End of the Earth
End of the Earth
20 August 2016
Tatyana Leonov journeys to an otherworldly land of glaciers and lakes.
ave you been to the end of the earth? I have. It took less than 40 hours to get to Patagonia, but as soon as I arrived I felt a million miles away.
A land of glistening glacier peaks and dazzling blue lakes, vast open plains and star-flooded nights. I’d seen photographs and I was ready for the extraordinary . . . but nothing prepares you for the real thing.
Patagonia is the southernmost tip of South America, a rugged and beautiful area shared between Chile and Argentina. Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, notorious for its ravishing landscape, was my destination.
Although people flock here in summer, the magic happens come wintertime. Most tourists leave, the wind drops and sometimes snow begins to fall.
The flight there is a long one: Sydney to Santiago via Auckland, Santiago to Punta Arenas via Puerto Montt. Then there’s a four- hour drive to the park. It sounds likealongtime–anditis–butI’d travel 10 times the distance just to get here again.
I arrive to explora Patagonia (explora is a luxury lodging and exploration company), not sure what time it is ... or even what day. When I step out of the car the crisp air on my skin pulls me out of my zombie-like state and gazing up at an inky-black sky my stomach fills with butterflies in anticipation. I try to sleep, but end up staring at the ceiling feeling like a little kid on Christmas Eve, wishing the night would pass quickly.
I wake to the most beautiful view I’ve ever seen. An iridescent turquoise lake sparkles in the early morning sun; slate-coloured clouds drift by, revealing jagged snow-cloaked mountains underneath; there’s a magical stillness in the air. It’s hard to look away, but the thought of exploring the park gets me out of bed.
We start with the Grey Beach hike; an easy 5.5 kilometre walk that coils its way through three different terrains. We begin the trek in a lenga tree forest, then walk along the grey-sand beach and finish up at a lookout before turning back. My pace slows drastically once I’m on the beach. The electric-blue icebergs in the water – gleaming fragments that have split from the mighty Grey Glacier – have me mesmerised.
Most travellers come to Torres del Paine to trek. It’s one of the park’s greatest assets, with plenty of options – all with breathtaking scenery. The W Trek is one of the most legendary options – a 75 kilometre ramble that weaves in and out of the Cordillera del Paine mountains, passing hanging glaciers, shimmering lakes and granite summits.
We spend all day hiking there and back, first trekking through Ascencio Valley, then ascending up the mountain to the famed viewpoint. The last 45 minutes are the most challenging. We are rewarded with a vista of a lake so azure-blue it hurts my eyes. Behind it the three famous peaks swell as if they’ve come out of nowhere, like three kings watching over their kingdom.
If someone were to ask me what the highlight of my trip was, I wouldn’t be able to choose just one. Waking up to a panorama that was so magnificent it took me a while to register it was real; trekking to the base of the towers and being gifted with another one of those preposterously beautiful views – it’s all one long dose of incredible.
Horse riding with the gauchos is definitely on my ‘‘best of Patagonia’’ list and explora is the only company in the park that offers horse riding in collaboration with the local cowboys, or gauchos as they are known. The horses are raised to work in the park and trained extensively before visitors are able to ride them.
Four gauchos donning side- worn berets and elaborate belt buckles greet us when we arrive, two disappearing soon after to tend to the horses while Lonardo and Xavier – the two gauchos leading the ride today – help us saddle up.
We trot along flat grassland, a sea of endless yellows and browns, as the winter sun warms our backs. Lonardo and Xavier loosen up; they are in their prime on horseback and they laugh and joke as they lead us on a journey through paradise.
Post-ride we share a cup of ‘‘mate’’ tea, a bitter herbal concoction, with the gauchos in their cosy kitchen. An integral part of gaucho culture, the tea-drinking ritual involves one gaucho brewing and refilling the tea. One cup is passed from person to person, then refilled and passed around again until you say ‘‘gracias’’, indicating that you’ve had enough. Three cups in and I’ve had my quota, but I can’t help but keep accepting the tea when it comes my way.
I know that as soon as I say ‘‘gracias’’ it will be time to leave. And having experienced Patagonia, no one ever wants to do that.
LATAM Airlines operates seven one-stop flights each week from Sydney to Santiago with onward connections to Punta Arenas. LATAM also offers non-stop flights between Sydney and Santiago four times a week in codeshare partnership with Oneworld partner airlines. See latam.com
All 49 rooms at Explora Patagonia come with magnificent mountain or lake views. Three-night minimum stays include all meals, drinks, excursions and airport transfers. See explora.com.
Tatyana Leonov was a guest of Explora and LATAM Airlines.