Exploring the glaciers of Torres del Paine
Google Torres del Paine and you instantly see why a trip to Chile's acclaimed national park makes it on to many a bucket list and draws about 160,000 visitors a year.
Yes, we have our own majestic mountains and glaciers much-snapped by tourists but there is something very special about the park's main attraction, the 3050-metre Paine massif, with its unique spires and "horns". The park also has the world's third-largest ice field spawning imposing glaciers.
It is reported to be Chile's third-most visited national park, which may well point to its relative remoteness and the cost of getting to southern Patagonia. But it's certainly worth making the effort to see an area designated a Unesco World Biosphere Reserve.
On a previous trip to Chile we lake-hopped across the Andes from Puerto Varas to Bariloche in Argentina and rated it an outstanding experience. Would Torres del Paine meet our high expectations? Would we be as lucky with the weather? It did, we were.
The gateway to Torres del Paine is Chile's southernmost city, Punta Arenas, which sits on the Strait of Magellan about five hours by road from the park. You can fly there daily from Santiago.
We had a night at the Holiday Inn just 50 metres from the Santiago airport terminal so we could be ready with minimal effort for the early flight to Punta Arenas the next day. LAN Chile's Auckland flight arrives late morning so there was plenty of time to bus into downtown Santiago for the afternoon.
Punta Arenas was a thriving commercial centre at the turn of the 19th century. Together with the more dangerous Cape Horn sea route, it was the main passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and its booming economy attracted settlers from Europe including Croats who played a major part in the development of the city.
After the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, Punta Arenas declined but evidence of its glory days remain, particularly the neo-classical once-grand-homes surrounding the main square. One of them, the Mauricio Braun H Palace, now the regional museum, opens a window on the luxury of those who made their fortunes at the turn the 19th century and imported their furnishings - and architects - mainly from France.
After a night in Punta Arenas at the cosy Hotel Rey Don Felipe we were heading for rather more spartan surroundings as our mini-bus set out on the 350km trip to Torres del Paine along the wonderfully named Ruta 9 del Fin del Mundo - Route 9 at the end of the world.
For those who want to travel independently, buses and rental cars are an option but transport to and from the park was part of our five-day package with Cascada Expediciones, which operates EcoCamp Patagonia, an award-winning, eco-friendly camp at Torres del Paine.
After three hours on smooth concrete, with frequent sightings of the ubiquitous Darwin's rhea, a flightless bird similar to an emu, we reached Puerto Natales, a small port popular - particularly with backpackers - as a transit post for Torres del Paine. Across the flat open grasslands we could see the southern Andes.
The pit-stop was an opportunity to get to know our guides Natalie and Nico, Chileans in their early twenties who had studied outdoor recreation at universities in Santiago. As we learned over the next five days, guiding facilitates Nico's passion for climbing whereas Natalie is a naturalist at heart, her camera always in hand.
The 115 kms from Puerto Natales to the national park would normally take about two hours with the concrete highway giving way to asphalt then gravel as the terrain becomes more rugged.
However, we stopped to see the Mylodon Cave about 25km to the north in the Benetiz Mountains. The main cave, used by prehistoric tribes, features a life-sized statue of the mylodon, a giant sloth that lived in the region together with sabre-toothed tigers and a 3m-tall long-necked mammal, the macrauchenia, who all disappeared about 10,000 years ago. Darwin is credited with discovering fossils of the macrauchenia during his Beagle voyage in 1834.
Back on the road, we soon saw pink clusters of Chilean flamingo at the edge of small lakes and had our first of many encounters with guanacos, the wild relative of the llama that roam in their thousands throughout Patagonia, vulnerable to their natural predator, the puma.
Then, beyond a lake against a backdrop of blue sky with clouds hovering at its edges, was the massif, its granite spires bathed in sunshine. Dusk was closing in when we arrived at EcoCamp nestled under the massif, its spires now shrouded in swirling cloud. The autumn air was decidedly chill.
The camp comprises domes inspired by the semi-circular dwellings of the Kaweskars, a nomadic people in Patagonia who made no demands on natural resources. We opted for a standard dome and shared facilities but suites with heating and their own bathrooms are available.
The camp's electricity comes from a micro-hydro turbine at a nearby stream and photovoltaic panels. Energy is gathered together in a 24V battery bank to power refrigerators, lighting and electrical appliances. Human waste is composted.
After cocktails and dinner, each group was briefed on our first day of trekking. We found ourselves with five Americans and a father and daughter from Devon travelling the world as her graduation present. We had all opted for the popular W-circuit, which takes you on separate days up two valleys and along a lake.
We slept warm and comfortable on goose-down beds, knowing more than 20km of hiking was planned for day one, which dawned cloudless. After an early breakfast and a mini-bus ride to Lake Pehoe, a 30-minute launch trip took us to Refugio Paine Grande, a lakeside lodge with campsites, where we would spend that night.
Once our packs were stored we were heading along an undulating track for French Valley, about 8km away. Natalie led the way at a comfortable pace and, over the next two hours, "getting-to-know-you" conversations ebbed and flowed.
Chris and Jennifer, both lawyers in Oklahoma City and avid basketball fans, were soon raving about Kiwi Steven Adams, both as a player for their NBA team and for his connection with fans off-court. The Kramers from San Antonio, competitive trail runners, had moved out west from New Jersey for the lifestyle. Xania had managed a bar in Las Vegas and now edited an online website for the hospitality industry. Kevin recently retired as a detective superintendent in Exeter and daughter Becky had just completed a law degree for which a world trip that included New Zealand was the reward.
By the time we crossed a swing bridge and reached Italian Camp at the start of the valley to the sound of distant avalanches, the group had bonded well. We had no time to stop at this popular campsite as we had before us two very steep kilometres, mostly on rocky moraine, to a lookout. About an hour later we were sitting in the sun with glorious views of the south-eastern face of the massif and its contrasting layers of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.
We were also unexpected witnesses to a wedding proposal. A young American in another group had arranged for his guides to carry flowers, champagne and glasses to the lookout where he got on bended knee and popped the question - and champagne - once she had said "yes" and "Is this really happening? Is this for real?" Then they lay on the rocks, glasses in hand, sharing a magical moment before the trek back.
By the time we had returned to Refugio Paine Grande in the early evening it was cloudy, cool and we were ready for showers and an early night in our six-person bunkrooms. The lodge was crowded with long queues for what turned out to be very ordinary food. I heard complaints but we were in a national park in remote southern Patagonia, after all, so it was best to just go with the flow.
Next morning we left early for an 11km hike over hills to Lago Grey and, at its far end, the impressive Grey Glacier, which extends 28km from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and, despite its retreat, has a measured area of 270sq km. Here we saw the devastating legacy of a 2011 fire blamed on an Israeli backpacker who allegedly tried to burn used toilet paper. More than 170sq km were burned including 36sq km of native forest.
The track was busy and groups leap-frogged each other at photo-stops. Our group made good time but was passed by three American couples and five primary school-aged children who had hiked 20km the previous day and were still able to sing as they marched past us.
Once we had descended into beech forest we saw red-crested woodpeckers and, sitting in a tree like a statue, a great grey owl looking like someone peering out of a judicial wig.
The lodge and campsite at the top of the lake in a forest clearing impressed as a good place to stay but we had to clamber on to a Zodiac inflatable at the lake's edge to board the 1pm launch that would take us to the face of the glacier.
The glacier was a piercing blue as it towered above just a few metres away - an illusion because the dense ice absorbs every other colour of the spectrum so blue is what we see. As the launch cruised down the lake for about an hour we saw icebergs, some as big as a house, that had calved off the glacier and since been carved by the water and wind into weird shapes.
There was one final treat - other than pisco sours served by the crew - as we reached the jetty where a mini-bus awaited to take us back to EcoCamp. A condor flew down from its nest on a rocky cliff high above the lake and splashed around at the water's edge barely 30m away.
The plan for day 3 was a demanding 22km hike up Ascension Valley for a closer look at the massif's towers but we opted instead for a nature walk because I had rolled an ankle and it would have been foolish to take on a nine-hour day.
It was a good call as we thoroughly enjoyed the 11km walk over undulating open country that included a cave with prehistoric hand paintings. We also found ourselves in the most pleasant company of food writer and judge of shows such as Iron Chef America, Simon Majumdar. He has a reputation as the "toughest critic on the Food Network" but in person uttered not a negative word about any restaurant or cuisine.
We looked in vain for puma out hunting but did see evidence of recent kills of guanaco. And, when we had a farewell dinner with our group that night, once they had recounted the joys and tribulations of Ascension Valley we could tell the story of the screaming guanaco.
Our quiet nature walk had been suddenly punctuated by the high-pitched screeching of a male guanaco galloping past with another male, neck outstretched, close behind. They briefly disappeared over a rise but then came straight towards us swerving away only metres from us. The terrified screaming and single-minded pursuit were explained by a guide: in territorial confrontations, the chasing guanaco tries to bite the other's testicles.
The next morning, Torres del Paine now behind a curtain of rain cloud, we headed back to Punta Arenas two very happy campers.
GETTING THERE LAN Chile operates six non-stop flights a week from Auckland to Santiago with daily services to Punta Arenas. See lan.com.
An overnight stay at Santiago might be necessary in which case the Holiday Inn is ideal, just 50 metres from the airport terminal. See holidayinn.com.
STAYING THERE Hotel Rey Don Felipe, Armando Sanhueza 965 Punta Arenas. See hotelreydonfelipe.com.
TREKKING THERE EcoCamp Patagonia. See ecocamp.travel.
- Sunday Star Times