Exploring the Torres del Paine national park is something every outdoor lover or adventurer must do in their lifetime. The park is mostly famous for its hikes and iconic monoliths but it’s the feeling of awe that this corner of the world imparts on its guests that is impossible to forget.
We went at the end of April. Although we had been to the Torres del Paine before, it was always in summer. We had listened to recommendations to go in the fall with scepticism, thinking that the weather would be too harsh and that nothing would be open. But the truth is that going to Patagonia in April is magical.
Arriving in Patagonia
We landed in Punta Arenas to be welcomed by our guide. On the five hour drive to Torres del Paine, we took in the beautiful Patagonian landscape that lay outside, eager to explore it for ourselves. Meanwhile, the guide explained everything we needed to know about the adventure ahead of us and gave us a taste of the abundance of knowledge he would share with us over the coming days.
From the moment we arrived at our accommodation, we were immersed in our adventure. We met the rest of our group and received a briefing from our guide about the activities we would do while in the park.
The weather did limit our options somewhat and climbing to the famous base of the Towers at this time of year is only for experienced hikers. But it gave us the opportunity to explore other parts of the park that are often missed.
Condor and Cuernos viewpoints
We took a short hike to the Condor and Cuernos viewpoints. Along the way our guide told us about fungi, the plants, the animals and their behavior. The passion, the knowledge, and the genuine love that the guides here have for the where they live once again left us utterly staggered. When we arrived at our destination, it was nothing short of breathtaking – the view of the bright blue lake and the ‘cuernos’ peaks in the distance covered by the cloud.
An abundance of wildlife
At this time of year, many hotels are closed, reducing the number of visitors and the wind was far less violent. The added quietness of this time of year adds to its wilderness. All of this meant that our stay in Patagonia was like an accidental safari. There were guanacos everywhere. Some approached us, curious, while others galloped clumsily away. We saw an armadillo scuttle away to hide, condors glide through the air looking for prey, and even a black-chested buzzard-eagle. Our guide explained to us how he has been watching an eagle pair bring food to their nest that seemed like a large plant pot perching in the trees.
But the best part of traveling at this time of year? The number of pumas that you can see roaming the magnificent landscape. Puma tracking hadn’t been part of our original itinerary, but we made the most of the weather to try our luck. Our guide lowered our expectations and we didn’t expect to see much. Once we were out exploring though, we managed to see 5 pumas (with a bit of help from fellow trackers!).
It was an experience beyond words. We stood and watched them, amazed at seeing the royalty of Patagonia in their natural habitat. There was something special in just watching from a distance, not trying to follow the puma or even take the best photo.
If you’re looking for true wilderness on your next vacation, or to spot animals, or just to be in a place where there are no buildings as far as the eye can see, go to Patagonia in the winter and experience its magic.
Speak to one of our travel specialists today to find out more.
Aysén, in northern Chilean Patagonia, is home to a splendor of nature. The area is part of the spectacular Route of Parks conservation project, and the epic Carretera Austral runs through a region of ancient glaciers, impressive waterfalls, turquoise lakes, and Patagonian steppe. It is one of Chile’s best kept secrets, as the lesser trodden and less well-known neighbour of the Torres del Paine. Lying off the beaten path, it offers a unique, authentic, and truly incredible experience for any visitor.
All of that I know now. But a month ago, I was unsure of Aysén. As a fan of warmer weather and knowing very little about the region other than its notoriety for unpredictable weather conditions and that the hyped Torres del Paine were a few hundred miles further south, it was far from my first choice of places to go. I could not have been more wrong. It is now one of my favourite places in Chile, if not the world.
We traveled in late March, which they say is a great time to visit Patagonia. It had snowed the week before as an early blast of winter teased the region, leaving a white coating on the mountaintops while fiery shades of red and orange leaves cascaded down. It was a landscape that I had only seen in paintings as we traveled south along the Carretera Austral from Balmaceda. We were only just starting the trip when we spotted a rare huemul at the side of the road as if welcoming us to its home.
Cerro Castillo hike
Zigzagging down the picturesque Cuesta del Diablo (Devil’s hill), we arrived at the quaint town of Villa Cerro Castillo for the night. The woodburning stove kept us warm as we admired the view of the jagged Cerro Castillo mountain and a rushing river from the comfort of the B&B before resting for tomorrow’s adventure.
In the morning, we awoke early for breakfast, put on our layers of hiking clothes, and set off with our local guides to the base of Cerro Castillo. Once we had signed in with the park rangers, we started our incline. The hike was relentless – it is a constant incline, climbing 1000m over a 7km distance – but magical. We started by walking through a forest of native trees, crossed some log planks to a small field, and then started up a rocky path.
As we climbed higher and higher up the mountain, we learned about the fauna and flora, filled up our water bottles in the stream. At this point our guide said, ‘If you do Patagonia quickly, you’re doing it wrong.’ She was right. Turning around to see how far we had come, my jaw dropped at the view. A perfect rainbow straddled a valley of green fields, orange and red trees, and blue skies. This was it – this was the magic of Patagonia.
After 5km of walking through the changing terrain of the mountain, we arrived at the lookout point. We were rewarded with a panorama over the Ibañez valley, looking over a horizon of fields, forests, mountains, and rivers. Unfortunately the snow from that point was too thick and we couldn’t continue to the lagoon – but no complaints from me. It was the most rewarding and beautiful hike of my life regardless. We headed back down beaming and excited for our next destination that we could see in the distance – General Carrera Lake.
Back in the town, we traveled further along the Carretera Austral, constantly fascinated by the views of the lakes and mountains surrounding us, and arriving at the small town of Puerto Rio Tranquilo on the shores of the second largest lake in South America. With the smell of woodfires in the air, we checked in to our delightfully cozy hotel.
Trekking Glacier Exploradores
We headed out early on day two to the Exploradores Glacier, driving along a dirt road alongside more lakes and mountains and stopping only to wait for the cows to move out of the way. After about an hour, we arrived at the entrance to the park, put on our helmets and set off with our guides. A short ten-minute walk through dense forest brought us to our first lookout point. It was our first view of the glacier: an expanse of ice as far as you could see, wedged between two mountains.
We carried on along the route, and soon we were standing on the glacier. We kept walking until we reached the clean ice, attached our crampons, and ventured further onto the glacier. As we hiked, the thick, ancient ice glowed a striking shade of blue, accentuated by the day’s clouds. The small hollows in the ice allowed us to perch inside and appreciate the sheer immensity, the weight, the size, the coolness of the glacier. We ate lunch as we took in the silence of the glacier. Although physically demanding, it was a brilliant day, and we headed back to our transport and hotel with a newfound sense of wonder.
Kayaking the Marble Cathedral
Day three was another early start, which blessed us with a view of the fiery sunrise appearing over the mountains and the General Carrera Lake. We drove to the shore for the morning’s activity – kayaking to the iconic marble caves. Our guide gave us our equipment and a briefing, and we set sail. We started at a tranquil cove to get used to the kayak and practice our technique before turning the corner into the open lake. We paddled along the edge of the lake with wind and the spray of the water in our faces. The view of the gigantic lake was a sight to behold with mountains in the distance and even the goats perched on the edge of the cliff. Eventually, we arrived at the main spectacle – two monoliths of marble emerging from the water.
It’s a strange sensation to be so fascinated by a rock sticking out of some water, but here we were, taken aback by the beauty and the uniqueness of what we were seeing. It was easy to understand why these formations had gained their ecclesiastical names. The turquoise blue of the water inside the caves reflected and danced off the walls as we paddled through the arched tunnels and the erosion of the rock had created mosaic of shapes, like we were exploring the tunnels of a stained-glass Mediterranean church.
As we emerged from the caves, the bright blue water seemed to spread across the whole lake as the sun emerged from behind the clouds. We paddled back to our starting point taking in the magnificent view of the Patagonian hills, mountains, and lakes and relishing in the experience. But the magic did not end there. As if to greet us, an austral pygmy owl swooped into the small tree just a couple of meters away. We stood and watched mesmerized as it twisted its neck 180 degrees looking for food, every so often watching us or fidgeting its feathers.
Road trip to Patagonia National Park
Our final activity was a road trip further along the Carretera Austral as sun lit up the fantastical colors of the landscape. We drove along the edge of the bluest lake I’ve ever seen as our driver told us about the scenery and stopped to witness the power of water at the confluence of the Baker and Neff rivers, where two differently coloured rivers met in a crashing of waves. With looming gray skies that couln’t dampen our spirits, we continued on our way to the Patagonia National Park where it seemed like guanacos were waiting for us at the entrance. We watched as they galloped along the Patagonian steppe, ears pricked, alert to any lurking pumas.
The landscape here was different: drier and barer than that of the past few days. It gave a sense of vastness and pure wilderness, which felt appropriate as we headed to the Explora Lodge and center of the Tompkins conservation project. We entered the guest center to learn more about the rewilding work in the region and left inspired with a destination for our next trip. With that, it was time to head back for our final evening in Aysén and return home.
Before the trip, I didn’t have many expectations. I certainly did not expect such natural beauty, or to be so moved by the the trip. Yet afterwards, I often find myself reflecting about everything we saw, felt, experienced, and I know it certainly changed something for me. There, in this remote corner of the world, I found a love for nature – for Patagonia – and a profound gratitude for the beautiful world we live in.
If you’re looking for a new corner of Patagonia to explore, or are looking for an alternative to the Torres del Paine, Aysen is the place to go. The wilderness, the vastness, the colors, the wind in your face – it’s like a full body reset from our tech-obsessed, busy lives. It’s the place to test your boundaries, to try something new, to disconnect. I cannot recommend it enough.