After four hours of strenuous hiking, we had only just reached the bottom of the Torres del Paine. You can see the three granite monoliths from seemingly a hundred miles away (and on just about every postcard of Patagonia), but the full magnitude of their facades was revealed only after the last turn on the mountainous trail. We sat down, panting, and looked across a glassy, marble-green lake at the summits, reaching more than 9,000 feet into the sky. Despite their size, being so near to them felt strangely intimate.
Patagonia, the roughly 490,000-square-mile area at the southern end of South America shared between Chile and Argentina, had been on my wish list for more than 20 years. Encompassing the southern reach of the Andes and stretching toward the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it contains windswept countryside, spectacular glacial lakes and mountain ranges. I had first learned of it through Bruce Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” (1977) in high school. His description of the “rags of silver cloud spinning across the sky, and the sea of grey-green thornscrub lying off in sweeps and rising in terraces and the white dust streaming off the salt pans” drew me both to the place and in no small way to the profession of travel writing itself.
Then recently, the news that Chile was trying to put together one of the most impressive and far-reaching networks of private and public parks in the world made it even more appealing. And last year two luxury resorts opened on the Chilean side of Patagonia, something that hadn’t happened in a decade. I knew the time had come.
Patagonia is at the end of the earth, and it feels like it — especially with a 2-year-old in tow. From Houston, we took an overnight flight to Santiago, Chile. Then there’s a four-hour flight to Punta Arenas (unless you can splurge on a private plane to Puerto Natales), and then a four-hour drive into Torres del Paine National Park until you get to the start of the trails.
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But the length of the journey actually felt romantic. Along the flat, straight road from Punta Arenas we would go an hour without seeing anything but sheep up to their bellies in yellow grass, or maybe a lone farmhouse or a single gaucho followed by a pack of dogs.
Since Bruce Chatwin’s days, the world has gotten much smaller and more familiar, and yet Patagonia retains an anachronistic feeling of being truly far away.
Of course, development has crept in, and the impact of more visitors than ever before is evident, especially on the more popular trails. It was in this park, in late 2011, that a hiker started a devastating wildfire that burned at least 27,000 acres of parkland, leaving miles and miles of blackened scars.
We didn’t go immediately to the park. Our first stop was the Singular Patagonia hotel, about an hour from the park’s entrance, in a former meatpacking plant dating from 1915. The building sits next to the town of Puerto Natales, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the Fjord of Last Hope. A 10-year restoration project brought free-standing tubs and king-size beds to a building that still feels somewhat stark, with long corridors that wind past massive iron relics of the industrial age. Adding to the feeling of end-of-the-worldness, a near-constant wind seems to whistle through the rooms as waves crash along a wooden dock.
The pioneer settlers who came here with their flocks in the late 19th century faced winters that would cut them off from the rest of the world for months at a time, and even now, despite heated floors and excellent food, the weather still rules. A birder had been blown off his feet that morning (luckily he wasn’t hurt), and the high waves had prevented boats from taking tour groups to see the glacier. So we chose a horseback ride, a bracing and exhilarating expedition along the hills next to Lake Sofia, where the clouds seemed to chase the sun across the sky.
(Closer to the park entrance itself, the new Tierra Patagonia is one of the most architecturally inspiring and beautifully positioned resorts I have seen. The long, slender structure hugs the plain like a huge wing of timber and soaring glass. Beyond it, Lake Sarmiento shimmers in the distance with the looming Torres del Paine behind.)
One of the excursions we decided on was not negotiable: the climb to the base of Torres del Paine. We left our son with one of the friendly staff members (though seeing a woman practically sprint up the same trail with her own 2-year-old strapped to her front would later make me feel like a lightweight). Then we set out with Felipe, our local guide, along with two brothers from Texas.
On the drive to the hike’s starting point, I thought that if New Zealand hadn’t been the setting for “The Lord of the Rings” movies, this would have been a natural pick. The grazing areas were filled with herds of guanaco (llama-like creatures), raging waterfalls cascaded from cliffs and mountain ranges rose in the distance.
Our little group made its way upward through the different microclimates. Mostly we were silent, concentrating on our steps, but occasionally we would chat. The fire was on Felipe’s mind. The fact that the hiker had not followed park rules seemed to irk him most. Invaluable real estate had been blackened and charred, and although growth will return, the fire’s effects will continue for decades.
After the daylong hike, from Tierra Patagonia’s indoor pool I watched the sun set behind the three peaks that we had just seen up close. Rarely have I been in a place where nature seemed so unspoiled. Despite the recent fire, I still felt that there were few places on the planet so truly pristine.