Torres del Paine National Park. Photo Credit: EcoCamp Patagonia

Bottom of the World

January 10, 2018

As a native New Yorker, I have been known to commiserate with fellow Manhattanite Woody Allen who, commonly at odds with the great outdoors, unashamedly admits, "I am at two with nature."

Aspiring to commune more comfortably with our planet, I decided to join the growing number of international enthusiasts heading south to Chile, the long, slender country in South America where one can still feel utterly alone in the wild, where nature is writ large, as it is in remote Alaska or the western fjords of Iceland.

Chile has been ranked by Lonely Planet as the world's top country to visit as part of its "Best in Travel 2018" list, and National Geographic selected the capital and largest city, Santiago, as one of its "places you need to visit in 2018." Those accolades did not surprise Debbie Feldman, general manager of Turismo Chile, who insisted that the accolades "are not just coincidences; they are cumulative results that have been building momentum for over 20 years."

And although Chile's bicentennial was celebrated in 2010 with festivities and fanfare, the country did not become officially independent from Spain until 1818, making 2018 the year to resuscitate and continue the party.

It looks like this is the year that Chile is ready for its close-up.

Chilean flamingos soar over Southern Patagonia.
Chilean flamingos soar over Southern Patagonia. Photo Credit: Claudio F. Vidal

In 2016, U.S. visitors to Chile surpassed 200,000 for the first time, a 12% increase over the prior year. Squeezed in between the Andes, the backbone of the country, on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west, Chile's sinewy 2,700-mile length means that it could stretch from coast to coast in the U.S. 

And let's not forget Chile's far-flung Easter Island, 2,000-plus miles and 5.5 hours by air from Santiago. Annexed by Chile in 1888, it is an exotic Polynesian piece in Chile's already eclectic mosaic.

Adventure is at the forefront of Chile's burgeoning tourism market, and it can be experienced in any of the country's impressive roster of activities and attractions: its expanding world-class vineyards, an easy daytrip from Santiago; the hilly port city of Valparaiso (or "Valpo"); the high and empty Atacama Desert (50 times drier than California's Death Valley), where stargazing is second to none; and the scenic lake district, with its German-Latino lifestyle.

I had signed on with U.S.-based International Expeditions (IE) to host a special trip to Southern Patagonia.

It is a vast, almost mythical stretch of empty land in Chile's largest and southernmost region, Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica, that stretches south to include the fjord-notched coast of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, where the forces of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans clash.

Chile shares Patagonia with Argentina, and our itinerary's finale included the famous Perito Moreno glacier near El Calafate. But IE's focus was on Chile's Patagonia (as is this article's).


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).
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, where gauchos live an age-old way of life, are still big business in Southern Patagonia.
Sheep farms, where gauchos live an age-old way of life, are still big business in Southern Patagonia. 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.

Within this scenery-in-the-round of sometimes surreal beauty, some of South America's finest hiking can be found. Hardy travelers head for the most highly trekked option, the "W," a 40-mile trail that runs from east to west and takes four to six days to complete, with basic refugios, or shelters, along the way for overnight accommodations.

The more demanding and less frequented "O" Circuit, often ranked among the finest in the world, loops around through 40 to 65 miles of scenic territory, depending upon which side-hikes you choose. It generally requires eight to 11 days to cover, but it can also be done in segments. Both are well marked routes traversing areas of the park that the average visitor would never see otherwise.

Far easier and shorter, hourslong hikes await the less ambitious (or less well conditioned), and horseback riding and kayaking provide their own perspectives on the park.

There are lakes of all colors and sizes scattered throughout the rugged terrain, their unique bluish-green hue the result of millennia of glacial runoff.

Of the park's 35 square miles of lakes, Lago Grey is fed by the sprawling Grey Glacier that flows south into its waters. Measuring more than 100 square miles and part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field (similar to an ice cap), visitors can get up close and personal aboard the boat operated by the Hotel Lago Grey, our home for two nights.

As at most of the limited number of hotels within the park, international groups are commonplace, and breakfast buffets can be an animated challenge (platters of fresh fruit seemed to disappear before they touched the table). But the staff was cheery and informative, and my modern room was one of the many newly refurbished ones that came with lake views.

Travelers seeking maximum comfort can kick it up a notch at the award-winning Explora Patagonia on Lago Pehoe, which inconspicuously blends with its stunning location, promising perfect views of the Paine Massif.

One of the most upscale wilderness lodges in all of South America (it is one of three Explora lodges in Chile, while the newest, the fourth, opened in Peru's Valle Sagrado in 2016), it enjoys one of the most striking settings of any hotel on the planet. It serves up impeccable style and service, attentive dining, a spa and full-time naturalists on staff offering dozens of explorations and guided park excursions that include horseback riding and kayaking.

Less jarring room rates are just one reason for the popularity of the EcoCamp, where 33 geodesic-tented domes on raised platforms offer glamping, Patagonia-style.

A stay in Chile's vast and serene Patagonia would have done Woody Allen good, perhaps even elevating him to a moment of Zen-like calm and neuroses-free oneness with nature.

Here, nature is a ubiquitous and powerful force that feeds the soul with its golden pampas, majestic peaks, its comical penguins and the graceful soaring of a condor. Many a predinner pisco sour was shared with our warm Chilean hosts at the end of an idyllic day, toasting this special land at the bottom of the world where there is wonder in every tiny detail and nature on a colossal scale.

Contributing editor Patricia Schultz is the author of "1,000 Places to See Before You Die."