The jagged peaks of the Cordillera del Paine rise abruptly from the landscape of Chilean Patagonia, forming one of the most spectacular mountain ranges on the planet.
Millions of years of tectonic and volcanic activity formed the massif, forcing the granite peaks of the eponymous ‘Torres’ (towers), from the ground and creating the multicolored face of the pointed ‘Cuernos’ (horns), which look like the crown of a belligerent mountain god.
Shaped by ancient glaciers, the mountains form the core of the Torres del Paine National Park, a magnet for hikers and adventurers in southern Chile and one of the highlights of any visit to Patagonia.
I first came here in January 2004, with the bold intention of hiking the circumference of the entire park with two friends. The ‘O’ circuit, as it is known, required eight days of strenuous hiking in extreme weather conditions that nearly blew our tents off the mountain more than once. But we were young and silly so it was all good fun.
The gargantuan effort was rewarded with rare views of the sublime landscape of the national park; towering peaks, meadows filled with wildflowers and lakes of every shade of blue cover the terrain, as well as flora and fauna indigenous to the region.
This time around, neither my schedule nor my body would permit such an adventurous circuit, so the Señorita and I set out on a couple of day hikes, with one night at a camp site, affording a rewarding and fairly easy way to see some of the highlights of the park.
We eschewed the popular ‘W’ hike – a four or five night crossing of the southern section of the park – and tackled its most challenging section on its own during a mighty full-day effort.
Setting out from Laguna Amarga at the eastern entrance to the park, the route started off with challenging ascent marked with many false horizons and several infuriating sections where the path dropped back down a few dozen metres before climbing once again.
Two and a half rigorous hours of hiking brought us to Refugio El Chileno, where we had made reservations at the campsite. Rather than hiring equipment in nearby Puerto Natales, we had opted for the fairly expensive option of renting the tent, sleeping bags etc. from the refugio.
The campsite is operated by Fantastico Sur, one of two concessions in Torres del Paine, and situated on a tract of private property within the borders of the national park. While other former landowners gladly donated their land for the formation of the national park in 1959, the owner of one huge swathe in the eastern half held out, and now reaps the benefits of selling expensive food and shelter to weary travellers.
But I can’t fault the service; the tent and equipment were already prepared when we arrived, which meant we could dive straight into lunch (ham and cheese sandwiches and a few handfuls of nuts and raisins) before tackling the ascent to the Torres lookout.
After an hour of easy hiking along gently undulating terrain that wound through forests of lenga and pine trees, the path abruptly turned upwards and proceeded to climb for the next hour.
I had forgotten how challenging this section of the hike was, and wondered what on earth possessed us to attempt it, other than my firm belief that nothing worth seeing is easy to reach. The final section climbed 300 metres in the space of one kilometre, and nearly did us in.
Finally, after much huffing and plenty of puffing, we made it to the top – a glacial lake at the base of the vast granite towers – to find low clouds obstructing the view of all but the base of the three peaks. And it was then I realised I had forgotten my camera.
Walking back down from the lookout was almost as challenging as climbing up to it, and the punishing steps that led down to the river must have ruined countless knees in the 55 years of the park's existence
Back at the campsite, the memories of the strain were quickly forgotten, replaced with a huge sense of achievement, and we devoured a classic camping dinner of rice in tomato sauce with chopped frankfurter sausage, accompanied with red wine from a cardboard carton. It was superb.
The next day we returned to Puerto Natales and regrouped before setting out on another expedition into the park, this time to stay at a luxury lodge for an assignment.
From our privileged position on the edge of the park, it was easy to embark on a few day hikes to soak up more of the awe-inspiring landscape.
Accompanied this time by expert guides able to talk us through the flora and fauna of the land, we joined two fairly straightforward outings, experiencing incredible views of the ‘Cuernos’ and 120 kph winds that almost blew us off our feet. Check out the Señorita’s awesome videos here.
We also had a chance to walk through some of the areas ravaged by fires in 2011, which saw 155 hectares of the park burned to the ground during a two-week long blaze. Since the fire – the second since 2000 – the rules and regulations have been tightened significantly. Anyone convicted of intentionally causing a fire can now be jailed for up to 20 years, as well as receiving a hefty fine.
The twisted and burned skeletons of trees destroyed by the fire remain littered across the exposed hillsides, where strong winds helped the fire spread, forming an eerie, alien landscape.
Experiencing the natural wonders of the park and being able to return to five-star luxury afterwards was a slightly different experience from my last visit, and watching the sun dip behind the cordillera with a pisco sour in my hand added a hint of magic to this otherworldly travel experience.