All paths to Patagonia

On horseback and foot, by water and four-wheel-drive, Belinda Jackson explores the wilds of Chile.

'B akaaaan," Cristobel drawls as we canter lazily along the side of a picturesque glacial lake on the flat plains of Chile's southernmost region, Patagonia.

"Bakaaaan," he drawls again as the clouds part and we are faced with a magical, uninterrupted view of the Torres del Paine Massif ahead of us.

"Bakaaaan," he exclaims one more time when the third of our mounted triumvirate, Merko, announces it's time for a picnic by the river, fed by the glacial lakes sitting at the mountains' skirts.

Cristobel is from Santiago and in his beanie, wraparound sunnies and leather jacket, looks more like a bikie than a Patagonian cowboy, or gaucho, but he rides like he's in an armchair, body undulating with the horse's rhythm, teaching me Chilean slang all the while.

"'Bakan' is like, 'real cool'," explains the city boy, who's also my translator, as Merko, my gaucho, can barely understand a word of my mangled Spanish. So I have an accountant, a hairdresser, a translator and now I have a gaucho. Cool, indeed.

I didn't think having bad Spanish here, in the southernmost tip of South America, would be a problem. "My Spanish was so terrible, people would ask me if I was from Chile," an Englishman had told me in another lifetime.

It had given me heart to think that someone out there had worse Spanish than me. So now, Merko and I just ride in silence, bound by mutual incomprehension. That's OK, the view had already stopped the power of speech.

I'd spied Chile's most famous mountain cluster, the Torres del Paine Massif, on the LAN Chile flight down to the country's southernmost city, Puento Arenas. The captain obviously felt bad about our consecutive meals of diabetes-inducing pastries filled with manjar caramelised condensed milk to which Chilean people are mortally addicted and had obligingly dipped his wings to the left for a condor's-eye view of the jagged massif.

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We all rushed so fast to that side of the plane, surely we'd tip it over.

The land around the massif glimmers with the sheen of frozen lakes and ice fields the second largest outside the Arctic with the twin granite horns of Los Cuernos rearing 2600 metres into the frigid air.

If you're expecting me to say they look like an alpine chocolate-box picture at this height, you'd be wrong. They looked terrifying. Majestic and beautiful, yes. But also terrifying.

All I could imagine was being lost in their icy grip; to be frozen by the harsh winter and dug out 2000 years later to be celebrated as an indigenous princess with dodgy dentistry and plastic tribal jewellery. It's no wonder the inlet it sits on is called Ultima Esperanza, or "last hope".

Torres del Paine National Park covers more than 240,000 hectares and is a very long way from anywhere except perhaps Antarctica. On the five-hour drive from the airport at Puenta Arenas up to our eco-lodge in the park, the pampa rolled alongside us open plains of long, golden grass and pale green mosses sliding into shallow lakes of white, frozen water.

On the journey, our driver, Juan, taught me a whole new language of nandu, caracara, guanaco and huemel. In terms of pecking order, the caracara, from the falcon family, is smaller than the nandu, an emu-like bird, the llama-like guanaco is related to the camel, while the stocky Patagonian deer, huemel, is quite rare. All are eaten indiscriminately by pumas.

The first time we saw a nandu, our four-wheel-drive reverberated with squeals at the sight of the sawn-off emus. Juan good-naturedly stopped the car so we could snap the two nandues, who watched us warily out of the corner of their eyes. Within an hour, nandues were, like, so passe. Our fascination was transferred to the delicate-faced, socially-inclined guanacos, whose antics include blasting snot at each other when displeased.

The next time I saw the Torres del Paine Massif, framed beautifully by my bedroom window in the eco-licious Explora Lodge, Hotel Salto Chico, it was no less intimidating but this time I added the word "inspiring" to its list of superlatives.

It is the view that has inspired thousands to circumnavigate the massif in the classic South American hiking route, the W, a nine-day circuit. During the long summer days, it's said the trail is like Pitt Street Mall at lunchtime. But in the fresh September spring air, we and our stoic guides, Rene and Eric (a walking encyclopedia, literally he carried a bookshelf of naturalist guides in his pack), were the only ones on the track, spotting shy owls and fresh puma tracks amid the trees, which were stripped of their summer foliage and draped in cobweb-like lichen.

Our easy 12-kilometre walk ended abruptly at a cliff that dropped down into icy, slate-grey water sluiced straight off the Grey Glacier.

Cutting in front of the restless ice monster was a pert little red and white boat. We scrambled down a gentle path to the water's edge, where the boat was waiting to take us to the lip of the glacier.

The little boat dodged icebergs bobbing in the chill waters and manoeuvred so close to the glacier you could stick your tongue out and lick its blue, ancient ice, or nick a passing berg to chill your "tart pisco sour" the national drink, which we sipped as the boat brought us within an easy forest walk and drive back to the lodge.

The lodge is at 51.1 degrees south of the equator (London sits on the same latitude north of the equator) and there are no mobile telephones and no televisions.

Compensation is the sporadic Wi-Fi access in the bar and a nightly lecture on wildlife, glaciology or geography by the super-friendly young staff, who radiate with apple-cheeked health. After two days' horseriding, hiking and licking glaciers, we thawed our bones by walking the 127 steps from the lodge down to its pool house for a dip in the heated indoor pool and a toasting in the sauna and then revved up one of the open-air jacuzzis to watch the sun play on the lake in front of us. That afternoon we had drunk its pure waters, now we were drinking a glass of pure Chilean pinot noir from Valle de Casablanca.

Later that night, I lazily flick open the textbook to the region Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia, which curiously tells you little of what it looks like, or what to do there.

Instead, it's a series of chats with the deeply weird inhabitants of this remote, cold South American utopia. At this point, Chatwin was locked in conversation with a raving poet.

"'Patagonia!' he cried. 'She is a hard mistress. She casts her spell. An enchantress! She folds you in her arms and never lets go'."

I looked out the window to where the last of the light had caught a cloud lazily circling the highest of the massif's peak, Torres Sur.

A shaft of sun had pierced the cloud, turning it a bright gold against the closing night and the scene was mirrored in the still Lake Pehoe at its feet.

The enchantress was at work, once again.

Belinda Jackson was a guest of Adventure World and LAN Airways.

TRIP NOTES

? GETTING THERE LAN Airlines flies Sydney to Santiago daily, via Auckland. Flights depart Sydney at 10.55am, arriving in Santiago about two hours later after crossing the International Date Line, phone 1800 221 572, see lan.com. Torres del Paine is not on the way to anywhere. Fly Santiago to Punta Arenas with a short stopover in Puerto Montt, then five hours' drive to the Torres del Paine massif.

? PACKAGES The Explora Patagonia package starts at $4115 a person twin share and includes four nights accommodation, all meals, most drinks, daily activities and explorations with naturalist guides and return airport transfers. The eight-night option costs $7303 a person twin share. Phone 1300363055, see adventureworld.com.au

? FURTHER INFORMATION Visa cost $US61 ($77) on arrival in Santiago. You can pay in pesos $1 equals 418 pesos US dollars or by credit card. However, only US dollars can be exchanged in Chile.

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