(Almost) the End of the World – Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine, Chile

Today was a big day for me – I was due to fly nearly 2000km to Puerto Natales, the furthest south I had ever been. It was a critical part of my complicated South American itinerary; if the flight were cancelled, my only alternative would be a 36-hour bus ride. I was a little nervous, since the only airline serving the route was one I had never heard of, called “SKY”.  I was also worried about the weather forecast, which was for cold temperatures, strong winds and rain at my destination. But my flight passed without incident, and with my window seat on the left hand side of the plane, I had a great view of the Andes. Even better, I could see that the cloud cover was light, meaning that the forecast bad weather had not yet arrived.

Flying to Puerto Natales

At the airport, my hire car was waiting for me. I dropped by bags at my hotel and headed straight off to my main destination – the Torres del Paine national park, praying the weather there would be as good as it was in Puerto Natales. After an hour’s drive through increasingly spectacular scenery, the distinctive granite towers of Torres del Paine came into view. At first, they were distant, and partially shrouded in cloud…..

First glimpse of Torres del Paine

….but as I got closer the clouds began to lift.

The clouds lift

I reached the park entrance station, where the rangers explained that I had to get my entrance permit online. They offered me access to their Wifi. I entered the endless details required for the permit, and got all the way to the payment screen only to discover my credit card company needed confirmation by SMS……..and there was no phone reception. I explained my predicament to the head ranger, and also told him that I had checked their website that very morning and read that could you pay the entrance fee in cash. After some hesitation, the ranger let me through provided I promised to buy my ticket when I got back to my hotel. I breathed a sigh of relief – the first views of the mountains promised an exceptional day – not something I would want to miss. I drove into the park and the clouds lifted.

Good weather!!

It was already early afternoon, and I didn’t have time for a long trek, so I drove to one of the car parks and hiked first to a waterfall……

Salto Grande Waterfall
Ferocious winds are a feature of the park

The wind is often very strong in Torres del Paine. Today it was “only” about 65km/h, but it can be even stronger and force the park rangers to close some of the paths.

After admiring the waterfall, I continued, against a ferocious wind, to a mirador at the base of the towers.

It was not raining, but the wind picked up sheets of spray from the lake and drove them over the water’s surface. Sometimes the spray spiralled upwards into a strange vortex.  

I finally reached the end of my short walk and was rewarded with a magical view of the giant granite pillars soaring vertically into the sky, in front of a brilliant blue lake.

the Torres del Paine seen from the end of my trail

Many visitors to the park do a 4-5 day circuit around the towers, which is called the “W”. It is extremely popular, so they have to book one of the limited campsite spaces many months in advance. I felt rather jealous since my schedule only allowed 1 ½ days in the park. I retraced my steps to my car. Although I had only walked 4km, the continual battle with the wind had left me quite tired.

I continued my driving route through the park, stopping a few more miradors to take pictures, before making the long drive back to Puerto Natales.

More beautiful landscapes on the way back

I took a different road this time, which was called the “Road of the End of the World”.

“La Ruta del Fin del Mundo”

 It was late when I arrived, so I had a quiet dinner in my hotel and went to bed. The next day I was less lucky with the weather. Clouds hung over Puerto Natales, but unlike the previous day they got thicker as I approached Torres del Paine.  When I arrived, it started raining. Although the rain was light, the wind whipped it horizontally into my face as I walked, and it stung like hail. I abandoned my plans for an ambitious walk  and did a short circuit around Lago Grey, a lake containing floating mini-icebergs from a nearby glacier. The wind was even stronger than the day before – the park rangers said 80km/h – and a couple of times I felt it was gong to lift me right off my paws.

Mini Icebergs on Lago Grey

The bad weather showed no signs of changing, so I drove back to Puerto Natales to see what the town had to offer. I was no longer envious of the people doing the “W” trek – they would be stuck on the mountain and be forced to walk 10-20km to their next campsite in these appalling conditions. On the way back there were occasionally breaks in the clouds and some nice views.

When the clouds lift the scenery is majestic

Puerto Natales turned out to be a frontier town and centre for backpackers and outdoor sports enthusiasts. Most people wore heavy rainproof jackets, walking boots and a woolly hat. The town had a lot of restaurants and bars aimed at tourists. I tried one surprisingly elegant one for a cocktail before enjoying a pizza elsewhere.

Trouspinet’s solution to a rainy day……Cocktails!

I was stoical. It was a shame not to see Torres del Paine’s towers in their glory a second time, but at least I had seen them once, and this was the first bad weather day in over 2 weeks of travelling.

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