By Lynne McGowan
Patagonia, over a million square km and straddling Chile and Argentina equally, is one empty, barren place like no other. Christened by Magellan in 1520, the name “patagón” was adopted to bluntly describe the big feet of Tehuelches tribes, who made the sweeping pampas landscapes their home. Easily the most famous, “Torres del Paine”, the old ethnic word for blue describing the three towering spires of granite is also one of the most vast national parks. Scenery is breathtakingly impressive, but weather can switch in a whisper from bright sunshine on leaving basecamp to menacing gloom as colossal banks of black clouds shunt over the mountains. Allowing for all seasons in one day is the way to fill your backpack for a hike.
A vast network of paths make trail walking and hiking the most popular activities and people of all ages and levels of fitness are attracted by the well maintained routes and accommodation on offer. Young trekking guides enthuse walkers with their energy and occasionally pushing us ‘oldies’ to traipse further than we might otherwise opt for. The five day ‘W’ and the longer full circuit ‘O’ routes are popular amongst those with endurance and stamina. A rest from trekking is horse riding gaucho style and a surreal sight each morning is to see the herd of horses let loose to gallop across the hotel lawn to the stables. Grey Lake offers another fresh perspective on the scenery with a boat trip to the monumental Grey glacier fringed by floating icebergs in deepest cyan.
Casually wandering the hills and plains are herds of llama-like ‘guanaco’, and ever vigilant for the predatory puma the oldest family member is posted as a watchful sentinel on high outcrops. Disappointingly, the puma were elusive or too well camouflaged on our visit to the park, but skeletal evidence of their dawn raids were scattered around. Ostrich-like Rheas, shocking pink flamingos, black-necked swans and the iconic Andean Condor were some of the other creatures spotted on our treks.
Somewhat attracted by a package offered by our travel company “Trailfinders” to include free cocktails as a just reward after a long day hiking, we were obliged to take advantage. And very fine those cocktails were, “Pisco Sours” loaded with mint and served in chunky glasses with bamboo straws and homespun “Calafate Sours” made from local red berries were a delightful way to start the evening. A traditional asado was the culinary highlight and overseen by a beefy chef wearing a dark blue butcher’s apron. In the smoking pit, lamb carcasses were roasted on crosses to crispy “umami” perfection and served with a spicy Chilean red: it was the perfect ending to a day and one of the most memorable meals in the trip. However, hiking up the hills early the next morning proved to be somewhat more challenging than usual.