Patagonia: This could be the end of the world
Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia. Photo: Shutterstock
One thing you're bound to find when travelling in Patagonia is Bruce Chatwin. Not the man himself (he died in 1989 and is buried in France) but someone clutching a dog-eared copy of his best-selling 1977 book, In Patagonia. Visitors have either read it or are reading it. It is also de rigueur when writing about Patagonia to bring it up at the very mention of this wild and woolly region at the end of the world. So, there it is.
We fly in to the city of Punta Arenas from Santiago, a short flight enlivened by the news that there is a party of people on board heading for a vegan cruise around Tierra del Fuego. Vegan cruises? Who knew?
By the way, this "end of the world" lark isn't just thrown in for effect. The signs on the road we take north towards Puerto Natales, our ultimate destination, state: the Routa del Fin del Mundo. It looks like the end of the world, too. On either side of a surprisingly well-maintained two-lane road, the flat landscape has the look of a beaten dog, the low-slung gorse-like bushes and occasional mangled tree cowering under the cutting winds that race in from the sea.This is impressively hardscrabble country, peppered with rocks, horses, sheep, geese and wild guanaco, the Chilean equivalent of the llama. It's a curious mixture of the American Wild West, the Scottish Highlands and the wide-open spaces of central Australia. Far off in the distance ahead of us the mountains of the Andes are a faint blue-grey zigzag on the horizon.
There are some place names that come equipped with their own myths, legends and histories, some true, some not. Patagonia is one such place – but what is it, exactly? It's not a country. It's not in one country, either, shared as it is by Chile and Argentina (10 per cent and 90 per cent respectively).
According to Wikipedia it's a "distinct geographical region at the base of South America spanning the lower sections of Argentina and Chile. On the Chilean side, it starts in the Araucania region extending down to the extreme southern tip of the country." There's a lot more of that sort of stuff but, really, life's too short; Patagonia is a state of mind.
I wake up in the minibus just 10 minutes out from our hotel (it's a 2½-hour drive) as we begin the gentle descent into Puerto Natales, a tiny, flat port city seemingly created from bits of bright flotsam and jetsam – red and blue are popular colours – on the edge of a massive fiord. Along the lakeshore a polar wind is whipping up thousands of foam-capped wavelets in unconscious imitation of the surrounding mountains.We are just 50 kilometres from the Torres del Paine National Park and our hotel, the frighteningly luxurious and aptly named Singular Patagonia, sits right on the shore of the Senoret Channel looking for all the world like a James Bond villain's lair.
From the road, the hotel doesn't look like much but once inside it's soon clear that this is no ordinary pitstop. From the parking garage a small funicular railway descends to the hotel proper, which is housed in an old cold storage warehouse.
A hundred or so years ago, the warehouse was a major employer in the area and did much to help create this settlement in the middle of nowhere. It closed in 1967 and was declared a historic monument in 1996. Today, much of the original industrial machinery is on show in the corridor between reception and the residential areas.
All the rooms, by the way, have floor-to-ceiling windows with remarkable views across the channel to the mountains beyond. Sunsets here are insane; the last time I saw anything with all those colours at once was in a bruise I had after falling off a scooter in Greece.
The next two days, during which we partake in a water-borne excursion around the closest fiords and drive out to Torres del Paine National Park, are a surreal adventure during which we encounter an insouciant condor on a rock, ride horses over the flat grasslands and drink Chivas Regal poured over fresh glacier ice.
Maps of this area look like someone's tipped three different jigsaw puzzles onto the floor and taken away the picture lids before they could be pieced together again. It's a region of fiords within fiords, scattered islands, deep, still channels, snowy mountains and glaciers calving their pale-blue offspring into lagoons milky with meltwater.
The trip out to the Torres del Paine National Park takes about 90 minutes and winds through landscapes reminiscent of central Europe. Some of the first settlers here were Germans who stayed because it called to mind the alpine regions of their homeland. It's certainly that, but with the addition of gnarled and mossy trees, vast pampas plains and, of course, the stark ruggedness of the mountains at the centre of the park. It's reminiscent of Switzerland, but a Switzerland doing the walk of shame after a night on the tiles. This is not a bad thing.
The Torres del Paine National Park itself covers 181,000 hectares and is somehow both full and empty simultaneously. There are vast areas of grassland under big skies, fiords peppered with ethereal blue baby icebergs and glaciers edging their way down valleys between monumental mountains.
To go through the names of the various peaks and troughs in the park is an exercise in futility. Every time I asked our guide the name of yet another spectacular granite excrescence it went in one ear and out the other in the presence of such violent majesty. There's the Torres del Paine, the Cuernos del Paine, Torres d'Agostini … it goes on and on and … what you have, face-to-face with it all, is a series of magnificent massifs, some of which rise more than 2800 metres above sea level and which, depending on your vantage point and imagination, look like the petrified spines of enormous Godzilla-like creatures.
The Cuernos del Paine, for instance, is a towering three-horned massif which brings to mind a gigantic and grotesque coronet or the remains of a once-noble Lord of the Rings fortress after the orcs are through with it. Take your pick.In between there are lakes and tarns and rivers and waterfalls of such vivid blues that they look almost comic book.
National Geographic has anointed the park as the fifth most beautiful place in the world but I would beg to differ. Ranking aside, "beauty" really doesn't do justice to such a savage and delightful land. All it's missing is a few dinosaurs.
TRIP NOTES: Keith Austin was a guest of LATAM Airlines, APT and Singular Hotels.
STAY: The Singular Patagonia is a five-star, 57-room hotel on the shore of Signoret Channel. Part-hotel and part-museum, it serves excellent local produce and wine in its two restaurants. Take the tour of the hotel to learn about its fascinating history and do try the rhubarb pisco sour in the impressive bar.