Hiking in Chile's Patagonia
The morning dawns clear, bright and early in Torres del Paine National Park. In the height of summer in the National Park the sun only sets for a few hours, being located as it is towards the far south of the South American continent. We roll out of our comfortable and warm beds to a welcome of scrambled eggs and coffee being served in the breakfast room. Despite the remote location near the foot of the Torres del Paine massif, this Refugio, or Mountain Lodge, manages to produce some deliciously rib-sticking meals to fuel the hungry hikers who return to base each night following a day out there in the elements.
After breakfast, we gather in the garden in front of the Refugio for some pre-hike stretches and a briefing from our guide, Xavier. Above us towers the peaks we’ll reach the base of this afternoon, and the stunning view and its beauty are a little distracting! “Go at your own pace,” Xavier says as he balances on one leg for a quad stretch. After handing out our packed lunches, checking our water bottles are filled and that we each have hiking poles, we set off along the flat and rocky terrain.
The landscapes here in Chilean Patagonia are dramatic to say the least. The rolling plains of the Patagonian steppes, dotted with bright yellow wildflowers, lined the road as we drove into the park the day before. Suddenly the scenery gave way to the jutting granite peaks of the Cordillera Paine, the mountain range which draws hikers from all across the globe for the summer season each year. Stopping at Laguna Azul en route to our home for the night in the Refugio, we explore the landscape on foot, coming across herds of guanacos, who allow us to get quite close before they skitter away. And quite rightly too, as Xavier points out some guanacos that had fallen prey to a puma which had been seen roaming the area. Emu-like Rhea stalk their way through the low shrubbery, a novelty to those in our group who aren’t as familiar with these birds as Australians are!
Back on the trail, the pace is easy as we cross small streams and begin the steady climb up the rocky spine of the mountain range and into the dense Lenga forest. The trail is busy with hikers, some kitted out with all of their worldly possessions it seems, as there are camp grounds further up the mountain where many hikers stay on the way down from the base of the peak. The campground is set under a leafy canopy of trees beside a crystal clear river of pure glacial water, the perfect place to rest after a long day of hiking. We stop here for a mid-hike snack and to refill our water bottles from the river upstream. A log cabin sells soft drinks, chocolate bars and other supplies and as we wonder how on earth they get their goods delivered, a team of pack horses arrive, laden with crates and cases to be unloaded.
On the trail once more, the path twists and turns through the cool air of the forest, and it’s a welcome respite from the heat. For a climate which is known as changeable to say the least, we’ve been blessed with near perfect conditions, but as Xavier warns, the weather could change at almost any time. “Once we were hiking in similar conditions. All of a sudden, the wind picked up and a snowstorm blew over in the middle of summer, and then passed just as quickly. It’s best to be prepared for all conditions.”
We continue on, rising higher and higher up the mountain, the pace steady as we reach the foot of the moraine that leads to the viewpoint at the base of the Torres massif. Here the path becomes more scree-like and I’m grateful for my hiking poles which give me some purchase up the steep incline. It is tough going, but worth every second as we reach the lookout and gaze up at the Towers of Paine. These spectacular summits soar above the splendid turquoise of a glacial-fed lake at the base, which contrasts against the brilliant blue sky above. They seem almost too steep and sheer to have been conquered, but during the 1950s and 1960s all three peaks had indeed been climbed. Xavier tells us, “These are extremely technical climbs, and not for the faint hearted.” Our group is simply content to sit at the base of the peaks and gaze at the swirling clouds overhead as we enjoy our hard-earned lunch break.
We begin the descent after a short rest break, as the wind begins to chill our skin, and before long I start to feel for mountain goats that make this look easy! Again my hiking poles give me good purchase as we traverse the rocky trail, but I take it slowly, accompanied by Xavier who patiently matches my pace. Slow and steady definitely does win the day, as by the time we amble into camp not far behind the others, they’ve already ordered me a cold, cold beer, ready to toast an amazing day of stunning scenery and full of achievement.
The following morning we begin the long drive to the island of Tierra del Fuego, stopping en route in the town of Puerto Natales, located on the Cenoret Channel and the gateway for many of the Patagonian fjord cruises which cruise the straits and channels to search for marine wildlife and icebergs. The town is also famous for the caves and rock formations which date back to prehistoric times and the remains of the giant ground sloth, or Mylodon, now extinct, which were discovered in 1895. Puerto Natales itself was founded originally as a port for the sheep industry at the beginning of the 1900’s and almost 100 years later an abandoned cold-storage plant has been converted into an award-winning 5- star hotel, The Singular Patagonia. Throughout the hotel travellers can see many of the original machines which powered the Frigorifico Bories in the hotel Museum, while staying in luxurious comfort in the all new guest rooms and suites with panoramic views over the nearby bay.
We leave Puerto Natales behind and continue our drive through the rolling plains, occasionally breaking the journey to stretch our legs and explore. One such stop brings us to the abandoned Estancia San Gregorio, which sits on the western shore of the Strait of Magellan, the final resting place of two 19th Century cargo ships, rusting hulks which sit idle along a sandy beach, left to the elements. The deserted buildings of the Estancia tell the story of Patagonia’s rural past when vast sheep stations were established to export wool and meat. We wander through the offices, garage, blacksmith’s workshop and storehouse, under the watchful eye of a beautiful black horse who has trotted to the edge of his field to see who his visitors are.
Arriving at our hotel for the night, we relax with a glass of Chilean wine from the Colchagua Valley, a delicious Syrah to accompany the local Patagonian lamb dish recommended by Xavier, who has proven himself to be a bit of a gourmet expert on this journey. As he tells us stories of his travels through Patagonia, his passion for the land and the country shine through, and a little bit of his love for Chile can’t help but make us love it too.
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