At the base of Cordillera Paine
It took me four years and five hours. Four years of endless dreaming about making it to Patagonia after first seeing posters of the place pinned to the wall of a classroom in high school. Five hours of trekking from the drop-off point near the town of Puerto Natales in southern Chile, a beautiful gruel through deep forest valleys and up rocky escarpments covered in ice.
After all that time, I found myself sitting at the base of the three soaring towers of the Cordillera Paine, the iconic mountain chain that gives Torres del Paine National Park its name. Impressive to no end, I remember worrying this place would ruin the rest of the world for me. Any place ahead would struggle to match its wild and towering beauty.
Even so, there was a small difference between the pictures I’d seen back in school and the scene that lay in front of me then. The lagoon that usually lies clear and reflective at the foot of the mountain was instead thick and frozen, dusted with a thin layer of snow. For all my pining, I’d decided that even the cold wouldn’t deter me, and made my way to the bottom of South America into Chilean Patagonia in early August.
Winter worries: should I go in off-season?
August just happens to be right around the middle of Patagonia’s winter, or the dreaded “off season” according to most travel guides you’ll read. Freezing temperatures, unpredictable and gloomy weather, and the closure of some hiking trails and activities are all enough to keep most away around this time. It certainly made me nervous about my decision to begin with.
But take it from me: if you’re willing to sacrifice some small comforts, travelling through Patagonia in winter can be one of the most profound and rewarding experiences to be had. The same hiking paths that in summer play host to hundreds of tourists and campers belong to only a handful in the winter months. In fact, on my way to Cordillera Paine, I only ever encountered three or four other people. This also increases your likelihood of encountering the region’s diverse wildlife.
The region of Patagonia makes up South America’s southern cone and covers a vast area across both southern Chile and Argentina. On the Chilean side, it officially begins near the town of Puerto Montt and stretches all the way down to Ushuaia, commonly referred to as the “edge of the world” because of its close proximity to Antarctica. Argentinian Patagonia is much larger, starting well above the city of Bariloche and ending below the township of El Calafate. Luckily, many of the highlights are comparatively close together.
I began my journey into Patagonia in Chile, catching buses all the way from the capital Santiago to Puerto Natales. This amounted to over 48 hours spent on buses, with shorts stays at Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas to break up the trip. While these towns are nice, and the overnight buses in both Chile and Argentina are relatively affordable, high-class and comfortable, flying is always an option if you don’t have the time or patience for two full days of Spanish music videos on repeat. Flights from Santiago to Puerto Natales or Buenos Aires to El Calafate are frequent and usually not too expensive. Just be sure to shop around.
The Five Highlights:
1. Puerto Natales
Puerto Natales is the jump off point for anyone looking to trek in the nearby world-class Torres del Paine National Park, home to the above mentioned stone spires of the Cordillera Paine. A pretty little place of about 15,000 people, the town becomes ever more charming with a coating of snow. Spend at least a day wandering the streets, exploring the small but historically packed Municipal Historical Museum (which charts the history of the town and surrounds from the pre-Incan days to the pioneers), and visiting the many flamingos by the lake. The view of distant mountains from the shore are also a great precursor for the landscapes you’ll encounter in the coming days.
Speaking of, you’ll also find many trekking specialists and tour operators in town that can help you decide how you want to go about visiting Torres del Paine. While most of the lodges along the famous 5 day W-Trek are usually closed in winter due to the snow, it is still possible to camp. You’ll need sleeping bags, tents, extremely warm clothing, food and hiking boots, all of which are supplied at these places. Many hostels, such as the excellent The Singing Lamb and Erratic Rock, also offer to organise these and other trips for you. Note: it’s sub-zero cold at times, but you don’t really feel it while you’re hiking. Wear layers!
2. Torres del Paine National Park
Given my time, budget and because I was on my own, I decided not to do the W-Trek this time around. However I did meet a few people who braved it and said they loved it, especially because at times it seemed like they had the entire park to themselves. Luckily, there are affordable and time-safe alternatives for seeing the place. By opting for a “full day tour” on one day, coupled with a “full day trek” to the base of the towers on another, you end up seeing more of Torres del Paine than you would if you were doing the W.
Visit tour operators or your hostel’s front desk in Puerto Natales and they’ll point you in the right direction. The full day tour exposed me to it all: the giant Milodon Cave, in which the remains of the prehistoric beast it is named after were first discovered back in 1896, packs of vicunas (think llamas, only smaller) roaming freely on rolling golden hillsides, great lagoons beneath epic mountain vistas, pouring waterfalls, and the vast and glistening waters of Lake Pehoe that reflect the whole park’s splendour right back at you.
The trek to the base of the towers the following day took about 8 hours return, and led me along an icy river through a wooded valley before veering off into the mountains. As seems to be the case for most tracks in Patagonia, the last 40 or so minutes are the hardest, but the final view is more than worth it. If the peaks are covered in clouds when you get there, don’t be disappointed. The weather is sporadic but adds to the atmosphere of the place. Be sure to bring snacks, water and a camera!
3. El Calafate
From Puerto Natales, you’ll want to take the scenic 3 to 4 hour bus journey across the Argentinean border to the town of El Calafate. Double check that you’ve got your visas sorted before boarding the bus and remember that if you’re an Aussie like me, you’ll also have to pay the Argentinean reciprocity fee online for 100USD before you go (not cheap, not fair, but worth it if you plan to stay for a while).
El Calafate, like Puerto Natales, is basically a headquarters for travellers looking to visit the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier and the fantastic trekking spots near El Chalten. Although peaceful and enveloped by beautiful scenery, there’s not too much to do in town, especially during winter. Most eateries are also rather expensive, given the town’s heavy reliance on tourism. The sights nearby make the stay here fortunately worthwhile.
4. Perito Moreno Glacier
Stretching as far as the eye can see and standing tall above all onlookers, the blue ice field of the Perito Moreno Glacier is one of Argentinean Patagonia’s most famous attractions. Depending on your budget, day trips from El Calafate can include transport to and from the glacier, a boat ride up to its side, and short treks, ice boots and all, on the glacier itself. Even cheapskates like myself can spend a happy 3 hours walking along the impressive viewpoints across from the glacier. Bring your own lunch, find a quiet spot and you can picnic while listening to the eerie groan of ice crashing into the water.
If you’re the type to worry about scheduling, it’s also possible to make it back to El Calafate and catch the evening bus to El Chalten on the same day. Just ensure you’ve got your stuff ready to go. You can usually ask staff at the terminal’s bus companies to hold onto your bags for the day.
5. El Chalten
The final stop on my foray through wild Patagonia was fittingly grand, isolated and at times scary. El Chalten is a tiny town a couple of hours from El Calafate and packed to the brim with nothing but restaurants (some of which happen to be closed in winter) and large, lodge-like hostels. Walking distance from all of them are multiple paths that twist into the surrounding wilderness, unveiling some of the most jarringly gorgeous vistas in all of Patagonia that earn El Chalten its title as Hiking Capital of Argentina.
These self-guided treks vary in length and difficulty, but the most rewarding require at least an entire day of walking. As such, you’ll want at least 3 days in El Chalten. The best two tracks, both of which require 6 to 8 hours to complete, are:
- Laguna de los Tres
- Laguna Torre
These offer stunning views of the nearby valleys, varied forests and the grand Mount Fitz Roy. You’ll probably encounter strange and curious creatures, such as red-headed woodpeckers and wild horses in the woods, along the way as well.
In winter, you’ll also want to be especially careful. My trek to the Laguna de los Tres was cut short by near gale force winds that sent branches flying and myself toppling over on multiple occasions. The final leg of this trek requires a steep and dangerous rocky ascent that should be skipped if it’s too windy or raining. It’s one hell of an adventure, but you’ll want to come back in the end.
Last word: it’s worth it
Yes, Patagonia in winter can be severely cold. Its microclimate weather can change at the tip of a hat. The food can be expensive. Some businesses may be closed until summer. But in the midst of all that, you’ll come face to face with a visceral and timeless landscape at the very edge of the known world. In more cases than not, you’ll have it all to yourself.