I should probably mention first that the photos in this post is probably far more noteworthy than what I would write. With the disclaimer done, I shall start from my accommodation at Altiplanico Puerto Natales. This little town by the bay is usually the base for most explorers to Torres del Paine, especially during the shoulder season when most of the lodges in the park itself have yet to be fully operational or are already closed. It is also where travellers can get amenities like groceries, dine in restaurants and most importantly get fuel for the car since there is no other fuel stations between the town and the National Park.
My first day of arrival, I relaxed in the hotel until it was time for dinner where I had a Patagonian feast, dining on spitted lamb at Restaurant Don Jorge’s, one of the most recommended touristy places for this dish. I also had an abalone starter served with some herbs dip and mayo, since it is quite cheap compared to what I would pay for in Asia.
To end the meal I had a calafate ice cream, made of berries native to Patagonia. While the dishes are palatable, the lamb was a bit tough and the overall experience was just average and not something I would do for a second time.
The next morning I embarked on the proper drive to Torres del Paine National Park, and it was a very nice morning with somewhat clear skies and very beautiful clouds. It was also very scenic along the way, with the highway around the airport and Laguna Sofia bypass being prime spots to observe the Andean condors flying in the skies. Come early in the morning or late afternoon to see them hunting!
Another tip is to try and set off early in the morning as the weather tends to gather clouds in the afternoon especially during the shoulder season of early spring when I visited.
Along the highway there was not much traffic during the low season though you will pass by some farms and ranches but the roads feels very empty and on some stretches it can feel like you are the only one in these parts of the world. That is until you reach Cerro Castillo, a stopover point to get breakfast if you have not had one yet or just to stop by for a break since it is a small town with a souvenir store and restaurant.
From Cerro Castillo, signs should direct you to the right way or just spot some of the tour vans and follow them into the park. Most of the roads in the park are gravel or dirt roads so do be wary especially when it is still cold as it could be slippery.
Usually it would take about 45-50 minutes of continuous driving to reach Cerro Castillo from Puerto Natales. And it is another 20 minutes or so to reach the Laguna Amarga gantry to the national park where visitors could purchase the entry pass. It seems the entry pass once purchased is valid for multiple entries.
The road into Laguna Amarga passes by one of the largest lakes, Lago Sarmiento which gives visitors a first glance into the vastness of this park and one can start to see wild animals like rheas and guanacos along the way.
At Porteria Laguna Amarga, visitors could also check with the park ranger for the conditions and whether a particular trail is open. The multiple day routes to see the Torres is one of the most popular routes here but with limited time I did not do this trek. However I did give a lift to a hitchhiker that was making his way back to the Laguna Amarga station to get a bus ride back after spending a few days camping.
After consulting with the park rangers, I made my way along Rio Paine towards Cascada Paine, or Paine waterfall, where there was supposed to be a nice view of the Torres mountain formation. But due to the intense cloud cover, the majestic view was not present. Even then, having a view of mountain ranges in the background with a waterfall in the foreground is not too bad either.
From Cascada Paine, I made my way back to the Laguna Amarga site to explore the lakes on the other side of the park. Along the way, I got to see a lot of guanacos, or a distant relative of llamas. Apparently these guanacos do get hunted for their meat a lot.
The next stop I got down to take photos at was near the Laguna Larga which is a small lagoon next to the much larger Lago Nordenskjöld. There is a nice view of the massive mountain complex which is referred to as the Cordillera Paine. Be wary of the extremely windy conditions here though. Actually the winds throughout Torres del Paine can throw people off balance, so visitors should get a sturdy windbreaker that is water resistant when visiting as the huge gust of wind could blow water droplets off those lagoons and lakes.
The area around Lago Nordenskjöld provides the best views of the Cordillera Paine showing its jagged peaks during clear skies. However the cloudy and windy conditions meant I did not experience the full majesty of this mountain complex.
Following the main gravel road brings me to the viewpoint for Salto Grande. Visitors need to park their car and get down to do a short hike up the trail to the viewpoint to observe the waterfall. Again the absence of trees and hills around this area meant the winds can be treacherous and it is best for visitors to hold hands to support each other!
The gust of winds blowing creates an artificial mist from all the water droplets that gets blow off the surface and this results in rainbows being created. A note that in every extreme conditions, there is always a silver lining or at least a colourful one.
From Salto Grande I drove along Lago Pehoé to reach a major stopover point. There are parking lots here where guests can stop for a rest at the Hosteria Pehoé, which has restrooms and a cafeteria.
Having seen Salto Grande, I need to make my way to see Salto Chico, which is conveniently located beside another hotel, the Explora just down the road from Hosteria Pehoé. Salto Chico can actually be seen just a couple of steps down from Hotel Explora, though there is an extended boardwalk that goes along the riverside which makes it nice for a leisurely stroll.
Salto Chico and Hotel Explora is also close to one of the park gantry at Porteria Rio Serrano. However this gantry is not opened during the low season.
However I had no intention to leave the park yet as there is another major sight to see which is Lago Grey. The edge of this major lake houses another hostel, the Hosteria Lago Grey and there are scheduled boat cruises in the lake to get up close to the glacier and ice fields. To observe the glacier in the distance, visitors need to make the walk across the vast beach towards the middle. When I visited, the glaciers was quite far off and the ice bergs were few and far in between. It was indeed a sign of global warming resulting in retreating glacier size. Be prepared to spend up to 3 hours for the boat rides to see the glaciers if you want to see it up close.
Since it was already late afternoon, I left the park via the Porteria Rio Serrano exit and the road along Lago Toro is a prime spot to view Patagonian horses grazing in the afternoon setting sun. Taking this exit to return to Puerto Natales might seem shorter but the gravel roads meant drivers need to be more careful and thus drive slower.
Going by this route allows me to visit the Cueva del Milodon which is an ancient cave created during the ice age that holds the remains of an extinct creature named as the Milodon. The caves is part of a historic site and has a park ranger. Guided tours are available and there are signs giving information on the area. It is an interesting site but certainly pales comparison to the rest of the sights that Torres del Paine has got to offer.
On the second day, I had booked for a horse riding tour in the afternoon. This gave me some free time to explore more of the waterfront town of Puerto Natales. Visitors to Torres del Paine could also stay in the numerous hotels in town, get souvenirs from the shops here or even rent bikes and mountaineering gear to explore the mountains up close. Like many towns in Chile, the centre is marked by the Plaza de Armas with the main church and post office just beside it. I also took this opportunity to send some postcards to my loved ones.
There are several locations where horse riding can be arranged at, and I chose to do it at Laguna Sofia following the suggestions of the concierge at Hotel Altiplanico. The horse ranch did offer to pick me up at the hotel but since I had a rented a car, I made the drive into Laguna Sofia and managed to find the ranch easily since it is only the gated compound in the area.
I had done some light horse back riding before but nothing beats the experience of being fully saddled up and riding a horse up to the plateaus, crossing streams and galloping past plains of Patagonia. The tour comprises of a small group and the route they took provided us a nice glimpse into Laguna Sofia, before heading north towards the plateaus to observe the condors flying overhead.
The route brought us back down towards the valley but not before providing an awesome view of the lagunas and valley plains in the distance. Gloves and warm weather clothing are advisable, along with tough and reliable outerwear since the horseback riding does bring one near the tree branches and you would not want the branches to ruin your silk garments. Do also expect some fast galloping from the horses at times and the slightly higher altitude also meant colder weather.
For dinner that night, I returned to the town and went to where the locals eat at a restaurant called La Picada de Carlitos. I had a Patagonian seafood stew which is somewhat like a Caldillo de Congrio except it comes with more variety of seafood like squid, prawns, shellfish and king crab. The meal was delicious and a lot cheaper than my spitted lamb cuisine.
On the final day, the skies cleared up and I made another return to Torres del Paine where I got to see the Torres in the distance. The unpredictable weather system here would require visitors to plan their days to really capture in all the sights.
Having covered most of the major sights, I made my way to the third major entry point into the National Park at Porteria Laguna Azul, which is located by the edge of a large azure blue lagoon. This also marks one of the park boundaries. Unfortunately the muddy road into the Laguna resulted in me getting stuck when I tried to leave. This caused me to be delayed as I had to wait for a tour van to come and rescue my car out of the ditch. Certainly reminds me of a Top Gear episode and I am grateful to the tour van driver and the park ranger stationed at the guard house for his help!
The last day marked the end of my trip to Patagonia as I had to drive back to Punta Arenas for my return flight to Santiago. And it was the time to leave anyway since the rain started pouring as I went on the highway back to the hotel to collect my luggage. Rainy weather continued all the way back to Punta Arenas and shortly after it even began snowing at the airport.
My 72 hours in Patagonia is probably shorter than what most visitors come here and stay for, but it is somewhat adequate to see the major sights and get a feel for the extreme weather conditions. My visit to Patagonia and Torres del Paine certainly showed the power of nature and the adaptiveness of living beings to live with it. The vast expanse of the valley plains and the majestic peaks alonge with the azure blue waters of the lagoons and the various wildlife made this area a spectacle to behold. Patagonia is truly a place where every sunrise and sunset brings a multitude of experiences, and a place I certainly list as one to return!