Taking on Torres del Paine

A few days ago, I awoke as dawn was breaking. Not a sound could be heard in the street beyond, no cars or trains … all strangely silent, but for our noisy resident wattle bird calling for the day to begin. 

My wings are clipped for now, my travels on hold, yet still I dream. I dream of wide open spaces, forests and mountains, rivers and lakes, and most of all the ocean, endlessly restless and often wild, yet strangely comforting.

The joy is in getting up close and personal, if you can. Like the time my husband Jan and I spent a week in Torres del Paine National Park, down near the bottom of South America, the area known as Patagonia, which straddles Chile and Argentina. It’s remote and hard to navigate at the best of times, which, of course, is part of the allure.

The entrance to the park is about three hours’ drive from the Chilean port of Punta Arenas. In summer you can fly closer, to Puerto Natales; one hour or so from there. But the fact is, for a large part of the year the area is off limits to anyone but the most intrepid of travellers.

In the summer months, hikers flock to the park to tackle the W Trek, a highlight of which is the French Valley leg to a glacier lake at the base of the three granite towers that form the centrepiece of the Cordillera del Paine mountains.

We visited in early October, when the snow and ice had begun to recede. The park, dominated by these magnificent horn-like peaks, boasts lakes, rivers, and glaciers that belong to the southern Patagonian ice field.

We stayed at the Explora hotel inside the park that blends almost seamlessly into the rugged terrain. And the view from any of the rooms, on a perfect day, is to die for. On our first it was not to be, the mountains fully shrouded in mist. But you come here to revel in nature, for hikes long or short, come rain or shine. That first day we followed the Pingo River towards Lake Grey in the drizzle, walking on paths that seemed more like mini waterfalls. We spotted our first guanacos, a camelid species related to llamas; a couple of torrent ducks quickly swept away in the swift current, and red-headed Magellanic woodpeckers knocking-knocking on wood.

Overnight the wind howled. Rain, hail or snow are always a possibility, and gales, especially in spring. 

On our second morning we woke early to find the moon still up and a soft pink glow spreading up behind the Paine massif, the vista changing by the minute; the glow deepening till the first rays of sunlight peaked through and all was turned to gold. Just a hint of a breeze ruffled Lake Pehoe in the foreground. Almost picture perfect.

Day by day, we explored more and more of the park and its fascinating fauna and flora. We hiked through the sub-Antarctic scrubland, dotted with dense flowering red bushes and huge herds of guanacos. We followed trails through lenga beech forest, covered in mistletoe, and Calafate bushes with bright yellow flowers. They are prickly and a pain for hikers, unless it happens to be late spring when the bushes are laden with juicy dark-blue berries, beloved throughout the region. Some say that once you’ve tasted one you will return to Patagonia. 

Once or twice we spotted a silvery fox slinking about, on the hunt for unwary prey. And everywhere there were signs of pumas at work – bleached skulls and bones, and now and then evidence of a more recent kill. 

High above the snow line, condors worked the thermals and the weather held. So, we took a boat to see Grey Glacier. It was a sight to behold. Not grey, blue – the most beautiful mass of cobalt-blue ice carving its way, ever so slowly, through folds of chocolate-brown rock.

And we rode horses under the watchful eyes of the gauchos, who keep cowboy traditions alive and thriving in Chile. The horses are magnificent, though the same can’t be said for my riding skills. Afterwards, we sat with the gauchos drinking mate, a strange, warm South American version of ‘green tea’. Would I drink it again? Probably not, but there’s no doubt that if by magic I could be transported back to this place, I would return again and again for the peace and the beauty, the welcoming people and the wide open space. 



Explora Patagonia hotel.


Lenga beech forest in the rain.


Fast-flowing Pingo River.


Magellanic woodpecker in search of a meal.


Room with an unforgettable view.


Ubiquitous red bushes in full bloom.


Guanaco herds browse in the warming sunshine.


Bursting into song on a prickly Calafate bush.

Spot the fox padding along in search of prey.


Stark reminder of fire that swept the park years before.

Mistletoe on the beech trees.

Grey Glacier on a perfect spring day.


Snowy peaks in all their glory.


A land of lakes, rivers and mountains.


Out on horseback with the gauchos.


Warming up with mate, Chile’s answer to green tea.

Have you been to Chile? Would you like to go?

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Written by Dairne John

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