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TORRES DEL PAINE HIKING AND HORSEBACK RIDING
FROM EXPLORA PATAGONIA LODGE

Story and photos by

Torres del Paine National Park is a pristine 240,000-hectare UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, nestled in the Ultima Esperanza province of the Magallanes region of Patagonia, Chile. The paine (pronounced "piney") are glacier-carved granite towers, which reach heights of up to 3,050 meters.

Torres del Paine National Park sign
Torres del Paine National Park sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Explora Patagonia (formerly Hotel Salto Chico) was our base for discovering the breathtaking beauty and photogenic wildlife of Torres del Paine. From our room, we had a spectacular view of the Macizo del Paine mountains and turquoise Lake Pehoe.

Guided excursions

Accommodations in the 49-room lodge are all-inclusive. (Explora also has hotels in Easter Island, Valle Sagrado, Peru and the Atacama Desert region of Chile.)

Lodging at Explora Patagonia includes van transfer from Punta Arenas, at the southern tip of Chile (a 390-kilometer drive), delicious meals, good Chilean wines, computers, WiFi Internet access and use of the indoor pool, sauna, massage room and outdoor Jacuzzis.

Guests can choose from more than four dozen half- and full-day guided excursions into Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.

Patagonia treks

The Torres del Paine weather and altitude, combined with our interests, fitness levels and recommendations from guides helped us select from the excursions offered each day. Explora distributes a summary of each hike and horseback ride, listing the duration (one hour to 10 hours) and difficulty (easy, medium, difficult and very demanding).

Explora lodge faces Torres del Paine mountains and Pehoe Lake
Explora lodge faces Torres del Paine mountains and Pehoe Lake
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Beginning with an easy three-hour hike, we photographed Andean condors, rheas (flightless birds that resemble ostriches), guanacos (llama-like animals) and the Paine River waterfall. Another day, we hiked to beautiful Laguna Azul and went horseback-riding to a quincho (barbecue site), for mouthwatering BBQ lamb and chicken, served with grilled potatoes and bread.

Hiking to Grey Glacier
Hiking to Grey Glacier
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Grey Glacier

Our most memorable hike was an 18-kilometer trek to Grey Glacier, in the western region of the park. It was a journey we will never forget.

Grey Glacier extends south into Grey Lake from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field — the third largest continental ice field in the world (after ice fields in Antarctica and Greenland).

Giovanna Raineri, a knowledgeable Explora guide, accompanied us, as well as Amanda and Simon Cairns, two hotel guests from England. We carried only our cameras, binoculars and light packs with extra sweaters, sunscreen, sunglasses and rain jackets. We needed all of them.

We traipsed through pristine forests and meandered up and over hills sprinkled with wild fuchsia and white foxgloves. Snowy, saw-toothed peaks of the Cordillera del Paine mountain range towered above us.

Giovanna bent over and picked two tiny fruits from a low bush. "Chaura," she said. They looked like miniature Macintosh apples, but their size and taste resembled blueberries.

Climbing Paine Grande

Pointing up to the highest granite monolith, Cerro Paine Grande, Giovanna said, "A group of Argentineans attempted to climb it, several years ago. After much effort, one of the young climbers reached the top. He raised his arms in exaltation, only to be swept away by a gust of wind."

Hikers approach glacier on Grey Lake
Hikers approach glacier on Grey Lake
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

For protection from the notorious Torres del Paine National Park winds, we wore rubberized-nylon jackets and pants. They swished-swished as we walked, in rhythm with the windproof clothing of our companions. As we started our hike, instead of heavy winds, an intense sun created a greenhouse climate under our protective gear, forcing us to peel it off and stuff it into our packsacks.

Calving icebergs

We crossed a babbling stream, bridged with wooden planks, and ascended to a stony lookout above Grey Lake. Menthol-colored icebergs wallowed in the ashen waters. Some were as large as three-story condominiums. Others were as small as doghouses.

A dynamite-like explosion reverberated through the air as an apartment-sized block cracked off one of the icebergs, creating a mini-tidal wave. Pushed by the wind to the rocky edge of the lake, it parked itself with the metal-compressing din of a gigantic garbage compactor.

Andean condor
Andean condor
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Andean condor

Simon stretched out on a smooth outcrop to rest and scan the soaring peaks with his binoculars. Within minutes, five tiny black dots circled in the sky above. One of the birds swooped closer and closer until we could see its white head and wing markings. It was an Andean condor (Vultur gryphus), with a startling two-meter wingspan.

None of the 2,800 llama-like guanacos (Lama guanicoe) in Torres del Paine National Park inhabit this region. Yet, Simon's prone body invited the predatory vulture to investigate a potential meal.

Mesmerized by the condor, we didn't notice the sky darkening and the lake turning to the color of slate. Fat raindrops pelted us, as we hastily retrieved our waterproof jackets from our packs.

Glacier lookout

Moving quickly to a higher elevation, we looked up and saw a waterfall cascading several hundred meters from the granite cliffs above. A sunbeam broke through the clouds, creating a rainbow that arched over our path and ended at an aquamarine iceberg in the lake. Within minutes, balmy breezes dried our clothing.

We scrambled up a hill, striated with deep grooves from the retreating glacier. Finding footholds on ledges carved into a rock, shaped like a beached whale but four times the size, we slowly inched our way to the Grey Glacier lookout.

Picnic beside Grey Glacier
Picnic beside Grey Glacier
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The jagged ice wall, formed by the receding edge of Grey Glacier, resembled a fairy tale palace. With its Gothic towers, buttresses and giant gaping doors, the colossal blue ice castle struck us with awe. It rose high above us, even though we were on a cliff several dozen meters above Grey Lake, which lapped its foundations.

As we soaked in the view of Grey Glacier, Giovanna unpacked our lunch. We gorged ourselves, with appetites sharpened by the exercise.

Torres del Paine weather

Halfway through the meal, the wind picked up, stinging us with pellets of ice blown off the glacier. The temperature dropped 20 degrees in an instant. We hurriedly packed up the remnants of our picnic and piled on all the sweaters that we had removed. It seemed as if the glacier was telling us that we had violated its sanctity long enough, and it was time to depart.

With numb fingers and flapping windbreakers, we scurried back down the slippery rock in half the time it took to scale it. Ten minutes later, we were striding along a grassy plain in the sunshine. The mood of Torres del Paine changes faster than a dancer between sets.

Hiker views jagged ice on glacier
Hiker views jagged ice on glacier
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Giovanna told us that we could hike for another hour around the pebble-strewn beach to a point where we could touch the glacier. The prospect of adding another two hours to our four-hour trek back dissuaded us, so we unanimously agreed to head back to the lodge.

The return trip went quickly, except for the last kilometer. We revived our flagging pace by savoring thoughts of a delicious meal in Explora Patagonia and a hot water soak in the Jacuzzi.

After a satisfying dinner, we fell into a deep sleep. We needed to rest. The next day's hike would bring us closer to the granite spires that dominate Torres del Paine National Park.

Only a trek to the heavens could surpass the journey to the ice palace.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Explora Patagonia: www.explora.com

More things to see and do in Chile:

Puyuhuapi Lodge and Spa - Chilean Patagonia

El Tatio Geysers Tour

Chilean Fjord Cruise

Puerto Natales - Giant Milodon Cave

Chilean Food