Time out in Torres del Paine

By | Category: Travel destinations
the view from Salto Grande

the view from Salto Grande

Travelling north from Puerto Natales, a small town on the shores of Última Esperanza Sound, my surroundings kept turning increasingly bleak and uncompromising. Apparently it was this same landscape that inspired Chilean Nobel Laureate Gabriela Mistral to write her famous poem “Desolación” and I could well believe it. My final destination was Torres del Paine national park, in Chilean Patagonia, where I’d be spending a few nights in one of the most amazing abodes I’ve visited to date, the Tierra Patagonia hotel.

The subtle vistas of muted earthen colours and windswept plains did little to prepare me for the natural wonders of the national park, let alone my home for the duration of my stay. Only when we pulled up right outside did I actually spot it, so cleverly designed to blend in with the environment was this cosy hideaway, overlooking Lake Sarmiento and the peaks of Cuernos del Paine. My room also came complete with vast panoramic views of the lake and mountains – so far, so fantastic.

Spending the day indoors admiring the hotel, marvellous though it was, really wasn’t an option with such spectacular natural attractions right on my doorstep. After a bit of an amble, checking out the ample common room-cum-bar/restaurant with a huge, central fire place (seemingly necessary at any time of year – it never gets that hot in Patagonia), it was time to finally venture outside and get closer to nature.

I was provided with an excellent info sheet detailing a self-guided walk down to Lake Sarmiento, one of Torres del Paine’s many waterways. The lake stretches almost 23 km, with a glorious backdrop of the park’s highest peaks, easily viewed from the lakeshore. For quite a while I was too busy looking up to look down – the three Cuernos del Paine, Paine Grande (the highest in the park at almost 3,000 metres), Almirante Nieto and the Torres del Paine that give the park its name, all towered before me, on the opposite side of the lake. After drinking in the view sufficiently, I finally thought to look down, only to discover an interesting assortment of plants and flowers, including calafate bushes, whose berries make the excellent calafate liqueur, among other things.

waterfalls at Salto Grande

waterfalls at Salto Grande

A short walk was quite enough for the first day – there were more strenuous activities to come and I don’t mean the munching of the gourmet dinner or the sampling of the calafate mojitos, while watching the fading sun tinting the mountains mauve. Day two of my stay was in fact a grand tour of the park – a full day taking in the areas to the east, south and west. Torres del Paine is by no means a small place and if hiking you’d need a good week to do the main circuit. Since I had neither the week, nor the stamina, I set off on a mini bus tour instead, entering the park at the Lake Sarmiento entrance, one of four entrances (Tierra Patagonia lies just outside the park boundaries).

I admit travelling by mini bus is quite possibly not that strenuous, but seeing the sights is thirsty and hungry work. In just a short morning, I stopped at the scenic Lake Nordenskjöld viewpoint (slightly surprised to find a fellow Swede, Otto Nordenskjöld, had beaten me to this very spot by some hundred years), the mighty Salto Grande waterfalls and Lake Pehoé, all the while checking out countless guanacos – those none-too-fearsome, rather cuddly llama relatives – contentedly stuffing their faces on the tasty Patagonian steppes. Personally I found this very inspiring and as soon as opportunity presented itself, I followed in the guanacos’ footsteps. Admittedly my lunch consisted less of grass and more of cold chicken and beef, breads, olives, quiches and salads, accompanied by some lovely Chilean wines.

The afternoon was spent trying to walk off some of the “stuffing” along the shores of Lake Grey, neighbouring one of the park’s most impressive glaciers, unsurprisingly named Grey Glacier. The weather took a turn for the worse, adding more grey to its two namesakes, but luckily that roaring open fire was awaiting me in the Tierra Patagonia common room after a hard day’s sight-seeing. It would have been so easy to settle in for a few days, sinking into a comfy seat, just admiring those views, but there was more of the scenery to be seen and more ways of seeing it.

Cuernos del Paine

Cuernos del Paine

Equipped with two sturdy poles for a spot of Nordic walking, I set out along the so-called Hunter’s Trail, the following morning. This 8-km trail runs from the Laguna Azul park entrance, through varied scenery, down to the Lake Sarmiento entrance and, for the uphill stretches in particular, those poles come in handy. Hiking cross-country through the shrubby Patagonian landscape, there was ample opportunity to admire both flora and fauna. The ubiquitous calafate bushes of course, but also the less well-known chaura plant. Guanacos were so plentiful I was almost worried I’d accidentally tread on one and admiring the peaks, I could easily spot falcons, eagles, even condors, soaring high above the steppe.

The morning’s hike had inspired me to new heights of energetic bravado and for the afternoon I decided to get on a horse for the first time in several years. My horse for the occasion was called Confite (Candy) and seemed awfully large, but I was promised only my comfort zone would be stretched and I would be able to walk afterwards. I took the guaso’s word for it, (a guaso is a Chilean cowboy) and sure enough, Confite was gentle and easy to manage. Setting off at a sedate pace we passed through a bright-green, forested area, crossing two streams, on our way up to a small clearing with majestic views over the Torres del Paine massif. I would have stayed on, improving my guasa skills, but I had an important date. An hour later I was appreciating the same mountain scenery from the hotel’s outdoor yacuzzi, followed by a hydro jet massage and some excellent solitary sweating in the sauna. A perfect end to a perfect stay.

the only way to travel

the only way to travel

For more information about Torres del Paine, click here.

For more information about Chile, click here.

Getting there:

LAN Chile  flies from Santiago to Punta Arenas, the nearest airport. It’s also possible to fly to El Calafate, across the border in Argentina, with Aerolineas Argentinas. Buses from Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales stop at several of the park entrances. Inside the park itself hiking, hire car, horseback or organised tours are the best ways of getting around.

Where to stay:

Tierra Patagonia, Sector Lago Sarmiento, Environmentally friendly luxury hotel in fantastic location. Gourmet food, first-class bar, excellent spa facilities, excursions organised.

Hostería Pehoé, Sector Lago Pehoé,  Inside the park itself (and the very first hotel to open here), Hostería Pehoé sits on an island in Lake Pehoé, reached by a narrow bridge. Stunning views over Cuernos del Paine.

Hotel Lago Grey, Sector Lago Grey, . Hotel with 60 comfortable rooms, many overlooking Lake and Glacier Grey.

For the hardy, let’s-rough-it lot, the park also offers plenty of refuges with basic facilities and several campsites.

Story and images ©  Anna Maria Espsäter

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