TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, CHILE
Wind roared off the glacier, sending house-sized chunks of ice sailing across the lake below. It was late January, and as I shivered I reminded myself that this was mid-summer.
Summer in Patagonia, that is, here at the southern tip of South America. No roads traverse the massive ice fields that cut this part of Chilean Patagonia from the rest of the country. Neither do people. Unless you've planned for a polar expedition, the only routes here are by air and sea or a major detour through Argentina.
Yet for centuries this South American Shangri-La has lured adventurous wanderers, countless sailors, and runaway gauchos.
Today it's mainly the rugged, pristine wilderness that draws travelers here. As my bus ricocheted through Patagonia's barren plains, I watched the mountains creep closer. It was hard to believe that the night before I'd been having dinner in a cosmopolitan Santiago apartment surrounded by young Chilean professionals.
My dinner hosts were a couple who had traveled to Patagonia on their honeymoon. Torres del Paine, they said, was the most spectacular of Chile's national parks. They were avid climbers and hikers who shopped for their American sleeping bags on the Internet. Another woman in our party worked for Chile's fledgling environmental protection division. She felt that Chileans have a growing interest in protecting their country's great outdoors.
Chile is mountains. The Andes run the length of the country (2,700 miles) on the east, cutting it off from its neighbors. Even the capital city, Santiago, is ringed with peaks that trap the city in smog.
Almost half of the country's population lives in the congested capital; the rest are scattered in the narrow band of mountains, valley, and coast - 110 miles wide at its widest point.
After Santiago, I flew to one of the last outposts in South America, Punta Arenas. Perched on the Straits of Magellan, this remote city was once the watering hole for every ship that sailed around Cape Horn.
The glory days of Punta Arenas ground to a halt when the Panama Canal opened at the turn of the century. Former traders' mansions have become museums, but some sailors stayed behind. Since Ferdinand Magellan blew through the straits in 1520, European immigrants have eliminated the native population. Today, Patagonia's people have roots in Britain, Spain, Scotland, Australia, and the former Yugoslavia, to name a few.
Puerto Natales is a fishing port on one of the many inland waterways that lace the Patagonian coastline. Now the remote town is the gateway for travelers headed to Chile's renowned national park, Torres del Paine.
The road to Puerto Natales is paved on one side only, the wrong side if you are headed north. Our bus driver played chicken with all oncoming traffic. Just as south-bounders hurtled by, we rolled onto the rocks. Occasionally the bus stopped to drop off a passenger at a lonely track leading nowhere.
Puerto Natales has grown to accommodate tourists, however, most homes are still built of corrugated metal, which does not look very warm or cozy in Patagonia's wild weather. Many buildings are painted cheerful colors against the bleak sky.
Torres del Paine is a dusty three-hour ride from Puerto Natales. As our van approached the park, I spotted a flock of pink flamingos against an aqua glacial lake. At the national park entrance, a herd of guanacos - wild llamas - loped past our dust-caked van. After two long bus rides, through a dry and inhospitable landscape, the lush mountains were a welcome sight.
The van left me at a one-plank ferry dock on Lake Peho. An assortment of passengers were gathering for the boat; young Israelis roaming the world after military service, Chilean college students, American and European hikers, and other South Americans on summer break.
When our boat struggled out into the wind, rock spires emerged above the lake shore. This was my first view of the Cuernos, the "horns" of rock at the spine of the park. Waterfalls churned down cliffs into the lake as the wind churned up whitecaps. After coming to the end of the earth by bus, boat, and foot, I hardly expected to stumble into a cozy wooden lodge with dinner on the table. Three back-country lodges in the national park offer bunk rooms and hearty meals for hikers. Reasonably priced and immaculately maintained, these refugios are a welcome respite from the elements.
Well-established campsites are available between the refugios on the main circuit trail around the park. I spent one night camped in a glacial valley beside a river that drowned out conversation. Muffled thumps reverberated around the narrow valley as ice chunks let go of ledges above.
Hiking in Torres del Paine is strenuous, although many trails do not gain much elevation. Most hiking trails are fairly accessible and manageable but fording rivers is the greatest challenge during certain times of the year. As I leapt precariously from rock to rock, I could see my fate: One slip and I'd be glacial pulp headed downstream.
My most memorable hike was a 10-mile trek that followed a lake shore beneath the Cuernos cliffs. The trail rose over rocky bluffs and through fields strewn with alpine flowers. The season changed by the moment: bursts of sun, stray snow flakes, a spattering of rain. From above, a pebbled beach looked inviting, but when I climbed down to the shore, frigid spray drenched me. From high bluffs, the land stretched out in a patchwork of different color lakes: turquoise, aqua, slate gray, and Chilean lapis blue.
Twilight in the distant south stretches until 11 o'clock. My final evening at Torres del Paine was spent in a clover-carpeted valley, where Chilean and Argentine families camp. As night fell, gentle music rose from rings of firelight. Children played soccer while horses ambled through the camps. White clovers glowed like so many stars above in the unfamiliar southern sky.
If you go...
All international flights to Chile arrive in Santiago. From there, three domestic airlines fly to Punta Arenas in Patagonia. LanChile, Ladeco, and National Airlines all offer round trip fares at approximately the same price, $250. In the winter off-season (May to September), prices drop to $200.
A four-day boat ride (one way) runs from Puerto Montt (in the Lake District) to Punta Arenas. Prices range from $250 to $325 depending on class, all included, with Navimag (011-56-2-203-5030). Boats leave once a week on Monday from Puerto Montt. All fares are 35 percent off from May to Sept.
One company, Turibus (011-56-2-779-1377), runs a line from Santiago via Argentina to Punta Arenas. The trip is long and only for the very adventurous. Buses leave twice a week. Other bus lines run the Argentina route from Puerto Montt.
Transportation to Torres del Paine:
From Punta Arenas, several local companies run buses to Puerto Natales. There are multiple departures daily. The trip takes 2-1/2 hours, and is $11 round trip. Several companies run buses or vans from Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park. Tickets are approximately $11 round trip for a three-hour ride. The park entrance fee is $13 for foreigners. Good maps are available in Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, and at the park (011-56-61-691931).
Where to stay:
The Hotel Explora (011-56-2-2066060 ) is the park's luxury hotel. The minimum stay is a four-day, three-night package at $1,040-2,812 per person.
Three hosterias, or rustic hotels, in the park include:
Las Torres (011-56-61-226054 ) single $105-$123; double $119-$134 (45 percent off April through October)
Lago Grey (011-56-61-24705) single $105; double $145
Refugios are a great bargain at $15-$18 per person. There are refugios on the trail at Lake Peho, Glacier Grey, Dickson, Las Torres, and Lago Toro. Some are accessible by road or ferry. For reservations, send a fax to Andescape (011-56-61-411594). There are organized campsites at Las Torres, Peho, Serrano, and Laguna Azul.