The remote southern Andes is home to perhaps the most impressive wild landscapes in South America. Stroll in the shadow of the granite peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, feel the icy winds of Argentina’s immense Perito Moreno Glacier, and experience a world of superlatives.
It sounds like a thunderstorm in the distance, I hear deep rumblings and the occasional loud bang, mixed with the constant sound of running water: no rain falling, but hundreds of invisible rivers and waterfalls making their way along slopes of ice. Like many travelers before me, I had already formed an image of Perito Moreno before I ever saw the ice mass. I saw the towering scottish and immense wall of arguably the most famous glacier on earth pass by on Instagram, postcards and in books. But how the glacier would clump, I had no idea.
‘Experiencing this glacier up close, it really does something to you,’ says nature guide Fabian Haedo. ‘There are many impressive glaciers in the world, perhaps even more beautiful and larger than Perito Moreno. But it’s the location that makes this glacier so famous.’ Perito Moreno is located in the Argentine National Park Los Glaciares and is fed by the South Patagonian Ice Field, which covers the southern part of the Andes on the border between Chile and Argentina. Perito Moreno glides between two foothills of the mountains into a flooded valley, where the ice mass comes to a standstill just before the Magallanes Peninsula. The slopes of the peninsula form a natural vantage point and several hiking trails have been created to admire the glacier up close.
‘Every two lakes on either side of Perito Moreno are separated every so many years by the glacier, which can crawl forward up to two metres a day. And because of the pressure, this separation breaks again once in a while, a spectacular sight. The last time it happened was last year, so the passageway is now clear, filled with broken icebergs. Shall we take a closer look?’ I follow Fabian towards a footpath that descends along the slope, while an icy wind rises that rages towards us over the white plains of Perito Moreno.
A week earlier, I and photographer Jurrien boarded a rented 4×4 in the Chilean town of Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park, neighbor of Los Glaciares National Park. Together, the parks are among the heavyweights of the vast and inhospitable Patagonia region, which covers two countries.
Just outside Puerto Natales, the Patagonian steppe extends in front of us. There doesn’t seem to be a human being to confess. The clouds brought in by the strong westerly winds over the Pacific Ocean linger around the high peaks of the Andes, so there is little precipitation on the steppe east of the mountains. It is a rugged and unpopulated landscape with infinite skies. Here and there we pass an estancia with giant patches of soil and a few stray sheep or horses. And then snow-capped peaks loom in the distance, the landscape becomes more rolling, and shrubs and even trees appear along the road. We have entered the domain of the mighty Andes.
At that very moment we see a few large shadows sliding down the dirt road. Jurrien reaches for his camera: two black birds hover far above us on the wind, their wide wings spread wide. They are so big that from the car I can distinguish the pointed feathers at both ends, like outstretched fingers. With a wingspan of more than three meters, the Andean Condor is one of the largest birds in the world. The birds circle higher and higher, and although they do not flap their wings for a moment, they still travel a huge distance in a minute. We follow them through the air until they disappear behind a distant hilltop and then continue – the peaks of the Andes beckon.
From the banks of the wide Serrano River, just outside the gate of the national park, we finally see them in full glory: the granite peaks of Torres del Paine are set against the horizon. Here we meet hiking guide Alain Pernau. He will share some hiking tips with us before we head into the park on our own. ‘Patagonia is hugely vast and remote. And then to come across such a place here, almost at the end of the world, that’s so special,’ alain says. He points towards the snow-capped peaks in the distance. ‘Torres del Paine is known for the beauty of the granite peaks, the spectacular mountain landscapes. But it’s even more than that: you’ll find glaciers, forests, the steppe and wildlife, from cougars to guanacos, their prey. And all this concentrated in this one place.’
Alain is from Santiago, where he studied ecotourism. ‘It’s a beautiful city, but I love being outside. Here I walk hard almost every day in the park with the most amazing views. And every day is different. Most visitors come to hike the Circuito W, named after the W-shape of the three valleys that you cross in three days. And that is certainly a very nice route, but there are many more hiking trails in the park, which are often a lot quieter. On the less visited routes you can still experience the park and the landscapes in silence.’
Driving through Torres del Paine alone is an amazing experience. One crushing landscape after another unfolds, from milky blue lakes, fed by mineral-rich glacial water, to hills covered in gnarled trees.
And always there are the peaks where your gaze is drawn, created by years of erosion, like whipped cream peaks whipped up into strange shapes. The landscapes are legendary and therefore not exactly unknown. With our 4×4 we can happily discover the landscapes at our own pace and pace, away from the masses.
With Alain’s advice in mind, we start our first day of hiking with one of the less visited, shorter routes. We park the car at Lago Grey on the west side of the park. The wind is strong, as almost always in Torres del Paine. The first part of the walking route leads through a dense forest, where above us the leaves rustle, but it is otherwise quiet. The air smells like earth and we only meet a few other hikers. And then we step out of the edge of the forest, up a vast pebble beach on Lago Grey, where the wind has completely free rein. Waves pound the shore and leave chunks of ice on the beach. It is the remains of the immense icebergs that we see floating further down the lake and that are broken off from the Grey glacier, just visible in the distance. The lake and glacier honor their name today; They’re as gray as the clouds above. The icebergs are bright blue, some the size of our car, but under the influence of the elements they will melt in just a few days until the little ice cubes that wash up on the beach. It’s beautiful, but also sad to see. The Grey Glacier is highly subject to the global retreat of glaciers due to global warming.
Half folded against the rock hard wind I feel the splashes of the breaking waves on my face. The word inhospitable seems to have been invented for this place. And yet certain animals feel at home here. At the end of the walk we pass a suspension bridge swinging in the wind over a churning river. When crossing, I hold on to the railing when I spot movement on the shore in front of me: a fox emerges from the thickets. He calmly walks towards the river and bends his head to drink undisturbed. After a final lick with his tongue he looks up and with a swing of his tail he disappears between the trees again in an instant.
The further east of the park we go, the rarer the vegetation becomes. It is drier here, a climate that suits the steppe, and the constant wind sweeps over the plains and hilltops. Today we walk from Lake Pehoé to the Cuernos vantage point. The walk starts at a waterfall, where the wind whips up the falling water and catches the sunlight in a rainbow. The path leads over a hill from here and we look out over a desolate valley. Forest fires lit by inattentive visitors are a constant danger in the park and this is where things went wrong a few years ago. Black and white lacquered skeletons of trees form a nasty sight. However, as we cross the valley, we see that the landscape is recovering. New shoots make their way between light green grass and moss. A delicacy for the park’s famous grazers.
A harem of about ten guanacos moves between the tree carcasses. Their reddish fur is coarse and stands in all directions in the wind. They are heavily built, the largest of the wild llama species. They look very comical, especially when chewing, but they are well adapted to this rugged landscape. With their big brown eyes, they keep a close eye on us, and their long ears turn in all directions, constantly focused on danger. And there is danger, because there are about a hundred cougars living in and around this park – the guanaco forms their natural prey. Alain told us that two weeks ago he spotted a cougar mother with three cubs during his run. We are wary while walking, but the chances of encountering a cougar during the day are very small.
Soon our attention shifts back to the stars of Torres del Paine: the granite peaks of the Painemassief that gave the park its name. From the Cuernos vantage point, the dark mountains extend towards the blue sky above Lake Nordeskjöld. This landscape is so unearthly, it has almost something surreal to be able to walk through. Walking through the natural beauty of the park I feel at the same time void and connected to the elements around me.
On the last day of our trip, nature guide Fabian captures this feeling in words, standing at the vantage point of Argentina’s Magallanes Peninsula closest to the Perito Moreno Glacier. We’re still about 100 yards from the immense wall of ice, and yet it feels like we could almost touch it. The azure buds have become whimsical shapes up close: I’m going to see church towers in them, fingers and even faces.
‘The landscapes of Patagonia are so grand, so overwhelming. And to be able to get so close to such a glacier – that does something to you.’ Fabian smiles. ‘I can tell you all kinds of facts, that Perito Moreno is bigger than Buenos Aires, for example, and that the edge is more than 60 meters high. But to stand here, to be able to see the strange shapes of the frozen peaks and the vast ice fields with your own eyes – it is almost emotional. Even for me, I have been working here as a guide for eight years now and come from the neighborhood, from El Calafate, but Los Glacieres National Park and Perito Moreno in particular remain so special to me. These landscapes, I’m connected to them. And I hope that we can all make sure that they are preserved.’
Make it happen
How to get thereTorres del Paine and Los Glaciares, the park of which Perito Moreno is a part, may be neighbors – they are located in different countries and the distances are great in Patagonia. To Puerto Natales, the port city for Torres del Paine, the easiest way to fly is from Santiago, in about 3 hours. With KLM you can fly to Santiago from Schiphol airport in about 18 hours with a stopover in Buenos Aires. To El Calafate, the port city for Los Glaciares, the easiest way to fly is from Buenos Aires, also in about 3 hours. With KLM you can fly directly to Buenos Aires (skyscanner.nl) from Schiphol airport in about 13 hours.
The Route Pick up a rental car in Puerto Natales to discover Torres del Paine on your own and easily drive to the starting point of the various dayhikes. Consider two extras: four-wheel drive because of the mostly unpaved roads, which sometimes have quite a few holes, and a car with a large tank because there is no refuelling option in the park itself. The park pass for Torres del Paine costs approximately €25 and is valid for three days. After your visit to the park, you can choose to take the car across the border to El Calafate at an additional cost, but there is also a good bus connection between Puerto Natales and El Calafate. The journey takes around 6 hours. From El Calafate on Lake Argentino it is about a 1.5 hour drive in a rental car to Perito Moreno. The park pass for Los Glaciares is approximately €10 and is valid for one day. You can also choose to turn your trip around and visit Perito Moreno first.
When to goIn the winter months of the southern hemisphere, many hiking trails in Torres del Paine are impassable due to snowfall. Summer, from December to February, is high season, and the busiest. Spring and autumn are a nice alternative. In October and November you have a lot of daylight and a chance of good weather, and in March and April you will see beautiful autumn colors in both parks.