The Land of Elves: Torres del Paine
January 15, 2014 | By Mitch & Jewels |
You know those places where you expect Hobbit-style elves, goblins, and creatures to walk along mountain ridges or pop out from behind trees? The landscapes and nature of Torres del Paine National Park truly feel magical, despite a couple of travel planning snaffoos.
Key lessons: (1) Travel agents are incompetent liars and thieves. (2) Money may not be able to buy happiness, but creature comforts make natural beauty even more beautiful. (3) Pachamama, over and over again, in all her manifestations and creations, can take your breath away.
Lesson: Never Use Travel Agents
(Warning: Rant coming. Feel free to skip to the next section.)
On Friday, 27 December 2013, we travelled from the Lake District down to Punta Arenas in Patagonia, where we met up with Mitch’s parents (Amy & Michael) to begin a couple of weeks of travel with them.
It was the first time we’ve ever had plans arranged by a travel agent, and the transit situation was a bit of a nightmare. In theory, travel agents should make travel easier, find you better options, and save you planning time. Unfortunately, not only was it 3 strikes on these 3 counts, but traveling with them was outrageously more expensive than it would have been without them. Further, instead of taking responsibility for the work of its subcontractors, we have gotten caught-up in a blame circle between the travel agency and its subcontractor here.
The plan had been for the four of us to connect at the Punta Arenas airport (after Mitch and I flew in from Puerto Montt and Amy and Michael flew in straight from the States via Santiago). The travel agency had booked Amy & Michael’s connecting flight too closely, so the airline put them on a later flight (arriving at 7:30pm instead of 2:40pm) and they spent a few hours in Santiago. Meanwhile, our flight arrived at 1pm on schedule. However, the travel agency decided to cancel the earlier transportation from the airport to the hotel, so we waited in the wifi-less airport 6 ½ hours from when we arrived until Amy & Michael arrived. After their screw-up, the travel agent’s best attempt to amend our 6 ½ hour wait was to offer us (half-way through) the option for us to pay $260 USD for a guided tour of Punta Arenas, after we asked them if they would reimburse us the $30 USD round trip cab ride if we wanted to go into town. We are not sure why they were surprised we declined their offer.
Meanwhile, when Mitch’s parents arrived, we watched their excitement at seeing us turn into shock that their travel agent had screwed up so dramatically. Then, at around 8pm, the four of us loaded into the car the agency had arranged to begin the 6-hour journey to the hotel (the agency told us 4 hours, but apparently the time-saving road has been closed for 2 months and no one told us). Thank goodness for our 2 excellent drivers and a stop for a delicious seafood meal in Puerto Natales, as well as a gorgeous sunset. Watching the way the sun shone through huge sweeping clouds and lit up the sky in fabulous patterns and colors was spectacular. We didn’t even attempt to capture it in photos, but it almost made up for the 6 ½ hour airport wait, 6 ½ hour transport time, and the 2:30am hotel arrival.
From what we saw, it looks like there are a few main options for staying in Torres del Paine. The cheapest is to camp at campgrounds or along the through-hikes (the W or the O), which would have required a totally different range of gear than we packed. Then, there is the option of staying in Refugios, which are basic but sufficient places where you can stay and often eat. Third, there are a variety of Bed & Breakfasts that have been converted from old homes and estancias (ranches). Lastly, there are a bunch of full-service hotels, whose quality, services, and prices range dramatically. Whichever option, if you are going during the high season (summer, December – February), things fill up quickly and you’ll need to book far in advance.
We ended up spending three nights each at two different hotels. The first, the Rio Serrano, is on the west side of the park, and the second, the Awasi, is on the east side of the park – so we saw the massif (the biggest mountain in the park) from both sides, and we experienced a wide range of views and environments.
The Hotel Rio Serrano
We spent our first three nights at Torres del Paine in the Hotel Rio Serrano. Biggest plus: It’s very centrally located with beautiful views of the massif and other areas. From our window, we could watch horses calmly grazing, plus there are easy places to walk right from the hotel. Biggest downside: It’s expensive for the services provided and feels a bit like a Holiday Inn. (It’s something like $400 USD per person per day all-inclusive, with “good but not fantastic” buffet meals and “good but not fantastic” rooms and “good but not fantastic” excursions.)
Our first morning, we realized there were all sorts of miscommunications. They had not communicated to us that laundry service was included in our all-inclusive package and the papers in the rooms effectively said our 4 kg of laundry (which would have cost about $5 USD in Bolivia and $12 USD elsewhere in Chile) would cost $95 USD. After we had washed the first load by hand and were coming to terms with the fact that it would take 3 days to dry in the bathroom with the humidity, they told us it was included. Sigh. Also, the hotel typically includes the transportation to either of the two closest airports (Punta Arenas and El Calafate), but the travel agency had charged $1K USD extra.
Through a bizarre stroke of luck, while the two of us were on a day-hike, Amy and Michael were able to get rooms for three nights at the Awasi, which is a new hotel 2 hours away from the Rio Serrano on the other side of the massif (the biggest mountain in Torres del Paine). They had been trying to get us there initially, but apparently the stars did not align until we literally were in Torres del Paine.
The Awasi is, in a word, extraordinary. It’s a 5-star boutique hotel that opened up 6 weeks ago, and is (we both agree) the most spectacular place we have ever stayed and completely redefines a luxury outdoors experience. Their space is divided into a main lodge plus approximately 12 “villas” which are freestanding units for 2 people each (plus one family villa), each with a gorgeous sitting area, huge and deliciously comfortable bed, and spectacular bathroom, with incredible views that you can see from bed. The views are epic – of the towers, the turquoise lakes and rivers, scrub forests and pampas. Plus, each villa has its own wood-fired hot tub outside, so you can ask for it to be ready when you get back from a hike or whatnot, and it is pure magic.
The food and drinks are outrageously delicious – the head chef, Frederico Ziegler, is brilliant. And, the staff is incredible – led by Rosario (who oversees everything) and Rodrigo (who manages the guides and excursions), who both seem to love what they do and just do a fantastic job. There are 50 – 60 staff for fewer than 30 guests, and every single staff person we interacted with has been well-trained for excellent quality while still retaining a warm and genuine attitude. At the Awasi, each group gets a private guide so you can custom-build your experience, and our guide, Boris, lived up to the standard of excellence of the rest of the Awasi experience.
Landscapes and Nature
The name “Torres del Paine” literally references the towers (“torres”) of some of the spectacular natural rock formations, as well as the blue hue of the rock and land (“paine” means “blue” in a local indigenous language). Depending on where you are in the mountains, valleys, plains, and lakes of Torres del Paine National Park and the surrounding areas, the landscape changes pretty dramatically.
And, from our experiences – the weather can change dramatically and quickly. It can rain (or snow) for a few minutes, then the next thing you know, it will be beautifully sunny with big puffy clouds, and then a few minutes later the entire horizon will be clouded out. Thankfully a rain jacket, waterproof boots, and a hat go a long way toward total comfort – unfortunately, the waterproofing on our boots kind of died, so we are investing in new ones.
The region has been shaped by millennia of wind, water, and glaciers. There are areas of big wide rolling grasslands, where the wind ripples lush grasses into a shimmer, and you see the happiest cows, sheep, and horses of your life. All those plains are the pampas, and support a huge number of domestic animals. There are steppe/scrub areas, with lots of prickly plants that look like cushions of various types of greens, yellows, oranges, and browns. And there are forested lands with dense trees and bushes.
There are huge swaths of burnt-out forests, for which the locals blame stupid travelers. (Apparently about 2 years ago, an Israeli tourist tried to burn his toilet paper instead of packing it out, starting a fire that burned down 18% of the National Park. It’s a grudge that’s going to take a long time to fade.) The burned sections are shockingly beautiful – the trees still stand there, half petrified so they look like skeletons against the harsh landscape that will take decades to regenerate.
There are beautiful lakes, whose colors are outrageously green and turquoise with varying mineral content, cloudiness, and colors from the springs and glaciers that feed them. There are the mountains and the giant snow-covered peaks, as well as the legendary rock formations (the horns and the towers) for which the park was named. And, of course, there are the glaciers – shockingly huge ice fields that are prime fresh water sources for the world. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend the magnitude of them, even when you are right there in front of them.
Throughout these varied landscapes, there is a huge diversity of wildlife. In addition to the happiest ranch animals ever, the most common large animals we saw were Darwin’s Rheas (apparently a different species than rheas than we saw in Bolivia) and Guanacos. Rheas are the South American equivalent to the ostrich, and they are huge bizarre-looking birds that hang out on the grasslands and steppe areas in solos or flocks and have the ability to run really quickly (which is pretty adorable). Guanacos are the 4th species in the camelid family in addition to llamas, alpacas, and vicunas – so now we have seen all 4 on this trip! Much like the vicuna, they have social groups with one male, a bunch of females, and babies, and then other males travel solo or in pairs. They are super adorable and ruminate similarly to cows – so you often see them hanging out and chewing cud.
We saw 3 small gray foxes with big puffy tales, a ton of hares (which can be quite big), an armadillo, a skunk, some flamingoes, and a wide variety of birds – from huge eagles to big white geese to beautiful little finches. The cara cara is a mean ole’ raptor known for pecking out the eyes of larger prey animals (like calves) and then waiting for them to die. There is another bird that has sharp little talons on the edges of their wings that can swoop down and inflict some serious harm, but often just uses them for protection.
Then there are condors, which nest high up in the cliffs at the top of the mountain ridges and soar through the sky. The condors are unbelievably big and the edges of their wings in flight almost look fingered from their feather patterns. We also saw a herd of baguales from afar, which are wild horses that live in Patagonia. Apparently they originated from escaped Spanish horses, but over the centuries have become completely wild and much larger. The big predator in the area is the puma, and while we took special note of the key puma ranges and were on a constant look-out to see one, we were never that lucky.
Interestingly, if you go on a walk (or drive or horseback ride), you can see skeletons dotting the landscape – mainly of guanacos and sheep. Sometimes you just see a bone or a skull randomly somewhere, but other times we would see almost a full skeleton in one place. It’s really interesting to experience and connect with the natural cycle of life when you see, for example, sheep grazing next to a sheep skull.
The whole area was built on a sheep/wool based economy (now, you still see tons of sheep as well as cows and some horses happily grazing together alongside guanacos). Most of the area used to be owned in estancias, which are ranches or livestock-based haciendas. Some of them were pretty small but others were quite substantial and might have housed dozens (or more) people. There are also still gauchos, actual legit cowboys, who herd sheep, cows, and horses, as well as lead tourist horseback rides. They are pretty masterful.
Apparently there used to be indigenous people here, but once the westerners arrived and brought sheep, the natives began to hunt the sheep as well as the native guanacos (one of our guides said the indigenous groups called the sheep “white guanacos”), because the sheep were easy to kill. So the westerners/settlers would organize hunting parties until the natives were no more.
Excursions and Activities…
navigations, expeditions, walks, rides, and drives
Walk near the Hotel Rio Serrano
On our first day there, while Amy & Michael took an afternoon nap to compensate for their long flights, the long drive, and the 2:30am arrival, we went for a walk right around the Hotel Rio Serrano for about an hour. The landscape was beautiful – we walked through some grasslands as well as a few stands of scraggly trees with epiphytic mosses and lichens (there is one that is called “old man’s beard” because of how it looks). We walked up along one river of glacier water and saw where it met with another one. Interestingly, the sooner the water comes down off the glacier, it has more sediment, minerals, and aeration, so it looks almost cloudy or milky. At the spot where we went on our walk, we could see a more milky stream meet up with a more clear one. The cows we saw on our walk seemed quite interested in us, and the birds were aloof and plentiful. As we watched the clouds part, the mountains started to peek out until they loomed over us in full force.
Later that afternoon, the four of us went on a boat navigation of Grey’s Glacier, one of the major glaciers in the park. It was amazing. It was, effectively, a ½ hour bus ride from our hotel to a 3 hour boat ride – 1 hour each way, plus an hour at the glacier. I’m not sure how it will compare to other glaciers we will see on our trip (this was our first glacier) but it was phenomenally impressive. It is 30 meters high, shrinking at a super fast rate, and super wide/long (to the order of multiple kilometers). There are two major tongues, with a giant rock island in the middle that used to move with the glacier, but is now stationary. The larger tongue has a smaller (still huge) rock island dividing it in two, which still moves with the glacier.
The colors are exquisite – the darker blues indicate that that area of ice is older. Some of the ice chunks in the water and areas on the glacier are unbelievably blue. We actually had wondered if they might be plastic boats when we saw them from afar because we could not understand how ice could be that hue. Also, since 80% of the huge glacier (as well as the chunks in the water) is under the water line, the enormity of it was hard to comprehend. The boat also served everyone a pisco sour (naturally), with a chunk of glacier ice in it!
Mitch and I spent a full day hiking the French Valley. The excursion was 12 hours in total, about 7 of which were a 20-km hike through the valley, where you can see another glacier, the horns and towers for which Torres del Paine is famous, great views of the valley and beautiful turquoise blue glacial lakes. It was us plus a couple from Spain (the woman is a Kundalini yoga teacher, and we did a little stretch at the end!) and a guide from the Hotel Rio Serrano named Cristian. It felt really good to be moving at a rapid pace for a while, and Cristian seemed excited to have energetic and able-bodied people on his tour.
The views, in absolutely every direction, were outrageously spectacular and reinforced the feeling of “holy shit, this is one of the most beautiful places in the world.” The hike through the French Valley started at the Paine Grande Refugio and went past the Italian camp to the British lookout (everything is named for the explorers who had their base camps in different places) – which is part of the W-trek. At one of the little waterfalls, we refilled our water bottles and had some good clean mineral water.
Horseback ride (first)
At our last morning at the Hotel Rio Serrano, we went for a 2-hour horseback ride. It was my second time on a horse and first time “driving” and, while I just slowly walked along, I was still proud of myself. The ride was beautiful. We went through dry, burned out forest, where the trees are fairy-tale-magical and have lichens clinging to their white skeletons. We crossed some little streams, with trees growing up through them, saw sheep and cows, pampas, the massif rising up… utterly beautiful.
I was pretty pissed because the guide, David, effectively left me as the last person there because he was flirting with a girl who was behind me, even after I told him at least 4 times that it was my first time riding a horse. The last conversation, was when he took off faster when the object of his flirtation wanted to learn how to go faster, and he looked back and (all in Spanish, so there was no confusion) asked me how I was doing, and I responded “asi asi” (“kind of okay”), and he asked if I wanted to go faster, so I responded by reminding him that it was my first time and I did not, then he said “Enjoy!” and took off. I am so grateful to Michael (Mitch’s dad) for coming back and going slowly with me the last bit.
Walk near the Awasi
Once we got to the Awasi, we went for a walk for 2 ½ hours with Rodrigo, who manages the guides and excursion staff. Extra kudos to them for quietly and discretely using it as an opportunity to gauge our group’s level of physical ability for the other activities. We walked through a burned out forest and then a deciduous beech forest that looked not unlike those by the Rio Serrano but higher altitude and drier, and then through some pampas, where you can see the pastureland and tons of sheep.
From the Awasi, we did a day-hike, which I believe (I may be wrong) was named for the two estancias (ranches) at either end of the hike. It was somewhere in the range of 12 – 15 kilometers, and was a very gentle hike where, after several hours of seemingly flat land, you somehow end up on the top of a mountain lookout from which you can see 360 degree views and have an awesome view of the valleys all around. We had never gone on a flat hike to the top of a mountain before!
The hike itself was lovely, with some forests, steppes, pampas, little streams, great rock formations… and the view from the top was spectacular. Our guide actually had us close our eyes a minute before we reached the lookout and hold hands so he could guide us to a spot where we could open our eyes and be blown away by the sight of it. The walk down was intensely steep over black igneous rock that has, over time, been ground into sharp gravel. At places, there were desert scrub bushes anchoring everything in place, but in other areas it was full-moraine, just a narrow pass literally on the side of a mountain of sharp gravel.
New Year’s Eve
We were lucky to celebrate New Year’s Eve at the Awasi. After an extra-decadent dinner, there was a champagne toast, music, and they brought out little hats and masks. The party was a little mellow, so we brought my hoops up to the main lodge for dancing and good fun. At around 1:15am, we left the main lodge to head toward our villas and noticed there was still a sliver of lighter sky at the horizon, but the stars were shining super bright. You could literally see the Milky Way streaming across the sky. We could clearly make out the Southern Cross, really brightly, and loved seeing familiar constellations like Orion’s Belt upside down.
On New Year’s Day, we drove with Boris to Baguales Valley (named for the wild horses described above), an area where they have recently found petroglyphs and fossils. At this point, very few tourists go, so it’s super mellow but totally gorgeous. They are in the process of building out an area to study all that, so we stopped by the center-to-be, which is currently a little building used for shearing sheep; on the way back, we stopped by a nice little spot to have a cup of soup and marvel at the scenery.
Horseback ride (second time)
After the Baguales Valley trip, we went on a short horseback ride, maybe two hours. While Amy and I went slowly and stayed with our guide Boris (who has been on horses since he was 6 months old) so I could learn more, Mitch and Michael went off with Viktor, the gaucho. The boys had a phenomenal time galloping around and Mitch had a surprise of actually jumping over a bush. They came back happy, sore, and with a gift of sparkling effervescent natural mineral water. I walked the horse only and started to get a feel for it, although I think I need a very cerebral lesson and a ton of practice.
Viktor was just phenomenal to watch on horseback – he moved smoothly and quickly as though he and the horse were one living entity. Apparently he learned English doing an exchange program in the states in Arkansas, where he surprised them all by knowing how to ride horses (he apparently didn’t tell them he knew how to ride when he got up on horseback), and they gave him a gun on day 1. Oh, Arkansas. He loved it.
Here are all of the photos from our time in Torres del Paine! For this blog post, we tried to give a few examples in line with the text but put the full set here so you can slide show through them. Let us know what you think of this format. =)