IE's executive director, Steve Cox, said, "There is something of a misconception about Patagonia as an empty, frozen wilderness." Having organized small-group travel to Patagonia for 16 years has enabled IE to "tap into everything it offers, for every interest and style, whether small groups or customized travel guided by excellent naturalists and photographers or small-ship cruises through the fjords and coastal areas, and even trekking options."
As it turned out, our seasoned and knowledgeable IE guide, Claudio Vidal, a published photographer, author and acclaimed ornithologist and naturalist, was also one of the most engaging and enjoyable companions with whom I ever had the pleasure of traveling.
Hailing from these parts, he expounded on two of the main economic activities of this treeless and sparsely populated region: sheep farming and tourism. We saw a whole lot of the former and next to nothing of the latter. Tourism is light, and Americans are infrequently seen.
Upon the arrival of our overnight flights from the U.S., we boarded the 3.5-hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas, from where we would slowly work our way north in the following days.
Punta Arenas was the area's first permanent settlement. Today, it offers only a faint reminder of its early pioneer era in the late 1800s, mostly the fading, once-elegant homes of powerful wool barons.
It is a convenient base for a visit by boat to Magdalena Island in the Strait of Magellan to visit the colony of Magellanic penguins, a highlight dampened in our case by rough seas, howling winds and an unexpectedly poor showing of what is said to be a population of more than 100,000 birds.
A small colony of king penguins inhabits Bahia Inutil (Useless Bay). Photo Credit: Claudio F. Vidal
A subsequent visit to a small but flourishing colony of king penguins in Bahia Inutil (Useless Bay) was a thrill. The second-largest penguin after the emperor, this is their only colony on the continent. We watched firsthand these magnificent birds and their fuzzy chicks in the wild.
Puerto Natales is the seaside gateway city to Torres del Paine National Park, 100 miles to the north, the real reason visitors come to this growing tourist town of 20,000. Those with limited time can consider the overly ambitious one-day tours of the park that leave from here, offering drive-by reconnaissance.
A 2016 expansion of the Puerto Natales airport has made the park more accessible than ever, and most local businesses (from craft brewers to trekking outerwear manufacturers) now feed off tourism.
I enjoyed the few easy-paced days that served as an introduction to this bottom-of-the-world corner of the continent. A delicious lamb asado (barbecue) at a 15,000-acre sheep farm, the Estancia Cerro Negro, was followed by a sheep-shearing demonstration. (Imagine doing 250 in one day!)
Time was also spent with a young gaucho, his wife and infant son. They proudly shared the history of the ranch they call home, today in the hands of the fourth generation of the original owners, the Kusanovic family, who emigrated here from Croatia in 1906. Family histories are fascinating in this corner of the world.
Our destination was the Torres del Paine National Park, a remote, windswept outpost in the heart of Chilean Patagonia and one of nature's last untrammeled wildernesses. Unmapped before the 1930s, the national park is a 600,000-acre network of aquamarine lakes, ancient forests, the rolling grasslands called pampas, rivers and fjords. But it is perhaps best known for the torres themselves, three slender towers called Cleopatra's Needles by a late-19th century British adventurer, and the glacier-eroded Cuernos del Paine, the spectacular rose-colored "horns" that rise dramatically from the Patagonian steppes.
Part of the Paine Massif, the cuernos are the geological showpiece of the Cordillera Paine mountains, an eastern spur of the Andes and a kind of grand finale to the chain.
Vast and pristine, Torres is the largest and most visited park in Chile, but even with 200,000 annual visitors (half of whom are foreign), it will feel empty. Torres del Paine's massive relief dominates the park while also reveling as the showcase of Patagonia, and the magnet for Chile's burgeoning ecotourism industry.
Sheep farms are still big business in Southern Patagonia, where gauchos live an age-old way of life on the vast and empty steppes and pampas. Photo Credit: Explora Patagonia
This natural wonderland contains more than 200 plant species and 26 animal species, including the tall, light-brown-and-white guanaco, a cousin of the llama; the gray fox; ostrich-like rheas; and the ever-elusive mountain puma. The Andean condor, with its impressive 10-foot wingspan, occasionally appears against the sky above the stark landscape. It is but one of 115 species of native birds found here.
It really does feel like a world apart. I spotted my first-ever armadillo, a peculiar animal I had always associated with Texas, and caught my breath at the sight of a herd of wild horses galloping over the open steppes.
Not only does Torres del Paine boast several distinct ecosystems, but each ecosystem contains a wealth of landscapes, flora and fauna, some found nowhere else in the world. Despite the notoriously capricious weather -- we were regularly advised to wear layers and expect four seasons in one day -- delicate spring flowers were our reward for visiting in November, early spring in the Southern Hemisphere.
Seeing some of the nine documented orchid varieties that exist within the park -- a far stretch from a tropical environment -- further proved that this was a land of countless surprises big and small. Tiny marvels that are hardier than they appear, these orchids stay close to the ground for those blustery days when the winds can surpass 80 mph.
The park's winds, which are surprisingly stronger during the Southern Hemisphere's peak summer months of January and February, have become the stuff of legend, especially for hikers who are only half joking when they say the principal purpose of their heavy backpacks is to help keep them grounded.
These legendary western winds meet with little resistance from land before reaching the coastline of Chile, and they are responsible for the fast-moving and ever-changing cloud formations that filled the sky. Meteorologists might offer textbook names for the fluffy shapes that changed before our eyes, but we saw in them crocodiles and birds and sleeping babies, shapes often repeated in the icebergs we spotted below.