WORDS: OLIVER SMITH
PHOTOGRAPHS: PHILIP LEE HARVEY
Set out on an adventure that covers the length of our Best in Travel 2018 winning nation, from the granite spires of Torres del Paine to poetic, seaside Valparaíso, and from the vineyards and starry skies of the Elqui Valley to the arid canyons, salt lakes and volcanoes of the Atacama Desert.
- TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK
Head to the Patagonian wilderness to paddle among colossal icebergs in the shadow of the mighty granite peaks of the Torres del Paine.
Days into your trip: 1 – 3
The Andes pass many spectacular landscapes on their 6,437km journey along the spine of South America. There are the hills that rise from the Caribbean in Colombia, the terraces of Machu Picchu in Peru, and the first tributaries of the Amazon basin. It is, however, at the southernmost point of the continent where the range reaches its grand finale – where it saves the best for last.
Torres del Paine National Park is the Andes’ geological masterpiece – a place where the Pacific and the Atlantic converge, destroying hikers’ tents and sculpting granite mountains into crooked, forbidding forms. Once a backwater of remote cattle herders, guanacos and the odd puma, it now brings in adventurers who go trekking, mountaineering and horse-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 access places no one else can,” he says, casting off from a pebbly beach on the shores of Lake Grey. “You get a different perspective when you are out on the water.”
We glide past forests of Antarctic beech that reach down to the shore. Snowy summits appear between the gaps in the storm clouds, among them vertical spires of rock – the ‘Torres’– that lend the park its name. And 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,” says Cristian. “They are always changing forms and colour. Once you paddle among them, you never want to return to land.”
The icebergs are vessels made of millennia-old ice: broken fragments of the Grey Glacier which terminates at the lake’s northern reaches. The glacier is, in turn, a branch of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field – one of the world’s largest expanses of ice. At 16,834 sq km, it is a frozen wilderness so vast and unchartered that neither Chile nor neighbouring Argentina can decide precisely where their territory ends and begins. It is, however, under threat: the Grey Glacier is rapidly shrinking, decreasing in width and thickness as a result of climate change.
Drawing closer to the icebergs, the creaking of ice is audible above the splash of the paddles. Their warped shapes bring to mind a sketch by Salvador Dalí, 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. Few last longer than a week before they can fit in a pint glass. Cristian has several times 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. “Up so close you can touch it.”
The icebergs sparkle in the afternoon sunshine, as little waves lap against their base. Cristian puts down his paddle, and, for a few moments, joins them in their slow, silent drift along the cold waters of the lake.