Exploring the wilderness of Chilean Patagonia
New flights have brought Chilean Patagonia closer than ever. Hannah Summers hops on board for an icy ride…
Published: Tuesday 10th January 2017
I’m being ravaged by the wind. Not any old wind, but a 60mph, knock-you-over-and-throw-you-onto-your-ass kind of breeze that’s making people around me shriek and scream. I’ve already fallen over. Twice.
Here’s some friendly advice: when you visit Chilean Patagonia, come prepared. It’s a place where you’ll be subjected to four seasons in one day. In one hour, even. I’m standing on a mindblowing beach, the most beautiful I’ve seen. Not your archetypal mindblowing beach – no soft white sand, no turquoise water. Instead it’s a vast sweep of near-black stones – tiny shards of rock that needle me in the face with each violent gust.
The rain comes from above, from the side, maybe even below, coating my now red-raw cheeks. But I’m addicted to this place, to this feeling, to this volatile situation. Patagonia’s ethereal drama has been written about a lot by novelists and adventurers, most famously 40 years ago in Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia: “It is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness,” he wrote. And today I am restless. Because it has taken me forever to reach here.
For a long time, getting to Patagonia – the huge and varied region that spreads through Chile and Argentina and covers the southernmost section of South America – has required dedication, patience and many, many hours. I did all that so you don’t have to: new for this season, these distant landscapes can be reached easily and quickly.
Flights from the Chilean capital, Santiago, will deposit you in the town of Puerto Natales, virtually on the doorstep of the famous Torres del Paine National Park and the surrounding mountains, glaciers and fjords.
The beach I’m currently being blown around on is Grey Beach – bordering Grey Lake, it stretches long, far longer than you’re thinking, and wide, wider than any beach I’ve seen, until it touches a cliff at the very far end. I take the narrow, exposed path, which snakes its way around the rock face, clinging on to tufty bits of bush and precariously sidestepping my way towards what I’m looking for: icebergs. These huge, towering hunks of blue ice sit in a swirling mass of steely water. It’s cocaine for the eyes.
i watch barbie-pink flamingos basking in a rare one-hour slot of sunshine
Chen Chien, my 50-something Patagonian guide, is unfazed by the gusts. “Last time I was here the wind was so strong – maybe 80mph – that I turned around to see a whole group of people on their backs like turtles.” On a sunny day – they happen, occasionally – this 32.6sq km mass of water glints a turquoise blue, the white ice refracting glorious rafts of light.
“This is my home,” Chen Chien says, gazing out at this tiny piece of chaos within the massive, untameable expanse of Patagonia. This local hero has lived in this part of Chile his entire life, and he spends his days guiding keeno travellers around his gigantic backyard. I love him. I love his homemade hat – a knitted, beret-type thing with a big bobble on a string that dangles down in front of his eyes, which are fringed with soft, long eyelashes and surrounded by tiny laughter lines. I love his fashion faux pas – including a 1970s-style tan leather waistcoat that’s part long-haired rock star, part Chilean gaucho getup. I love his funny little drink, yerba mate, the leaves of which he stores in a slightly-humming old cow skin. I love his facts, his stories about his family and his occasional melancholy.
“This,” he says, pointing to his hand-stitched leather waistcoat, “used to be what all the gauchos would wear.” “What do they wear now?” I ask him. “Gore-Tex anoraks,” he replies. He drives us around the sights of this little slice of Chilean Patagonia and the famous Torres del Paine National Park – a crazy collection of mountains, glaciers and lakes.
Our first stop, though, is at the Mylodon Caves, about 24km north west of Puerto Natales. This 70 million-year-old rock formation is named after the now-extinct mylodon – a giant, sloth-like creature once found in the caves. Here, deep in the vanilla-hued sedimentary rock, stalactites the size of my thighs dangle from the ceiling, and bizarre limestone formations shaped like bulbs of garlic smother the gritty walls.
Wild, blockbuster vistas may be the main draw in these parts, but wildlife’s a big deal, too. Every car journey delivers. I watch Barbie-pink flamingos basking in a rare, one-hour slot of sunshine. Ginger cows plod around the empty, barren roads, their big, rotund bellies stretching out weathered skin. Guanacos – alpaca-like animals – conga-line along the scraggy slopes, bums wiggling, loose, fluffy, butter-coloured perms ruffled by the famous Patagonian wind.
A grumpy gaucho trots past on a horse, cocooned in a duvet of faded, once-neon eighties puffer jackets and perched upon what looks like a sheepskin rug. But it’s the birds that get me. Yes, birds. Condors, in fact. I obsess over them in Canal Señoret – a vast fjord that we whizz across in a speedboat, while glacial water sprays my face and dark, moody clouds drape themselves along the tops of the surrounding mountains.
The boat engine cuts and I gaze up at the Balmaceda glacier. The only way to get a look at its frozen face is by boat, which reveals lower ice tinged with dazzling fluro blue, and a middle stained a faded-1960s-carpet brown – think Werther’s Originals.
we call this prickly plant the mother-in-law bush, because it’s so spiky
On a cliff beside it the condors have made their nests. These scavengers live up to 50 years, pop out chicks every two, and swoop for miles, hunting for the leftover scraps of a puma’s latest kill. They circle above us, dipping in and out of rocky outcrops, where hypnotic jagged lines and swirls mark millions of years of history. It might just be the sexiest rock I’ve ever seen.
It gets better. Camouflaged in a little grey crevice, I spot slippery, soft-skinned whiskered lumps – families of plump, snoozing sea lions that plop into the water every few minutes and lazily heave themselves back onto their ledges afterwards. Their home is deep in the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park – the largest and least-visited park in Chile, and the remote setting for the Serrano glacier.
I clamber out of the boat, layer up, and trace the side of the water, where coloured poles mark how much the glacier has retreated, and melted, over the decades. “This one,” Chen Chien tells me, pointing to a yellow stick some fifty metres from the base of the glacier, “is from 1969. Just like the Beatles.” Climate change woes aside, this is all my GCSE Geography dreams come true. Water trickles down the milky-blue ice, which stretches far up into a cloud-shrouded mountain. It’s totally silent, aside from the distant sound of streams weaving their way down the rock, and waves sloshing at the huge chunks of ice that litter the glacier’s base.
Over the next two days we tour the glacier fields – barren landscapes where high trees, low trees and prickly bushes (“We call this one the mother-in-law bush because it’s so spiky,” Chen Chien says) sit alongside deep blue lakes, grey, looming mountains and colourful, wooden bus stops.
Yep, even the bus stops demand a picture. At one point we pull over for a photograph. It’s not a particularly incredible view, in comparison to what we’ve seen, but it’s a frame that sums up my time here: wild, windswept, dark and moody; low cloud and rain. Drama, drama and more drama.
I watch Chen Chien as he looks out over his homeland. The bobble on his hat swings erratically in the vicious wind, and a small smile forms on his lips – it’s like he’s seeing this sight for the very first time. It makes me smile, too.
Where to stay
You’ll be looking for a hotel as impressive as the surroundings – and The Singular Hotel, which sits minutes from Puerto Natales airport (gateway to this part of Patagonia), is a stellar pick, and smack-bang in the middle of the action.
The now-luxe hotel once operated as a cold-storage plant in the 20th century, and nods to its history are dotted through the revamped hallways (from old factory machinery to a rickety old jetty that extends from the hotel grounds into the water). Expect James Bond vibes, minus the tux (if you’re not in hiking boots and a puffer then you’re doing Patagonia wrong).
From The Singular, you can start your excursions with the brilliant Chen Chien to the glaciers of the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, to Torres del Paine, and the dramatic mountains and fjords that decorate this part of the world.
Back at the hotel, warm up in the spa (you’ll be cold) or glug some Chilean wine by the huge fireplace. The best bit? The view from your bedroom. Yep, you don’t even need to leave your duvet to appreciate Patagonia. It might be a good idea if you did, though.
LATAM Airlines return fares between London and Puerto Natales (connecting in Santiago) start from £853 including taxes. latam.com