At the southern tip of South America, close to the Antarctica, is the region of Patagonia. Sparsely populated and shared by the countries of Chile and Argentina, the region offers incredible scenery and diverse wildlife. Because Argentina holds 90% of the Patagonian territory, you rarely hear people who make it to the Chilean Patagonia side. When they do, they have certainly visited Torres del Paine, one of the great wonders of the natural world.
We went to Santiago, Chile, for a conference. After delightful meals in the city, skiing in the Andes, and a visit to a Concha y Toro vineyard and winery on the banks of the Maipo River in the southern suburb of Puente Alto, we took a 2am LAN flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas on a Thursday. The flight was rough due to a storm and the strong winds that they warned us about. “It’s nothing,” I said about the turbulence and cross-winds on our approach to the wind-swept plains of Patagonia, but it’s nothing until you think you are going to die at a place so remote it’s called “the end of the world.”
Day 1: Arrival/Punta Arenas/Puerto Natales
Because we arrived around 5am to Punta Arenas, we needed a place to sleep before our first tour, scheduled for around 9am. Prior to our journey, we hired a company called Full Patagonia Tour because we have never been to the area as a couple and didn’t have much time to plan. I also found that they are the most reasonably priced in the area.
Full Patagonia Tour recommended us to stop at a hotel: Hotel Chalet Chapital—whose managers graciously took us in, gave us a place to rest, and fed us a light breakfast in the morning, around 8am. Our visit time was off-season, at the beginning of September. During that time, in the southern reaches of the southern hemisphere, winter is near it’s end, and it is windy season. The first activity we had arranged was supposed to be a sea-kayaking trip in the Estrecho de Magallanes, but it was so windy, the choppy seas became a hazard. The tour operators were quick about finding an alternative and took us to Puerto Natales (by bus) to go horseback riding with gauchos (the famed expert horsemen) instead.
Traveling through Argentina, gauchos are a familiar figure. They are the original mestizo, a mix between Spanish, European and natives. At their core, they are nomadic heroes of local legend, folklore and song, living off the harsh landscape, herding flocks of cattle or sheep across the vast pampas grassland and moving depending where their skills are needed. Chilean gauchos (sometimes called huasos further north or baqueanos) share a common rugged fraternal bond with their Argentinean, Brazilian, Uruguayan, and Paraguayan counterparts.
We arrived just when the winter was over: this was the first time the horses were out after resting through many long, dark nights. When that happens, they act a bit… “wild”. Our guide, a soft-spoken and immensely-patient gaucho, asked us if we had ever ridden a horse before. My husband replied yes, once, when he was a child (on a lame pony at a birthday party)—which our guide initially took to mean that he had experience riding since he was ten. As we mounted the horses, Gato and Girafa to identify them properly, we noticed that my husband’s giant long-necked steed, Girafa, was a bit hesitant about the novice sitting in the saddle on top. Once my husband started moving with Girafa, the horse immediately launched into full gallop all the way with him back to the ranch, about a half-kilometer away… All I would hear was my husband screaming “HELP! AYUDA!” Gato, on the other hand, just stood there staring and eating some grass, true to his name. This is it, I thought. This horse is stealing my husband and will escape through the pampas. It was a mini disaster and the gaucho found it hilarious. They came back, the gaucho barely containing his laughter. My husband looked at me ghost-white and I knew what he wanted to say: “what have you gotten me into?” He later told me Girafa took him into the corral, likely astounded that he managed to stay in the saddle, and rode around in circles, just to tell him who was really in charge that day.
After that minor hiccup we switched horses (with another called “Lucky”) and proceeded to climb Sierra Señoret, crossing melting drifts of snow, scrub brushes and tall grasses, and trotting between stands of old bosques de lengua (Nothofagus pumilio) and finally arrived to a spectacular Mirador overlook. We quickly forgot about the incident, the beauty of the Patagonia mountains serenade you and take you to another world.
The trip back down was challenging due to the melting snow, loose gravel and steep hills. And a wild herd of horses shadowing our treacherous descent—we learned from our guide that Lucky’s former matriarch was in that herd, checking on her wayward parishioner, beckoning him to rejoin the group of free and wild horses.
At the end of our excursion, the gaucho invited us to his home to have some mate. Drinking mate is a ritual and integral to the gaucho culture—to swap news and stories, to share in warmth and respite from the cold climate, and to recognize the common humanity that weaves us all together. If you are ever invited to drink mate in your visit to the region, always accept as it’s rude not to.
We capped that day by retiring to our hotel in Puerto Natales, a lodge geared to the young, jet-set adventure seekers and climbers, and strolled along Avenida Pedro Montt to another hotel’s restaurant, sinking into an indulgent meal of Antarctic king crab (Sentuyo) and delicious braised Astral lamb (cordero).
Day 2: Torres del Paine
Despite the wet and windy weather, our trip to Torres del Paine National Park was far from a disappointment. It was, honestly, one of the most beautiful sceneries I’ve ever seen in my life. The national park consists of glaciers, lakes, and rivers and its Cordillera is the centerpiece. We only had around 7 hours before catching one of the last buses to Punta Arenas that night, so we arranged for a guided tour where they drove us to the main highlights of the park and surrounding attractions.
Before getting to the park, we made a few stops: Villa Cierro Castillo, Mirador Lago Sarmiento, Laguna Amarga, and from there we could start seeing the famous Torres del Paine, amid roaming groups of guanacos and flightless rheas. Once at the park we stopped at other points including the Mirador Nordenskjöld, and after a walk in which we defeated howling, gale-force headwinds, we arrived to the Salto Grande, a majestic waterfall that joins the Nordenskjöld and Pehoé lakes and from which you can see the towers through rainbows formed by the mists of glacial-fed waterfalls. On the way back we had the opportunity to stop and admire Lake Pehoé and its turquoise-blue waters.
The next stop was at Lake Grey, where a short hike takes you a pebble-strewn “beach” where you can pick up detached pieces of crystal-clear glacier beached by the wind on the shores of the lake. The walk across the beach can be a bit daunting—the winds buffet you—but the view is well worth the trek.
The last stop was the Monumento Natural del Milodón (Mylodon Cave). The Mylodon, or giant sloth, roamed the landscape of the Chilean Patagonia more than 10,000 years ago. A life-size model of the herbivorous mammal is found at the entrance of the cave. That night they took us to the bus stop to go back to Punta Arenas and we stayed at the Hotel Rey Don Felipe.
Day 3: Tierra del Fuego Pingüino Rey
That day when I woke up, I never imagined I would spend an entire day on a bus to spend a few minutes looking at penguins. I did, and I don’t regret it. After a two-hour ferry drive across the Straits of Magellan (Estrecho de Magallanes), we arrived at Tierra del Fuego, landing in Bahia Chilota. Upon arrival, we were taken to the city, Porvenir, and walked through the Plaza de las Armas, Plaza de los Selk’nams and perused a small museum chronicling the history of life in Tierra del Fuego. The Selk’nams were an indigenous group in that region, and one of the last native groups in South America to be encountered by Europeans or Westerners in the late 19th century.
The Pinguino Rey Park is around 114 km from the city, so it takes around an hour and a half to get there, skirting Bahía Inútil. We spent around an hour at the park, and we got to see around 40 penguins, including their recently hatched offspring.
On the way back we took a long route to cross via Primera Angostura, which is further north from Bahia Chilota, where we arrived. For some reason the drive took around 3 to 4 hours and there was a whole lot of nothingness—large expanses of short grass, estancia ranches with a scattering of the hardy breed of sheep endemic to northern, arctic climates, and a few battered sheds and oil derricks. There is little that grows in harsh climatic conditions of this steppe. However, at dark we got to see the most beautiful sky, full of stars like we’ve never seen before. Because it’s so scarcely inhabited, Patagonia doesn’t have much light interference and on a clear night, you can make out the faint band of stardust forming the Milky Way stretching horizon-to-horizon across the ink-black sky.
After a long day, we had a hearty dinner at the hotel and lamented we didn’t have more time to explore more of the Chilean Patagonia.