Where the Blue Sky Snows
for National Geographic Traveler
The mountains of Torres del Paine emerge on the horizon like jagged teeth. A stormy sky looms behind us as we pull off the road after a five-hour drive north from Punta Arenas, the capital city of Chile's southernmost region. Bones are everywhere. First a skull, then vertebrae with hardened skin attached, and suddenly an entire carcass. I hear a deep rumbling, then spot a white cloud of snow cascading from mountains in the distance. Torres del Paine, or Towers of Paine--an indigenous word for blue--is an avalanche behind you, a condor in the sky, bones in the grass, and pumas somewhere, everywhere, watching from afar.
"It is puma hour," guide Geraldinne Retamal says. "I don't like puma hour." She has been untangling the area's gnarled geology for the group I've joined, describing the vast habitat that stretches from granite peaks to hill country populated by horse-mounted ranchers, flamingos, guanacos (wild llama relatives), and ostrich-like rheas, to a forest of living and petrified wood, bent, twisted, hinting at the unforgiving seasons. Now she recalls that a man was killed here by one of the large cats 10 years ago. "Where?" I ask, expecting her to describe a place far away. "Over there," she says, pointing to a rock about a hundred feet from where we stand.
I’m a tiny blue dot on Google Maps, pulsating on the tip of South America, farther south than Cape Town and Sydney-and closer to Antarctica's icy tail than I ever imagined I'd be. Though it covers some 877 square miles, Torres del Paine National Park (pronounced PIE-nay) receives just 115,000 visitors a year. This may be in part because, from the United States, it can take two planes and a five-hour drive to reach the park, also a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve. By the time I drop my bags at my hotel, Las Torres Patagonia, I've traveled for more than a day.
Retaral, 28, carries herself with a warmth that seems a natural by-product of living in this landscape of wonders. A native of Patagonia, she spends her weeks running horses through the valley and hiking 20 miles as if it were a walk in the park. And what a park: hundreds of square miles of glaciers, lakes, peaks, rivers, and valleys--and the granitic Cuernos ("horns") del Paine.
Our group sets out on a hike to Lake Sarmiento, happy for chocolate that Retamal hands us as a sweet distraction. The trail we choose curves downward, and every five minutes we seem to fall into a new biome. I marvel at a cerulean lake, realizing the photographs I've seen were not oversaturated. The visual drama is concentrated here; part of the park's enchantment is off across the grass. The gasp is comical as the group runs after the fleeing trash.
Being a photographer, I'm used to racing the sun, knowing there are pivotal hours to capture the soul of a place. Yet I'd never been anywhere like this, where the light is always beautiful. Even as the sun sets, long after I'd normally hope to make an image, there are moments of light and clarity--a visual poetry, and a gift.
“Welcome to Patagonia, the land of obvious names, Retamal says as she launches us into our second day of touring with a litany of the sights we'll behold, including the Blue, Long, Flamingos, and Swans Lagoons. Our tour will entail 12 hours of driving, hiking, and boating. A highlight: seeing our first glacier, Grey Glacier, though stalking the giant isn't easy. To reach it requires a hike through a forest, crossing a hanging 140-foot-long bridge, and another hike along a black sand beach buffeted by 50-mile-an-hour gusts of wind. Coping with these trials, we spot pale blue bergs that have detached from Grey Glacier and drifted down Grey Lake. The mother river of Grey ice looms in the distance, ribboning up a valley and into the horizon.
Approaching a glacier feels like tiptoeing around a sleeping dragon. The chill of the blue ice hitchhikes on the wind, drop- ping the temperature and making my eyes water, as if the glacier were repelling me. Glaciers have tremendous size and presence. You can feel their age, the way an old tree fills the air with wisdom.
At nearby French Glacier, I spot a waterfall spilling out of a towering ice wall. This is not a benign sign. Only five years ago, says Retamal, the same glacier was five times as tall. Some scientists estimate that it is retreating 300-plus feet each year. Retamal, who has been visiting this glacier since her early 20s, fears it will be gone in three years. “We will miss it,” she says, with heartbreaking resignation.
Waking up in Torres del Paine is an extension of that groggy headspace between dreams and reality. To my right from my hotel I see a rainbow in the fog. To my left two horses run up as if to say good morning. My pre-coffee brain tries to catch up as I think: Is it too early to faint in the face of nature?
Retamal is waiting for me in the lobby with what will prove wise words. "Welcome to Patagonia: four seasons, one day." She has organized a group exploration of the park on horseback, guided by gauchos--known here as baqueanos-from a nearby stable. Little do I know that Retamal's slogan is about to come true. I mount my horse, and we trot off with marked trepidation. As we enter a forest of lenga trees, snow begins to fall through the blue. The next hour brings drizzle, more snow, then sunlight. A wind blows powerfully enough to tilt my helmet backward. In Patagonia, I'd heard, wind is a spirit. It arrives at night, howls and spooks, haunting you with sounds of the afterlife.
From atop Piojo, I soon understand why Torres del Paine is described in mystical language. The mountains are sharper, the lakes bluer, the winds stronger, and the weather stranger.
If Patagonia has four seasons in one day, the base of the three iconic Paine torres has four seasons in 10 minutes. On my final morning we hike to the base area, setting out at 2:30 a.m. We hope to complete the six-mile trek before sunrise. Halfway along I gaze up at a zigzag of other headlamp lights; it seems as if we're hiking to the stars. With Retamal's encouragement and the huffing silence of the group, I finish the hike with 15 minutes to spare--and just in time for nature's finale. Across the lake we see wind coming, a wall of mist as mini-tornadoes spin into the water and kick up dust in nearby valleys. Spray and grit lash our faces. Between waves of wind we gather our now scattered belongings and search for shelter from the next blow. At one point I huddle into a ball and scream into my knees, "Why am I here?"
Toward the end of the excursion, I'm collecting my thoughts.Travel makes the world feel smaller. You look at a map, and suddenly the large, complex places that appeared far away seem familiar. At the same time, travel can give immediacy to some of the world's biggest problems. My visit to the ice realm of Torres del Paine has helped me appreciate the growing impacts of climate change. I've seen waterfalls, rivers, and endless streams pouring from glaciers where normally, at this time, the season is turning toward winter--and water to ice. Touching a melting glacier is one way of grasping, but not holding on to, the beauty that we may all one day lose.