Welcome to part three of my four-part series about our 2019 adventure through South America. In this week’s blog: Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.
Twelve hours after departing hot, dry Mendoza, we stepped off the bus into the first flakes of falling snow. It was nearly midnight in the small town of Puerto Natales, strung along the rocky shores of Seno Ultima Esperanza and 150 miles from the next nearest population center. It was bitterly cold that night and as we settled into our hotel, it was obvious that I had underestimated the weather and would need to buy more layers.
Morning dawned grey over the sound. After a quick breakfast of toast and cheese, we hopped on a van for a tour of Torres del Paine National Park. In moments, we left behind the corrugated tin roofs and metal-clad buildings of town and into some of the most beautiful and rugged countryside that I have ever seen.
Much like the Puget Sound (where we live), this region of Chile was carved and shaped by ice. Retreating glaciers following the last major ice age left the west coast of Patagonia a rugged landscape of narrow fjords, isolated islands, and sharp mountain peaks. Nowhere is this more evident than in Torres del Paine.
Our tour of the national park started at the Cave of the Milodon, a touristy spot featuring a large cave where early human settlers would have taken shelter from the harsh elements and where the bones and fur of an extinct species of giant ground sloth were discovered in the 1890s.
After stretching our legs and chatting with some of our fellow tourists (including our good friend Llama Hat Guy, who made it his mission to make sure that Stephanie and I had enough photos with both of us in them), we got back into the van for the main event.
Torres del Paine is an expansive national park covering 700 square miles. Within that are windswept grasslands, shockingly blue glacier-fed lakes, milky white rivers loaded with sediment, stands of lenga trees, icebergs, and a range of striking mountains known as the Horns, which seems tall enough to scrape against the sky.
Despite the cold seeping into my bones, we had an awe-inspiring tour through the park, hiking across otherworldly landscapes of rock and ice, stopping to admire the ever-shifting view of the mountains, and spotting the local wildlife, including herds of guanacos, a wild cousin of the domesticated llama, and the elusive ñandu, a large flightless bird resembling a mini-ostrich.
After returning to Puerto Natales that evening, exhausted but in awe of the natural beauty of this place, we stopped by a local outfitter for some extra clothes and thicker socks so that I’d be better prepared for our next outing.
The next day, our expedition took us to the waters of Ultima Esperanza. We boarded a catamaran for an all-day cruise through stunning fjords. Along the way, we witnessed towering waterfalls cascading down sheer cliffs, seals and sea birds of every kind, and massive glaciers crumbling into the sea. We stopped in at a historic sheep ranch for a traditional Patagonian asado lunch of lamb and potatoes before boarding the ship again, where we enjoyed a whiskey with fresh glacier ice.
It was all over so quickly, as is often the case when trying to see a lot in the short amount of vacation time many of us in the U.S. get from our employers. I’m sure we could’ve spent many more days exploring the wild southern expanse of South America.
Patagonia was everything I hoped it would be and more — a place of untouched natural grandeur at the end of the world, a cold, unforgiving, but alluring land where a single human feels insignificant against the immensity of what lies before you. No wonder European explorers of the 19th century were drawn here, this most inaccessible of frontiers.
And yet, it’s easy to forget how much humans, and especially European immigrants, have changed Patagonia, logging its ancient forests, driving out and killing indigenous peoples by the thousands, and transforming vast swaths of the wilderness into grazing land for industrial sheep farming — an ecological disaster which has pushed many native species to the brink of extinction. Even now, a warming climate is robbing Patagonia of its ice, with glaciers retreating miles per year in some cases and erasing a critical part of this delicate ecosystem.
I can’t help but feel a little guilty for even coming here. In my hurry to see this place before it’s gone, have I hastened its disappearance? That’s the trade-off we make whenever we travel, but especially when visiting the most remote and vulnerable spots on the planet. Is it worth it? I’m not sure I can fully answer that. I’m glad we went for our once-in-a-lifetime trip and going has made me more aware of what we stand to lose if we do nothing to address climate change. And if travel can galvanize me to action and advocacy, then yes, I think it will be worth it.
Chilean Patagonia Travel Tips
Where: Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, Chile
Getting There: From Santiago, flights to Punta Arenas take about 3.5 hours, plus time to make a stop to let folks get off in Puerto Montt. Once you arrive, Bus Sur provides comfortable transportation with multiple buses a day from the airport for the 3-hour drive. When we went, you could book your ticket in advance, but payment had to be made in person upon boarding the bus. We were also able to get onto an earlier bus when our flight arrived early.
Where to Stay: We stayed in the heart of Puerto Natales at the Hotel Vendeval. The rooms were small, but clean and modern with a fantastic view of the sea, and we were located within a five-minute walk of everything we needed. The staff was excellent and they even packed us a sack lunch for our day trip to Torres del Paine.
How to Get Around: Chilean Patagonia is huge with very few populated areas. Many of the roads are dirt or gravel and the weather can change without warning. We found it best to let a professional handle the driving (and sailing) while we enjoyed the incredible views.
What to Pack: Smartwool socks, telephoto lens
What to Drink: Whiskey on the rocks (with glacier ice) or a blended pisco sour at La Guanaca (a spot that may be a contender for the best wood-fired pizza in South America).
What to Eat: Puerto Natales has an up-and-coming foodie scene. There aren’t a lot of restaurants (and some keep limited hours outside of the busy season), but all of it is delicious. Do yourself a favor and splurge on local king crab at Santolla, a restaurant located inside a converted storage container.
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Jonny Eberle is a writer, filmmaker, photographer, and explorer based out of Tacoma, WA. You can find his words in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. While you’re here, read more of his travel writing, sign up for his monthly newsletter, and follow him on Twitter.
In the final installment of my four-part travel series on South America, we reach the southern tip of the Americas. Next up: Punta Arenas. Be sure to check out part one, Buenos Aires, and part two, Mendoza.