Before Torres del Paine Became Known
This is a personal account by
Experience Chile Founder Charles Hallifax
Experience Chile Owner
Discovering Torres del Paine Before it Became Known
This is a great short story for anyone visiting Torres del Paine. Amazingly, there was a time when no one knew about this marvel of nature, except for some locals. During this period, anyone lucky enough to visit, what is now the “eighth wonder” of the World, would have enjoyed the place like a private visit. The sensation, in those days, was like the entire area was for the you, the “only visitor”. Not like today, whereupon there are thousands of travellers.
Therefore, imagine what a visit for me, Charles Hallifax, was like back in the early nineties when I made a visit to the Park and I felt that I had the place to myself. Since that unbelievable privilege, Torres del Paine has made its way to the “to visit” list for most travellers. Consequently, the place is not as it was. There are new hotels and more visitors.
Most importantly, this is a personal view, mixed with particular experiences. Including an “almost certain death” one!
Arriving to Chile
I had arrived to Chile on the 11 of September 1989, which was also the annual anniversary of the Military Coup in 1973, to have “an adventure”. However, within six months I had secured the position of Managing Editor at the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham). One of the reasons this position was offered to me was because prior to coming to Chile I was the owner and publisher of a skiing magazine in the UK called “The Skier”, and I could speak English.
It was during one unremarkable day when, in my AmCham office in Las Condes, I was looking for material to be included into a guide called “Welcome to Chile”. This was a product which was under my control as Managing Editor for the Chamber. I was looking through a number of pictures of places of interest in Chile. Among the many beautiful pictures I was looking at was one that showed a building on a small island in a turquoise-coloured lake. This island was connected to the “mainland” by a narrow foot bridge and dwarfed by gigantic-looking, vertically-sided mountains in the background.
My initial reaction to this picture was “wow, that is absolutely incredible”. However, because it was so amazing it looked like it was unbelievable to be real. So, I asked my secretary “where is that?” followed by, “has the water colour been artificially altered?”, because I cannot believe that such an incredible sight exists. Cecilia, my secretary, replied, “yes, that is the Torres del Paine”, to which I again said, “but that is absolutely incredible, where is Torres del Paine then?”. Cecilia told me it was in the far south, in Patagonia. Well, for me, that was it. From that moment I decided I just had to get down south and see this Torres del Paine for myself. And, as a consequence of that moment a chain reaction began which led me to developing, eventually, Experience Chile.
First Time in Patagonia
It was June 1992 when I finally made the effort to get down to Patagonia and see for what Torres del Paine was all about. The first experience was boarding the then Lan Chile plane from Santiago to Punta Arenas, a flight time of just over four hours. However, in those days the on board service was exceptional with a cocktail drink, snack and three course meal accompanied by Chilean wine to help make the journey a pleasant one. And, en-route the views from the left (port) side of the aircraft gave way to the spectacular snow-covered, conical volcanoes tops mixed into the sharp peaks of the Andes, which in turn were often broken by narrow valleys and large lakes. To say the least, even this part of the trip was exciting and exhilarating, seeing things I had never seen previously.
Upon arrival to Punta Arenas I made my way to the Hotel Navegantes which, at the time, had been renovated. The owner, Mr. Alarcon, greeted me personally.
I had pre-arranged meetings with several people in the tourism business and they were only too willing to see me. In fact, they were all so very impressed that someone who was not Chilean had made the effort to go all that way to the “end of Chile” to see them that they made a special effort to come and meet with me. This respect has endured to this day, some 30 years later, and the hotels and tourism companies give me a lot of attention, and are always generous with their time to me, when I visit.
Architecture Punta Arenas
The architecture of Punta Arenas, certainly in its main central part, hails from central Europe when the early European settlers arrived. Understandably, these immigrants set about constructing the buildings around the plaza in the style from their homeland. This look, combined with the short winter days, gave me the feeling that I was indeed back in Europe and not in South America. Shops with small, Christmas-like lighting created a “cozy” atmosphere. This was more so where there were cafes offering hot chocolate.
The next day I got the bus for the 3hr road journey to Puerto Natales. On board were quite comfortable, reclining seats, heating and a “steward” serving coffee. All very “plush” I thought. As we headed out of the city past the airport turn off we hit an unpaved road that stayed unpaved all the way until we got to Puerto Natales – a distance of around 280km. To me, an unpaved road for 280km was unreal, but here it was. Either side the views were to a vast expanse of flat “nothing” land, basically the Patagonian Steppe. Even so, such a sight of nothingness all the way to the horizon is quite a bewilderment coming from built-up Europe and congested Santiago. I felt that I really was somewhere different and somewhere special.
Picture Below: Punta Arenas Central Plaza from Above
Upon arrival to Puerto Natales I made it to the Hosteria “Cisne Cuello Negro” where I was staying for the next four nights. This was (and still is) a simple hotel located about 5kms north of Puerto Natales beside the Señoret Canal (which leads into the Fiord of Last Hope). I was the only person staying in the hotel. It was a rather rustic place, simple furnishings, but quiet.
Apart from the hotel itself and a few other buildings close by there was nothing of significance in the immediate area around the hotel. All I could do was walk around the rural landscape and admire the stunning, natural beauty and listen to ducks quack and birds tweet.
I found the place to be beautiful. Opposite the hotel was a long, old-looking, disused shed with reddish-coloured sides and a corrugated roof. This, I was told, used to be the refrigeration plant for when the area was a prime export point for sending lamb meat to other parts of the World. Little did I know, nor could I have imagined, that this very place would, twenty years later, later become one of the best hotels in South America – The Singular.
I asked the reception person at my hotel about going into Torres del Paine. He said he would arrange it and about an hour later he told me a car would come and get me in the morning.
Picture Below: Puerto Natales Village
The Journey into Torres del Paine
Overnight snow created a lovely winter wonderland scene outside, and I wondered how it would be going into the Park. The car with driver duly turned up. It was a “yellow-top” car meaning that it was a taxi, which sent my alarm bells ringing thinking that this trip was going to cost a packet if he had the metre running! Fortunately, the cost for the 2.5hr trip in and 2.5hr trip out was to be an agreed a fixed fee – no metre.
My other thoughts were that for the same drive time I could go from London down to the Isle of Wight in the UK and here I was doing a return trip in a day! However, the snow was of concern and I asked how we would get along in the snow as well as “have you got chains” to which the driver confidently replied, “no problem” and “yes”. With that we set off.
It was early and we were the first to make tire tracks on the road, but once out from Puerto Natales the unpaved road had less snow on it, giving way to very little snow on the road after about 30 minutes. We passed by snow-covered hills each side of the road, a lake, cattle, sheep, and uninhabited land that went on, and on, and on. After about an hour we came to a settlement where there was a café.
This was Cerro Castillo, the border village from where one crosses over into Argentina. Argentina! I couldn’t believe it. It was literally “just down the road”, all so adventurous to me at that time.
After a break we continued our journey along more of the unpaved road, either side of which was nothing, for mile, after mile, after mile. The sky looked to have a clearing, but also with the onset of dark clouds coming in from the horizon. After about an hour and a half we arrived to the Torres del Park Conaf Park entrance whereupon I had to pay an entry fee. I found the wooden hut to be similar to a ranger’s lodge that you would find in the Grand Canyon in the USA. Payment made and on we went into the Torres del Paine.
The scenery was now of hills, lakes and steep-sided mountains, but low cloud prevented me from seeing that much.
Picture Below: On the way to Torres del Paine.
What’s the Big Deal Here?
There was snow on the ground. We drove past a large lake on the right, Lake Pehoe, and the small building on the island that I had seen a picture of in my office in Santiago, but did not stop. No, the driver wanted to take me further so after about another hour we arrived at a small lodge. I got out, entered the building and discovered a café with large windows. In my thoughts I asked myself “what on earth is the big deal here?”.
The people at the café offered me a drink and a snack, which I duly accepted, and sat myself down at a table and looked out of the window to the lake. Suddenly I could see something blue floating in the lake. That’s odd, I thought.
Picture Below: Grey Beach with Iceberg on Grey Lake
The “Wow” Moment
After a few minutes of trying to figure out what on Earth the blue floating object could be I noticed a map on the wall with the name Glacier Grey written over one part of it. “Glacier Grey” I told myself, “so there is a glacier at the end”, and then it hit me, “bloody hell!”, the blue object must be an iceberg. “An iceberg” I said to myself. I had never seen an iceberg in my life and never expected to see one in a lake. Once the clarity had settled in, I just could not believe what I was seeing and then I spotted more ice bergs, each radiating a mix of intense blue, light blue and white colours.
They were just stunningly beautiful, and I was in awe of such a magnificent sight. The low cloud then began to clear, and I could just about make out the Glacier Grey at the far end. A mass of white going uphill from the water level at the end of the lake back into the mountains, “amazing”, I thought, “how absolutely incredible is this?” I then walked around outside down to the beach whereupon I looked back to see the one small lodge (cafeteria) and that was about it. What was to come some twenty years later is not a surprise – more on that later.
Picture Below: Clearly Icebergs on Grey Lake
The Return Journey
After a hot drink it was time to go so my driver and I left this magical place and headed back towards Puerto Natales. With snow on the ground and the winter sun beginning to go down I was anxious to know if I would get to see the incredible view I had seen in a picture in my office in Santiago the previous year. We drove along a very rough, unpaved road, with potholes. Every few meters stones were being flicked up from tires and these were hitting the underside of the car making a “pinging” and “clanging” sound every few seconds.
All of a sudden there was silence – we were going over the flat surface of a bridge, one that goes over Rio Serrano, and then once the other side the rumbling and clanging of stones reappeared immediately. Considering that I hailed from “over-developed and overly surfaced” Europe I loved this “raw nature” of bombing along unpaved roads in the middle of the wilderness. To me this was real life and adventure.
Picture Below: Torres del Paine Unpaved Road
We rounded a corner and were about to go over what is called Webber Bridge and “wow”! there is was, that fantastic, dramatic, almost unbelievable view of the Cuernos of Paine, the Central Massif with the Turquoise-blue River Paine in the foreground. “Wow, wow, wow”, it was incredible. We continued along the road passing by River Paine that joined Pehoe Lake and then I could see at an angle from an elevated height the small building on its own island and the magnificent, jaw-dropping sight of the massively high and wide Cuernos of Paine. Yes, this was the view and how mind-blowingly amazing it was.
Picture Below: View of Hosteria Pehoe on the Island in Pehoe Lake with Cuernos in the Background
Conscious of the time and what looked to be dark clouds approaching we kept going. It started to snow, quite heavily. It was winter, I had seen no other cars, nor people for that matter, and it was like I had all of Torres del Paine to myself – what a total luxury. The road ahead was beginning to turn into a white path whereby we were making the only fresh tire tracks. All of a sudden, the car skidded, but my driver recovered, and we were OK. I asked him “tienes cadenas cierto?” (you have snow chains – right?”) to which he replied “yes, yes, do not worry”. “OK I thought”.
Thinking About Survival
We passed by the Park entrance we had entered by and shortly afterwards we were heading downhill. The road ahead was seriously covered in snow now, at least a couple of inches, with snow drifts having formed by the roadside in places, it was now dark, and the wind was also howling as we came out into an exposed plateau area. On the way in I remembered a rather windy sector where there were snow drifts and also a lake on our left – this was Lake Sarmiento, and now Lake Sarmiento was on our right and the wind coming off it was a severely strong, blowing the snow into high drifts beside the fences.
I Don’t Think we are Going to Make It
Once again the car did a skid, and as we were coming down hill my driver decided to put his foot down in order to build up momentum and get us through what appeared to be about 4 to 5 inches of snow on the road ahead.
I could not help but think “I don’t think we are going to make it”, and sure enough we came down from the hill and then came to a halt in a mound of snow that I estimated to be about 10 inches deep. My driver did his best to get out of this situation, but the wheels just span hopelessly. I thought, “ah, well, no problem, he has chains”. I asked him, “entonces puedes poner las cadenas?” (so, you can put the chains on?” to which he replied “bueno, no tengo aqui, tengo en mi casa!” (well, I do not have them here, I have them in my house!).
By this time, I had been in Chile about for almost three years and had become accustomed to the Chileans often being “economical” with the truth. So with the realization that my driver had snow chains, but not actually in the car, my reaction was a mixture of “oh my God” mixed with a bit of a chuckle. Here we were in the wilderness, miles from shelter, now broken down in a snow storm, yet his response about the chains, to me, was kind of “yep, this is normal in these parts”. I told him to cut the lights to save the battery.
People Have Died in Snow Drifts
What looked to be maybe half a mile further ahead there appeared to be some car headlights on another stationary car, also stuck in the snow I assumed. I thought that at least we are not on our own – totally, but half a mile in these conditions is a long way to walk. My driver got out and started to walk towards the other car, trudging through shin-deep snow in his normal street shoes and pretty flimsy raincoat.
Thoughts filled my head about the seriousness of the situation and also the funny side. However, two thoughts in particular sharpened my focus. One was that HE is going to freeze out there and he should not be walking anywhere in these conditions, and the other was that I was fully aware that in places like Scotland people had died in their cars stuck in snow drifts overnight. Yes, WE could die out here if we have to stay overnight.
Should I Go and Help?
I started to think that maybe I should also get out and go with him towards the other car. Against the ferociously-blowing wind I tried to open my door and managed to get it about six inches open before the wind slammed it shut back at me. “Wow, I thought”, “this is serious shit!”. I stared at the snow drift to my right, and it was higher than the car.
Consequently, I started to think that we would be here overnight and if that is the case we need to survive. Then I remembered about an English friend of mine who took a wrong turn when he was with his parents in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, and as a consequence they got stuck in a dried-up river bed. They endured three nights under a freezing-cold night sky without food or water, but they kept warm by turning the car heater on every hour and cutting out of the padding within the car seats and stuffing this under their clothes.
Naked to Survive
I had also read that the most important thing in these situations is to maintain body heat. One way to do that is strip off and hug the nearest human being to you and put the clothes around you both. I had it clear then. When the driver returned, if he did, I was going to tell him that we need to strip off and hug each other as well as start the engine every hour and put the heater on.
The very idea of sleeping the night hugging a naked stranger, especially another male, did not appeal to me that much. However, I knew that this was a very serious situation we were in and was turning into a life or death reality, which would depend totally on the decisions we took in the next hour. At the same time I kept chuckling to myself as well, thinking that “this is a real life adventure, who could have imagined I would be in this situation in Patagonia?”.
Then, after what felt to me to have been about an hour, going over and over in my head what we were going to have to do, I noticed some flashing, amber lights in the distance.
My driver returned, rather wind swept and cold, but had a smile on his face. “That must mean good news then”, I thought. The flashing lights were getting closer. Also, I could also see a couple of rather strong head lights in front of this “thing” that lit up serious snow falling in its beam. As this “Star Wars like machine” got closer, the better I could make out what is was. It looked, to me, to be one of the large machines that they use to flatten out aggregate that goes into making the road surface. It was moving forwards and backwards using is massive under shovel to move the snow on the road out of the way.
“Fantastic” I thought, we may be saved. I was thinking that the driver of this machine had come to rescue us and that we would get into his, hopefully warm cabin, and then go back to wherever he had come from. Urrm, no, this was not going to be the plan. When it looked like the road ahead of us had been cleared a little, my driver started the engine, put some blankets under the rear tires and little-by-little we began to move forward. We then picked up speed and we were off driving on top of snow and making headway. “Phew, I thought”, thinking “thank God” for that, but also remembering that we had a small incline still to negotiate still, and what if we get stuck again and the “rescue” vehicle is not there next time, therefore, relaxed I was not.
The incline was in sight, but the snow was less deep, and we made it up. Curiously to our right there looked to be the base where the road-work equipment was parked up and a hut with lights on. My driver kept the foot on the gas and we continued until the border village of Cerro Castillo, turned right towards Natales where the road had about one inch of snow on its surface, but was also pretty flat. After around 30 minutes there was what looked to be a “cosy” cluster of lights to our right. As we got closer there was a building and my driver pulled in to stop. He told me to get out and come in.
Cosy and Warm
We entered through the rustic door and into a marvelously warm and welcoming kitchen with Aga cooker full on and a pot of soup on the boil. The inhabitants, who knew the driver, invited us both to sit down and have some of the hot soup. How wonderful that soup felt. Not only did I now feel safe, we were in a warm kitchen with food and the ambience was one of total cosines in the middle of the cold, snow-blown Patagonian wilderness.
The others spoke among themselves for I did not have much command of Castellano at that time. We must have been in that kitchen for just over an hour and then we got back into the car for the final 30 mins trip to Natales. The road still had snow on it, but the closer we got to Natales the less there was snow. My driver pulled up outside my hotel and I got out and thanked him greatly for a wonderful day. I got into my room and thought to myself “what an incredible, most amazing and life-awakening experience I had had”.
Puerto Natales Before the Development
The next day I wondered around Puerto Natales. I walked from the Hosteria Cisne Cuello Negro (Black-necked Swan) appreciating the quietness broken only by the chirping of birds and ducks. There were no other hotels near to my hotel, nor anywhere along the 5km walk into the village. Puerto Natales itself was very rustic with mainly hostels for accommodation and a few simple, Chilean-style restaurants and really no foreigners to speak of at all.
I thought to myself, “this is paradise on Earth”. And could not believe that no one outside of Chile (and not many people in Chile for that matter) had ever heard of Torres del Paine. To me I really felt that I had discovered something truly amazing before anyone else had. The feeling I had was like being a pioneer, one of the first, which in many ways I was. I was here before the outside world found out about this secret and how privilidged and grateful I have been for that.
Thirty Years Later
Today 2019, some 30 years later the ramshackle, rustic shed opposite my hotel has become The Singular Hotel – one the best in South America.
Picture Below: The Singular Hotel Puerto Natales
Thirty Years Later
Along the stretch of road I had walked along into Puerto Natales the hotels: Weskar, Altiplanico and Remota have been built and in Puerto Natales village an array of new hotels have opened up as well as some gentrified restaurants.
Picture Below: The Remota Hotel Puerto Natales
Thirty Years Later
Hotel Lago Grey
In Torres del Paine, the Café at Hotel Grey has become a hotel offering standard and superior rooms and a large restaurant. The superior rooms were built after I gave some free advice on how important the view to the lake and glacier is.
Picture Below: Hotel Lago Grey Superior Room
Thirty Years Later
Hotel Rio Serrano
Between Hotel Grey to the Conaf Centre a new village has sprung up, called Serrano, where there is the large Hotel Rio Serrano and The Hotel del Paine.
Picture Below: Hotel Rio Serrano
Thirty Years Later
Explora Salto Chico
Beside Pehoe Lake the first luxury lodge was established, called Explora Salto Chico – pioneer of the up-market all-inclusive concept in Chile, and the building on the island, called Hosteria Pehoe, has remodelled its rooms.
Picture Below: Explora Salto Chico Hotel
Thirty Years Later
At the trail head up to the Torres base, half a mile from the Hotel Las Torres the ECO Camp that has been established.
Picture Below: Eco Camp
Thirty Years Later
Further up in the hills is the luxury lodge called Awasi and not far from there is the Estancia Cerro Guido.
Picture Below: Awasi Lodge
Thirty Years Later
And, lastly, for now, the luxury “Glamping” property called Patagonia Camp has been established close to the southern, Serrano, entrance into the Park.
Thirty Years Later
However, the most amazing thing for me is that just to the right where my car got stuck in a snow drift is now the luxury lodge Tierra Patagonia hotel.
Picture Below: Tierra Patagonia
Now on The Map
Yes, Torres del Paine has now been discovered. It is on the map and believe me it is well worth the visit and my company ExperienceChile.Org, having been here from the time before any of the above-mentioned hotels were even thought about, is well prepared to create the itinerary best for you and your budget. As you can see from the story you have just read, we have been visiting this area for a long time, and were one of the first in the travel business to do so.
For complete information on Torres del Paine please look into our specialist site at this link: www.torres-del-paine.org
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