There’s something different about Patagonia. Way down at the end of the Earth, the region at first seems similar to other places in the world. But upon closer inspection, it reveals its own unique character that distinguishes it from anywhere else.
After a week of exploring warm cities, hot deserts, and balmy islands in the Pacific, I landed in Punta Arenas to be jolted by the cold. Summer in Patagonia didn’t mean much that evening.
I arrived late, checked into my hotel, and fell fast asleep. Early the next morning I was awake and on my way to pick up my rental car in the city center. Unlike the rest of my trip—where most things were taken care of for me—in Patagonia I was on my own.
I hadn’t driven a car in almost six months, and I had never driven a car outside of the U.S. before. I was nervous when I first got into my SUV, testing the gas pedal for sensitivity and aligning the mirrors over and over again until they were just right.
Thankfully I had a lot of time to get used to driving in Patagonia. I was headed up to Torres del Paine National Park, which was supposed to be a six hour drive from Punta Arenas. As I drove through the long, flat stretches of sheep-filled pampas, I grew accustomed to my car and started enjoying the views. The grasslands weren’t the most exciting scenery, but dotted throughout their rolling surfaces were llama-like guanacos, ostrich-like rheas, ducks, geese, condors, and even bright pink flamingos.
In the end it wasn’t actually a six hour drive. The Internet had lied when it told me that. Google Maps had lied. Everyone I had talked to that had done the drive had lied. Sticking to the speed limit, I was in Puerto Natales, the gateway city to Torres del Paine, in two and a half hours, and at my hotel in the national park in another two.
I stopped in Puerto Natales for lunch, hoping to go to a restaurant called Afrigonia that I had read good things about. Unfortunately, it was closed for lunch (“we have other things to do,” they told me). Instead I stopped at a small cafe full of rustic wooden tables and free Wi-Fi, and ate the first empanada of my trip to Chile. The golden crust and plump filling were exactly what I needed to sustain me for the rest of the drive.
And the rest of the drive was beautiful. From just outside of my starting point in Punta Arenas, the snow capped mountains of Torres del Paine teased me in the distance. At first they were so small and far away that they appeared to be cold weather mirages, blurred against the bright blue sky.
But after I left Puerto Natales, they became increasingly real. I found myself driving past tall, twisted rock formations and electric blue lakes that refused to blend in with their surroundings. All the while the white peaks of the Torres del Paine massif grew larger in the background.
My body temperature also grew larger along the way. I had prepared myself for the cold weather and legendary winds of Patagonia by layering on sweaters, jackets, and windbreakers. True to Patagonia’s refusal to conform to stereotypes, though, the weather was blazing hot and there wasn’t a breath of wind to be felt. I was lucky. I turned up the AC.
At 3pm I pulled into my hotel in Torres del Paine. The Hosteria Lago Tyndall was a long wooden building with beautiful views of the massif in the distance. I checked in, dropped my bags in my room, and met with the manager to decide what to do with my afternoon. He was incredibly friendly and helpful, and took me to a map of the park to show me where I could go hiking.
Soon I was driving once again, the wheels of my car churning over gravel roads as I pushed further into the park. After stopping quickly to pay my US$30 entry fee, I drove alongside lakes, across rivers, and through fields to get to the Salto Grande, a large waterfall that plunges into Lake Pehoe in the middle of Torres del Paine.
I walked out to the waterfall and noticed a sign for a hiking trail. It promised to take me on an hour-long trek to a vista point for the Torres del Paine massif. I started along the narrow scrub-lined trail, enjoying the sunshine and the beautiful views across Lake Nordenskjold.
All at once I remembered subject of the pamphlet I had picked up when I had paid my park entry fee: pumas. Upon first seeing the shiny guide, my only thought was “Pumas! Exciting!”. But while hiking by myself in the middle of a deserted trail in the late afternoon, I suddenly had a different thought: “Pumas. I’m dinner.”
I grew up in an area full of mountain lions, and although I never actually came across one, I was well trained in how to scare them away. Unfortunately that didn’t make me any less nervous.
I had nothing to worry about, though. I didn’t come across a single puma on my hike, or at any point during the rest of my trip. Instead, I came across gorgeous views of the snowy peaks and their neighbors, the horn-like rocks appropriately called Los Cuernos.
When I got back to my car, I was full of energy and excited to see more of the park. I drove back along the same road I came in on, and stopped at the Salto Grande’s little sibling, the Salto Chico. The short walk to this waterfall took me over raised wooden walkways. I walked down them, along them, and up them as I passed the Rio Paine that connects Lago Pehoe with the larger Lago del Toro.
Eventually I came to the waterfall, which was not much smaller than its sibling, and certainly no less impressive. Like the Salto Grande, the Salto Chico was frothy white with hints of the unnaturally blue color that distinguished the lakes of Torres del Paine from any others I had ever seen.
Still not wanting to be done with my Patagonia sightseeing excursion, I powered through to one more destination: Lago Grey. A relatively short, flat drive from the Salto Chico, Lago Grey held a hidden gem that I was not prepared for: a glacier. I got a glimpse of it from the road and almost ran my car into the bushes as I did a triple take.
I pulled into the parking lot, jumped out of the car, and practically ran along the path leading to the lake. Suddenly there was a break in the trees, and I got a clear view of the massive aquamarine ice block. Sitting in the middle of the lake, it looked as out of place as it would seem if it had formed in a backyard swimming pool. All around it the mountains and land were gray in the fading light of dusk, but the crystalline glacier glowed with electric energy. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
As I stood looking at the glacier, a ferry boat deposited its last passengers on the shore. They made their way up the hill towards me, and I knew that I should make my way back to my car before I was alone with the glow-in-the-dark glacier at nightfall. I tore myself away, glancing over my shoulder as often as possible until the glacier receded behind me through the trees.
When I arrived at my car, it started raining. True to Patagonia’s style, the precipitation fell from a still-sunny sky. In the foreground a full rainbow sprang up like a plant waiting for the first signs of water. I chased it all the way home.
In the evening I had a three-course dinner in the dining room of Hosteria Lago Tyndall, then used what I could of the free Wi-Fi before going to bed early.
The next morning I woke up to thundering rain. I looked out the window to find that the previous day’s views of the mountains had been eclipsed by storm clouds. It made me feel relieved that I had seen so much of Torres del Paine the day before.
After waiting around for awhile to see if the rain would clear, I checked out of my hotel, got in my car, and decided to drive the long way back to Punta Arenas. I passed all of the areas I had seen the previous day, and then continued east along the gravel road towards the far exit of the park. The areas I drove through were similar to the ones I had seen already except for one small difference: the animals.
They were everywhere. Huge packs of guanacos grazed slowly in the grass while ducks, geese, and other fowl made use of the small ponds along the road. I stopped to say hello to a lone rhea for a minute, then came across a surprisingly quick armadillo speeding along the ground.
All throughout the rainy drive to Puerto Natales, condors circled overhead, scanning the fields for rabbits and prey. And right before I got to the gateway city I found myself looking out over a lake full of flamingos.
Back in Puerto Natales I stopped again for an empanada, then continued my drive south to Punta Arenas. As if by magic, the skies dried and I enjoyed sunny weather almost all the way back. It was a good thing, too, because there was one last animal I wanted to see that day: the penguin.
Just north of the Punta Arenas airport lies a dirt road that runs to the coast. Marked only by a sign with the word “Pinguineras” on it, the way leads to Patagonia’s famous Seno Otway Penguin Colony. It was one of the Patagonia sightseeing highlights that I didn’t want to miss.
Unfortunately, Patagonia didn’t seem to want me to see it that day. About a mile before I arrived at the turnoff, a black cloud appeared in the sky and torrential rains pummeled the pampas. I thought about braving the water to see the penguins, but without proper rain gear, I was no match for the storm.
Thwarted, I arrived at my hotel in Punta Arenas and cheered myself up with a trip to the famous Straight of Magellan. There I was teased by a gaggle of sea birds that looked so much like penguins that I almost thought they were. I walked along the waterfront and past the ships sitting quietly along the coast, then had a decent dinner at a local restaurant before going to bed.
My flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago was to depart the following morning at 10:55am. I was still determined to see the tiny penguins, though. Fighting the urge to throw my alarm clock against the wall at 6:20am, I got up and out and on the road.
The sun was just starting to rise when I left my hotel at 7am, and as it broke the surface of the Straight of Magellan I was relieved to see that it illuminated a rainless sky. The drive to Seno Otway was beautiful in the first light of morning, and I was able to see more condors than I had seen in the rest of my trip combined.
When I finally arrived at Seno Otway, my car door nearly fell open from the power of the wind. I got my clear skies, but I suppose Patagonia couldn’t let me have a perfect penguin day. Bundling up, I speed walked toward the penguin beach, scaring at least twenty rabbits out of their holes along the way.
I started seeing signs that warned visitors not to touch the penguins, but I still hadn’t seen one yet. It was then that I started to worry that they had all gone fishing for the day. What if I came all the way to Seno Otway just to find an empty pinguinera?
Then I spotted a tiny black head in the distance. A penguin! And then there were two. They walked across the path in front of me to go join three more. The five of them waddled along a little penguin trail that led to the beach, and I followed behind.
When I got to the viewing platform, I stuck my head through the window and was met with a spectacular sight: the whole penguin colony. Hundreds of tiny tuxedos lounged along the shore, some standing, some walking, and some lying contentedly on their big white bellies. A few stood face to face, waving their arms as they looked to the sky, while others bobbed up and down in the freezing ocean water as if it were a jacuzzi.
When my original penguin friends rejoined the fold, it was time for me to say good-bye. I raced back to my car, scaring more rabbits along the way, and jumped in for the drive to Punta Arenas airport. Dodging sheep and condors, I made record time, returned my rental car, and waited in an excruciatingly long line to check in for my flight.
But even a long line couldn’t expunge my enthusiasm or wipe the silly smile from my face. I had been to the end of the Earth, I had walked along otherworldly lakes, I had seen a giant glacier, and I had visited a windswept beach where—against all odds—a colony of penguins made their home. My Patagonia sightseeing excursion complete, I headed north to rejoin the world. To be continued…