TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK, Chile
This is an astounding place.
It is challenging, it is baffling. It is constantly changing. The morning rain was horizontal when I asked Claudio, manager at Hosteria Las Torres, if he knew the next day's forecast.
His reply: "Nobody knows."
Later the same day, there was bright sunshine. At my own hotel's front desk, I asked Marco, the clerk on duty, if days here normally started outcloudy, then cleared in the afternoon.
His reply: "Nothing is normal."
It may not be normal, this expanse of wonder called Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, but it certainly is beautiful. More than anything else, it is spectacularly beautiful.
The large windows of the Hosteria Pehoe dining room overlook Lake Pehoe. Beyond this impossibly blue lake, the blueness broken only by whitecaps raised by the park's infamous winds, are the Cuernos del Paine.
Los Cuernos del Paine -- the Horns of Paine -- are a mountain cluster, which is like saying Michelangelo's "David" is marble.
To photograph these peaks, which rise 8,530 feet, is to take hundreds of photographs knowing that no two photos of these same mountains taken from thesame place will be alike. This is not hyperbole. It is fact.
Clouds drape them, frame them, envelop them, expose them, the changes happening as fast as you just read. It's the winds. You'll be eating your eggs at breakfast, camera by your side, and all at once the sun will catch a particular cuerno just right, and you'll grab the camera and race outside and snap that photo and stand there in the wind and watch in awe, knowing the moment was, indeed, a moment ....
A Torres del Paine story
Rodrigo Aguilar, my young guide, and I were going to give this little hike a second try. It is not a major trek as Torres del Paine treks go -- just a few hundred yards to a waterfall called Salto Grande, then maybe a mile to a viewpoint on Lake Nordenskjold.
We'd tried it once. The wind against us was so nasty that after reaching the waterfall and snapping a photo, I declared this entire enterprise "silly" and insisted we return to our vehicle.
Two days later, remorseful at having wimped out, I told Rodrigo I wanted to try it again ... and he obliged.
Maybe 100 yards beyond the beginning, the wind grew so fierce that we had to back into it. A gust caught Rodrigo's glasses and sent them sailing 20yards back toward the car.
He recovered the specs, declared them scratch-free, and we marched onward, facing front now, heads down into the gale.
When we looked up, when we could see the mist from the waterfall, the wind turned truly vicious.
This trail is covered with black pebbles, bits of volcanic rock the size of birdshot. Those bits of birdshot were now being lifted by the wind and hurled at our faces. Through the roar, I made a Cheney joke. Rodrigo, being 18 and Chilean, didn't get it. He might not have heard it, because by this time we were shouting at each other to be understood -- and even then, I couldn't makeout what Rodrigo was trying to say.
"What?" I called out. His shout became a bellow.
"I have never seen such a wind in my life."
Rodrigo Aguilar, a second-generation Torres del Paine guide, anything but a wimp, was not having fun.
We continued for a few more yards, once again walking backward, the sting of the shot penetrating three layers of protective fabric.
I looked over at my guide.
"This," I screamed at the poor kid, over the howl of the wind, "is stupid."
Rodrigo screamed back: "It's up ... to you."
"That's ... enough," I yelled.
This time, we hadn't even reached the waterfall. Back in the car, in the calm, I looked at Rodrigo. Rodrigo looked at me.
"That," said my guide, "was a religious experience ..."
His guess at the wind speed: 85 mph.
Here's another Torres story
The day after, we were driving along when a bird flew across the road just ahead of us, dropped something in the grass, and flew on.
"Hold it," I called out. Our driver, Mauricio, hit the brakes and then skidded on the gravel to a stop. "Back up a little, and let's wait. That birdwon't just leave that ..."
Ten minutes or so later, the bird glided to a landing near the car, about 50 feet from whatever it was he'd dropped, and waited. And waited. And so did we.
The bird was an aguilucho, the size of a falcon. Above us flew a rival.
I have seen eagles in the air, and turkey vultures and their raptor cousins.
I had never before seen an Andean condor in the wild. Evidently, the aguilucho had.
Now we all waited: the condor, circling, hovering, obviously with purpose; the aguilucho, considering the options; and us.
Finally, as if on a signal, the aguilucho made its move, flying low, landing on its prey, then taking off, the rabbit in its talons.
The condor, by now within dive range, made a sudden bank and rose toward the sun and away from all of us.
I checked my camera's digital miniscreen to see if I'd gotten the picture.
I smiled. I loved it. Couldn't wait to get back to the hotel and smugly show it to a fellow tourist, a Londoner with a similar passion for photography.
"Nice," he said, with oddly obligatory enthusiasm.
Then he showed me his dramatic photo -- a head-on, perfectly lighted, National Geographic-quality shot -- of a rare, notoriously elusive puma, staring right into the lens ... taken this day alongside that trail to the waterfall.
There are defined circuits -- trail routings -- trekkers use to explore Torres del Paine. Trekking for miles and hours on rugged trails is about the only way to see the actual torres -- the towers -- of the Rio Paine.
Odds are fair to good, however, that when you get to the point when you can see them in their entirety, they'll be enveloped in cloud or you'll be battling face-zinging rain, or the sun will frustrate photographers by being in precisely the wrong position.
This is a park that yields all its charms only to those with patience and strong, steady legs.
But there are walks, not all of them crazy-windy -- and there are lakes, and there are rivers and meadows and wildflowers, and there are llamalikeguanacos that practically pose, and nandus, ostrichlike, with their chicks. We would even spot a huemul, an endangered deer, elusive as the puma but photogenic only to a scientist, or to another huemul.
And there is Glaciar Grey.
The excursion boat loads outside the Hosteria Lago Grey. It is, indeed, a gray lake.
There are icebergs floating near the dock, and the 50 passengers who paid $73 for this experience -- virtually all with cameras -- take pictures of these blue bergs even before the boat sails.
The day, too, is gray, and squalls frustrate those who dare walk onto the deck as the boat eases from the landing.
Sara Petri, the boat's naturalist-guide, is 34, from Sweden, and looks exactly like the actress Liv Ullman, which brightens the grayness. She hadarrived in the country only months earlier with a tour group, went home, came back.
"I fell in love with a Chilean guide." When he proposed -- the day before -- "I said `yes' in all the languages I know."
I asked about the rain: "Normal weather here?"
She flashed that Ullman half-smile: "Nothing is normal in this park."
The boat is motoring along. From time to time, through the windows and the rain, we spot more icebergs, bigger now, and those of us with the proper outerwear tentatively move onto the deck, take our pictures while protecting cameras from the rain as best we can, then step back inside.
"The water," Petri says into her microphone, "starts out gray, and as it moves the sediment dissolves and settles. That's why these lakes -- Lago Nordenskjold and Lago Pehoe -- are bluer. They still contain sediments, but they've settled ..."
Soon the rain lets up and more of us are on deck, and the icebergs now are of a size and variable shape that makes everyone still using film camerasregret wasting shots on those relative ice cubes back by the hotel.
Then: an iceberg that -- well, remember, in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the appearance of the mother ship? The ship that made the rest of the spaceships look like freckles?
That is this iceberg ...
And then, there is the glacier itself, which begat all these icebergs.
It is impossible to adequately describe, in words, the scenic glory of this place: Glaciar Grey up close, the bergs, the surrounding snow-and-blackmountains.
Now, everyone -- cold rain or not -- is on deck.
Sara Petri's words, in English, for all this: "`Wow.' That's the only word I can say ..."
In our few days in Torres del Paine National Park, we made no great treks. We saw the tips of the torres only through gaps in the cuernos and had to be satisfied with that. Other visitors trekked and kayaked and camped. Some hired horses and played gaucho.
On my final evening I walked along the road to make a last, solitary stab at taming that waterfall trail -- the puma trail -- but even with the long days of the Patagonian summer, I didn't even reach the trailhead before I knew I had to turn back.
The next morning, my guide and driver were at the hotel. It was time to leave Torres del Paine.
And as we drove toward one last time along the gravel road, winding between mountains and hills and past the guanacos and nandus, to the left in a shallow valley was a small lake.
In that lake, framed by mountains newly dusted with snow: hundreds of pink flamingos. Bathed in brilliant sunshine.
Here, nothing, nothing, is normal ...
Not easy. Probably why the park still looks so good.
Nearest significant airport gateway is in Punta Arenas, Chile, a pleasant town and a five-hour-plus drive by car to the national park entrance. Use Chile's Lan Airlines and American Airlines.
Once in Punta Arenas, backpackers typically use one of several bus companies that connect the town with Puerto Natales (three hours on goodhighway), overnight there, then bus three or four more hours on variable roads (mostly gravel) into park center. (You can do it in one day, but on buses it's a grind.) Cost: variable. Comapa Turismo (www.comapa.com ), a respected PuntaArenas company, offers fares (subject to change and exchange-rate fluctuation) of about $22.50 one-way, about $41 round trip.
The less-rugged among us will either arrange transfers from Punta Arenas through one of the Torres del Paine hotels (the cost typically folded into a package deal), use shared van or private car transport ($200 to $350 one-way from Punta Arenas) or rent a car.
A quick check found Hertz will rent you a car in Punta Arenas for about $550 per week, including taxes and fees but not including insurance,which -- considering park road conditions and wildlife -- would be worth considering.
Comapa Turismo offers a quickie two-day "Basic Paine" experience for as little as $195 per person (double occupancy), including accommodations inPuerto Natales. Downside to this concept: Allowing just a few hours for Torres del Paine, with its rapid weather changes, puts you at risk of seeing nothing but rain and fog and missing the bursts of sunshine that change everything.
Trekking is the mode preferred by those with the legs for it. Even those who use vehicles will want to hit the trails, at least for a few hundredyards.
Aside from some backpacker buses that coordinate with some backpacker catamaran schedules, there is no real transportation "system" in Torres delPaine. If you don't have your own car, you'll probably rely on transport provided by hotels, usually at extra cost (which, in $20- to $50-per-person increments, adds up fast), or you'll book excursions that include transportation.
Mainline tour companies -- Abercrombie & Kent, Mountain Travel-Sobek, Geographic Expeditions, Absolute Travel, others -- can put together something all-inclusive that matches your tolerance for discomfort. I used Absolute Travel (www.absolutetravel.com).
Arriving at the park without a booked hotel or all-weather camping gear isn't a real good idea.
Campers camp. Non-campers rely on a relative handful of hotels and hosterias (same thing, basically) within the park. Expect smallish rooms, no in-room TVs, maybe no working phone in the entire hotel, high charges for the Internet if there is one -- but that's the way it is. The constants seem to be cleanliness, friendliness and acceptable levels of comfort.
Some hotels may be open only in normal tourist season, November through April.
Some we checked:
The Hosteria Las Torres ("superior" doubles $308, subject to change; www.lastorres.com ) is very nice, near trailheads and has its own stable ofriding horses. Avoid the eight older, cheaper "standard" rooms unless desperate.
The hotel we booked, the central Hosteria Pehoe (doubles $260; www.pehoe.com ), has 15 rooms with a view of the namesake lake and 25 with a view of a lawn and the other rooms; push hard for one of the 15. (We had one of the good rooms and were happy.)
The nearby Explora Hotel Salto Chico is theenvy of the block. Its $1,200 doubles (www.explora.com ) seem outrageous untilyou start breaking down its all-inclusive perks: transfers from Punta Arenas, all meals and beverages, spa services, in-park transport and more. The rooms are fine but nothing special; the "special" is everything else -- with one caveat: The multilevel setup (no elevator) makes it tough on folks who can't handle stairs well.
The best value around might be in the newish, slightly out of the way Hosteria Rio Serrano (doubles with a view $230, $200 without theview, but get the view; www.hotelrioserrano.cl), which offers onsite golf (four holes, equipment provided, expect wind) and fishing (salmon, equipment provided, same wind; the kitchen will cook your catch).
The pleasant Hosteria Lago Grey ($255; www.lagogrey.cl, in Spanish only; email@example.com in English with questions), reachable by a wretched gravel-rock road, is a bit of a haul from everything except Lago Grey, an essential stop. Friendly staff eases the inconvenience.
Unless you have a car (and even then; the Explora, for example, admits non-guests for lunch only), you'll probably have your meals at your hotel orlunches packed by your hotel. All my meals were taken at the Hosteria Pehoe, and though the choices were limited (two entree choices for lunch, two for dinner) and prices a tad dear (lunch entrees were about $12, dinner $14, nocheap sandwiches on the menu), everything, including service, was good to very good. Anecdotally, in chatting with fellow tourists I heard no complaints on hotel food from anyone. One tip, from a trusted person: the restaurant at thePehoe campground, not far from the hosteria -- better quality at sane prices.
Call the Chilean Tourism Promotion Corp. at 866-937-2445, or check its Web site: www.visitchile.org. For additional practical information, take a look at two commercial Web sites, www.torresdelpaine.com and www.torres-del-paine.co.uk.