As the type of traveller who generally prefers cafe-hopping over hiking, I can’t explain why I was so drawn to Patagonia. But thank goodness we decided to visit it during our time in Chile, as it was a complete and utter knockout.
Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, our starting points, were sprawling, brightly-coloured towns, with tours to see fuzzy young penguins, and local breweries boasting the hugest hamburgers known to mankind. But the real attraction lay in the distance: Torres del Paine.
Torres del Paine is one of the largest and most popular parks in all of Chile, and a place that interprets literally its visitors’ desire to be ‘blown away.’ The whole landscape is defined by the wind. The ground’s a bed of shrubs, tuft grasses, and prickly heath — the toughest little plants I’ve ever seen — and the trees are gnarled and stubby, all hunched in the same direction and covered in a lichen whose name translates to ‘Old Man’s Beard’. Because of the mountains and the wind, the weather’s only constant was change: in minutes, we’d go from sweating in our base layers and wishing we’d worn shorts to layers of fleece and windbreakers (and back again).
I’d known going in that it would be beautiful, but I didn’t realize the extent to which I’d be trying to keep my eyes open as wide as possible, never wanting to blink or look away, trying to take all of it in all of the time. On clear days, the sunrise would turn the mountains a creamy pink, and in the evening they’d be a fierce blue — a constant fixture on the horizon.
We had one hike in particular, which started off easily enough in a field of tall, yellow grass, in which we had to turn back because the wind was blowing so fiercely we worried we’d be blown off the side of the hill. It was so windy that gravel was blowing into my eyes, and my sunglasses case was forcibly lifted from my bag’s side pocket and sacrificed forever to the wilderness. But we paused for a minute along our descent, and just then two massive Andean Condors came gliding right in front of us, just floating along as though to say Pff, it’s just a little breeze, and we just stood there and watched, jaws at our ankles, until finally they were gone.
It was such an amazing, humbling place, but by the end of the week, we were ready for beaches and sunshine and our friends’ wedding, so off we went.
Back next time with part 2!