It started in early September, and my travel has finally come to a close. This past week, we spent the second half of our 20th anniversary trip in the famous Patagonia region on the Chile side. While I had certainly heard of Patagonia, it would be a pretty big stretch to say that I knew much about it prior to the trip. If I’m being incredibly honest, my knowledge of Patagonia did not extend much beyond the fact that it is a well known line of outdoor clothing. For those in a similar boat, here is a quick snapshot of the region…
Most people (including me) probably know that Patagonia is on the very southern part of South America. It straddles across two countries, Argentina and Chile. The entire region (nearly 3 million sq km) has a population of roughly two million people with the significant majority being on the larger Argentina side. Europeans first discovered Patagonia in the early 1500’s with Ferdinand Magellan being the explorer most associated with the area, particularly the famous Straits of Magellan. Its geology is a combination of steppes, mountains, fjords, lakes and coast lines with a large ice pack, the third largest in the world after Antarctica and Greenland, being one of its most defining characteristics. Our trip was to the more sparsely populated Chilean side of Patagonia, most notably around the famous Torres del Paine National Park.
Entering Patagonia at the end of January, we had a crazy notion that it would be summer there, and we could expect some excellent shorts and tshirt weather. This only shows that we did really terrible research prior to going down. Climactically speaking, Patagonia is not for wimps. While the temperatures are certainly higher during the short summer of this region, the weather is most commonly associated (at least on the Chilean side) with huge blustery winds and weather patterns that seemed to change with the frequency of a cheap ham radio. I did not wear my shorts once and frankly I spent a lot of time wishing I had brought a much warmer hiking jacket. All this said, the tough weather is part of what makes this region so appealing. It’s a very rugged place. Dainty people need not apply.
We flew into Punta Arenas from Santiago, and I was treated to my first sighting of the Straits of Magellan. All I could think of was “Wow! I remember hearing about this in elementary school!”. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s an obvious point that this little stretch of calm water was crucially important to world history and trade all the way until the creation of the Panama Canal. From Punta Arenas (the largest city on the Chilean side with a population of roughly 150K), we had a three hour drive north to Puerto Natales, the gateway town (population 10K) to Torres del Paine.
While in Puero Natales, we had the opportunity to spend two nights at the relatively newly built Singular Hotel. I’m not normally one to talk about where I stay as I find it a little distasteful (translation: jerk-like), but I have to make an exception here. The Singular is a beautiful 50 room hotel that was built from an enormous (and obviously now shuttered) sheep processing facility. Back in the early to mid-1900’s, the Patagonia region was a huge producer of sheep, including wool and meat. This particular facility, known as Puerto Borrie, was the primary factory that saw most of the sheep of the region, and it was the primary driver of the local economy for many, many decades. The folks that built the Singular held on to its history, and made a hotel that is part hotel and part museum. It might seem a little creepy to sleep where sheep were slaughtered, but it really is a beautiful and fascinating hotel.
While at the Singular, we had a chance to get in a nice hike where we could see a couple of condors. We also took advantage of a daily boat ride that departs the hotel to travel up to see the Serrano glacier. This was the closest I had gotten to seeing the blue ice close up (my last shot being in New Zealand), it was an incredibly impressive site though I’m still not totally clear on what makes glacier ice blue.
From the Singular, we moved to another lodge that was closer to the Torres del Paine National Park. The Torres del Paine (roughly translated as “blue towers”) has gotten justifiably famous over the years, and it is to Chile as Yosemite is to the US. It’s jagged mountains and famous towers have become a national symbol for Chile, and it was recently cited as the 8th Wonder of the world (I have no idea who votes on this stuff, but who am I to argue). From an activity perspective, the Torres del Paine is known primarily for its two hiking circuits of 5 days and 10 days respectively. It is also a favorite for skilled climbers. While it may not have the highest peaks, it’s climbs are known to be incredibly challenging.
We were in the Torres del Paine area for three days. We spent two of them doing day hikes in the national park, and we spent one day exploring a part of Patagonia further east known as Baguales. We saw plenty of hikers in the Torres del Paine national park, particularly on a hike known as the French Valley (Valle del Frances). Baguales is much less known, and it is more characterized by steppes, primarily consisting of Estancias (farms) with mountains in the backdrop — think the Sound of Music.
We walked and hiked ourselves into submission, and I was reminded once again that I far prefer to hike up than to hike down. Whatever knee and feet pain along with mild hypothermia suffered was more than paid back from some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on. You have to go the end of the Earth to see this place, but it really is worth the trip.
From a photography point of view, I must have 24,000 pictures of the Torres del Paine (and the Paine Massif in particular) taken from every possible angle. However, it was on our second to last night that I was treated to an unexpected photography extravaganza with just about the most amazing sunset/cloud combination I have ever witnessed. It was just one of those special nights when even the locals were scurrying outside to take as many pictures as they could.
As well, we saw some excellent local wildlife, including lots and lots and lots of Guanacos (kind of a camel) and Nandu (a smallish Ostrich).
On Saturday, we began our long journey home, leaving our lodge at 4 AM, and finally arriving back home in Connecticut on Sunday at 9 AM.
Over the next few days, I am going to try to make sense of all of this travel in a some blog posts designed to put a nice little bow on this most incredible and eye opening five month adventure. Until then…