We’re a long way from New York City. In fact, we’re a long way from just about everywhere.
After a tumultuous flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas and six hours in a van with our new best friends, we arrive at our magnificent base camp—Explora’s Hotel Salto Chico in Chilean Patagonia. The glowing light from the windows is a welcoming site of hospitality here at the edge of the world.
Magellan named Patagonia “land of giants”, and the rugged scale of the landscape can’t be ignored. It’s big and it’s challenging, both to the body and mind. The boundary between sky and earth is elusive—they are constantly intertwined in a dance between jagged mountain peaks and massive roving clouds. The wind cuts harshly across the Pampas, bringing an unpredictable mix of icy rain and warming rays. Every aspect of nature is amplified from the color of the water and glaciers to the heartiness of the wildlife. Yet the challenge of the terrain is inviting and encouraged at Explora.
Once inside the hotel’s warm walls, the real journey is set to begin. Smiling faces greet us, our gear is whisked away to a cozy room, and we are invited to plan our adventures for the days to come. The delicious Chilean wine begins to flow freely. Suddenly there is a friendliness and ease of conversation with our fellow travelers. Panoramic views unfold from nearly every room in the hotel, allowing a seamless experience between shelter and nature. Its clean, architectural lines nestle harmoniously into the landscape, from the dining room perched over a glowing blue waterfall to the sunrise mountain vista that awakens us each morning.
Before dinner we gather with Explora’s team of guides. All of them are young, friendly and coaxing us to take advantage of what each days has to offer—an intense full day hike on part the legendary W Circuit, horseback riding at the estancia, a lighter trek to see indigenous cave paintings and guanacos…the list goes on. We feast on a three-course gourmet dinner and then it’s off to bed to prepare for the 6:00am wake-up call. We’ve chosen to kick it off right by a full day’s hike and boat trip to Glacier Grey.
Bleary-eyed but excited, we board a small boat and don bright orange life jackets. It’s dismal and raining, the water is choppy …but we’ve come such a long way. This is our first taste of adventure in Torres del Paine National Park, home to many of the most spectacular sights of Patagonia. Plate tectonics and glaciers carved this land into a special combination of rugged mountains that rocket from the earth, rolling grasslands, and pristine turquoise lakes like the one we’re crossing. Once on land again we trek on through mountain valleys, unrelenting icy rain, and shearing winds that make walking a balancing act. Much less dramatic weather would have kept us inside “Netflixing-it” back in New York—here in Patagonia the weather makes you feel alive. We trek on to rendezvous with another small boat that will deliver us to Glacier Grey.
To be faced with a wall of glowing blue ice is mesmerizing. At once you understand that a glacier is a moving, living force carving out the land in its wake. It taunts us by shoving a boat-sized chunk of ice into the icy waters below—this will eventually form one of the lake’s aquamarine icebergs. Glacier Grey created much of the landscape here and feeds the streams, lakes, and waterfalls for miles beyond its reach. You can’t ignore the fact that everything here is connected in a delicately balanced and highly evolved eco system.
As the next days pass we investigate all of Explora’s excursions and luxuries. We dine on grilled empanadas and lamb at the quincho barbeque site, ride horses with gauchos, bond with the guides, and recuperate in the Jacuzzi. It feels like paradise but we long for more, remaining transfixed on the ultimate goal—a hike to the towers. Often cloaked in a thick layer of clouds, the park is named for this trio of granite needles the crown the Cordillera del Paine mountains. Their presence is mysterious and magnetic.
We wake to the first clear morning after four days of anticipation and head for the Torres del Paine by van, our eagerness builds as they grow closer. Our day’s journey will be a 17km hike starting at the rolling green base of the mountains, with the sun shining down. We twist upwards through groves of trees and slick muddy paths, crossing rivers and streams over narrow wooden bridges. Mountain valley views unfold before us as we climb higher and higher. After resting briefly we break out of the tree line, revealing the glacial moraine. This vertical field of car-sized boulders stands between us and the towers. It goes up, and up, and up…
Here the journey takes a dramatic change. No longer a steep hike, we are constantly propelling ourselves up and over the boulders, snow and ice. It feels about 50 degrees colder up here than at the rolling green base. Hearty climbers and park rangers pass us by. Fingers go numb and noses begin to run, but the anticipation of reaching the top drives us forward.
We scramble and slip, push and pull until our hands grip the top of the last bolder. As our heads peak up over the edge an astonishing view is revealed. The Torres del Paine stand stoically like gods before us. They are sturdy and unmoved by the dizzying winds and grandeur of the landscape. In their stillness they seem to be alive, watching from their omnipresent vantage point—as if to say “what took you so long?”
To be face to face with the towers is the pinnacle of the Patagonian experience.
As we rest in awe and admiration near the top, we notice a small wooden marker that reads “End of Trail”. Of course, it’s all down hill from here…