Torres del Paine National Park
The Andes pass many spectacular landscapes on their 4,000-mile journey along South America’s spine. There are the terraces of Machu Picchu in Peru, the green hills that rise from the Caribbean in Colombia, and the first tributaries of the Amazon basin. But it is at the southernmost point of the continent where the mountains reach their grand finale – and save the best for last.
Torres del Paine National Park is the geological masterpiece of the Andes; it is a place where the weather patterns of the Pacific and Atlantic converge, destroying hikers’ tents and sculpting granite mountains into crooked, forbidding forms.
Once a backwater of remote cattle herders, guanaco herds and the odd puma, the park now brings in adventurers for trekking, mountaineering and horseback riding in this little Mordor at the end of the world. Among them is Cristian Oyarzo, a local with an infectious grin and a salt-and-pepper beard, who has pioneered a different way of exploring the park.
“With a kayak you can get to places no one else can,” he says, casting off from a pebbly beach on the shores of Lake Grey. “You get a different perspective when you are down on the water.”
We glide out onto the lake, passing forests of Antarctic beech that reach down to the shore. Snowy summits appear between gaps in the storm clouds; among them are the vertical spires of rock – towers, or “torres” – that lend the park its name. Ahead are more icy pinnacles: icebergs afloat on the lake, sailing southward, carried by the wind.
“Every time you paddle among icebergs it is different,” Oyarzo says. “They are always changing forms and color. Once you paddle among them, you never want to return to land.”
The icebergs are vessels made of millennia-old ice: broken fragments of the massive Grey Glacier, which begins in the Patagonian Andes to the west and terminates at the lake’s northern reaches. The glacier – one of the park’s most spectacular – is a branch of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the world’s largest expanses of ice.
At 6,500 square miles, it is a frozen wilderness so vast and unchartered that neither Chile nor neighboring Argentina can decide precisely where their territory ends and begins. It is, however, under threat: the Grey Glacier is rapidly shrinking, decreasing in width and thickness as a result of climate change.
Closer to the icebergs, the creaking of ice is audible above the splash of kayak paddles. The icebergs’ warped shapes bring to mind a Salvador Dali sketch or a Pink Floyd album cover. Some are pristine white; others have strata of deep blue. Some are the size of a double-decker bus, though few survive longer than a few days before they are small enough to fit in a beer glass.
Frequently, they can be seen calving, or breaking apart. On more than one occasion, Oyarzo heard a sinister rumbling up above and had to frantically paddle out of the way of a collapsing tower of ice.
“This is the way to see the ice in Patagonia,” he says. “When you come so close you can touch it.”
The icebergs sparkle in the afternoon sunlight, as little waves lap against their base. Oyarzo puts down his paddle, and for a few moments joins them in their slow, silent drift along the cold waters of the lake.
Head to the Patagonian wilderness to paddle among icebergs in the shadow of mighty granite peaks.
A storm over the Cordillera Paine range; icebergs on Grey Lake // Opposite: the lobby of Tierra Patagonia
Hotel & Spa
Valparaiso’s Cerro Alegre neighborhood // Opposite: Ascensor Artillería, built in 1893, offers panoramic views
of the city.
ESSENTIALS STAY // Tierra Patagonia's high-design wooden structure merges with the surrounding landscape. Rates include meals, drinks, transfers and guided excursions, including horseback riding, hiking and fishing (from $950 per person;...