Chris Moss visits some of southern Patagonia’s most pastoral corners – and fits in a little cruise en route.
By Chris Moss
The moment you cross the border at Rio Turbio you know you’ve left behind a rain shadow. Not, mind you, that it was raining when we crossed over. The sky was a soft light blue and the wispy clouds seemed always to remain on the far horizons.
But the grass was green. Where Argentine Patagonia – east of Turbio – is mainly steppe, ravine, desert and dry scrub, on the Chilean side of the Andes, at the same latitude, it is bosky and gentle on the eye. With Puerto Natales at its heart, and fjords, Andean mountains, the southern ice-field and the Torres del Paine along its edges, it’s an enticing part of the world and a sort of topographic finale at the bottom of a land of many latitudes.
I first visited Puerto Natales almost twenty years ago. Back then it looked like a frontier town. I remember corrugated iron panels on the walls of houses and hotels, a grey sky looming over Last Hope Sound, and snack bars. I’d come down from Puerto Montt on the Navimag Puerto Eden, a container ship converted to carry passengers through the long channels.
Now the town is full of boutique hotels and smart bars and restaurants, with the grand new Singular at Puerto Bories on its northern edge – a former cold storage depot and wool factory turned into a spectacular luxury hotel. If the dwindling of the factory in the 1960s was a symbol of a troubled past, its reopening in the summer of 2011-12 was a symbol of the new Chile – ambitious, cool, design-conscious.
There are three directions you can take from Natales. One is south to Punta Arenas, a gritty place and the closest thing southern Patagonia has to a city. Rich in maritime history, it’s the port that the Panama Canal turned into a near-ghost town, and something of that loss of status no doubt hangs over “Sandy Point”. But it has a cemetery full of foreign surnames, a penguin colony, the cold winds of the Magellan Strait and lots of little cafes to hide from it. If you’re ever in Chile’s XII region, drop in.
But I was heading off, for the moment, in the second direction, towards Torres del Paine. I’d passed through before, but this time I was doing – in just 12 days, if I could manage it – the whole 100km circuit around Paine Grande.
For two days, me and trusty co-walker, Bob, had to camp out in the cool drizzle. We couldn’t bring ourselves to set off in the rain after a lifetime of English country walks. The hiatus gave me time to read a bit – Chilean Patagonia has a big library, and I was enjoying the stories of John Byron, whose ship foundered in the area.
A very literal high point came next, as we forded a 1300-metre-high pass en route to Lago Grey. A blizzard met us at the top, but when it cleared – summer snowstorms are short – we had views of the immense Grey glacier, a long, white tongue of the southern ice field. It was this immense body of ancient white rock that was stirring up the weather, and we camped that night in winter-gear.
Cerro Paine Grande, the central peak of the park, is around 2880 metres above sea-level (mountaineers dispute its height). All the time, this snow-capped beauty teases you as you walk. Often there are clouds swirling around the craggy, ice-shattered walls at the summit, but when they clear, the views – like the warmth – are deeply satisfying. The great thing about the circuit of the park is that you experience, on terra firma and with your eyes, a huge range of environments: meadows, temperate and rain-forest woodlands, scrub, patches of steppe, mountain traverses, scree, and every ecotone between all these.
Beside Lago Grey, which was full of drifting bergy bits, there was a good campsite and even a restaurant. I prefer home cooking when I am doing the backpacker thing so Bob and I decided to forgo the stews on offer in the heated cabin and cooked up our last bowl of polenta and tomato sauce – pretty delicious, but mainly because we were feeling fit as well as fatigued after the pass.
Many of the glacier-fed lakes in Patagonia are turquoise, but Lago Pehoe might just be the most surreal.
The next section was easier, but if anything more wondrous. Many of the glacier-fed lakes in Patagonia are turquoise, but Lago Pehoe might just be the most surreal. It has a sort of milky, blue-green colour, and when a southern wind blasts across the surface, white ridges form making it look like a sea from a sci-fi fantasy. After crossing the southeast corner of Cerro Paine, towards Rio Frances, I could take in one of the best views of the massif. The pink-granite “towers” that give the national park its name are the remnants of a cirque sheared away over millennia and the cuernos, or horns, are hulking mountains of grey granite with black shale summits, and perhaps even more striking. The trail took in lagos Nordenskjöld and Torres, and a herd of russet-coloured guanacos grazing on a riverbank, and then we were back, as dawn fell, at our original base. We set up the tent, but this time we dined in a restaurant: Patagonian micro-brewery beers, Patagonian wine, Patagonian lamb, deep sleep.
The following day, I left Natales in the third direction – the fjords – aboard a 100-birth adventure cruiser. It was a three-day trip up towards the central part of the southern ice field, by way of several glaciers and inlets. The channels of Patagonian Chile are narrow, labyrinthine and truly wild – there has not been settlement here for more than a century and the long-gone indigenous Halakwalup inhabitants were canoe Indians who only populated the shores.
The Andes are submerged here, and the ship was often walled in by bare mountains. Steamer ducks and dolphins could be seen off the bow, and I saw a condor wheeling over a hanging glacier. There are puma in these parts, and I spent hours on deck scouring the greyish section above the tree line, but to no avail. Dense forests provide perfect cover for the shy cat, and also for the rare huemul deer.
On excursions to the shore we did a few gentle walks, which stopped my Paine-worked legs from seizing up. And we were able to get right up to the walls of the glaciers, feeling the chill they emanated and listening to the growing noise of calving and the deep, invisible ruptures that occur all the time.
But the fjord cruise is a very gentle mini-Antarctic affair. You are in one of the loneliest and in some ways harshest settings in South America, but you have your boat, your ceviches and stews, your cabin. It was a relaxing wind-down after a longish trip through the two Patagonias – the dry, arid emptiness of Argentina and the more varied, more verdant and more walkable climes of southern Chile.
Chris Moss is the author of Patagonia: A Cultural history (Signal Books, 2008). He travelled to Chile with Air France and Audley Travel.