Esquel, Patagonia, Argentina
Well, we’re here now. I suppose we better go and see what all the fuss is about.
There are some places that are so hyped, so over-hyped, so busy with group tours, so universally covered in glossy travel magazines or eulogised by backpackers that you instinctively feel like you’re going to hate them, or at least fail to see what the awe’s all about.
We felt like that years ago when we went to the Taj Mahal – and yet it is a truly amazing building with an astonishing history, that you cannot help but feel the wonder. We felt the same about Machu Picchu – it would probably just be a big tourist trap. I suppose to some extent it is but, wow, it was truly incredible.
And so to Torres del Paine, the jewel in the crown of Chile’s national parks, the towering granite spires gracing posters, t-shirts, stickers, keyrings and just about everything else – all probably made in China.
We’d heard about its beauty from so many other travellers – and about the crowds, the shuffling along hiking trails and the sky-high costs.
But once again, whilst some of that is true, every negative is far outweighed by the stunning scenery.
There were lots of hikers on the route to the Mirador de las Torres but it is the most amazing sight. The kind of view – set against yet another stunning clear blue sky – that makes you think it’s been photo-shopped until you realise you are actually looking at it through your own eyes and not the computer-enhanced vision of the tourist brochures.
The azure-lake set against the glacial backdrop, and the greys, reds and browns of the spires make it hard to tear yourself away.
But do so you must, because Torres del Paine is much more than just one amazing view. It offers – depending on your fitness – days of excellent hiking and jaw-dropping vistas. Fresh from our hike to the towers we shoved a rented tent and stove, our sleeping bags and the obligatory hikers’ pasta/noodles/soup/crackers into our rucksacks and set off for three days walking around Lago Nordernskjold to the massive peaks of Los Cuernos and up the valley to Glaciar del Frances and the mirador Britanico, with its panorama of peaks, waterfalls and glaciars.
By night the glaciar treated us to what sounded like a thunderstorm as chunks of ice crashed down the mountainside; by day we had the chance to view the spectacle. Weary but happy, we retired to camp to cook up a one-pot feast, straight from the packet. Washing up was scenic but freezing as we doused our dishes in glacial meltwater. Sleep came easily.
We love a good hike but three days carrying all our own food, tent, sleeping bag, cooking equipment and clothes is about us much as the old bones can take these days. We always felt pretty pleased with ourselves after conquering another 6-8 hour trek, only to meet someone way older than us doing the full eight-day circuit.
But we had things to do and places to be – at least that was our excuse. So reluctantly we waved goodbye to Torres del Paine and headed back towards Argentina and the excitement of meeting old friends from home.
Sharon and her husband Mark are travelling for a year with their three children – Isobel, Leo and Rory. Having completed their Australian leg they flew to Santiago, hired a car and were now steaming down Ruta 40 towards us.
Despite the fact we had already visited El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier, and El Chalten with its world-class trekking, we were up for a return visit.
And so we hiked, barbequed, ate, laughed, gossiped, planned, marvelled at the scenery and drank our way through a week or so with good friends. Of course meeting new people has been one of the joys of this trip, but spending time with people you’ve known for decades is like nectar for the soul.
At Perito Moreno we struck lucky. Within minutes of arriving we got a ringside view of a skyscraper-sized chunk of ice crashing down in to the lake. At El Chalten, we set out trekking in cloud but as we approached the Fitzroy viewpoint the craggy peaks poked out of the cloud and the skies turned blue.
All too soon it was time for the inevitable selfies and reluctant goodbyes. When would we ever see them again?
Well, in about 12km actually. We were at the side of the road, I was under the van trying to find the source of a worrying rattle. They stopped. Looked concerned. Waved. And left. Bye!
Actually the rattle was nothing to worry about and soon we too were battling the fierce Patagonian winds as they headed north and we drove a dirt road to the east, in search of penguins.
We knew they’d be worth it.
Things we now know to be true: Thinking of things we now know to be true is much more difficult after 1,260 days than it was at the beginning.
More photos in the gallery below. Click on any photo to open the slideshow.