CHILE: FROM THE ATACAMA DESERT SOUTH, TO THE END OF THE WORLD.
DAYS 8 – 16: IN PATAGONIA…
Days 13 -16 – Torres del Paine National Park
We felt ready to trek the trails. That is, until we arrived. We’d researched online and in guide books. Trail conditions were not described in detail but the elevation of the highest PEAK is less than 3000 metres. Hikes here are considered to be one of the best low-elevation hikes in the world. Altitude sickness would not be issue. Low oxygen levels would not be an issue.
The approximate hiking times in our references suggested that it would take about 4 hours up-hill hiking to reach these iconic towers mirrored in a glacial lake. I’m certain that someone has achieved this time but NOBODY we encountered had succeeded in less than 11 hours round-trip. Nobody said they had fun. Most collapsed with relief on the deck, sighing deeply. Most were glad to be done. Most said they spent the time looking down at their hiking boots to ensure they didn’t trip on the rocks or slip on the scree. A few returned just as the sun was setting, having trekked for 14 hours.
Our stop at Puerto Natales to register for the park provided a serendipitous encounter with the “Guide of Guides” Xabier Etxarri. Xabi travels from his Basque homeland to his beloved park one month annually to train the new guides. Chatting with him in the combi and at supper convinced us we’d both prefer nature with a naturalist, who also happened to be an astrophysicist who had become bored with his former life as a professor at University of Madrid. Our concurrent arrival provided us with an unparalleled opportunity: we spent the next fours days meandering valleys and mountains learning the English, Spanish, and Latin binomials for plants and animals (vs trekking up mountains with the objective of summiting and to return to base within a stated time).
Eco Camp Patagonia was our home base for four days. Though all eco-domes look equal on the outside, accommodations range from bare-bones unheated shelter with shared facilities to luxurious cabins with wood stoves and attractive ensuite bathrooms. Situated at the northeastern end of Lake Nordenskjold the dining room, bar, and deck areas provided unobscured views of the elegant Torres del Paine (Paine Towers). Though that was as close as we came, after every day hiking with Xabi and the new guides, we enjoyed cold beer on a sun-bathed deck admiring these magnificent spires.
Our excursion on Lake Grey was an unexpected highlight. To get to the boat, one had to walk 1km across a wind swept beach past 40 metre tall iceberg bits calved from Grey Glacier at the northwestern end of the lake. Waves smashed onto the beach, a reminder that our boat trip had almost been cancelled: the wind blew at 40 Knots (74 km/h) just at the cusp of risk outweighing benefit. Turbulent skies provided a great backdrop for photography and once we reached the northwestern end of the lake, the iceberg itself shielded us from the whipping wind. The sun arrived just in time for cocktails on the upper deck!
Next up? Wine tasting in the Central Valley.