A bird's eye view of Patagonia

Written on the 15 September 2010

A pair of hawks skirt above a gushing turquoise waterfall, nearing closer before they swoop past into the distance. I turn my head to see them dissipate from two dark figures into tiny dots against the imposing mountain Paine Grande. Such sights are commonplace in the heart of Chilean Patagonia, where if your curiosity doesn’t keep you moving, the crisp air certainly will.

I search for a word to describe the wonder of the Torres Del Paine National Park, but describing my reaction is probably more apt. How can such a place exist?

Spellbinding with its rolling hills and deep valleys that lead to towering beasts of mountains, rich red flowers and the constant chance of a spectacular discovery around the bend, this is a hiker’s paradise.

Tracks are well-marked and accommodation options include campsites, lodges and luxurious lakeside hotels, so both the avid mountaineer and the unwinding traveller will be able to find their respective adrenaline rushes or well-needed breaks.

Hawks may be prevalent in the Torres Del Paine National Park, but the bird that rules the roost is the Andean condor, with strikingly large black wingspans that can spread to more than 3m. While hiking it can be easy to envy this bird that rules the skies and can access any view it wants, but the satisfaction of witnessing the park’s breathtaking views after long walks is beyond compare.

We base ourselves in Lodge Paine Grande overlooking Lake Pehoe, with shimmering water so incandescent it could belong in the Whitsundays. From here the traveller can either stay put and relax with this marvellous view, embark on several different hikes, or do both.

Passing by this lake that the wild geese make their playground, we then cross through a valley to Lake Grey whose colour is typified in its name. Luminous blue icebergs that have broken off the Grey Glacier drift about below a backdrop of snowy mountains, along a path nestled in to red ochre rocks with stratified twirling patterns as if from a desert somewhere.

On the second day we hike uphill through the French Valley, getting close to the ‘Cuernos’ or the ‘Horns’, a reference to the shape of rugged rock formations that can be seen from the valley.

Drinking from fast-flowing glacial streams along the way, legs sore from the seven-hour return trip, the walk is tough, but every step is worth it to see the Cuernos up close.

Any journey must come to an end though, so to leave we catch a catamaran across Lake Pehoe and then a shuttle bus to the nearest town of Puerto Natales. As a shadow passes over the valley a guanaco, a big llama-like creature with a brown-orange white scraggy coat and mascara eyes, forms a silhouette against the rugged snowy landscape, overlooking the plains in its awkward elegance. Passing by the green-tinged Amarga Lagoon and its pink flamingos that seem out of place, I realise that three days in Torres Del Paine is really not enough.

Eventually the mountains dissipate in the rearview window just like those hawks on the first day, driving through wide expanses of grassland and frontier towns – sheep sheltered from the wind in the scrubs, emu-like rheas running about, but for the most part I feel an overwhelming sense of vastness similar to what we have in many parts of Australia.

This is at least until I step outside and feel how cold it is. Looking out of the plane window I know I will miss this intriguing land, a flat expanse that stretches out into nothingness before opening up and displaying the least-conceivable gems in this diverse Eden.

Chile may not be so synonymous with tourism in the wake of its disastrous earthquake in February, but Torres Del Paine is around 2800km south of the epicentre and the nation is rebuilding. In any case, a few days in Santiago en route will likely be safe and your tourism dollar or peso will help towards the recovery of our growing trading partner.


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