By Matt Westby
The numbers read badly for Torres del Paine National Park. Sixty hours, £1,000 and 16,000 miles just to travel there and back from the UK; less than 200,000 visitors per year, compared with five million to the US’s Yellowstone National Park; four seasons’ worth of wildly unpredictable weather all in one day; wind speeds that regularly top 100mph.
Lucky then that numbers matter little when the landscape is this beautiful.
Perhaps beautiful is not quite the right word, since it implies convention. Parts of Torres del Paine, in southern Patagonia, are so spectacular and dramatic they could easily belong to a fantasy novel.
What cannot be questioned is that this is one of the most visually stunning and walker-friendly national parks this humble planet can offer, a quietly understated rival to the great mountain ranges and more famous wilderness areas.
It is only because it is so remote that many people have never heard of Torres del Paine. Indeed, mention the word “Torres” in the UK and most would think first of the Chelsea striker. But ignorance, in this case, most definitely is not bliss.
This cannot be said of travel experts, however. Lonely Planet magazine recently splashed a three-page wide pullout picture of the park on its front cover and labelled it “One of the most beautiful places on Earth”, while the “1,000 Places To See Before You Die” 2010 calendar featured it as early as January 7. In short, those in the know say it is not to be missed.
If you do decide to make the long trip – and you certainly should – your flight destination will most likely be the city of Punta Arenas, a modest and neat little place perched on the banks of the Magellan Strait, close to the border with Argentina to the east and Cape Horn to the south.
Torres del Paine is situated about five hours’ drive north and is quintessentially a compact mountain range all of its own that bursts impatiently out of the Patagonian steppe.
Snow-capped peaks and soaring granite spires tower above valleys bristling with plant and wildlife, while brilliant light-blue lakes provide a tranquil foreground to the chaos of the jagged pinnacles and glaciers behind.
Intertwined between is a network of high-quality hiking trails, lodges and campsites – enough to keep a visitor entertained, fed and rested for well over a week.
Those with more time can opt to walk the “Circuit”, a inverted heart-shaped route that takes up to nine days to complete, depending on pace, and visits every last corner of the park, while the “W” trail – named after its shape – ticks off only the main highlights within four days.
The premier of those highlights is without doubt the Torres del Paine – or Towers of Paine – after which the park is named.
The hike up to the lookout that gives the best view of the towers is moderate in most places, strenuous in others, but every calorie burned is more than justified by a sight that surely has few peers.
The towers, three of them in all, stand proudly over a rock wall that plunges down into a green glacial lake to form an image that genuinely takes the breath away.
A vicious wind blows remorsefully across the mirador as if to deter onlookers from staying too long, hinting that a sneak peek is all you’re welcome to. So often true beauty exists only in environments where humans don’t belong.
Back down on the steppe and about six hours’ walk away, Torres del Paine blitzes the visual senses once again with a series of 10,000ft-high peaks named Los Cuernos, or “horns”, after their sharp and twisted summits.
The horns’ bizarre shape and multi-coloured composition make them unique among mountains and the view is enhanced when viewed from or behind the brilliant blue Lake Pehoe – another image commonplace in most South American travel glossies.
Chile’s riches don’t rest solely in its landscape, though, as its people quickly prove as special as the scenery.
On my visit, I worked as a volunteer in the park, which provided a unique opportunity to live at close quarters with the locals and witness a hospitality, happiness and generosity which humbled me to the very core.
Their warmth starts from the moment they first greet you, with kisses on the cheeks from each woman and honest handshakes from each man – a process that is repeated every time you see them irrespective of whether they are a friend or stranger.
Afterwards they treat you with a “what’s mine is yours” attitude, stopping at nothing to make even outsiders most welcome.
Not even my inability to speak Spanish stopped them displaying a level of kindness and companionship that England cannot even dream of.
Meanwhile, another five hours’ drive north and over into the border into Argentina, numbers become more relevant at the Perito Moreno glacier.
The jewel of the Los Glaciares National Park and unquestionably one of the world’s natural wonders, it is 19 miles long, three miles wide and rises an average of 74m above the water when it reaches its spectacular climax at Lake Argentino. It is also one of only three glaciers in Patagonia and a handful in the whole world that is growing. The fact scientists have no idea why only adds to the aura of this majestic spectacle.
The best way to see it is by boat, trips on which aren’t cheap but enable you to witness nature at its most brutal and beautiful.
Jagged spikes splinter upwards like a punk rocker’s haircut and the deep blue glean, created by sediment picked up by ice scraping against the valley, only intensifies the mystical feel. Like Torres del Paine, the Perito Moreno glacier could easily belong to another planet.
Once again, so aesthetic is the glacier that Lonely Planet selected it as one of only 12 images worldwide for its 2011 calendar.
But then again, what do numbers matter?
Torres de Paine National Park: http://www.torresdelpaine.com/ingles/index.asp