Between a rock and a hard place

Writing from Santiago, a brief stop between the rock (the Torres del Paine, a trio of soaring granite towers in the eponymous national park, a designated World Biosphere Reserve, in Patagonia) and a hard place (Easter Island, with its monumental stone figures of mysterious creation). First Internet access in days, and perhaps the only computer I’ll touch for several days more.

We were welcomed to Patagonia with howling (and not atypical) winds that blow strongly from Antarctica each spring. The weather pattern has something to do with the seasonal break-up of the Antarctic ice shelf and how it affects winds. We traveled from Puerto Natales on mostly paved roads (being widened into a divided four-laner as far as Cerro Castillo) and then drove deep to the park along largely unpaved roads. In all, the area largely resembles central Nevada, with big valleys set against distant mountains and lots of grazing sheep in the foreground.

In the park, we stayed in an insulated, but unheated and unelectrified dome in Eco-Camp Patagonia just below the Towers themselves — simple accommodations and simply magnificent scenery, but not a lot of fun walking along boardwalks to the bathroom/shower tent in the wind.

The first day was spent riding between touch-and-go attractions: a fabulous waterfall just a short stroll from a parking area but a formidable walk beating against the wind, and a wild boat ride to pristine, triple-headed glacier at the head of head of a lake called Lago Grey. We donned lifejackets and walked to the end of a pier, where we boarded a small open craft that transported us over bouncing waves to the ‘Grey II,’ the tour boat.

For an hour, we motored into the wind and waves. Each wave crashed over the bow and the well-sealed windows. In the sheltered lee of the glacier, the boat stopped rocking and rolling long enough for the crew to serve pisco sours, allegedly made with glacial ice. One wit on the boat said, “If I ever want to recapture this experience, I’ll make myself a pisco sour and drive through the car wash.”

The following morning — our last full day in the park — we went on long hike for a close-up view of the iconic Torres del Paine themselves. Eleven miles, plus the 1.5 kilometers each way between the Eco-Camp and the trailhead. We walked down the hill from the Eco-Camp and crossed a broad meadow where the Hosteria Las Torres (campground and resort) is located. We crossed a bridge over the Rio Ascencio, whose valley we would follow for the next 6.2 kilometers (about 4 miles). This modest river carved an impressive canyon. The first part of the trail parallels the river but high up the canyon walls. Much of it is steep, and in parts are deep troughs from horses hooves.

After a while, the trail gentles in grade but drops into side valleys and ascends out of them. A bit past the half-way point, we reached the Albergo y Camping Chileno. This large European-style hut offers rustic accommodations and some food and beverage service. It is also as far as horses are permitted for people who don’t want to hike the whole way.

From the Albergo, the trail is generally closer to the river and passes through deep woods. It has more rises and falls until it reaches a clearing. The steep Accarreo Moraine ascends sharply to the left to a small lake offering the best in-your-face view of the towers. Anyone not interested in the final 1.5 kilometers (almost 1 mile) and 750 vertical feet on scree and talus, can follow a small trail to a funky ranger station. Beyond it is another viewpoint to see the towers.

The next morning, we left the Eco-Camp and drove all the way back to Punta Arenas. Park roads are not paved and hopefully will not be, but as noted above, the government is undertaking an ambitious road-widening project as far as a crossroads called Cerro Carillo, something of a gateway to Torres del Paine National Park and also to the nearby border with Argentina.