Patagonia: a magical-sounding name for a faraway land

Fin Del Mundo – ‘End of the World’, that what the sign says, but it felt that way as we rented a car in Puerto Natales and drove the 2 hours, mostly on gravel roads, to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile. Our hotel was, Hotel Torres del Paine.

Patagonia is far south in South America, one would think being this far south in the Southern Hemisphere it would be lovely summer. Summer is here only on the calendar, as temperatures during the days were in the low 40’s and night temps getting to the low 30’s. It was often very windy with near gale force winds. We were told to park the car into the wind as the wind can take off the car door if parked downwind. Of course, this introduced other challenges as it was difficult to open the door, and once opened, keep it from closing on your leg.

The region comprises the southern section of the Andes mountains as well as the deserts, steppes and grasslands east of this southern portion of the Andes. Patagonia has one of the most dramatic mountain regions in the world – a rugged land of huge granite peaks soaring above the grasslands. Soaring almost vertically more than 2000m above the Patagonian steppe, the granite pillars of Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine) dominate the landscape of what may be South America’s finest national park. Before its creation in 1959, the park was part of a large sheep estancia.

Most people visit the park for its one greatest hits (those iconic towers) but, once here, realize that there are other attractions with equal wow power. We’re talking about azure lakes, trails that meander through emerald forests, roaring rivers you’ll cross on rickety bridges and one big, radiant blue glacier. Variety spans from the vast openness of the steppe to rugged mountain terrain topped by looming peaks.

Part of Unesco’s Biosphere Reserve system since 1978, the park is home to the guanaco, a sub species of llama, which has the look of a camel, we watched them graze the open steppes where pumas cannot approach undetected. After more than a decade of effective protection from poachers, these large, growing herds don’t even flinch when humans or vehicles approach.

When the weather is clear, panoramas are everywhere. However, unpredictable weather systems can sheath the peaks in clouds for hours or days. Some say you get four seasons in a day here, with sudden rainstorms and knock-down gusts part of the hearty initiation.

The crowning attraction of this 1810-sq-km park is its highly developed infrastructure. The housing section is on land that was once the estancia, and is right in the middle of the park. From there there is a myriad of hikes, easy to hard, hours to days. We stayed at Hotel Los Torres (the red buildings) and considering how far it is from anything else, they do a really nice job.