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My Personal Experience in Discovering Torres del Paine & Patagonia

By Charles Hallifax

Part 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”, but six months later I had secured the position of Managing Editor at the American Chamber of Commerce. One day, when looking for material to be included into a guide called “Welcome to Chile”, 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 and came across one that showed a building on a small island in a turquoise-coloured lake, connected to the “mainland” by a narrow foot bridge and dwarfed by a gigantic-looking, vertically-sided mountains in the background. My initial reaction to this picture was “wow, that is absolutely incredible”, but because it was so amazing it looked like it was unbelievable to be real. So, I asked my secretary where is that? And then, 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.

First Time in Patagonia

It was June 1992 when I finally made the effort to get down to Patagonia and see for myself 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, but 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 mixed into the sharp peaks of the Andes, which in turn were often broken by narrow valleys and large lakes.

Upon arrival to Punta Arenas I made my way to the Hotel Navegantes, which, at the time had been renovated. 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. This respect has endured to this day, some 28 years later, and the hotels and tourism companies give me a lot of time and are always generous with their time to me.

The architecture of Punta Arenas, certainly in its main central part, hails from central Europe when the early European settlers arrived and 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 “cosy” atmosphere and 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 was quite comfortable with reclining seats, heating and a “steward” serving coffee. 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. 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 sight coming from built-up Europe and congested Santiago. I felt that I really was somewhere different and somewhere special.

Puerto Natales

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 duck’s 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. I was told that it 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 later become one of the best hotels in South America – The Singular. I asked the reception person 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.

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. 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 tyre tracks on the road, but once out from Puerto Natales the unpaved road has 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, Argentina was literally “just down the road”, it was 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 the onset of dark clouds coming in from the horizon. Since departing the café at Cerro Castillo 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. 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. I was thinking “what is the big deal here”. I was offered 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.

Part Two

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.

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 and stones being flicked up from tires 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 and then once over 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.

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. 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 come past when entering the park 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 where there was 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. 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, because I could not believe that here we were in the wilderness, miles from shelter, now broken down in a snow storm, yet his response about the chains was kind of “yep, this is normal in these parts”. I told him to cut the lights to save the battery.

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. I thought two things. One was that he is going to freeze out here 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. I started to think that maybe I should also get out and go with him towards the other car. 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. I started to think that we would be here over night and if that is the case we need to survive. 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 on the car heater every hour and cutting out of the padding within the car seats and stuffing this under their clothes. I had also read that the most important thing in these situations is to maintain body heat and 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. 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, but at the same time I kept chuckling to myself as well as thinking that “this is a real life adventure, who could have imagined I would be in this situation in Patagonia”?. 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 lights in the distance.

The Rescue

My driver returned, rather wind swept and cold and had a smile on his face. “That must mean good news then”, I thought. The flashing lights, amber in colour, were getting closer and 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. The closer this “thing” got the better I could make out what is was and 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 inclined to negotiate still and what if we get stuck again and the “rescue” vehicle is not there next time, so relaxed I was not.

The incline was in sight, but the snow was less deep, and we made it up and 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 Castillo, turned right towards Natales where the road had about one inch of snow on its surface and 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. We entered through the rustic door and into a marvellously 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 cosiness 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. I really felt that I had discovered something truly amazing before anyone else had. I felt like a pioneer, one of the first, which in many ways I was. I was here before the outside world found out about this secret.

Thirty Years Later

Today, some 30 years later the ramshackle, rustic shed opposite my hotel has become The Singular Hotel – one the best in South America. 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. In Torres del Paine, the Café at Hotel Grey has become a hotel offering standard and superior rooms and a large restaurant. 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. 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. At the trail head up to the Torres base, half a mile from the Hotel Las Torres the ECO Camp that has been established. Further up in the hills is the luxury lodge called Awasi and not far from there is the Estancia Cerro Guido. 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. And, lastly, for now, the luxury “Glamping” property called Patagonia Camp has been established close to the southern, Serrano, entrance into the Park.

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