At the glacier's edge
An SN&R writer traverses Patagonia with his family to find dolphins, penguins, birds and his place at the end of the world
I sit down to write this on a sofa in the common room of our hostel, the Hostel Entre Vientos (or “Hostel Between the Winds”) in the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas. The front wall of the room is glass, and out the window, just across the street, are the Magellan Straits, the southern passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans a couple hundred miles north of Cape Horn. A few days back, we saw dolphins dancing in the waters just a hundred meters or so offshore. Today, there are no dolphins, but an array of birds is swooping low over the waters. The lights have just gone out, as they do several times a week because of the winds, and the cloudless sky is the sort of pure, crystalline, blue one only gets very, very close to a pole.
Come to think of it, the word “wind” really doesn’t do justice to Patagonia’s big blows. They race through the land, howling and whinnying like angered animals. They chill you to the bone and leave you gasping for breath.
When you hike the volcanoes and soaring mountains of Chile’s Lake District and Patagonia, the wind can almost blow you off the trail. You huddle under layers of fleeces and waterproof jackets, your head protected by woolen hats and hoods, and still you shiver.
But, there’s a payoff. It is, surely, one of the most beautiful landscapes on earth. We have been traveling now for seven weeks, the first four of which were spent in immersion Spanish classes. We have been hiking and boat riding, exploring white water rapids and lakes with so many shades of blue, and finally, glaciers and the fierce wilderness of the Torres del Paine National Park for three weeks. The Inuits are reputed to have 50 different words for “snow.” I don’t know how many words the indigenous Patagonian Tehuelche and Mapuche people had for “blue,” but I suspect it must have been a large number. The lakes contain every shade imaginable, from brilliant turquoise to teal, cerulean to jade.
I don’t think I have ever seen a landscape quite as vast, as wild and as different as Torres del Paine. The park is centered around three massive stone towers, each a magnet for extreme hikers and rock-climbers. But it is far more than just a hiking mecca. Throughout the park are huge lakes, rich with mineral deposits, preternaturally vivid in their hues. They are ringed by mountains and forests, and the landscape is populated with a vast abundance of wildlife. Huge herds of guanacos—a camelid creature closely related to the alpaca—roam the lowlands, their populations kept in check by dozens of pumas. The pumas, in turn, fight for their kill with flocks of condors—birds with 12-foot wingspans that circle low overhead wherever a carcass has been left exposed. Several species of foxes wander through the forests. And, at some of the lakes, flocks of pink flamingos sun themselves.
Upon arrival in Torres we realized that, unless we were to camp (in the freezing, windy conditions with two young kids in tow), or hike from one isolated mountain refugio to the next, we would have to stay in a luxury hotel. There are, it rapidly became clear, no middle-ground accommodations in Torres.
It wasn’t really much of a choice. We are, unfortunately, on the wrong side of the dividing line between youth and middle age, and no longer have the energy to hike for five days straight with 60-pound bags on our backs and tired children on either side. And even if we did normally have the energy, by the time we got to Torres I had come down with a nasty back injury and could barely walk 100 meters uphill, let alone shoulder my bag over a long distance.
And so, we checked into the Hotel Las Torres Patagonia, which, to my infinite gratitude, provides a raft of guided expeditions. Some involved miles of hard hiking; others involved little more than car rides and gentle strolls along lakefronts.
It almost broke my heart, but I had to forgo the hard hikes. And so, on the first full day there, while my 11-year-old daughter, my 8-year-old son and my wife did a steep 12-hour hike to the Base of the Towers, I got chauffeured from one gorgeous lake and one breathtaking set of waterfalls to the next. I thought I’d sob with sadness at the missed hiking opportunity, but in fact, it was an utterly glorious day. Dozens of condors soared overhead. Guanacos popped up around every bend and on every hillock and the colors of the lakes were utterly overwhelming.
Sitting for a day allowed me to heal enough so that the next day we could do a full-day exploration that culminated at the far end of the park on a boat across the Lago Grey and up close to the edge of the southern ice field, which, at more than 200 miles long, is the world’s third-largest ice sheet.
Our boat set off with about 50 people on board, slowing traversing the roughly 12 miles to the edge of the Grey Glacier. As we got closer, we could see it, an eerie blue-white sheet cascading down from the icy, black-rock mountains. We could also feel it, a blast of cold whipping off of the ice. It was the opposite of being on the active lava fields of the Klauea volcano, on Hawaii’s Big Island. There, the heat blasted off the ground with a force that almost blew one backward. Here, in Patagonia, the cold felt like it could flash-freeze us.
It was a fiercely cloudy day; but my UV-sensitive sunglasses, as we got nearer and nearer to the ice, went as dark as they could possibly get. The densely packed ice of the glacier absorbs red light, making the ice appear a strange otherworldly blue. Close-up, the glacier is huge, its jagged walls dwarfing our boat. It exhales wind and cold, as if daring humans to try to get too close. It is a landscape of giant shards and tunnels and rounded chunks of ice, sometimes looking like sponge cake, sometimes like vast corals, sometimes like huge blue ice cubes dropped into whiskey. The black-rock and ice background of the steep mountains highlight the blueness of the ice. It’s a landscape that looks as far from inhabitable earth as possible.
We spent an hour at the glacier’s edges, rounding the first section of the ice sheet and passing the dense rocks separating first from second section. The cold grew extreme as we traversed the second part of the iceberg. Sheets of drenching rain began falling and most of the passengers retreated downstairs into the covered seating area. I stayed on deck. We rounded the second set of rocks and cruised alongside the edge of the third claw of the glacier. Now the blues grew even more extreme against the blackness of the clouds. Huge, floating chunks of ice surrounded the boat.
I felt like we could be sucked into a void at any moment—and that, in the immensity, nobody would have noticed. It was a strangely exhilarating feeling. A sensation of utter smallness. Of liberation.
After three days in Torres del Paine, we took a van back to Punta Arenas, back to the city that the British Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton used as a base in 1916 during his improbable rescue effort of his stranded crew. The wind howled on the Magellan Straits.
We had one thing left to do: the kids were determined to see king penguins. And so, on our last day in Patagonia, we got up early, and set off on a 12-hour ferry and van ride into the heart of Tierra del Fuego. We were as close to the South Pole as we could get without actually setting sail for the Antarctic.
In the morning, we saw dolphins leaping in our ferry’s wake. After lunch, we saw huge flocks of pink flamingos, birds that allowed us to get so close we could watch them stretch their legs and momentarily walk on water as they readied themselves for flight. And finally, there was a colony of king penguins, the adults a meter high, waddling like old men and women on the Coney Island boardwalk through the grass, flopping inelegantly into the little river connecting into the Magellan Straits. Their babies were brown balls of fuzz. The sky they socialized under was the big sky at the end of the world.
Silently, for an hour, we stood and watched the birds. Even my kids managed to stop talking long enough to take in the wonder. And then, with one quick farewell glance, it was time to leave. In the morning, we would start our 8,000-mile journey northward to home.