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Published: January 25th 2013
Just after Christmas 2011 we arrived in Puerto Natales ready to don our rucksacks once again and enjoy the wonders of one of South America's most famous national parks: Torres del Paine. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we arrived at the gates only to be told that a large wildfire had engulfed a large portion of the park. We turned back without being able to walk so much as a hundred metres of Torres del Paine's famous trails - for me, it was a huge disappointment. It was something I had been looking forward to for years. The fire swept through nearly 13,000 hectares of the park, destroying huge swathes of slow-growing native Patagonian forest in the very heart of the park. For weeks Chileans despaired at the slow and inefficient response of the authorities to the destruction of the country's biggest tourism draw. Things looked pretty grim.
Nearly a year has passed since then. And here I am, back in Puerto Natales, ready to give Torres del Paine a second chance to blow my mind. Getting back down here from Brazil has not been quick, nor easy, nor cheap, but I would have felt stupid flying home without having given it
Boy am I glad I did. The seven days I spent walking the park's trails in a state of almost child-like excitement and wonder - marvelling at titanic glaciers, thundering rivers, sparkling blue lakes and towering peaks - were some of the best on this entire, magical fifteen-month trip. There's a reason Torres del Paine is so wildly popular - it's wildly beautiful.
The most popular hike in the park is the "W" - a trail of almost mythic proportions amongst walking enthusiasts. The trail takes its name from its shape - "an inverted M", as locals like to describe it. In the space of a few days the W takes in some of Patagonia's - nay, South America's - most spectacular vistas, threading up deep, thickly forested valleys, snaking in the shadow of hulking moutains and vast glaciers. The photos will do a better job of conveying the majesty of the landscape far better than I ever could.
The park did - at least while I was there, just before the very height of high season - an impressive job of not feeling crowded despite the hundreds of people setting off on the W
every day. Torres del Paine is the target of not infrequent criticism regarding the high cost of visiting the park: indeed, if you choose to sleep and eat in refugios
(which are privately run here) then Torres del Paine is, incredibly, more expensive than a city like Buenos Aires. And yes, while it feels like the park is run for a profit (whether this is true or not I don't know), one look at those landscapes sweeps away any niggles completely.
Busy as it is - with its large, bustling but well-organised campsites and well-trodden trails - Torres del Paine remains a fabulously wild place, as famous for its savage and unpredictable weather as it is for its majestic mountains and glaciers. Indeed, maps of the park carry a special symbol to point out particularly windy areas - for wind is a Torres del Paine speciality. Gusts are said to reach over a hundred miles an hour. At times, the wind is such that hikers have no choice but to put their packs down, sit on the ground and wait it out. Gusts whip up the waters of the park's many lakes, soaking un wary walkers. Tents are ripped
from their pegs and carried off - sometimes, as I personally witnessed, in the middle of the night. The weather turns on a dime from brilliant, blue-sky sunshine to mist and cold, driving rain. Mother Nature is in charge here, and she likes to let you know.
There a few better places to meet like-minded people than a solo trek in a place like this - since the distances between campsites are relatively large and there is a strict ban on camping anywhere other than permitted sites, you tend to meet up with the same people every evening. There is a certain camaraderie that comes from performing those delightful little rituals of camping: Pitching The Tent In The Howling Wind
or Cooking The Same Food For The Seventh Meal In A Row
or Trying To Wash A Greasy Pan In Freezing Cold Water
. Blisters, sore shoulders and severe vegetable-withdrawal syndrome don't seem so bad when you've got new friends to share them with. Neither does preparing breakfast in the morning after having been kept up all night by the shrieking wind. Or staggering up a steep slope, half asleep, at five in the morning, only to find the amazing
dawn viewpoint everybody keeps harping on about shrouded in thick cloud.
All in all, I really struck it lucky. In seven days and over 100km of walking I didn't get soaked once, or need to pack up a wet tent - by Torres del Paine standards that's pretty good going. I didn't get blown over. My trusty little tent bravely withstood ferocious Patagonian winds. I met some great people: Australians, Germans, Spaniards and even the odd Chilean. I didn't run out of cooking gas. I packed enough chocolate. And I got to see some of the most impressive landscapes this planet has to offer. What better end to this trans-American Odyssey could I possibly have asked for?
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