To the bottom of the earth

Craig Tansley discovers Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park is best seen far away from the crowds of summer…

I’m told that this shouldn’t be happening right now, not right here, like this… out in the open. The guides I’m in a 4WD with haven’t experienced this. But I’m in Torres Del Paine National Park on the first day of spring, before the tourists get here; and this is my reward. Outside my door — just a few metres away — is one of the world’s most elusive creatures: the puma of Patagonia. It struts by our car, returning my stare; and then someone moves in our vehicle and it roars in a theaterical kind of way, showing off its razor-sharp incisors. Then it bounds off in long strides, its back end a mass of thick, sinewy muscle.

Each year nearly 250,000 visitors come to Patagonia’s most loved national park — most of these visitors will arrive in the summer months of December to February; crowding the park. But I’m here early; at a time others might consider too cold. In truth, these months of spring are actually warmer, for the infamous winds of summer aren’t blowing (September and October are the calmest months to visit the park, the winds won’t start till November, then they’ll blow till March). My first early morning here brings a frightful chill, but by mid-morning I’m wearing a light sweater, and by lunch, I’m in a t-shirt.

And so I get Torres Del Paine at its most benign, and its emptiest — and it’s home to just me and the pumas. Torres Del Paine National Park is no easy place to access. I arrive here via a flight to the bottom of Chile at Punta Arenas, then I’m driven five hours north. But the drive in is part of the reason to come here: we pass four vehicles in all that time in what feels like the loneliest place I’ve been on Earth. The landscape we pass is stunning: llama-like guanaco feed in green meadows beneath soaring granite peaks and towers in a land of pampas and steppes. There’s pink flamingos too by the road, and the world’s largest birds — Andean Condors — circling the blue skies above. There’s more cowboys (baquenos) than cars here — I watch them maneouvre their sheep between pastures, finding better grass.

Torres del Paine was once a collection of estancias (cattle and sheep farms) before 185,000 hectares of this region became national park in 1959. The park earned itself world heritage status in 1978, and is now considered the fifth most beautiful place on Earth by National Geographic. There’s a long list of activities guests can choose to do. Though most visitors are here to hike; the name Torres Del Paine refers to the three distinctive granite peaks of the Paine mountain range which dominate the landscape, soaring up to 2,500 metres above the earth.

Most travellers want to hike the Paine Torres (Towers); you can either complete the full circuit in around seven to nine days — staying in mountain huts along the way; or take the most iconic and popular trail, the W route, in four to five days, which leads you across three different valleys. For those who’d rather hike by day and luxuriate by night with a four-course meal in front of a log fire, there is a day hike to the base of the Torres. I’m happy with this option, because some of Chile’s best luxury lodges are built out here. I set out from a deserted carpark alongside a bulging river — the Rio Ascensio, before crossing a bridge and climbing through alpine forest. There’s a long scramble up a loose rocky trail before I arrive and gaze across a frozen lake to a natural amphitheatre where the three granite peaks tower above.

There’s hikes all across the park, while visitors can also bike or horse ride. I join a baquana (cowboy) one day as he musters his flock, he lives out here with just his trusty dog and sheep for company. As the park is made up partly of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, it’s worth taking a kayak or boat ride across glacial lakes every bit as striking as the peaks above them. I drive across the park and find a black sand beach where hundreds of massive ice blocks have dropped from an enormous floating iceberg. Some icebergs here are over 50 metres high, behind them huge peaks jut down at right angles straight into fiords.

These days, the popularity of the park means there is a strict overnight reservations system in place — but by avoiding the busy, windy months of summer (though don’t even consider winter when there’s only a few hours of sunlight and freezing conditions) you’ll have a chance to experience the lonely Patagonian steppe by yourselves… oh, and the pumas.

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