The tremendous landscape of Patagonia is infamously unique.
Gargantuan snow-topped mountains, huge valleys, glaciers and insane geological formations pepper the landscape of the southern end of South America. The terrain is beautiful and awe-inspiring – but unforgiving and treacherous at the same time. I found this out the hard way.
Strapping on my hiking boots had never been so challenging. The temperature in Puerto Natales - the town closest to Torres del Paine – was roughly minus five degrees Celsius, making my numb fingers fumble with the shoelaces. I had heard amazing things about Torres del Paine, breathtaking views, an unforgettable climb and a beautiful landscape to traverse. I threw my backpack over my shoulder and made my way onto the bus, eager to see it for myself.
The harsh wind whipped against me as I began my slow ascent to Mirador Torres, my cotton face warmer attempting to block the ferocity of the attack. The hike itself wasn’t terribly bad, even though the wind was fierce, the altitude was significant and the temperature was freezing. The terrain of the hike was the real problem.
Since I was climbing in the winter, the popular attraction was completely desolate. I found out this was for good reason. Where there would usually be upwards of five hundred visitors a day in the summer, I only saw one other person. Many of the paths had ice sheets frozen across them, making both ascending and descending very tricky. Footholds that had been eroded from boots had filled with pools of water, and subsequently froze. Add some mud, rocks and snow into this equation and it makes for quite a challenging experience. I had many minor slips and falls, fortunately none that were serious, but the winter version of Torres del Paine is truly a different beast altogether.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The hike itself was one of the most picturesque I've ever seen. I began climbing through winding pebbled paths around mountainous valleys, diving up and then back down again. After a few hours, some thick woodlands waited for me across a partially frozen river. I weaved through the forest, spotting many woodpeckers along the trail. Eventually I reached a clearing and was able to view the spectacular surrounding snow-capped mountains. And then a literal mountain made of rocks, piled one on top of the other, with trickling streams, snow and ice in-between. And then there it is.
Once you have pushed yourself to climb the final stretch of rock and ice to the wonder that is the 'The Blue Towers'' - all the Paine in the world doesn’t matter.
It’s like you’re on another planet. Huge, soaring pillars of jagged rock with a turquoise lagoon tucked underneath. The enormity of it cannot be quantified or justified – it’s really something you have to see with your own eyes. I breathed in the ambience and solitude of pure nature with no human corruption, before beginning the long nine kilometres back down.
My next experience in the omnipotence of Patagonia was in the small Argentinean town of El Calafate. Around five hours drive from Puerto Natales, I made my way to El Calafate to see the iconic Perito Moreno glacier, part of one of the largest ice fields in the entire world. This too was insane to see with my own eyes.
Five kilometres wide and up to eighty metres in height, the Perito Moreno glacier is a monolith. The thunderous cracks of ice breaking from the glacier are phenomenal, as they fall off and plunge into the waters underneath. It is one of the very few glaciers in the world that is growing instead of shrinking. As I rode a small boat towards the ice formation I felt smaller and smaller, and with a growing respect for both the power and beauty of nature.
I found myself fumbling my cold fingers with my shoes again, this time tightening crampons to my boots. I picked up my heavy legs and lodged my foot firmly into the thick, hard ice of the Perito Moreno glacier. I worked my way up and across the spectacular natural marvel, trying to fathom what I was actually doing. Hiking across a glacier. In Argentina. A truly once in a lifetime experience.
The tour guide made a small incision into the glacier with his pickaxe, allowing an entrance to an icy pool of water. I shoved my face in and drank probably the best water I will have in my lifetime. He taught me many things about the chemistry of glaciers, the history of the park and the rapidity in which they change.
The contorted arms of the glaciers stuck up like tree branches yearning for sunlight. I took some time to peruse the insane formations on the glacier –by-products of time, wind, water and earth.
My last experience in Patagonia ended by enjoying a scotch, filled with glacial ice while sitting on the cold behemoth. The pain in my sore legs from Torres del Paine seemed to have been alleviated, the crunch of metal crampons into ice all I could hear, as my worries melted away like the ice in my drink.
I affixed my gloves, the hood on my jacket and started descending Perito Moreno, as I left the amazing beauty of Patagonia behind and began the slow journey to next destination on my travels.