We arrived at Tierra Patagonia at sunset, an architected sweep of beechwood and glass rising like an eyelid out of the brush on the edge of the Torres del Paine National Park. It’d been a long day of car-plane-car plus a brief visit to Puerto Natales E.R. with Eddie to check out a skin infection. He was good, but we were all whatever the Spanish is for ‘shagged out‘. However, it became apparent quite quickly that this is a place where lying around feeling ‘wan’ wasn’t going to cut it. There was a blackboard in the main living space covered in lists of expeditions leaving at eye-watering times the next morning and a few minutes after we turned up, a wave of rosy-cheeked types in sensible wicking fabrics flash-mobbed the restaurant and started comparing notes on how much hearty yomping they’d achieved that day.
Luckily, the very first morning was Ed’s birthday so there was chocolate cake to be eaten and Lego Helicopters to build. As we basted ourselves in lard, groups of industrious Americans tooled-up for a day on the peaks: fleecy beanies, half-zip merino ‘underlayers’, waterproof shells, zip-off trousers tucked into proper hiking socks, walking boots and telescopic ski-poles, plus the sort of backpacks that you just KNOW contain trail mix and wet wipes and probably transponder receivers and pick-axes for good measure.
Adam and the excursions coordinator hit it off immediately:
Hotel Lady – ‘There’s an easy, family-friendly walk to see some animals, like our local mammal the guanaco, that’s a bit like a…’
Adam – ‘Oh yes a llama’
Hotel Lady – ‘No, they’re not llamas, they’re guanacos‘
Adam – ‘Ah so they’re alpacas’
Hotel Lady – ‘No… they’re not alpacas, they’re guanacos‘
Adam – ‘Ah yes, they’re like alpacas’
Hotel Lady (defeated) – ‘Ok… yes’
So off we set in our flip-flops and shorts, because we’ve sent everything else home (we’ll still be in the same ragged beachwear at Heathrow in April). But lo! It was balmy: a total heatwave. Hahahaha more fool those well-equipped tourists. They were already schvitzing like puddings at picnics. Family Dickhead – 1 / Proper Patagonia Travellers – 0. But wait – that’s weird, right? Patagonia should be pretty chilly, what with the Antarctic being a skip and a hop to the South (Memo to Trump: I think there might be some truth in this global warming thing!) Heck, even the guanacos looked overdressed.
Guanacos are weirdly like giraffes crossed with kangaroos (and definitely not all that much like llamas or alpacas at all). One of them stands guard, ears pricked, keeping a watch out for pumas, while the rest of the herd munch the scrubby grass and eat the calafate berries. These dark purple beads grow all over Patagonia and they find their way into tonnes of products in this part of Chile: beer, ice cream, jam. Eddie loves them and they briefly distracted from his main concern, communicating with Jamie on his new walkie-talkie watch that we bought on the plane.
The unseasonably hot weather meant the rivers were swollen and the Paine waterfall was looking even more resplendent than ever. Again, it was the case that the kids probably took from the experience different things than the adults as the safety railings and the post-match chocolate bars seemed a pretty big hit with the boys.
Day 2 was horse riding, another of the wholesome activities enjoyed by Well-rounded Young Ladies that I’m not-so-secretly terrified of (see also scuba-diving and skiing) but I’m going to damn well do everything my daughters do while I still have use of my limbs. And it was really fine – actually enjoyable – because they’ve trained the horses so beautifully they’re like big, adorable precision instruments that trot at the merest squeeze and otherwise just follow the dashing gaucho who’s leading the pack.
Patagonia is officially a geologists’ Wet Dream. It’s ROCK CITY. The landscape in Torres del Paine is dominated by the huge Paine Massif, the Cordillera del Paine. Despite being part of the Andes mountains officially, the Paine massif is an independent mountain formation with its own unique characteristics.
The origins of the Massif date back to 12 million years ago when the sedimentary layers of the earth were lifted up and were slowly worn down through glacial erosion until only hard resistant granite rock was visibly left. The sedimentary rocks are evidence that this part of the world used to be the seabed (even more mind-bending millions of years ago) and our guide Philippe took us to a river at the base of the massif where you can find rocks containing visible seashells.
The jagged Torres (towers) are a classic example of the results of this process. They’re what we could see through our hotel bedroom window but, naturally, we couldn’t just lie in bed and look at them, we had to get closer. A lot closer.
Adam and I signed up for what was described as a 20K round ‘trek’ to the Torres but which was more like a ‘climb’. This is the point that the walking boots and socks started to look like a good idea – I can vouch for the fact that rock climbing in Asics running shoes is an added challenge most sensible people might not appreciate.
Three hours thirty minutes of climbing later and we were as close as you can get to the peaks, in a wind-blasted bowl of granite. We ate our sandwiches and wished we’d visited Patagonia-the-Store before Patagonia-the-Place given that it was effing freezing. Still, that’s ‘Put Feet in Glacial Lake’ ticked off the bucket list.
The geology field trip that the girls didn’t realise they were on continued on our final day with walk to the mighty Cuernos (horns) peaks. Here you could clearly see the line where volcanic magma had found it’s way in between layers of sedimentary rock and then solidified to make a lighter-coloured granite layer (hope you’re taking notes). This was an undoubted highlight of our trip so far. The sight of these beasts was … breathtaking.
The scene is weirdly enhanced by thousands of twisted, scorched trees – these are from 2011, when a tourist’s camping stove started a forest fire which wiped out 85km of the park. Forest Fire Damn those tourists. Now they made handy seats for John John and Ed who were, as usual, on their own separate field trip involving sifting gravel and catching butterflies.
The rapidly melting glacier had flooded the access road to the boat that would’ve taken us to the amazing Grey Glacier, but we did find another very nice waterfall which (sort-of-not-really) made up for missing this most iconic sight. Grey Glacier – Here’s What We Could’ve Won Still, it’s a reason to come back.
Just before leaving, we rode again and galloped big, placid horses along the beach near our hotel on the edge of Lake Sarmiento. As the sun set on the Torres, I was already googling our return trip to this magical place, this time clad in head-to-toe wicking fabrics and with a massive slab of Kendal Mint Cake. This place would make a rosy-cheeked explorer out of just about anyone.