Hi folks! We are a happy couple from Belgium, who decided to leave our cozy home in Antwerp in favor of discovering the magic of faraway lands. Our thirst for adventure calls to us and we are always looking for new interesting places to visit.
At the end of the earth, you’ll find towering peaks, soaring condors — and the odd luxury hotel
A flick. Caught in the sun, the fishing line was a gold thread snaking over the river, sending a fly flitting. Minutes later, Claudio had a trout on the shingle, gasping as it flexed its speckled sides. “Supper,” he said, plopping the stunned fish into a bucket.
But I was in no hurry to get back to the lodge. I wanted to stay by the Puelo River and watch the descending sun. It was warm and peaceful. A breeze blew pine and forest-flower perfumes from the surrounding hills. Birds chirruped, dragonflies darted.
I was in Patagonia — the huge region straddling Chile and Argentina all the way down to Cape Horn. I’d been planning to escape to its plains, mountains, fjords and lonely islands ever since a pub conversation with a group of South American travellers.
“Isn’t it freezing?” I’d asked them. In his 1977 book In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin had described a region isolated, eccentric and plagued by foul weather. Not at all, they shot back — Chatwin just visited at the wrong time of year; there was plenty of sunshine between November and March, and what’s more, he went to the Argentinian side — the wrong half! Chilean Patagonia is far more beautiful, they said. Squeezed between the Andes and the Pacific, it’s a wilderness of crumpled peaks dropping to vast grasslands, with ancient forest and rushing rivers, albatrosses, penguins and condors. And because it’s less well known, I would almost have it to myself.
With British Airways now flying direct to Santiago, I had no more excuses. I’d set aside a fortnight, starting in the valleys and fishing villages of the north, then the forests of Puelo and the mountains of the Torres del Paine National Park, before sailing the southern seas around Cape Horn.
I gave the first day over to Santiago, with its enormous earthquake-proof cathedral and Catholic memorabilia for sale. Then it was time to start the adventure. Puerto Montt was traditionally the gateway to Patagonia, but new flights to nearby Chiloé, the largest of Patagonia’s Pacific islands, meant I could bypass the busy port city and head straight for those craggy coasts.
Chiloé was like a slab of Cornwall adrift in the southern hemisphere. Grass verges were yellow with dandelions, hedgerows pink with blackberry blossom. The early-morning view from my hotel room was of dry-stone walls and rolling fields haloed with mist.
The best way to see the island’s coast (according to my waiter at breakfast) is from the water, so I took a boat trip, half expecting to see granite cottages on the hills above smugglers’ coves. But Chiloé’s fishing villages turned out to be wooden and cradled around churches built like upside-down boats, with steeples in place of keels. Spread around little estuaries were colourful weatherboard houses on stilts. Dolphins little bigger than labradors dawdled in the placid harbour waters; sea lions gambolled in the waves off the beaches.
Chiloé was relaxing, but I dreamt of the dramatic Puelo river valley, so it was time to hit the road. In Patagonia, most hotels include transfers in their rates, so I was driven, via ferry, to the mainland, to be met by a 4WD for the three-hour trip south to Puelo. We passed sleeping, snowcapped volcanoes and plunging fjords, the landscape getting wilder with every mile. Surrounded by forested hills, Puelo was where local guide Claudio landed that trout. I ate it, sautéed, at Mitico Puelo Lodge, washed down with a fruity red from Mitico’s own vineyard.
The fragrant forest had caught my imagination, so the next day, Claudio took me across the lake to a waterfall and a hidden path that climbed into the larches of the Tagua Tagua Park. We were thrillingly far from any fellow humans. Beneath the canopy, all I could hear was my heaving breath and the drip of water on forest-floor leaves. Tree trunks were clothed with moss, lichen and ruby-red fuchsias; iridescent green hummingbirds whirred around flame-tree flowers. We stopped to rest at a stream that rushed over boulders and poured into pools alive with tadpole-sized silvery fish.
After almost a week in Patagonia’s fields and forests, it was time to venture into the heart of its wilderness. Next stop was the Torres del Paine National Park and a long day’s journey — back to Puerto Montt, two hours by air to Punta Arenas, and then three hours’ drive into the park. Patagonia might have become easier to reach, but getting around the place still takes time. The investment was repaid, though, when I arrived at my lakeside hotel, Tierra Patagonia: in the dusk, its orange windows looked as if they were set in a wedge of wood and glass melded into the moorland. Check-in was as slick as the architecture and within minutes I was sitting with a pisco sour, my tour guide, Filipe, and a full menu of activities. I told him I wanted wildlife and a trek.
“The trek’s tough — a full day. Wildlife’s easy. What do you want to see — condors, guanacos, pumas?”
I wanted to see condors and guanacos (a doe-eyed cousin of the llama). Only wildlife cameramen see pumas.
“Condors and guanacos for sure,” Filipe replied. “A puma if we’re lucky.”
And he was right. The next day, from a ridgetop we saw dozens of guanacos — long-necked and graceful as a ballerina. Males looked for danger from high rocks, mothers and babies grazed below. And there were skeletons everywhere — proof that pumas prowled the grey grass.
We climbed a crest and southern Patagonia was laid out before us: winding rivers and stubby stands of scrub broke up a plain puddled with lakes, with the Torres del Paine mountains towering behind, jagged shards flecked with snowfields and glaciers.
As I wondered how painful the next day’s trek would be, a condor swept into view, rising from below. It was just feet away — bald head thrust out of a collar of white down, wings nearly three-yards wide, spreading to feather fingers. I could hear them rustle as the bird soared past, so close I gasped. Then there was another one. And another.
Back at the hotel, a group of Swiss guests were excited. They’d seen a puma on the very trek I’d be doing. The next day, adrenaline and hope drove me for the first steep hour. The pumas remained hidden, but now I had my sights set on another goal: the towers that give Torres del Paine its name — three cloud-wisped spires of granite nearly two miles high, forest lapping at their feet. My legs were quaking when I reached their base two hours later. Another condor drifted across, as if to offer a farewell on my final day in the park.
The skeletons of guanacos were proof that pumas prowled the grey grass
So far, my pub persuaders back home had been right about the weather. I’d enjoyed endless, unadulterated sun. But leaving the lodge for the return drive to Punta Arenas, I called on the spirit of Chatwin to conjure clouds. Rounding the Horn properly required wind and waterproofs. Milk-calm seas simply would not do.
With a double-steel hull, doors that could be battened down and plate-glass portholes as thick as a brick, the Stella Australis was obviously built for heavy weather. Our briefing notes advised woollens and waterproofs on every excursion, but the sun wouldn’t budge as we puttered out of Punta Arenas and into the Magellan Strait, skirting an island of penguins.
Next morning, a reassuring wind buffeted the dinghy when we left the boat to see a glacier up close, and by afternoon, the weather had turned English-winter grey. At Wulaia Bay, inky fjords and forested coves stretched, breathtakingly, as far as I could see beneath the gusty clouds. It was as isolated and untouched as I’d hoped for.
The following morning, the weather was fabulously foul up on deck — driving rain and a wind that cut through three layers of clothes and had me running back inside, shivering. We were in semi-Antarctic waters now, and by early afternoon reached the rugged Cape Horn archipelago.
Over the Tannoy, the captain called us to the dinghies. We weren’t just rounding the Horn; we’d got lucky with the conditions and would be landing on it — a rare treat. Through heavy swell and constant rain, we clung to the sides of the dinghy before clambering out onto a black beach. Dizzying wind swirled around a lighthouse, the iron-grey ocean was speckled white and albatrosses swooped all around. Chile had obliged.
This was the Patagonia of my dreams, and I realised why Chatwin had written so much about its foul weather. The journey had been spectacular, but on a storm-swept rock at the southern tip, this was the crowning moment. I was at the end of the world.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Santiago from £680 return (ba.com). For internal flights, contact Latam (latam.com), which has one-way fares from £64.
Doubles at Mitico Puelo Lodge start at £226, full-board (miticopuelo.com). Doubles at Tierra Patagonia start at £1,250, all-inclusive with excursions (tierrahotels.com).
The trip to Cape Horn starts at £1,172pp, full-board (australis.com).
Alex Robinson was a guest of Journey Latin America, which has an 18-day Patagonia trip from £7,170pp, full-board, including flights and excursions