Highway at the End of the World
Patagonia, I first fell in love with the place simply based on the word. I was ten. Dad had already read us the Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s books and was now working through Madeleine L’Engle’s novels. And, there in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, this magical place on the other side of the world. Later I would read accounts of the voyages of Magellan and Darwin, devour Bruce Chatwin’s, Paul Theroux’s, and Sarah Wheeler’s accounts of travel to and through that land, learn about the complicated struggle for possession between Argentina and Chile for Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. You can fall in love with places you’ve never been to. It’s true. But as always with such affairs of the imagination disillusionment is a real and present threat. Can a place be as majestic as the accumulation of thirty years of dreaming and reading about it?
After more than 20 hours of travel by car and plane, not counting the waiting in airports, my wife and I landed in Punta Arenas, Chile, the southernmost city of continental South America. The road sign announced we were on La Ruta del Fin del Mundo, or the Highway At the End of the World. To our south lay the Strait of Magellan and just beyond it, a dark line rising above the water, Tierra del Fuego. Our destination was Torres del Paine, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, considered one of the most beautiful and most remote places on earth. In fact, we still lacked a five-hour drive north through wind-swept steppe to get to the massive mountains that form the southern limit of the Patagonian ice fields.
The place is so remote, at 51 degrees latitude south, that when Chileans refer to El Sur, they imagine the island of Chiloé, which sits at 42 degrees south. Regarding this, Peter Mattheisen, in his 1961 travel account The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness, writes, “The southerly limits of travel in South America…is Puerto Montt, which lies at the head of the Corcovado Gulf and the Chilean Archipelago…To proceed further than Puerto Montt, one should probably have a better reason than my own, which is nothing more than a desire of long standing to lay eyes on Patagonia, the Strait of Magellan, and Tierra del Fuego.” But when it comes to travel, unless exile or livelihood are one’s motivations, George Mallory’s response to the question of why climb Everest seems justification enough. Why? Because it’s there.
I had first heard of Torres del Paine in Across Patagonia, a travel narrative written the late Victorian novelist and travel writer Lady Florence Dixie. The book, published in 1880, recounts six months spent hunting guanaco and ñandú, a sandy-colored, flightless, ostrich-like bird that once roamed Patagonian tablelands and canyons in large numbers. She describes the mountains of Torres del Paine as possessing infinite beauty and grandeur, an assessment also made by National Geographic in 2012 in their 100 most beautiful places to visit. Though they listed these mountains at number five, they chose a shot of Torres del Paine to grace the cover of their special issue.
As we drove through tuft grasses, flowering shrubs, and fields of impossibly large lupin in every shade of purple imaginable, I watched the landscape closely, hoping to spot Patagonia’s iconic wildlife. I especially wanted to see guanaco, condor, and ñandú. Two years ago I taken a group a of college students on a travel course to Ecuador, every time I asked, “Is that a condor?,” people laughed, “No, just a turkey vulture.” Since condor and ñandú are threatened species, I feared a repeat of Ecuador. But as we moved away from Punta Arenas, we began to spot lone ñandú feeding among grazing sheep and were soon rewarded with the sight of a pride of 15 chicks gallivanting across a clearing, guarded by their father. Once in the park condor sightings were a daily occurrence. Twice we watched these large raptors dive off cliffs above us and rise on thermals. Everywhere we turned, it seemed, there were wild animals: in a fjord, a wedge of black-necked swans; in a green lagoon, pink Chilean flamingos, summering; ambling beside the road, a family of Humboldt’s hog-nosed skunks. As for guanaco, they birth in the spring and mate in the summer and we got to see both a chulengo nursing while its mother grazed and young males rutting.
The road to Torres del Paine from Punta Arenas goes through Puerto Natales, a charming fishing town set in a maze of fjords at the mouth of the Inlet of Last Hope. Some prefer to stay in the town’s cheap hostels or luxury hotels with Finnish spas rather than closer to the park. With only two and half days allotted for Patagonia, we couldn’t afford the two hour daily roundtrip, so we pressed on.
Our hotel, Hostería Lago Tyndall, was located just south of the park’s western entrance in the tourist town of Río Serrano, which includes three other hotels and an assortment of cabins. It’s set in a wide valley, whose river runs turquoise due to glacial flour, and is about 20 miles south of the mountains, a distance that allows all the peaks and horns of the Paine massif to be seen as they rise above the plain and are veiled and unveiled by ever-changing orographic clouds. The gravel road that leads to it winds through a mix of moorland and beech forests that grow in the shadow of the snowcapped Tenerife mountain. Somewhere around 30 miles from the park, the road bends and the peaks of Torres del Paine come into view. We had found our north star, we thought.
But, this is Chile. Despite the intensive roadwork carried on in the last five years or so, in an effort to unite this long, thin, mountainous country, road signs for hazards appear with little warning, immediately before the danger or detour. Three-hundred feet before a pothole there’s a warning sign, and beside the hole, an orange diamond with an exclamation point. Eighteen miles from our hotel, a sign informed us that the road was closed. Our detour to the eastern entrance through rolling hills and beside blue lagoons was no less beautiful, but it added an unexpected 125 miles and left us without enough gasoline to make the return trip to civilization. Fortunately a thriving black market exists to help sad souls like us who fail to fill their tanks before leaving Puerto Natales. But we paid dearly for our oversight – $40 for 2 1/2 gallons, just enough sputter back to town on fumes.
In a way this was punishment for circumventing the economics of Latin American tourism which encourages travelers to pay guides to drive them along prescribed routes and tell them the most obvious of things. Torres del Paine is no exception and the livelihood of countless guides and drivers depends on this system. Those who favor their freedom must pay, in the end, for these preferences, especially if they ignore that one important rule of car travel through remote areas, “Always fill up in Puerto Natales.”
Our first day in the park was spent about Lago Grey, where we hiked around a small peninsula with porcelain orchids, prickly heath, barberry bushes, fuchsia, and beech and then took a three-hour boat tour over a gray mountain lake littered with blue icebergs to the face of Glacier Grey.
The second day we did the most popular day-hike in the park, a 12 mile roundtrip trek to the base of the Paine massif’s three monumental towers. On the walk we ascended from somewhere around 80 feet above sea level to 2,900 feet. The last half-mile was a 1,200-foot ascent over a moraine of giant boulders. After picking our away across the glacial debris and rounding a rock the size of a large van, we stood before a green lagoon in a large granite bowl and the three spires that soared up another 6,000 feet. The hike, which took us about six hours, is grueling, and I would not recommend trying it without the proper hiking shoes. Still, we saw people making the ascent in every state of dress, from every age between five and 70, and in various states of physical fitness.
In 1978 the park was designated a UNESCO biosphere reserve. Soon after that the Chilean government began to beef up infrastructure for tourism. Over the past two decades, these efforts have increased and have also been quite fruitful. People from all over the world numbering in the tens of thousands visit every year. Still, though the trail and summit were packed with people and though the solitary encounter with sublimity that Dixie describes was not ours, these mountains, tucked away at the bottom of the world, are so magnificent that it is possible, even while surrounded by multitudes, to feel personally addressed.
For the traveler who would like to go, there are hostels and hotels at many price points. Most will arrange horseback riding, kayaking, glacier hikes, fly-fishing, and other such activities. Where we stayed, outside the park, the hotels are cheaper than those inside, and the accommodations more Spartan, but the mountain views more than make up for the lack of luxury. For the true trekker, there are camp sites that cost between $9 and $15 a night. In an effort to keep our costs low and let us stay on trails as long as possible, will stocked up on lunch provisions in Punta Arenas. Chilean beer is nothing to get excited about, but we did find some very good wine for $7 that here runs close to $20 and in the park close to $30.
Several locals told me the true magic of Patagonia happens in the fall, when the foliage is bright, the days short, and the sky filled with stars. A legend says that should one eat the berries of the calafate bush a return trip is all but inevitable. I ate many, even though they weren’t yet ripe. Next time I’ll come back in late fall, probably with a group of students following Darwin’s trail.