Patag­o­nia draws you in

Na­ture hits you in the face in Chile’s fa­mous na­tional park

Life & Style Weekend - - TRAVEL - TRAVEL with Me­gan Shee­han

TOR­RES del Paine; the name alone con­jures up all the wild­ness of Patag­o­nia and its snow-dusted gran­ite peaks and azure lakes that are among the most recog­nis­able im­ages of Chile.

If you’re in South Amer­ica and you like hik­ing there’s a good chance you might find your­self there – as my part­ner and I did in Novem­ber.

The na­tional park is a ma­jor draw­card for out­door en­thu­si­asts and for many the main mo­ti­va­tion for com­ing to the coun­try.

In Puerto Natales, the clos­est town, you’ll find no short­age of shops with ad­ven­ture gear and the su­per­mar­kets have a large se­lec­tion of dried goods, all the lighter for walk­ing with.

Along the trails you can spot var­i­ous species of hiker in ev­ery age group, size and colour of Gore-Tex you could imag­ine. And then you come across a dif­fer­ent beast al­to­gether.

In the com­mu­nal cook­ing ar­eas at the camp­sites you don’t of­ten pay much at­ten­tion to the light­weight de­hy­drated foods oth­ers are usu­ally cook­ing on their tiny sin­gle-burner trekking stoves but one man got ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion when he pulled out a large camp­ing stove and full fry­ing pan and pro­ceeded to cook a 5cm-thick steak, much to our col­lec­tive awe and ad­mi­ra­tion.

Com­par­a­tively it might have weighed a tonne but at that mo­ment no doubt ev­ery gram was com­pletely worth it to him.

And that’s largely what it comes down to when de­cid­ing which of the many op­tions at Tor­res del Paine to take; find­ing the bal­ance be­tween what you’re will­ing to spend and what weight you’re will­ing or able to carry.

If, like Steak Guy, you’re up to haul­ing ev­ery­thing but the kitchen sink, there are free camp­sites avail­able and you can bring your own food, cook­ing equip­ment and tent and spend next to noth­ing. But if you don’t have some gear such as a tent, sleep­ing bag or stove or sim­ply don’t want to lug them up there, most sites hire these ba­sics at a rel­a­tively low cost.

And if you can’t stom­ach the thought of even sleep­ing in a tent there are the refu­gios that have show­ers and shared rooms with bunk beds.

At the refu­gios you can buy snacks and drinks and even choose to have meals in­cluded, which of course comes at a higher price but means you only need to carry spare clothes.

We de­cided to take the mid­dle road and sleep in refu­gios but carry our own stove and food to cook.

It isn’t hard­core hik­ing in terms of a need for ab­so­lute self-suf­fi­ciency, but if you’re not a purist you’ll en­joy the prospect of a beer af­ter lump­ing your pack for hours in the el­e­ments.

Which­ever way you go, there’s one thing that you won’t have to carry much of – wa­ter.

One of the best as­pects of the park is the abun­dance of wa­ter and be­ing able to drink straight from the many fresh snow and glacial melt streams is a fantastic bonus.

One of the more chal­leng­ing as­pects of the park is, well, the abun­dance of wa­ter. It’s ev­ery­where; in lakes, streams and glaciers, on the trail and more of­ten than not fall­ing from the sky as rain, snow or sleet.

Gore-Tex or no-tex you’re guar­an­teed to end up get­ting wet at some point and it pays to pre­pare with plenty of zi­plock bags for your gear and a plas­tic pack liner.

The park cov­ers 181,000ha and has a range of trails from day hikes to multi-day treks as well as host­ing pri­vately run kayak, horse­back and boat tours.

The five-day W trail is prob­a­bly the most pop­u­lar multi-day op­tion and was the one we de­cided to tackle be­cause it fea­tured a se­lec­tion of some of the best bits of the park; the iconic spires of the Paine Mas­sif, Grey Glacier and the moun­tain­ous French Val­ley. Go­ing in spring also meant the chance to walk among wild­flow­ers in bloom as we kept our eyes peeled for foxes, gua­na­cos, con­dors and the elu­sive pumas.

It didn’t spare us from the wind though.

Patag­o­nia is no­to­ri­ous for its blus­tery con­di­tions but it’s dif­fi­cult to de­scribe just how re­lent­less it is and how hard it can be to re­main up­right and mov­ing for­ward in the face of it. And wear­ing a back­pack that acts some­what like a sail means it’s not at all un­com­mon for peo­ple to be blown com­pletely off their feet by the fe­ro­cious gales.

With its com­bi­na­tion of steep climbs, wild weather and post­card views, Tor­res del Paine is ab­so­lutely breath­tak­ing, in more ways than one, and well worth with­stand­ing the wind for.

The writer is trav­el­ling at her own ex­pense.

PHOTO: ASH­LEY SEILER

A gua­naco in front of the plains and moun­tains of the Tor­res del Paine hike.

TOR­RES DEL PAINE: On its own, this park is beau­ti­ful enough to draw peo­ple to visit Patag­o­nia, the re­gion that strad­dles the south of Chile and Ar­gentina.

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