We left Puerto Natales and ahead of us was the immense road. It was as if we were traversing continents, but all we were doing was travelling from point A to point A.2. This Patagonia is like a solar system on the very fringes of our planet.
Our driver, Luis, was a Santiago native who moved to the south over 40 years ago. He acts as our taxi driver and guide. The entire drive into the Lago Grey, where our remote hotel awaited us, he and I chatted about Patagonia and everything in its orbit.
As soon as you leave Puerto Natales the earth turns golden. Endless miles of long, frosted grass envelops us. Above, the sky is an earthquake of clouds. The mountains are shrouded from our sight. But it doesn’t matter. In that instant, we were travellers, hardy and daring, entering the most remote territories still within nature’s dominion.
Luis decides to take us, kidnapping us with his typical Chilean hospitality, on a detour. The cave of the Mylodon. It’s only a few miles off our route. As he said, you only come this far once in your life, might as well see as much you can.
It was a statement full of bravado but also a long shadow of melancholy. I turned to the Patagonian landscape with new, poignant eyes: Patagonia will be gone in a few days’ time, and I will never see this place again. Suddenly the journey took on an existential mood. And the clouds sailing the long horizon certainly played their part.
The Mylodon Cave was a giant big brother of Ghar Dalam back home. A huge gash in the side of the cliffs where archaeologists in the late 19th century found all manner of animal remains. From saber-tooths to the namesake, the mylodon itself. A giant sloth that lived in Ice Age South America up until the arrival of man.
Luis explains how the remains found in the cave changed the way geologists looked at the Ice Age and its fauna. I sense pride in Luis’ tone. It’s as refreshing as the pure mountain air. Later on he tells me he loves his job because he enjoys driving and nature. Two things that can only be truly enjoyed by a man brave enough to abandon the city environment.
As we neared the park, the whole while driving near the Argentine border, past mountain ranges used to smuggle people across neighbouring lands, we were lucky enough to admire the local wildlife soaring all around us. In Patagonia you can bird watch as you drive.
My wife will tell you the names of the birds we saw better than I can. Sat on fences or flying above us, we saw, I think, flocks of geese, eagles, hawks, and in a lake the size of forever we saw swarming masses of flamingos and swans. It was life at its most abundant. And none of these birds, we often waxed lyrical to each other, were in cages or zoos – they are truly wild.
The landscape driving into the Torres del Paine national park was ever-changing. From driving at the foot of silver mountains, to descending into valleys that still show the scars of ancient cataclysms, all the way past lakes that looked more Swiss than Chilean (even here Europeans have left their mark).
All the while Luis explained to us the geological history of the Torres del Paine towers. He said that although they were located along the Andean cordillera, they were formed later; their birth caused by an incredible earthquake that struck Patagonia over 30 million years ago.
I asked Luis where the name Paine came from, and he explained that it was the local Indian word for blue mountain. I thought it was a Welsh surname of some explorer. But Luis seemed to enjoy my eagerness to listen to all his well-worn travel stories – from one tour guide to another.
When it came time to enter the Torres del Paine national park, we had to stop at a ranger’s cabin to pay our park fee and register. Luis kindly filled in our form. When I told him where we were from – Malta – he spelt it as he heard it: M A R T E.
When I saw it I giggled like a child to myself. Marte in Spanish means Mars. So we were literally Martians entering Torres del Paine. And it was a fitting joke: this place is other-worldly.
The ranger gave us a leaflet and map to go through. At the back you have a small section dedicated to pumas. What to do if you encounter one, how to behave, etc. Welcome to Torres del Paine!
In case you ever do come across a puma, remember: don’t run away, maintain eye contact and walk back slowly, all the while making yourself look big and if need be make lots of loud noises.
There, don’t say you never learn anything from my blogs!
But it wasn’t just pumas you could see inside the Torres del Paine. Luis told us we could see the Chilean fox and guanacos – lots of guanacos. And our man in Patagonia wasn’t lying. It wasn’t long before he stopped the car suddenly to show us a pair of guanacos wandering the side of the road.
Their fur had the same sheen and golden-hue of a lion, but it was woolly like a sheep, and it masticated like a camel. It was a chimeric animal perfectly adapted to the ethereal landscapes of this strange land. Luis stopped so we could take photos and then we drove on.
He drove us past a beautiful lake, a waterfall crashing in the distance, and told us the story of Guido Monzino, the Italian explorer who donated 30, 000 acres of his private land to the Chilean government to include in the territory of the Torres del Paine national park. We went past the house where he lived.
This remote landscape forces intimate questions of human nature. We are still wayfaring animals, aren’t we? The instincts that drove us to colonise the entire planet is still alive, even as we try to domesticate ourselves in human zoos. Why else would men like Monzino want to climb up the Torres del Paine and live in these rugged domains?
And why would anyone live in Puerto Natales, a town of 30, 000 people surrounded by nature’s immense nothingness? To call any individual a ‘traveller’ or a ‘rover’ as they used to, is unfair. It’s like calling an individual lion a carnivore. We are all travellers. Just some of us are less curious than others.
As we neared our final destination, the remote Lago Grey, Luis stopped us at a lookout point. We gazed out on crystalline rivers and a horizon of white clouds. Everywhere was the ubiquitous shrubbery – and look, guanacos! Lots of guanacos. Guanacos climbing down a steep hill. Pretty guanacos. I’ll be damned!
I must confess, during most of my stay in Torres del Paine, I had the Jurassic Park theme song ringing in my head. That’s the kind of place this is!
The landscape was quickly becoming familiar to us. Yet I was filled with all sorts of questions, sailing across my minds like melting ice cubes in a once-proud cocktail. Foremost of all in my mind was the dangerous question: were people who lived here happier than city-dwellers?
But for now, those questions didn’t matter. And their answers mattered even less. What mattered was that after 3 hours on a bus from Punta Arenas and nearly 4 hours driving, at around 4 in the afternoon we made it to our hotel. The impeccable Hotel Lago Grey.
It may be as far from civilisation as we’re ever likely to go, but when we arrived, it felt like an oasis of comfort. The staff welcomed us, we made, or tried to make, a few calls home, and the receptionist gave us tokens for our complimentary pisco sours. We’ve made it.
If the journey to the hotel was a symphony of soaring landscapes and old tales, then the climax was reached when we got to our room and looked out our windows. It was a view to rival any of Beethoven’s symphonies or Van Gogh’s paintings. This view, of misty lakes, glacial behemoths, and cloud-skirted mountains was why we were here.
And I was beginning to think we’d be happy here in the next few days. I don’t know if we’d be as happy as we’d be in a city. But it was a rare kind of happiness we were sure we’d never know again as long as we lived. Our honeymoon was truly underway.