The Andes pass many spectacular landscapes on their 4000-mile journey along South America’s spine. There are the terraces of Machu Picchu in Peru, the green hills that rise from the Caribbean in Colombia, and the first tributaries of the Amazon basin. But it is at the southernmost point of the continent where the mountains reach their grand finale – and save the best for last.
Torres del Paine National Park is the geological masterpiece of the Andes; it is a place where the weather patterns of the Pacific and Atlantic converge, destroying hikers’ tents and sculpting granite mountains into crooked, forbidding forms.
Once a backwater of remote cattle herders, guanaco herds and the odd puma, the park now brings in adventurers for trekking, mountaineering and horseback riding in this little Mordor at the end of the world. Among them is Cristian Oyarzo, a local with an infectious grin and a salt-and-pepper beard, who has pioneered a different way of exploring the park.
‘With a kayak you can get to places not one else can,’ he says, casting off from a pebbly beach on the shores of Lake Gray. ‘You get a different perspective when you are down on the water.We glide out onto the lake, passing forests of Antarctic beech that reach down to the shore. Snowy summits appear between gaps in the storm clouds; among them are the vertical spiers of rock – towers, or ‘towers’ – that lend the park its name. Ahead are more icy pinnacles: icebergs afloat on the lake, sailing southward, carried by the wind.
‘Every time you paddle among icebergs it is different,’ Oyarzo says. ‘They are always changing forms and color. Once you paddle among them, you never want to return to land. ‘
The icebergs are made of millennia-old ice: broken fragments of the massive Gray Glacier, which begins in the Patagonian Andes to the west and ends at the lake’s northern reaches. The glacier – one of the most spectacular park – is a branch of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, one of the world’s largest expanses of ice.
At 6500 square miles, it is a frozen wilderness so vast and uncharted that neither Chile nor neighboring Argentina can decide precisely where their territory ends and begins. It is, however, under threat: the Gray Glacier is rapidly shrinking, decreasing in width and thickness as a result of climate change.
Closer to the icebergs, the creation of ice is audible above the splash of kayak paddles. The icebergs’ warped shapes bring to mind Salvador Dali sketch or a Pink Floyd album cover. Some are pristine white; others have strata of deep blue. Some are the size of a double-decker bus, though few survive longer than a few days before they are small enough to fit in a beer glass. Frequently, they can be seen calving, or breaking apart. On more than one occasion, Oyarzo heard of sinister rumbling up and had to frantically paddle out of the way of a collapsing tower of ice.
‘This is the way to see the ice in Patagonia,’ he says. ‘When you eat so close you can touch it.’ The icebergs sparkle in the afternoon sunlight, as little waves lap against their base. Oyarzo puts down his paddle, and for a few moments joins them in his slow, silent drift along the cold waters of the lake.
From Torres del Paine, it’s a 90-minute drive to Puerto Natales airport, a three-hour flight to Santiago and another 90-minute drive to Valparaíso. Alternatively, pack some snacks for the nonstop 40-hour road trip northward through Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.
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