“IT IS THE BEST TIME for the nature, yes?” my Chilean guide exclaimed as we stood alone before the Towers of Paine, the iconic striated massifs soaring into Patagonia’s winter-blue sky. The etched light of the antipodes tinged the gray and white spires a warm shade of pink.
Joaquim Zuleta and I had trekked for hours through a snowy mountain landscape, past alpine lakes and the dramatic Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine), across ice-crusted streams and up precipitous slopes dotted with eerie eroded boulders. Except for wildlife, we had the place to ourselves.
From the hillsides, llama-like guanaco impassively inspected us, blinking their long lashes like haughty aristocrats. Andean condors with ten-foot wingspans circled overhead. Hawks raced by. Flocks of caiquén, upland geese, honked. Small tufted cachuditos chittered indignantly. Tracks of hundred of hares pocked the trails, interspersed with prim guanaco marks and the precise footsteps of zorro, the Patagonian gray fox. A softball-sized pugmark suddenly appeared, pacing down the track. “Puma,” Joaquim said, “There are 25 to 50 in the park. They use the trails to make their hunting circuit—18 miles each night.” A few hundred yards farther, a pint-sized puma track announced a youngster born the previous spring.
We hiked through forests of lenga, the straight southern beech, with yellow globes of an edible mushroom, pan idio (Indian bread), hung like ornaments from the branches. Entering an exposed valley, a tangle of contorted ñirre, Antarctic beech, bowed to Patagonia’s relentless winds. Thickets of spiny calfate, the bayberry bush that is Patagonia’s defining plant, thrived along the trail. The native Aónikenks used the branches for arrows, and ritually smoked the roots for opium-like trances. The purple berries are eaten year-round. “Locals say, ‘El que come calafate ha de volver,’” Joaquim related. “It means, if you eat the fruit of the calafate, you will be destined to return to Patagonia.”
I certainly will—and probably in winter. Many aficionados consider Patagonia’s winter of June through August to be its best season. During the summer months, Torres del Paine National Park can be an Andean version of high-season Yellowstone with tens of thousands of visitors, but it is near empty in winter, when only a few hundred nature-lovers roam the half-million-acre park.
Some of the region’s luxurious spa hotels, such as the avant-garde Hotel Remota, are now open year-round, offering visitors stylish havens to recover from their wilderness adventures. In the slower season, knowledgeable gaucho guides can offer individualized attention. Most important, the cruel Patagonian winds are blessedly tempered in the wintertime, and the southernmost world becomes a light-filled land of quietude and wonder. In mid-afternoon when Joaquim and I clambered down the last steep gradients, the winter sun was already low, the green-gold coirón grass casting long shadows. Driving back to Puerto Natales, Joaquim told me about Torres del Paine National Park. Firstly, I learned there wasn’t a pioneer Patagonian relative of Thomas Paine who gave the mountains their name. No. Pronounced pahn-ya, “Paine” is an aboriginal word meaning blue, referring to the region’s sapphire-colored glacial rivers. Efforts to organize a national park began in the 1920s, but it wasn’t established until 1959. The original 10,704 acres grew over time to the current 598,587 acres. In 1978, UNESCO recognized Torres del Paine’s unique environment as an International Biosphere Reserve.
As we coursed through sere pampas on the slender two-lane highway, thick-thighed ñandús, ostrich-like Darwin’s Rheas, strutted alongside. A gaucho on horseback waved a greeting. Large crested falcons with fearsome beaks perched on posts. Joaquim laughed, “Ah, caranchos—caracaras—waiting for the road to provide,” explaining their gusto for roadkill.
The mountains of Paine, Joaquim told me, are uplifts of igneous granite overlaid with a veneer of sedimentary shale, which gives the towers their distinctive bi-colored profile. About 12 million years ago, a granite pluton that was originally molten magma penetrated the sedimentary Patagonian Mountains. Eons of glacial erosion eventually sculpted the Paine spires into their spectacular shapes.
Speaking of glaciers, the Southern Patagonian Icefield extends 187 miles north from the park. Almost 6,500 total square miles, larger than the state of Connecticut, the icefield is the world’s third-largest reservoir of fresh water. Glacier Grey is among largest Patagonia’s glaciers. One day we walked through falling snow to wind-whipped Lake Grey, where celestial-blue icebergs serenely sailed, looking like magically lit Frank Gehry structures. Compressed for millennia in the glacier, these icebergs had little oxygen. When light hit them, the weaker wavelengths were filtered out, leaving the ethereal blue color.
A Patagonian journey isn’t complete without the Cave of the Milodon, famous as the climactic destination of British travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s 1970s bestseller, In Patagonia, which depicted his quest to understand his family’s curiosity, a piece of prehistoric milodon skin. Long extinct, milodons were giant sloths that roamed Patagonia 10,000 years ago. Arriving in the gloaming, I could conjure saber-toothed tigers lurking in the Jules Verne landscape. The massive oval opening to the Cueva del Milodon seemed like a dark maw—“the big mouth of a great black toad that blended into the body of the night,” as Chilean writer Francisco Coloane described it. Now a Chilean Natural Monument, the park includes a museum. Inside the cave, a life-sized statue of a rearing milodon brandishing its powerful claws has frightened decades of children. Of course, the herbivore only used those claws to dig up tubers, but facts never stopped small boys from shuddering.
One morning I bundled up for a horse trek into the Andes with Chechín, a respected gaucho horseman and guide. At an estancia outside of Puerto Natales, pale sunlight was just leaching over the mountains to the north, turning the high puffy clouds prismatic. As gauchos saddled up, sheepdog puppies merrily slid across iced barnyard puddles.
Soon the horses were clomping up the mountain above the estancia, the crampons on their front hooves crunching through the ice. A rodeo champion, Chechín had worked on estancias for fifteen years before becoming a guide. He was every inch a handsome gaucho with his wide-legged bombacha pants, a thick leather faja belt studded with silver stars and old coins, and his distinctive boina, the knitted Patagonian beret designed to stay on in the highest winds. Two sharp knives were at his side. Riding a tall black horse, he alternated wrapping his long rasta scarf around his neck or tying it bandolier-style across his battered leather jacket. Self-taught in English, Chechín was a compendium of Patagonian geology, natural history, anthropology and local lore. His partner, Pedro, led a furry gray packhorse. I was on big brown Remonstrance—Memory. “He knows the way home,” Chechín smiled, assuring me he was a calm mount. A wiry little white dog named Chewy led the way.
It was up and up. Toward the top, the horses plunged through an ice-clogged stream into the deep forest of beech, where we rode through bowers of snow-laden trees festooned with balls of electric-green false mistletoe called Chinese lanterns. High wispy clouds gave way to a bright blue sky. There was the creak of leather; the comforting smell of warm horse; the joint-loosening meditative state that a long ride in nature brings.
At lunchtime, we stopped in a copse of tall beech, where the gauchos soon had a fire going. It was a sensory feast: the fragrant scent of resin; a rustic lunch of Patagonian lamb, a bottle of Chilean reserva red and steaming mugs of tea from a blackened old campfire kettle. As the day warmed, loads of snow slid from the trees with a muffled flump.
The way home was on a faint trail through a mountainside of beech. As Pedro in his beret urged the pale packhorse up the snowy wooded slope, I could envision Hemingway’s partisans in the Pyrenees; then cowboys searching the upper ranges. I had gone away. Walter Mitty had little on me.
We climbed to a high mountain vista, where we could see far into the Argentine pampas; off to the snaggle-toothed Andes. Far below, the blue Fjord Ultima Esperanza wound past glittering glaciers. Little Puerto Natales and its colorful tin-roofed houses nestled beside the wide sound.
Indomitable little wire-haired Chewy led us down to the estancia. The pups boiled out of somewhere and commenced their sliding game. Gauchos emerged from the house, helping to unsaddle the horses. It was quiet day in mid-winter. Would I like a maté before I go?
So we sat in the small snug house and endlessly passed the carved wooden maté cup, sipping the warming yerba tea with a silver straw. Snapshots of family members shared the walls with posters of white stallions and prize cattle. Round and round the communal maté cup went, each person getting a fresh shot of boiling water from the dented brass teakettle. Smells of dinner wafted from the kitchen. There was the quiet talk of the campo as I slouched in a chair cushioned with fleece. Relaxed—I was very relaxed. This, I thought, is why you come to Patagonia in winter.
TO LEARN MORE: Turismo Chile, www.turismochile.travel, and www.welcomepatagonia.com.
Douglas Wissing is an independent journalist, who has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic Traveler, Travel + Leisure, CNN, BBC and NPR networks. He is the author of nine books, including his recently published Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan. www.douglaswissing.com