Bienvenidos A Patagonia

I felt like a newborn, jolted awake and alive by the stinging strike of the unquestionably cruel, Patagonian wind. Nothing prepared me for it, no matter how much I had read or heard about it. 70 kilometer-per-hour winds assaulted me, stopping me dead in my tracks, even bending my symmetry to its will. 

It is not surprising that the environment is unforgiving in Torres del Paine National Park, regarded the Patagonian region’s crown jewel, that cuts across both Chile and Argentina. The dramatic landscapes that I travelled far to admire could have only been shaped by the pervasive, powerful forces that rudely greeted me and yielded not an inch to my presence. Nature makes no exceptions. 

This is Torres del Paine—extraordinarily striking but unmistakably temperamental. 

When the weather throws a fit, it can be downright unjust. Cloud cover could descend to cover granite spires with thick, obstinate layers of mist, depriving eager visitors of the dramatic spectacle. Rain could fall incessantly for days, water-logging everything but the most determined spirits. When the weather does finally acquiesce, it does so in a fit of self-indulgent generosity. 

Mere mortals put up with these histrionics when in the presence of the remarkable. 

I was fortunate though. When it mattered, Torres del Paine shunned all modesty and volatility, flaunting her qualities grandly like an overbearing goddess. Glaciated peaks, grand spires, electric blue glaciers, and lush valleys are among her best features, each individually noteworthy. Considered as integral components of the whole however, the park’s appeal is enhanced a ten-fold. 

This is Torres del Paine—extraordinarily striking but unmistakably temperamental. 

From Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city at the tip of South America, I traveled 250 kilometers by bus to Puerto Natales, the park’s jump off point. The desolate road went on interminably, and with every passing kilometer, I headed further away from civilisation and deeper into Patagonian territory. The landscape was barren: wide-open plains as far as the horizon, its monotony broken only by the white, stuttering lines of lonely road. I however, welcomed the long journey, if only because it provided quite a challenge, separating those determined to be here from those who merely aspired to. I was selfish. I wanted Torres del Paine for myself; or at least for us with a strong desire to be here. Arriving in Puerto Natales, I made final preparations, renting tents, sleeping bags, and camping gear, for the jaunt to the park the following day. 

The “W” 

Exclusive for the fit and extremely adventurous, the circuit, a gruelling 10-day, 100 kilometer venture that circles the Paine massif, is the only purist method of tackling the park. The less dedicated (or less capable, endurance-wise) prefer day trips or overnighters. With this approach, only a small segment of the park is viewed up close, and the bulk of other, equally wondrous sections will be missed. I opted for the “W,” the popular a track that follows in the letter’s shape. It led me to her different highlights—the uneven Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine, pronounced pay- ne), the peculiar Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine), the hanging glaciers and howling winds of Valle Frances (French Valley), and Glacier Grey and its icy crevasses. It bypassed the supposedly “less dramatic” portions at the park’s northern section. Technically, the trek can commence from either of the W’s end-points, however the recommended approach is counter- clockwise so that the journey builds up to a resounding apogee at Torres del Paine, the limestone needles from where the park derives its name. Its over 80 kilometers distance can be completed within five days. 

The durability of my boots was tested by surfaces that alternated between steady ascents over gradients, and marshy and muddy ground.

The trail was moderately challenging in general, and required occasional scrambling over boulders, in addition to active trekking. The durability of my boots was tested by surfaces that alternated between steady ascents over gradients, and marshy and muddy ground. Deep introspection, sporadic conversation, and the sound of belabored breathing, would be interrupted by a constant fixture: luminous, emerald- green lakes with non-Spanish names. 

In running streams, I refilled my plastic bottle with pure, refreshing water only made possible by glacier chill. Herds of pointy-eared Guanacos, cousins to the Llama, grazed trough plains and wildflower-laden mountainside. Black Pumas and magnificent Condors were said to roam these parts freely and I kept watch, hoping to catch a glimpse of these elusive, beguiling animals. 

Refugios: Patagonia Hilton 

Taking into realistic consideration the average trekker’s physical capabilities, refugios (cabins) are strategically placed throughout the park, but what bunks are available for rent but are quickly taken. Those with tents also camp here. For good reason: if Patagonian weather is harsh by day, when night falls, it becomes even more formidable. Refugios are safe havens, and everyone converges here. 

Only a certain type of persona chooses to subject himself to harsh elements in search of thrilling experience. And so those who are drawn invariably share a certain kinship. Around the campfire or in the cabin’s mess halls, life stories were exchanged, without reservation, between strangers never to be seen again. Themes were constant: stories of upheaval, of unrewarding jobs abandoned, and a thirst for nobler aspirations, of long-term relationships ended, of the need to rediscover oneself, and of graver matters, of death. Matt, a Carolina native related how he had lost his wife to cancer and was there to scatter her ashes. I listened to other tales of lives in transition but his was perhaps the most compelling. 

In Patagonia, they say you bring the weather with you. They say there are four seasons in one day. They say there are no guarantees here. All philosophical musings devolve in the face of the weather. And while in calmer climes, it is the stuff of polite conversation, here it is a conversation staple, discussed with the utmost concern. 

No guarantees

The trek’s final, most arduous leg came when both my resolve and strength were at their lowest. I had already covered over 10 kilometers of steep incline, yet the towers beckoned still. The top of the spires peeked, still hidden from view by the last mountain face that confronted me. The weather had been uncharacteristically generous, her blue skies holding. It was now up to me to negotiate the 45-minute clamber through the moraine. 

Few vistas rivalled this. This was a great day. It felt good to be alive.

The panorama that spread out before me was the most mesmerizing mountain scene I had ever beheld. Three spires protruded, standing guard like sentinels over an amphitheatre of red and brown boulders and high granite walls encircling a glacial lake. The base of the long stony fingers seemed to leak white flour. 

Few vistas rivalled this. This was a great day. It felt good to be alive. I spotted Matt at a lake’s edge, at the bottom of the lookout point. He had gone ahead, a canister perhaps emptied at last. Its contents—vestiges of laughter, smiles, sorrows, hopes, dreams, of a shared life cut short, presently transfigured into black soot, or dissolved in the tarn’s clean turquoise, or carried by the wind to forever and finally settle everywhere. I know better than to join him. I leave him alone with his solace. I suppose it was a good day for farewells as well. I never asked, but in Patagonia, or anywhere else for that matter, there are no guarantees.