddling and safety before getting into the water. He assures us that he knows firsthand that we can last up to eleven minutes in the water before running the risk of hypothermia. “So, if we have to do a self-rescue, it is better to do it right the first time: calmly, but quickly.” And although the cemetery is very exposed to waves, we are fortunate to have perfect – and unusual for the area – conditions for paddling: not a drop of wind! The view is deceptive, and the 17 kilometers of distance to the glacier seem to be able to be covered in a while. Instead, we are happy to paddle among icebergs of whimsical shapes and changing tones, from the purest white to the most glaucous blue.
“You’d better not scream, even if you’re excited.”
We continue along the Grey River, following in line with the guide, which places us on the bar according to our level. Given the low flow, we are in class I with some parts of class II, but at least it is perfect for paddling even on windy days, as much of it runs through protected areas. The first meanders test the sensitivity of the rudder (and the helmsman) and the skill of the paddlers (the most experienced in the stern with the handling of the rudder).
Finally, we enter a beautiful canyon where we let ourselves be carried placidly by the current just before marveling at the massif’s new and seductive perspective in the background, illuminated by a suggestive chiaroscuro light. José Luis tells us that “it is not normal to have such a good day at this time of the year.There are very few days like this in six months! It’s usually colder and windier. And it’s not easy to have such a clear view of the Paine!
As happened to us riding, there is more and more confidence, and we want more and more big rapids, but the river carries little water, and the whitewater areas that usually are class III are now class II or even I. So the problem we have is getting stuck. When it happens, it is a comical scene trying to disengage from the rhythmic movement of our bodies.
After five hours of paddling, 15 kilometers in total, the southern beer with which we are greeted at the foot of the river tastes like all of you can imagine, right?