The only consistency in this deceptively static landscape is the cold. Wherever you walk and look frost adds a second layer of skin unto anything. But the weather in the Torres del Paine is as random as a slot-machine. Day to day you never know what you’re going to get.
After our Patagonian Odyssey we arrived at the Hotel Lago Grey in the afternoon. The staff showed us to our room. The room was in a cabin-like building and equipped to the teeth. It was an oasis of modernity.
The view from our large window would dominate our lives for the next few days. We could – and often did – sit for hours gazing out onto a never-ending panorama of grey sand, serpentine rivers, and the distant lake with all its cerulean icebergs. And of course, the mountains!
We were becoming connoisseurs of mountains by now. Chile does that to travellers. There are different breeds of mountains. In Santiago they are giant and dominant beasts. In Punta Arenas they are more distant and effeminate. Here, on the Lago Grey, they were like the Moiai of Easter Island: imposing, ancient and elegant.
After settling in to our room we went down to the hotel restaurant for our welcome drinks. Two pisco sours, please. We were the only two people in the restaurant at the time. We sat near the great-wall-of-a-window and took in the same view we had from the room. Desolation never tasted so good.
In a Patagonian winter the sun is a weakened god. It rises submissively at 10 o’clock in the morning, is never able to drag itself too far above the horizon and never takes its throne in the noonday heights. And by 6 it starts to descend again, almost apologetic, defeated, ready to save face behind a veil of night.
This of course makes for a very peculiar routine. We would get up at around 6 in the morning. Laze around in our Titanic of a bed. Watch some films. Then at around 8 we would go down for breakfast – in the dark. After changing and showering we’d leave the hotel just before 10. Our window of daylight and exploration was very brief.
On our first full day we walked towards the lake itself. There, the boat that would, on Saturday, take us to the glaciers awaited.
It was only a 40 minute walk or so. But it was made that much longer by the spell cast over us by the landscape. We both of us acted like children. Photographing everything from blades of frost-covered glass, to frozen goal-posts, to ourselves wrapped up like survivors of a sunken ship.
This is what a honeymoon should feel like.
That day, like most of our days in Lago Grey, was cloudy. All around us, dwarfing us, was a ring of mountains stood like Titans. But we couldn’t see any of them because of the niqab of clouds that descended so low you felt like you could run into them like trampolines.
The lake itself, the Lago Grey (so named because of the way the glaciers turned the water grey) was also blanketed by fog. On its shores – a giant expanse of pebbles and frozen streams – we felt some of the worst cold we had yet experienced.
And the cold was a physical expression of the entire landscape. Lago Grey felt like an abandoned planet. All of it was ethereal, dark, misty, the silence deafening. And yet, somehow, that immense loneliness that overcame us felt like a victory. We weren’t scared. This was why we had come all this way. To be in the true wilderness. Away from another human soul. Where not a car could be heard. Not a pole or a light seen anywhere. In that moment we came face to face with our planet as it had been for millions of years. It was a spine-chilling communion with something much bigger than us.
In the afternoon we decided to try and climb a mountain. It’s not the biggest, it’s not Everest. We’re hardly mountaineers. But the views from Mt. Ferrier were supposed to be, according to Luis, “sensational.”
Before climbing you had to go into the ranger’s cabin and sign in your name. The ranger – as friendly as any other Chilean we’d met – told us we were essentially going up there for nothing. If we made it to the top all we’d see was clouds, he told us.
Even so, we were short on options so we started our climb. It was supposed to take over an hour to reach the summit.
It was a beautiful walk. The landscapes were surprisingly varied. One minute you’re on an open plain full of golden grass, looking across a ravine and eagles flying overhead. The next minute you’re going through dense woodland, walking over streams and muddy paths. And next thing you know you’re pulling yourself up by a rope up a 90 degree incline.
It wasn’t easy-going but it never felt disheartening. I suppose that was to do with the landscape. Although, as the ranger had warned us, we couldn’t make out any mountains, we were still invigorated by the views of the River Pingo below us and the dark-green forests that chased it. And the amazing variety of flora that kept us company the whole while.
Unfortunately, we never got to see the huemul. A small South Andean deer that lived somewhere in the mountain.
Fortunately, though – we also never got to see a puma. Which also occasionally made its presence known in this mountain.
Did I say before we weren’t mountaineers? After about 45-minutes walking we both looked at each other and wordlessly agreed: let’s start heading back. It’s not that we were exhausted. The fresh, pure air kept us feeling almost invincible. But it was soon time for the sun to start setting. And we didn’t fancy walking down those narrow paths in the dark.
So it was back to the hotel, back to our home at the end of the world.
And here I’d like to make a little footnote about the hotel. I’ll call the footnote Ode to a Hotel. The hotel itself was not only wildly beautiful but the staff were amazingly friendly and dedicated. Throughout our entire stay the staff never changed. So we go to come on very good terms with them.
They never changed purely because of logistics. Since the nearest habitation is over 3 hours drive away the hotel utilised a radical but inevitable system. The staff lived and worked at the hotel for 12 days straight. Then they would get 6 days off, which they would spend either in Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas.
One staff-member in particular, Marcia, inspired us with her story of how she came to work at the hotel. She was originally an English teacher who came down one day to the trek around the Torres del Paine. After that, she never went back. She fell in love with the landscape and took a job at the hotel.
Whilst I could never imagine myself living so far from the creature comforts of civilisation, living like a modern-day gaucho, I do admire people who are Romantic enough to do it. People who take risks and break ties to shoot for something novel.
The food in the hotel was above-par by Chilean standards. We ate some excellent fish there and also a lamb shank that was the size of a T-Rex shank. My wife was shocked by the sheer immensity of the thing. That one was a bit of a swing-and-a-miss. But overall the cuisine can’t be faulted.
And it was good to know, very good to know, that even in such a remote, intoxicating place, I could drink all the drinks that made me feel at home: from lager to Fernet Branca to my new friend pisco sour. In Chile you’re never far from a good drink.