I’ve always thought a bucket-list sounds a bit clinical, more a matter of ticking things off rather than savouring them. But they’re helpful at nudging us into broadening our own horizons. One of the things that has helped me through the travel restrictions of this year has been thinking back over my past journeys, which were, at some point, on a bucket-list of sorts, to see places I’d always wanted to visit. I love reading about other people’s travels, too. I recently lapped up Elsewhere by Irish writer Rosita Boland, a beautifully-written series of essays that includes a description of a terrifying bus trip in Pakistan that will stay with me for a very long time. Locked down doesn’t mean your mind isn’t free to wander and imagine.
My last trip was to South America at the end of 2019. It was special because it marked not only a significant (for me) birthday but also introduced me to a new continent. It was helpful researching the trip on YouTube and in travel blogs. So I thought I’d write some more detailed pieces about a few of my own travel experiences, starting with Patagonia. I hope it’s helpful to those planning to travel there someday or of interest to those who, like me, just like to dream of faraway places.
For many, Patagonia means one place: Torres del Paine, in the deep south of Chile. So that’s where I’m heading first.
The towers of blue
We’ve spent the night in Puerto Natales, a rickety town that was once an important port for the area, shipping out coal from nearby mines as well as sheep and their wool. Its grid of streets is filled with rusting iron-clad houses, some quite tumbledown, but it has the charm of a frontier town, with views over the water to the snow-capped Andes beyond. Today it’s the stepping-off point for Patagonia adventurers, from gap-year backpackers to the time-poor wealthy dropping in for a quick wilderness experience. That means there are loads of places to stay, from basic dorms to plush hotels. We’ve opted for the no-frills Hostal America as it’s close to the bus station from which we’ll leave later. (We bought our forward bus ticket to Argentina as soon as we arrived, just to be sure.)
We’ve booked a small car from Newen Rent A Car. Maria is the friendly and helpful proprietor, who says, ‘Questions?’ at the end of every sentence so that I feel like I’ve got to come up with one, even if I have none. The little Renault Symbol is spotless and Maria makes sure we take a jerry can of petrol as there are no petrol stations in the Torres Del Paine park.
We set off early from Puerto Natales on Route 9, more poetically known as Ruta del Fin del Mundo, or road of the end of the world. It’s a couple of hours’ drive to the National Park entrance, the road becoming more potholed as the views become more spectacular. It’s windy and Maria has warned us to park front-end into it to stop the car being flipped in the strongest gusts and to take care when opening the doors as they can easily be blown off their hinges. The ‘Furious Fifties’, as those winds are known, are thankfully in less boisterous form today.
At the Laguna Amarga Park entrance, everyone must buy a pass and we opt for the three-day permit at 21,000 pesos per person, cash only. The office is packed, with a queue for car drivers and another for the many trekkers and backpackers who have come by coach, but we get dealt with quickly. There’s something slightly surreal about this hubbub in the middle of nowhere.
The landscape feels boundless, with herds of guanaco grazing in the scrubby vegetation, and mountains and lakes at every turn. We head straight to Reserva Cerro Paine, where the walking trail starts. There’s a gateway in a modern building that has a cafe and shop. When we’d bought our pass we’d noticed a small sign warning of the danger of pumas and we mention it to the dude who checks permits at this gate. He laughs and says it’s highly unlikely we’ll see one in such a busy part of the park.
We have barely started along the track, passing just beyond the Hotel Las Torres Patagonia (check out its remarkable kitchen garden) when I notice a group of people ahead pointing and taking photos. I see a rabbit and think: how odd, getting excited by a rabbit. But then I glimpse the puma that is stalking it. It’s a beautiful creature, as lithe as a lioness. It slinks past, not far from us, and then disappears. (We hear later that some walkers had encountered a puma attacking a young guanaco while its mother tried to fight it off. They’d tried to shoo it away, which is utterly the wrong thing to do. A puma’s got to eat, after all.)
This trail goes up to the base of the famous granite pinnacles, those towers of blue that give the Park its name. The path is rocky and I have to focus on where I’m putting my feet, which is a shame as there are condors wheeling overhead, and I see other raptors eating carrion on the ground. It’s possible to ride up to the refuges on horseback where you can stay. Many walkers are starting treks that will last several days – there are various routes, known as W, O and Q – which take anything from three days to seven. But there are plenty of people doing a day walk like us. At times, it’s as busy as an afternoon saunter on Hampstead Heath.
The path wends its way along a windy canyon full of scree to the Refugio Chileno, where you can get basic meals and drinks. There are tents on platforms tucked into the hillside which makes me think of hobbits.
We stop to eat our lunch and gaze up at the tops of the granite towers peeking over the hillside opposite, spurring us on. The path continues through an idyllic beech forest, which feels magical away from the wind.
And then the path gets steeper. Much steeper. The Chileans don’t believe in switchbacks and mountain paths rise upwards almost in a straight line, regardless of the incline. Often I have to scramble up rocks on my knees. Thankfully it’s not high altitude so I’m not gasping for breath but still, you have to be fit.
Nearly four hours after leaving the car, we arrive at the Mirador Bas Las Torres, with its famous view of the Torres themselves across the perched lake in front of them. It’s bitterly cold with flurries of snow being blown by the strong wind but we find a sheltering rock, pull up our snoods, and eat apples while enjoying the sheer majesty of it all. It’s an incredible sight, especially as the clouds keep teasing by blocking the whole view and then flying away to reveal the splendour, like curtains coming up on a play.
The walk back is easier but I manage to catch my foot on an exposed tree root and I’m jerked violently backwards. The whiplash neck pain will stay with me for weeks after.
For the first two nights we’re booked into the Lago Grey Hotel. It’s quite a drive to get there, along a winding gravel road that makes steering difficult at times (my tip: if you’re hiring a car, spend the extra and get a 4WD – the Nissan X-Trails just whizz past our little Renault). The landscape is stunning in every direction, with long views down to lakes of turquoise and lapis blue, the wall of mountains rising up to our right. When we reach it, Lago Grey is – surprise, surprise – grey, fed by the huge glacier at one end, icebergs from which float around as though we’re in Antarctica.
The hotel is busy and more anonymous than I’d hoped but our room, while lacking a big view, is comfortable and warm. Dinner is excellent, with perfectly cooked merluza (hake) and I enjoy a pisco sour while looking out at the lake and the mountains in the dusky light, nightfall barely registering at this time of year.
I fancy a slower pace today so we decide to walk up the mountain directly behind the hotel, to the Mirador Cerro Ferrier. It’s another steep path but very pretty through woods and past gushing streams. The southern beech trees with tiny, emerald leaves are filled with chirruping birds, and there are splashes of red from the flowers of the firebush, a grevillea-like shrub that grows on the hillsides here. The view over the open valley, towards the glacier and to the Torres, gets better the higher we go. The final slog to the top is through a muddy forest and then we’re out on a rocky plateau that’s so windy it’s hard to stand up. Again, we find a sheltered spot and sit to take in the breathtaking vista. I get a sense of the spread of the landscape and the number of lakes, and struck by the remoteness. It’s quiet here, too, after the crowds of the previous day, and it’s hard to tear ourselves away.
Later, before dinner, we walk on the beach in front of the hotel, buffeted by the wind barrelling over the water. I feel invigorated by such clean air. It’s been relaxing being able to walk out from where we are, without needing to use the car. It’s a reminder for any trip that you need to balance the busy days with gentler days like this.
We leave early to catch the 9.00 am catamaran from Refugio Peduto which glides over the mirror-calm water of Lake Pehoé to the Refugio Vértice Paine Grande.
It’s a popular route so we want to make sure we don’t miss out as there are only a few sailings each day. The Refugio, accessible only by foot or by boat, has a hotel and large campsite with a café and a little shop selling basics. Many people start or end their longer treks here and there’s the pleasant buzz you always get when trekkers congregate.
Our path takes us along the lakeside. It’s an easy walk that allows us to take in the surroundings, like the silvery remains of a forest of beech trees that were burned in fires in 2011. Some are re-sprouting but they don’t have the resilience of Australian eucalypts which usually spring back from catastrophic fire so quickly. It’s sobering to see how climate change is increasing the risk of fire in the ancient beech forests throughout Patagonia, changing the landscape and the wildlife that relies on it.
The path reaches a raging river and then turns up the French Valley. The crisp air is filled with the sound of rushing water and the gunshot cracking of ice as the glaciers above melt and move in the summer warmth. We pass the Italian campsite and continue up the winding path, which reminds me of a Japanese landscape of expertly-placed rocks and waterfalls, so utterly beautiful. It’s fascinating to look up at the backs of the granite Torres we saw on our first day.
We reach the Mirador del Francés and decide that’s high enough. It’s the perfect place to stop, to perch on a rock in a welcome blast of sunshine and enjoy watching the shifting patterns the clouds make on the mountainsides and the sudden little avalanches from the melting snow up high.
There are others around us, mainly Americans and Germans by the sound of them, and a group of lads from Britain and Australia hunkers down in front of us. Another walker calls to one of the Australians – ‘Hey, what’s happening to your country?’ meaning the bushfires that are raging across south eastern Australia. The Australian laughs and says, ‘It’s a shitstorm, mate, a shitstorm.’ It makes me smile. You can trust an Aussie to tell it how it is.
We head back to catch the 5.30 pm catamaran but have time to sit on a rock high above the lake and gaze at the reflections of the mountains. It’s as though time stops. You never forget moments like this. They feed the soul.
We’re staying at a different hotel tonight, the Pampa Lodge on the Rio Serrano at the edge of the park. It’s a 20 kilometre drive along the usual rough road but it also goes along the straight stretch which gives one of the most iconic views of Torres del Paine, back to the cluster of towering mountains. We have to stop to take it in. It’s Patagonia on a plate.
The Lodge feels upmarket and peaceful, with large bedrooms, log fires, and every room embracing the enormous panorama of the Torres in the distance. The Serrano river meanders past and there’s plenty of birdlife to spot, including the usual raptors and geese. You can hire horses for a day’s riding, which I think would be pretty special, even though I haven’t been in a saddle since I was a teenager. It’s the sort of place you start to imagine living another sort of life.
After a good sleep and a simple breakfast (muesli, eggs) we head back to Puerto Natales, taking a road that we’ve been warned is very badly potholed but which proves to be no worse than the road we’d come in on, only quieter. It’s worth stopping off at Laguna Sofia, a small lake with water so pure you can drink it, and we walk for an hour or so in meadows filled with glorious flowers and with views over the beautiful countryside. Nearby is the cave where the remains of a mylodon, a 3 metre tall ground sloth, was discovered in 1895 and which figures in Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia. It’s thought that it was hunted to extinction by early man. A noisy school group is about to go in so we decide not to.
National Parks tend to be bubbles, where you rarely encounter the people who live there, and Torres del Paine NP is no different. It offers a wide range of campsites and hotels, some of which are eye-wateringly expensive, so that the whole experience of being there and meeting only tourists can feel slightly sanitised and unreal. And so it’s good to be back in Puerto Natales and see people who live here year-round. We return the car to Maria who seems interested to hear exactly where we’ve been. She isn’t the least bit bothered by the thick dust coating the car. That’s normal. Her fear is when clients drive too fast and skid off the unmade roads or hit a guanaco.
That evening we go to the popular Kawesqar restaurant and tuck into large plates of local scallops, king crab and patatas bravas. We drink the local Austral beer and my new favourite, the rich carmenère wine from the Central Valley up north. The guys next to us are laughing as they attack a mountainous pile of lamb, carved from the carcass spreadeagled over a wood fire in the window. It’s a convivial place and seems the perfect ending to the past few days.
Before we left the Pampa Lodge I’d mentioned to a young woman that we were going to El Chaltén, across the border in Argentina but quite close, as the condor flies. I said that it would be interesting to compare it to Torres del Paine.
She gave an impish smile. ‘Personally I think El Chaltén is better,’ she said. ‘But I’m from Argentina so maybe I would think that.’
It’s hard to believe there could be anything much better than this. But that, after all, is the joy of travel, to see new places and to find new favourites. At this moment, Torres del Paine is right up there. Torres del Paine, Top Place.
Next time: El Chaltén