Explore the bizarre landscapes of Chilean Patagonia while staying at an opulent lodge at the heart of the Torres del Paine National Park
To the Tehuelche Indians who lived here before Europeans settlers cleared them out, Torres del Paine was 'The Blue Land'. To me, it seemed like another planet.
As I sat on the ridge of a glacial trough trying to catch my breath, a curtain of silver mist lifted without warning and there were the celebrated 'three towers' – giant fists of basalt, punching skywards out of a colossus of blue ice. The glacier lolled below, a contorted tongue dribbling strands of ice-melt into a turquoise lake.
The Torres del Paine National Park covers 1,800 square kilometres of Patagonia in the far south of Chile. The whole region is a geological freak show of pyramid peaks, monoliths of magma, seismic fissures and glaciated heights.
From Hotel Salto Chico where I was staying, it was an eight-hour hike to the base of the 'three towers'. My guide Arturo and I started out across an arid landscape littered with grey volcanic pebbles and ravaged by cold dust devils. The welter of wildlife was a surprise: small brown Andean foxes slunk across our path; mad hares zigzagged into the distance; and tawny-coloured guanacos – the lithe, agile, wild cousins of domesticated llamas – stood in haughty poses on overhanging crags. With binoculars we scoured the heights, hoping to glimpse an elusive puma – unsuccessfully as it turned out.
Our trail dived into a dark forest of lenga (southern beech) trees shading a rocky ravine bisected by foaming Rio Ascensio. We picked and ate sweet, wild crowberries. In several places we had to hop across stepping stones, to ford tributaries gushing down from on high. We emerged on to gravely moraine strewn with giant boulders, for a two-hour climb up a 60-degree gradient, punctuated by innumerable false summits.
“It's pot luck. Sometimes we get to the top, munch a sandwich in the middle of a cloud, then come down,” warned Arturo. But the luck was in.
My journey to the Torres del Paine had begun with a 17-hour flight from London to Santiago, followed by a further four-hour hop due south to Punta Arenas, down on the farthest-flung tip of mainland South America. The Torre del Paine National Park, was a day by road further on.
I piled into a hulking 4x4 minibus disguised as an armoured personnel carrier with a handful of Spanish and American tourists. We struck out across an endless expanse of lumpy golden pampas dancing with guanacos. Ungainly rheas, flightless birds not far off the size of ostriches, fled to the horizons.
The only town we passed all day was Puerto Natales, run down and huddled on a wind-harassed fjord. In the plaza, kids were clambering over a retired steam engine – a monument to the railway, torn up decades ago, which supported a British-owned meat works in the early years of the century.
Further on, we paused at the cave where the preserved remains of a mylodon (the Giant Ground Sloth, extinct for 10,000 years) was discovered in 1885. A century later it became Bruce Chatwin's whimsical quest in his In Patagonia. “The cave-mouth gaped, four hundred feet wide…” claims Chatwin. In truth, it is barely a quarter of that, but the fame he lent the place has resulted in the resurrection of the mylodon – not from the original DNA as some had hoped, but in the form of a tacky life-sized fibreglass model. It looks like a cross between dinosaur and a polar bear.
The crags rose abruptly out of the flatness, aflame in a maelstrom of copper and crimson as we approached the plush and incongruously stylish 50-room Hotel Salto Chico next a waterfall at the edge of Lake Pehoe. My room had a stupendous view across the lake to a pair of snow-dusted massive horns, the Cuernos del Paine. Dinner at Salto Chico was seared scallops and rack of Patagonian lamb, pink in the middle and served with Chilean Merlot.
Although no day was as tough as the climb to the 'three towers' base, the contrast between the luxury of the lodge and the exertion of the outdoor activities offered, was a constant theme. A daily choice included hiking, horse riding, mountain biking or boat trips.
One day I walked round the shore of Lago Sarmiento where caracaras and Magallenic geese were rioting, to a cave where ancient Tehuelche rock paintings and hand prints are preserved on the walls.
On another expedition, I boarded a van heading for Lago Grey, a lake strewn with icebergs like an enormous mirror shattered into hundreds of silver, white and aquamarine shards. We crossed a hanging rope bridge, then hiked across a spit of beach and to the end of a headland, gazing in awe at these unearthly examples of nature's sculpture. Occasionally the silence was broken by a reverberating crack like a rifle shot, as another hunk calved from the Grey Glacier.
My final night was cold and windy, yet clear – perfect conditions for a lying in the steaming hot, open air Jacuzzi, down below the lodge at the edge of Lake Pehoe. Wisps of cloud scudded across the sky as spangles of moonlight danced on the lake. I was still there at midnight, slowly poaching as I waited for the mylodons to come out and play.