We have a long overland ride today, 8 hours or more depending on how many stops we make along the way; we will take some of this time to learn about the landscapes and natural features of Patagonia, there will be time for lunch some hiking and of course bathroom breaks.
After crossing the border into Chile we stop at a border outpost for lunch; the building also has a gift shop, a bit of a surprise out here in the middle of nowhere.
Stepping off the bus we were nearly blown over by the fierce winds and crossing the street became an ordeal. We have been reading and hearing about the Patagonian winds and thought we were prepared but until I stepped out into it I really did not understand what 50-70 mph winds meant and I do not know how strong it was on this day but it could easily knock you off your feet. Yikes!
The restaurant served a delicious soup, so perfect to warm us after the chilly walk from our vehicle. Two wood burning stoves attracted and warmed all cold newcomers and did a nice job of heating the building. I wondered where they got the wood, haven’t seen many trees. After lunch there was time to shop, of course, and there was actually a very nice selection of Patagonian tee shirts, sweaters, hats, gloves, ear warmers in case you didn’t heed the warnings to bring warm clothes. They also had a large selection of nice books and maps on the region albeit at inflated prices. Okay, time to bundle up and make our way back across the street without being blown away by the wind.
The landscape here is rich combining several distinct ecosystems, from the wind-bent grasses of the plains to the sheer, frozen cliffs of the Andes in the distance.
We soon turn onto a very well maintained gravel road for our first picture postcard look at the great Paine Massif across a lake. It is stunning, granite mountains that emerge suddenly from the plains of the Patagonian steppes and one of the most recognizable mountain profiles in the world. This granite intrusion was formed about twelve million years ago, making the Paine Massif quite young geologically. Sedimentary rock and magma collided violently and were thrust high into the air. After the Ice Age, when the ice fields covering the base of the massif began to melt, water and wind carved the rock into huge towers of varying shapes, with heights up to 9,000 feet. Some of these are covered in permanent ice. The crushed rock and sediment colors the lakes in the park from a milky gray to yellows and greens and the dramatic blue caused by blue algae.
Our destination is Torres del Paine National Park, declared a World Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1978 and renowned as one of the most remote, beautiful, and unspoiled places in the world.
The glaciers here are in rapid retreat, up to 56 feet a year over the last 90 years. The vegetation ranges from grassland to southern beech forests and many parts of the park are so remote that they still exist in their pristine state. More than 40 mammals call this park their home, including the guanaco, puma, and Patagonian gray fox and some of the world’s endangered birds – the Andean condor, the crested cara cara, and the black vulture among them.
“When alone in the calmness and warmth of my home, I let my spirit wander astray among the memory of so many images and adventures, the peaks of Patagonia appear before me so unreal, so fabulously shaped, that I believe that these images have come out of some mad dream.” Lionnel Terray member of the first part to scale Mount Fitzroy, February 2, 1952.
We continued to drive toward the large granite massif and finally pulled into a parking area, time to go back out into the wind for a 2-hour hike. Again, wind warnings and instructions on how to stay upright when hit by high wind gusts, hiking poles are necessary as are hats, gloves and rain gear even though it is a gorgeous sunny day, the weather here can change in a heartbeat. So, dressed like the Pillsbury doughboys we step out into the elements and immediately have to plant our poles to brace against the wind. Once we get the hang how to plant the poles while walking we move on towards the mountains, it is so incredibly beautiful that it is easy to forgive the wind and appreciate the sculpting it has done over time. Reaching the edge of a lake we stop just to marvel at the shear majesty of these peaks. AWESOME!
We take a side trail on the way back to a beautiful icy blue waterfall spilling over the rocks and out into a blue-green lake, the colors of the water remind me of tropical waters but the cold wind tells me otherwise.
“This is how it is in Patagonia; the unexpected is the norm.” Ramon Lista – A Journey to the Southern Andes (1893)
Leaving this grandeur behind we move on toward our hotel stopping one more time for another view back to the mountains. Camera in hand I am totally snap happy.
As we turn off the main road we can see the hotel in a small settlement of hotels and cabins but what we don’t catch on first glimpse is the view. As we walk into the beautiful hotel lobby we gathered in a lounge area where floor to ceiling windows frame the mountains that we had just left, a green pasture and beautiful horses in the foreground, unbelievably beautiful, I’ve never seen such a gorgeous scene. I could just sit here for two days staring out the window.
When Eduardo said that our group had been upgraded so that everyone had a view room I thought I had died and gone to heaven.