The entire Torres del Paine National Park packs a wallop, from icy lakes and fjords to wide, wide grasslands. But it's the crowded, jagged peaks of the Torres del Paine massif, seen from across the plains like the mountains of Narnia, or the Lord of the Rings, that exert a magnetic pull.
The air really is Dom Perignon-fresh. And there's that thing about the effort, how if you've pushed yourself to get to the final view, that makes the reward all the more amazing.
So, is this a destination only for the ruggedly adventurous?
For the unequal combination of yoga mother with running-and-cycling daughter, thankfully not. It is possible to grab the highlights on day treks. On the busy landmark trails you'll share the experience with cheery budget backpackers, but at the end of the day they'll be putting up a dome tent while you're in an open-air tub on your private deck at Awasi Patagonia. But you'll both think you're having the best time.
Our Patagonian experience started far south, flying in to Punta Arenas with its bravely painted corrugated-metal buildings looking across the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego. After dipping our toes in the icy nearly-Antarctic waters we set off north for the three-hour drive to Puerto Natales, the charmingly shabby-chic frontier town on the evocatively-named Seno Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Sound), close to the national park.
The remarkable Singular Hotel, built around the shell of a historic frozen meat-packing plant right on the shore, is so much more glamorous than it sounds and provides pampering, and gourmet eating, for those who really don't want to leave their comfort zone.
The lower-key, large and friendly Remota Hotel in Puerto Natales gave us a great taste of the excitements the region offers. Every guide we met had a great puma story, though none of them prowled our way. But a hike up a bluff overlooking little Lago Sofia introduced us to the condor. Correction: seven condors, riding the winds above us.
And we went out for a memorable half-day's riding with macho gauchos Luis and Marcelo. They took us up to a pass overlooking Argentina, where we drank evil-tasting mate tea round a smoky campfire and chivvied them into showing us videos on their camera phones of their daredevil "jinete" bronco riding.
Horses feature in this landscape – herding cattle and sheep under the lowering skies. If you have any kind of riding experience, this is the place to get into the saddle.
At Hotel Las Torres at the foot of the trail up to the three towers, horses graze outside the guestroom windows. Staying there for our expedition up to the Torres, we requested the featured horse-ride down from the halfway-point Chileno campsite, which would ease our weary return trek, we thought. But no dice: it was too wet, and the footing on the rocky tracks too slippery.
A word about the weather. It is extreme: they don't call a rugged brand of outdoorwear Patagonia for nothing.
Most hotels and lodges are closed for the winter from May through to September, which leads to greater pressure on bookings during the rest of the year. And even then you can expect sunshine, snow, rain, and the much-vaunted katabatic winds racing up from the polar ice-cap at 100-160km an hour (another photo moment for that leaning-into-the-wind trick).
But – and I don't want to gloat here – on the day we trekked up the staggeringly beautiful Valle Frances, central arm of the iconic W Trail, with our inspiring guide from Awasi, we had dazzling sunshine and glassy-smooth water on the lakes. If we'd brought shorts we would have worn them: #abreezewouldbegoodherePatagonia.
We were warned that the weather had broken for our last day's epic hike up to the base of Las Torres del Paine. All-day, 19km: we might get up there and find low cloud obscuring the triumphal view of the towers. The gloomy forecast made other guests at the Hotel Las Torres rearrange their plans. But we had no choice, and hey – we'd brought our luck with us.
How fit do you have to be? Let's just say: I had the fear. I actually paused before putting on earrings that morning, thinking "I don't need the extra weight."
I took great comfort from the fact that Larry and Bob from DC, who joined us with our guide at the last moment, weren’t kitted out in the latest gear. In fact, Bob was wearing jeans, and what looked like Hush Puppies. Hurray – I wouldn't be the slowpoke!
It turned out, of course, that Larry had done Kilimanjaro, the mountain next-door to the Matterhorn, and El Capitan. They were entertaining and considerate trekking companions, and it wouldn’t have been half as much fun without them. Larry even paused on the brink of the long-awaited view, saying "this is a team experience: we're getting there together!"
The sun came out. We gasped, we cried. And he was the one who took our Facebook-moment picture for us.
Jennifer Stevenson 01/05/16
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