Torres del Paine national park in southern Patagonia is definitely one of the most remote places in the world The closest town, Puerto Natales, is about a four hour bus drive away (we took the scenic, 8 hour route into the park, much of it on gravel). And, as there is no airport in Puerto Natales, we had a 7 hour bus trip the previous day from El Calafate.
However, it is spectacular with snow-capped mountains, hanging glaciers, beautiful forests (notwithstanding that about 20% of the park was damaged by fires about one year ago) and raging, glacial rivers. And, then there is the wind, known with some irony by the locals as the 'Magellan breeze'. I have never experienced winds so strong (the Spanish signs in the park describe it as fierce winds). Perhaps the only way you can understand the strength of the winds is that John was blown over and fell while taking a picture outside our hotel!! I was inside enjoying a cup of tea and saw a few people scurry to the window after what sounded like a bang, which was John hitting the timber deck outside the hotel. A young man helped John and told him that he was the second person he had seen knocked over by the wind that morning.
We have been fortunate to have warm weather and blue skies for two days in the national park. In particular, we had very clear skies on our arrival drive into the park which allowed us to view the famous 'three towers' or 'torres' (in Spanish) that are the landmark of this national park. The guide just kept telling us how lucky we were to actually see the towers, while another passenger told us he had done the same bus trip three days earlier and it had been grey and snowing! On our drive into the park, we spotted guanaco (related to llamas and alpacas), condors, nandu (the South American equivalent of an emu) and lots of sheep and cattle.
Our hotel in the national park looks out over Grey Lake and its glacier. The lake has several large icebergs, and the view from our room is of the glacier, icebergs and forest, so quite beautiful. The national park attracts some serious trekkers who undertake walks of between 4 and 10 days. However, there are not really many opportunities to undertake short walks. Yesterday we walked for about 2 hours through the forest and along the 'beach' of the lake with howling winds. Some of the time, I had to brace myself and put on my hands on my knees to stop myself from being blown over. There were two other walks, but a national park ranger told us that they were only available if you had a guide. As the park is so vast, it is more suited if you have a car and can drive around to some of the scenic views (which we did on the bus on our arrival day) or if you are a serious walker.
The town of Puerto Natales (where we stayed for one night before Torres del Paine) is also the gateway to the Chilean fjords and was our first experience of the strong Patagonian winds. There was a wonderful statue near the water's edge of a man and a woman, suspended on metal poles, buffeted by the winds. Puerto Natales had an old-world character, with brightly coloured timber houses and more shops with hand-made woollen crafts. Our hotel in Puerto Natales was absolutely stunning; it had been designed by Chile's leading architect and was a fusion of new and old. The public spaces (bar, foyer) were somewhat like a warehouse conversion, but with lots of earthy timber and bamboo poles, plus hammocks suspended in the void on one floor. Our room looked out over the water, including the open plan shower, with a huge bed on a timber platform. There was also a spa complex on the top (fourth floor), including three rooftop spas/jacuzzis. In a relatively small town (perhaps 20,000 people), it was surprising to have such avant garde architecture, literally at the 'end of the earth'. Puerto Natales is about 52 degrees south (only Punta Arenas where we spend one night tomorrow) is further south.
Finally, some Patagonian history before we leave this region. Patagonia has been described as a 'land of the imagination, like Ruritania'. In fact, there is no Patagonia on the map of Chile or Argentina. Instead, it is the southern part of both countries south of the Rio Negro, about south from Puerto Montt and Bariloche. An area the size of France and Germany combined, it has about 400,000 people. Sheep, introduced in the late 1800s from the Falklands (or the Malvinas, depending on your allegiance) outnumber people considerably.
There are several versions of where the name Patagonia comes from. One is that European explorers thought the heavy footwear of the local people looked like big feet or 'patagones'. As the Indigenous people were quite tall, it has also been known as the 'land of the giants'. A cast of strange explorers and eccentrics have visited Patagonia over the years. There are now fifth generation Welsh settlers (fleeing the English) who continue to speak Welsh and have established Welsh tearooms. A somewhat mad French explorer created the Kingdom of Patagonia and named himself king, before being committed to a mental asylum. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid lived down here, continuing their life of robbing banks. And, of course, Bruce Chatwin visited for many months in search of the extinct mylodon, creating his iconic 'In Patagonia' novel.
Tomorrow, we take two bus trips, first to Puerto Natales and then to Punta Arenas where we spend the night, before an early morning flight to Rio de Janeiro. Culture shock awaits, as well as language shock - Portuguese is infinitely harder than Spanish. So, from the Patagonian winds to the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana....