Ah, Patagonia!

At the “end of the world” — or, at least, the southern tip of South America — Patagonia has been a magnet for intrepid visitors for centuries. Trekking through a stunning landscape of mountains, glaciers, and lake, Trinidadian Georgia Popplewell understands why

  • The granite monoliths known as the Torres del Paine lend their name to Chilean Patagonia’s spectacular national park. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell
  • Herds of llama-like guanacos are a familiar sight in the park. Photograph by David Thyberg/shutterstock.com
  • Guest quarters at the Torres del Paine base camp are in small geodesic domes. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell
  • The blue ice of Grey Glacier. Photograph by Georgia Popplewell

I’m halfway through my calafate berry cheesecake when the cry goes up in the dining dome: “Puma-aaaa!” My fellow campmates spring from their seats and rush outside into the windy evening. Except for me. My legs still feel like Jello after the thirteen-mile mountain trek I did earlier that day. By the time I manage to hobble out to join the others, the puma has slunk away. People are showing each other blurry photos on the screens of phones and cameras, a few of which do feature blobs and streaks that I’ll admit are vaguely wildcat-shaped.

One of the guides declares how lucky we all are to have seen a puma, considering there are only sixty of the beasts in the entire park. Now they tell me.

The park in question is Torres del Paine National Park, a 927-square-mile expanse of mountains, glaciers, lakes, and rivers in southern Chile. In Patagonia, to be exact. Patagonia. It took a great deal of restraint not to end the previous sentence with an exclamation mark, and even more not to begin it with “Ah . . .” I’m hoping the editor of this magazine will at least see it fit to italicise the word.

It’s difficult to think straight about this southern portion of the South American continent, which, since Ferdinand Magellan passed through in 1520, has been a magnet for all manner of explorations and shenanigans by outsiders. Visitors to Patagonia travel in the footsteps of figures ranging from Sir Francis Drake and Charles Darwin to Ernest Shackleton, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and that Frenchman who convinced a group of the indigenous Mapuche people to elect him king.

My own shenanigans, such as they are, involve twenty-two hours of travel from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Punta Arenas, Chilean Patagonia’s gateway city, where it’s 14 degrees Celsius and wet — summers in this part of the southern hemisphere being notoriously unpredictable. So I’m happy to climb into a comfortable van and recollect myself as we detour into the city to collect a few passengers before starting the 186-mile journey to the park.

Punta Arenas is a small, not particularly distinguished-looking city, but it has an unbeatable location on the Strait of Magellan facing Tierra del Fuego, and the cojones to lay claim to the designation of southernmost city in the world. The fact that both Chile’s Puerto Williams and Argentina’s Ushuaia lie further south doesn’t deter Punta Arenas’s establishments from using the “end of the world” brand. There’s a Hostal al Fin del Mundo and a four-day circus event called the Circo del Fin del Mundo. The local Best Western is called the Finis Terrae. And skirting the city as it runs northward along the Strait is the Ruta del Fin del Mundo, the Highway to the End of the World.

To be fair, the Ruta — known to cartographers as Route 9 — does begin at Fort Bulnes, just eighteen miles north of Cape Froward, the bona fide southernmost point on the South American continent. It’s also the road we take to Torres del Paine, winding northward first through pastureland punctuated with the occasional zinc-sheeting–clad farmhouse, then through rugged steppeland.

After a stop in the town of Puerto Natales to collect a handful of passengers joining us from across the Argentinian border, we move on to the cave of the Mylodon, a giant ground sloth — now very extinct — whose chequered natural history is a standout even in an area as legend-rich as Patagonia. At the mouth of the cave — a vast, low-slung cavity eaten into the mountainside by glacial activity — is a life-size replica of the bear-like creature, whose existence became known to modern humanity in 1895, when a German settler found a length of its hairy hide. The discovery sparked decades of disputes among scientists as to the Mylodon’s origins, habits, and physical features, and furnished the British writer Bruce Chatwin with the narrative thread for his colourful travelogue In Patagonia. The two crews of palaeontologists we meet sifting through the dirt on the cave floor aren’t necessarily Mylodon-seekers, however: the cave is also rich in other types of artefacts, including human remains.

It’s late evening when we arrive at the base camp in Torres del Paine. I lie in bed that night watching through a porthole in the roof of my sleeping dome as the southern summer sky dissolves slowly from greyish blue into navy.

The talk over breakfast next morning is the wind, which got a bit wild overnight, whooshing and whipping around the domes and preventing some from sleeping. On the plus side, it’s chased the previous evening’s clouds away, giving us a brilliant day and a crystal-clear view of the three granite monoliths (the towers, or torres) that give the park its name. We strike out that morning by van for a tour of the park.

Unlike pumas, herds of the graceful, llama-like guanaco are plentiful in the park. A wildlife photographer with a camera on a tripod usually signals that something interesting is taking place, and sure enough, when we slow down to look, we see that she has her lens trained on a guanaco mother giving birth. Fierce winds at Lake Nordenskjöld and the Salto Grande feel positively gale-force. On the path to Salto Grande we’re forced to crouch to the ground at certain points so as not to be blown away.

The winds threaten to jeopardise the highlight of the day — a visit to the Grey Glacier. Lying at the end of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, it’s the largest ice field in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica, and is most easily visited by boat. On particularly windy days the trip is considered too risky to undertake. Not today, thankfully. A dinghy ferries us across the waves to the main vessel, and we begin our journey across Lake Grey.

Lake Grey’s waters actually are grey in colour, strewn with icebergs of a striking blue — their colour is due to the density of the ice, which absorbs all the colours of light except blue. We slow to a halt at the northern end of the lake, within a few hundred yards of the cliffs of Grey Glacier, a spectacular expanse of snow and ice glinting in the sunlight like a torrent frozen in its tracks. Anchored in front of this ancient river of ice, we’re served pisco sours chilled with chunks of iceberg ice — a cocktail on the millennia-old rocks.

The last day’s trip is the pièce de résistance of my Patagonia visit: the thirteen-mile trek to the base of the three towers, the westernmost and most challenging leg of the multi-day “W” circuit. It’s sunny and cool as we set off across the pasture below the campsite. The first segment of the trek takes us up a steep, scree-strewn trail through the Ascencio Valley, then downhill towards a refuge called the Campamento Chileno and across the Ascencio River. For the next several miles the trail undulates through an atmospheric beech forest with a bare earth floor of tangled, ankle-twisting tree roots.

Emerging from the forest, we get our first glimpse of the towers and of the final stretch of the climb, a traverse across a steep moraine of massive granite boulders. It’s said to be the most challenging part of the trek, and the climbers ahead of us do look like they’re clinging Spiderman-style to the mountainside as they clamber across and upwards among the huge stones.

At the beginning of the trip, the guides told us there’d be a surprise awaiting us at the base of the towers, and I did not quite expect to be greeted by a lovely aquamarine lagoon as I climbed over the rim of the moraine. It almost makes up for the fact that the majestic towers themselves are shrouded in cloud, and the temperature has also dropped to the point where a pair of Canadians in the group are pulling gloves out of their packs. We eat our packed lunches, take our last glance at the towers, and hit the trail for the six and a half miles back down.

Over dinner on that last evening, we recount the highlights of the trek and raise glasses of Chilean wine to the glories of Torres del Paine, before we’re interrupted by a certain puma.

A couple of days later in Punta Arenas, I meet up with two of my camp-mates for dinner. They’d left the park a day later than I, and we’re swapping stories, me about the towers trek, them about the astounding fauna they’d seen on the wildlife safari — and the puma that showed up in the camp on their last evening there.

They showed me the photos on their camera, some of which featured blobs and streaks that I had to admit were sort of wildcat-shaped.