My first welcome to Chilean Patagonia is a rainbow over the parking lot of the utilitarian airport at Punta Arenas. The wind whispers a song that’s somehow evocative of the tune that loops on the ice cream truck that passes my home in Los Angeles everyday. I guess flying for about twenty-four hours straight will make anyone miss the intimacy of home.
Truthfully, I consider myself adventurous, but far from a globe-trotting gypsy. So when I was invited to travel to Southern Patagonia—to the southernmost region of the world before Antarctica—I rode a roller coaster of excitement, apprehension, paralyzing self-doubt, and curiosity. But just a whisper of intuition quieted the irrational fears swirling around in my head; I knew that I’d been presented with a rare opportunity to conquer a fear of the unknown, even if it meant coming face-to-face with it, alone, at the edge of the world.
From Punta Arenas it’s a five-hour road trip to Explora Patagonia, situated deep in Torres del Paine National Park. We ride parallel to the Strait of Magellan for a while and then hang a wide left at the giant groundsloth statue that is the landmark of Punta Arenas’ neighboring town, Puerto Natales. From here on, the water is a beautiful icy aquamarine color, an effect of the sediment from the glaciers that are melting into the lakes.
We bounce along dirt roads adjacent to Lake Sarmiento, a glistening body of water that reaches as far as Argentina. Along the way I’ve seen two cars turned over on the side of the road—the winds are really intense here. Little choppy waves splatter all over the surface of Lake Pehoe as we round it approaching Hotel Salto Chico, the Patagonia base of Explora. In a heartbeat the brilliant sunlight is eclipsed by wind and clouds, and then a torrential downpour, which eases into a drizzle by the time we arrive at the hotel in the following minutes. They say in Patagonia, you can experience all four seasons in the same day.
After over a day-long journey, there’s not a moment to waste once I arrive at the hotel—only a base, albeit a chic one, for exploration of the dramatic landscapes of Torres del Paine. A new friend, Richard from Santiago, asks what I’d like to drink. “What’s a Chilean cocktail?” I ask. He nods and orders a round of Pisco sours (Chilean Pisco, Pica lime juice, and powdered sugar). One sip of the potent elixir and I wonder, Am I buzzed? Hors d’oeuvres make the rounds as guests are all huddled in groups led by Explora’s guides—all twenty- or thirty-something and attractive with vim and vigor. I’m looped into a group with Nacho (short for Ignacio), who details tomorrow’s excursions. I consider a full-day trek but Nacho seems to favor working up to that so I decide to gauge my limits first at a half-day horse ride and half-day hike.
Dinner at Explora can easily turn into a three-hour-long engagement. My quick friends and I would basically shut the place down over four exquisite courses of understated Chilean cuisine (wagyu with chickpeas, trout with pureed greens, duck confit with pomegranate seed, and quinoa risotto with squid and seaweed, just to name a few of the fancy dishes) and long, carmenere-induced musings about Patagonian landscapes, Chilean culture, and other far-off destinations, every single night. After dinner I’m justifiably exhausted but I don’t want to sleep; not with the moon hanging over the Cordillera del Paine mountain range and casting a glow on Paine River, so classically postcard-worthy through my window. I gaze at it from the convenient position of my cushy bed until my consciousness disintegrates.
In the morning I have a quick breakfast—immaculate scrambled eggs, mashed avocado on wheat toast, and plain yogurt and granola. From the dining room of Hotel Salto Chico (named after the “little waterfall” just outside the window), there are the “horns” of the Cordillera del Paine again (it will never get old), always looming, and the light upon them ever-changing due to the erratic climate. Today the weather seems celestial for our horse ride, Rincon del Puma.
Our guide is Gino, Chilean with light eyes. “Donde trabajas, Dana?” he asks. I slowly decipher the Spanish and blurt out the easiest answer that comes to me, in English: “I’m a journalist.” He laughs, “How come you can understand [Spanish] but you don’t speak it?” The van takes us on winding, rocky road to the stables, where we meet the gauchos. Even if you speak no Spanish at all, these Chilean cowboys’ love for their work and the horses comes across. One introduces me to my black criollo horse for the day, Charo. “She’s very calm,” he assures me in Spanish.
A gaucho named Andres—stoic, in chic beret, bombachas, and swathed in a poncho of his own design—leads our small band of riders through undulating golden prairies and into deciduous forests, along the way spying a herd of wild horses. There’s a magical energy along this hidden trail through the lenga—beech trees native to the southern Andes range. We climb gentle slopes to a lookout, and there it is: a view of Lake Toro in all its cerulean splendor.
Gino offers to take photos of everyone against the vista. I’m not really interested in getting the picture—too busy being in disbelief over this moment of riding a Chilean horse through a rugged Patagonian landscape so ridiculously beautiful, my iPhone camera won’t do it any justice at all. That is one of the dilemmas you will continually face when exploring a remote and pristine place such as Patagonia: Will you spend this moment with your eyes open, or looking through a camera lens in an attempt to immortalize the image?
It seems impossible to grow tired of this place, but it is remote. I ask Gino if he goes home to Santiago on his days off, five days every two weeks. “It’s five hours to the closest airport in Punta Arenas, then about three more hours to fly to Santiago,” he says with surrender. “It’s not enough time to stay. My family and friends, they always tell me I never call. But I’m going to Lollapalooza [Music Festival in Brazil]. I’ll see some friends soon,” he beams. I learn from Gino and many other wayfarers of Torres del Paine that isolation just comes with the territory. If someone in the outside world misses their call, they’ll just have to try again in a few days—or a few weeks.
* * *
I’m off with my guide Mariela to Lake Sarmiento, the crystalline view that was my first glimpse of Torres del Paine. After just a short walk we spot a black-chested buzzard eagle perched on a rock only about fifty feet away, just before we wander onto guanaco territory. Guanacos are the parent species of the more widely recognized llama. Just a few feet ahead, a herd of about forty graze communally. These creatures are not shy in this region, but Mariela advises us not to walk straight toward them. A few acknowledge us with their doe eyes. As we round the herd, they seem to inch away. One that sits basking in the sun slowly lifts its round midsection with its lanky limbs and lunges out of our path. A male guanaco starts to chase away another; he chomps at the other’s back side, spits, and sends him sprinting over the rocks until he’s out of sight. Like other mammals, it’s common for these males to challenge a dominant male of a herd and take over, though we’re unsure whether we’ve witnessed an emergence of a new leader or dominance of the original alpha.
We leave the guanacos to their business and attempt to hike down to the shore of Lake Sarmiento, but suddenly the wind blasts and we plant our feet and walking sticks firmly into the ground. If I lift my feet at all I’d literally be blown away. The worst part of it only lasts for minutes, but the rushes come in unpredictable waves. Mariela decides it’s too dangerous to go down to the shore, where she had planned to show us the thrombolites. These are calcium carbonate formations that resemble porous white coral. The fossil-like structures were formed by cyanobacteria in the ideal conditions that Lake Sarmiento provides—shallow, salty, alkaline water. Some of the formations are cavernous enough to be hiding places for pumas, though no sightings today.
One rollicking horse ride and a breezy hike under my belt, I think I’ll go all-in on tomorrow’s adventure. I ask Nacho about the hike to the base of the Paine Towers, a ten-mile trek that I’ve heard is the most challenging within the park. He holds his forearm at about a 100-degree angle and says, straight-faced, “It’s like this.” Another adventurer chimes in, “I’ve done it. It’s really challenging, but you won’t die or anything.” I consider the implications of the statement and I sign up anyway.
The anticipation—or should I say trepidation—keeps me from getting a really good night’s rest. It’s still dark out when I get up for the 7am departure. The clouds hover and it looks like yesterday’s sunshine is long gone and we’ll be met with some cold, wet conditions on the mountain; but a little rain—even snow—won’t shut down operations at Explora. This wouldn’t be a Patagonia adventure without some inclement conditions to deal with. Eight of us gather in the lobby and meet our guide, Isabella.
We arrive at our starting point after an hour-long van ride. Once on foot, we first cross two bridges, the second with a sign cautioning that only two people may cross at once. Pretty much immediately we’re on a constant upward incline. I try to focus on the moment and on the path, one step at a time, steady breath. About an hour or so later, Isabella says we’ll break at the tree ahead and I just can’t wait to get there. In a few minutes we’re nearly there and we’re met by another group on their way down. “Andalé,” one of the women from the other group calls out, either taunting or motivating us (though it’s more of a Mexican Spanish phrase rather than Chilean).
Overlooking the Ascencio Valley, Isabella tells us the story of Ascencio Brunel, an infamous gaucho and outlaw of Patagonia. He spent much of his life riding through the pampas and mountains murdering men, stealing their livestock, and being hunted by the Tehuelche Indians and the Chilean and Argentinian police for his crimes. In his madness, he was always able to elude them all. Police would only find dead horses missing their tongues—Brunel’s favourite part to eat. One legend says that Brunel finally met his end when he attempted one last offense to steal the Tehuelches’ horses. When the natives caught him in the act, he tried to escape on horseback, galloping across the frozen river, but the ice broke beneath him. Many say he was never seen again—that the river, which now bears his name, carried him away to certain death.
We approach a bend and Isabella halts. “This is where we have to be very careful,” she says. “It’s a very exposed area and it’s going to be very windy.” In single file, we slowly trudge around the bend. To the left is the safe support of the mountain, and just about one foot to the right is a steep slope into the valley. The wind is terrifying, blowing right against us, making each step hard-earned. But it’s better blowing this way than the other; a shift in the opposite direction could send us tumbling into the valley, perhaps meeting the same fate as Ascencio Brunel.
It feels like minutes but it’s really just seconds before we all make it safely out of the wind and descend into the refuge of the forest. I feel relief for the first time in about an hour, maybe two—relaxed enough to be enchanted by the endless labyrinth of lenga that will shield us from the elements for a while. I want to kiss these trees. We drink from the river; glacier water straight from the stream tastes as pure as it sounds.
Isabella shows us some of the berries that we can eat—calafate, deep purple ones resembling blueberries. The belief is that if you eat the calafate berry, you will return to Patagonia. Everyone in the group searches for a single ripened berry to guarantee they’ll be back to this glorious place. Isabella also identifies the berry that we should not eat; colorfully named “the devil’s strawberry,” it appears as tiny red clusters, similar to the look of a raspberry, but smaller and more fiery in hue. Eating a devil’s strawberry isn’t exactly life-threatening, but its laxative effect can definitely ruin your day.
Now and then we pass campers coming down with their hefty backpacks, many with icy looks on their faces, but willing to exchange an “hola” with passersby nonetheless. I don’t blame them; I’m not even halfway there, I’m traveling much lighter, yet I’m already daydreaming of turning back. But I wouldn’t dare. We stop at a campground where a park ranger—a young, long-haired, bearded bohemian type of guy—is stationed in a small triangular, teepee-like building. We replenish our glacier water supply and snack on some quinoa bars and chocolates—and suddenly encounter a beautiful, surprisingly large fox, also known as an Andean wolf.
Then we begin our climb up the glacial moraine, the last leg of our ascent. Each step from here on out is lunging over rock after rock and hoisting myself up with walking sticks. I’m thanking God for the walking sticks. I look ahead where others before us are making their descent from the base of the towers and it seems impossibly far. The clouds linger and it looks like we won’t have a great view once we get there anyway.
But as we round a giant boulder at the top, what we see instead is breathtaking in its own way: the hidden Lake Torres. Wow. A still, cyan-colored oasis, the atmosphere misty and almost mythical. We can barely make out the towers, but no one can complain about this view. We plop ourselves down on some rocks and breathe in the fresh mountain air, and the next minute we’re rewarding ourselves with sandwiches. A sandwich never tasted so good as it does this moment. Isabella shares a surprise: a hot thermos of corn chowder. She pours cups for everyone and as I sip, my heart warms to a degree of pure bliss.
Our descent puts me in a trance. Two adult brothers from Boston in our group spend the whole way back teasing each other like they’re still pre-adolescent, which is both hilarious and obnoxious at times. It’s raining, but at least it’s not windy. At one point I slip and fall in the mud, but I can’t complain—better mud than rocks. Acknowledging these contrasts pulls me into the moment and I feel a shift in my perspective. But when we stop at the Chileno shelter at the end of the forest and Isabella mentions that it’s three more hours until we finish, my morale takes a dip.
I rely on my walking sticks to keep me going, delegating much of the strain to my upper body now instead of my lower half, which is aching like crazy. Finally the valley comes into view and we know we’re on the home stretch. Our pace quickens with the promise of a finish line. We cross the two-person bridge, then the other, and I feel my adrenaline; the energy of my mates is palpable as well. There’s our van and our driver Francisco waiting with a cooler—a sight that puts us all over the top with jubilation.
We crack open some Calafate ale and clink our bottles together. “Salud!” we all cheer. Piled into the van, we just can’t stop waxing on and on about the adventure we—a bunch of strangers—just shared. Isabella flashes an adorably imperfect, toothy grin, almost shocked by our vitality after such a grueling trek. “I’ve never had a group that stayed awake on the ride back from this hike,” she says. One of the Boston brothers confesses, “I’m glad no one decided to turn back because I would have been the first to follow.” We all admit the same thought crossed our minds, but nonetheless, we’ve earned our bragging rights.
A day like this definitely calls for me to default to my standard loner mode of operation: sneak into the dining room and have a quiet dinner to myself, then make a quick escape to bed. But when I overhear the family from Boston talking NBA basketball, I can’t resist chiming in; I’m a die-hard fan, and I never expected to meet other fans here in this remote corner of Chile. Other friends trickle into the dining room and join me at my table, and again it becomes one of those convivial, three-hour-long dinners, to which I blithely surrender.
On my last day at Explora I kick back at the barbecue of the gauchos of the 2 de Enero Estancia. Mariela welcomes us with a plate of empanadas. The gauchos carve a couple of sizzling lambs they’ve spit-roasted to share with us, and barbecued meat, chicken, sausages, salmon, and salads round out the epic feast. I try to speak my best Spanish with one of the gauchos, but mostly we just agree that it’s a beautiful day. Sadly, I don’t get asked to share any maté, the highly caffeinated herbal infusion that gauchos sip all day out of a calabash gourd.
But I do get to go for a horse ride with Mauricio, a small-statured gaucho whose nimble black criollo horse snakes his head about to wrangle the other horses. Riding along a view of Mount Almirante Nieto on a sun-bleached day, and then watching the horses graze against the backdrop of Cordillera del Paine is the perfect goodbye to this most legendary place.
This is Part 1 of my story about traveling through Southern Patagonia. A version of this was published in Conde Nast Traveler China’s March 2015 issue. Read Part 2 here.