In the beginning Patagonia came to my knowledge just like a name of a far out place, an unreachable territory for a child who lived in Santiago de Chile, a name that became an obsession due to the influence of Francisco Coloane stories about the end of the world. Coloane has been equated with Jack London and Herman Melville, because the great quality of his writing and the strange gift or ability to reveal the truth of the souls of men faced with the wonders of the nature, in the most remote edge of the earth where the human spirit is tasted. All his stories are full with adventures where sailors, gauchos, immigrants, gold diggers and natives live and die in an unforgiving landscape.
No doubt that this kind of literature can be a great influence in a young mind. One of the greatest legacies of my parents has been a deep love for literature and music. But the relationship with nature, the countryside, animals and appreciation for those who have a hard and simple life, men and women confronted with nature, that legacy comes from my father, with whom I am very grateful.
In a country with a geography so diverse it is always a place to go, but the distance in Chile are really a thing to have in mind, preposterously thin and unreasonably long, Chile stretches from the southern border of Peru to the Antarctic, reaching from the driest desert on earth to vast southern glacial fields. Diverse landscapes unfold over a 4300km stretch: endless dunes, fertile valleys, volcanoes, ancient forests, clear rivers, massive glaciers and fjords. With that in mind, Patagonia become for me the place that I wanted to visit the most, but the life always sets its own terms.
There exist different explanations about the origins of the name "Chile". The most accepted one is that its derived from the native Aymará word "chilli" meaning "the land where the earth ends".
Punta Arenas is the southernmost city in the world and is 2.197 kms from Santiago, and if you want to go by car is 3.416 kms road and in some point you must go throughout Argentina, so for a child the travel was near to impossible. Patagonia began to fall behind and I started to discover more reachable places, always looking for raw nature and adventure, the rich south of Chile is plenty of beautiful landscapes, then I spent many years, especially in the summers, in the lakes and forest on the slopes of volcanoes that are so characteristic of that zone of Chile.
In the university time I even did a long trip from Santiago to Cusco, Peru spending a month and half between cities and little towns or places that you couldn´t call it "town", three or four houses in "Chasquipampa" isn´t a proper town, but the bus used to pass in that small group of houses in the middle of nothing and it was the only stop before the Colca Valley.
Many years after I spent a whole year in Australia, traveling all that humongous land knows as "Down Under", but I always knew that Chile is the real "bottom of the world" and the unparalleled Patagonia was still waiting for me, pure and wild. During that long and beautiful journey in Australia, "The Complete Stories of Francisco Coloane" where my connection with home and I gave that book, with all my gratitude, to a man that became a kind of a father to me, who has lived in Canberra for the last 40 years, forced to leave his precious land because of the Pinochet dictatorship.
Any traveler has to know that it's impossible to complete the journey without the kindness of the strangers, this is the true secret of travel, learn to trust each other as much as in yourself.
Suddenly the opportunity arises because of my new job, that allow me to travel through all Chilean territory, Punta Arenas was at my reach and I did not want to waste that chance. From the plane I could watch the south ice fields, an enormous territory full of thick ice, with 16 800 km², flowing from the mountains into the Pacific Ocean. It is the world's third largest continental ice sheet after those in Antarctica and Greenland; the greatest of all non-polar of continental character and with land access (I personally recommend in the plane to take the window sit of the left if you go south).
After that magnificent view the big prize unveiled itself, a glimpse between the clouds of Torres del Paine, that made me smile and just incremented my anxiety to run to that land of my childhood dreams. But Punta Arenas is very far away from Puerto Natales, in that time a 4 hours trip in bus, so I realize that I only had a day, just a full day (if nothing fail) to be in the Torres del Paine National Park.
In front of Punta Arenas, the land that captured the imagination of the Magallanes expedition, "Tierra del Fuego" because of the many little fires that were lit in the shore of this strange world. Magellan's ships entered the strait on November 1, 1520 and that will be the beginning of a new era, and the end of the way of life of the natives.
The road heading Puerto Natales is beautiful, just like you can expect of this faraway lands, sometimes the glance it is lost in the horizon kind of playing with the changes of the geography and the light, where we finally arrived to Puerto Natales i was surprised to find a very well prepared town, with a port where some ships anchor before sailing to Antarctic continent, but in the beginning of the twentieth century most of them were freighters full of meat and wool. Puerto Bories, about 4 km from downtown Puerto Natales, was a small "company town" whose focus was a "frigorifico" -- a sheep meat and wool processing plant belonging to the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego. Now the old building was renovated to shelter one of the best hotels in Patagonia, The Singular Patagonia, in that time was under construction.
I arrived in the afternoon to the beach to watch the sea life in the shore, and the Patagonian fjords, the sky in the many different tones of orange, red and purple. i remember that moment like one of the most intimate, i was alone looking how the swans, flamingos, ducks and other birds were preparing for the night, the wind started to blow right in my face but I didn't talk or move for an hour or more till the sunlight disappeared behind the mountains. That was a kind of welcoming to a land that was originally inhabited by the Kawésqar or Alacaluf people and the Aoniken or Tehuelche people, soon slowly the snow begun to fall covering all the landscape.
In the morning the van picked me up very early, and the snow was still falling, it was very cold indeed, even the water froze breaking a pipe in the cabin where i was staying, so the morning shower had to give a way to a different technique of cleanliness. Enter in the Torres del Paine National Park was nothing less than dream come true, and for the expressions and commentaries of the rest of the travelers, it was obvious that everybody was enjoying the trip regardless of the cold or the long distances, we all were really amazed with the beauty of the nature.
Paine means "blue" in the native Tehuelche (Aonikenk) language.
All the place was white, mountains, slopes, plains, streams even the road was frozen and sometimes we were able to see some birds, the first one was a really big chilean eagle that flew away without effort from a pole in the road. Suddenly Guanacos appeared in the slopes, so many that i couldn´t believe it, and a Condor started to elevate from a cornice, it was magnificent, we were immersed in a world where the wind rules and the Condor is the only creature that knows how to decipher its whims.
From behind a curve a whole frozen lake was hidden, and in the background between the high clouds, the unmistakable figure of the massive mountain towers appeared exactly like Coloane described it his book many years ago. It was impossible not to feel overwhelmed with the stunning force of the nature that carved those mountains, it was such a gripping spectacle that only our silence was the proof of our awe, a flawless moment. The Paine Mountain Range was finally in front of my eyes.
The snow closed the trekking paths, so we couldn´t go farther, we choose instead a short trekking, and after crossing a nice bridge in the Avutardas (Bustards) River we went into a beautiful forest, somehow the temperatures were going down minute by minute, finally we reach the beach of the Grey Lake. The Horns of the Payne were at sight, a massive rocky mountain where the snow dangled, trying to stay in the top despite the wind. The Grey Glacier was faraway in the back of the lake, like a big platform of thick ice covered for the mist, from where the most incredible ships begun to sail in the deep grey waters in a slow motion race to finally run aground and die in the beach.
For how many millennia has been repeated this journey of the icebergs to that beach? meanwhile i was walking between the snow and the sand with my eyes trying to capture all the possible light, the whole scene, for a brief moment in time you feel part of the everything. Fascinating
It took me another day to comeback to Punta Arenas and then to Santiago, the dazzling lights of the big city were everywhere and the tiny cars were moving fast in the distance, home remained exactly like i left it, nevertheless I had changed. Since that first encounter with that mythical landscape of The Torres del Paine National Park I have visited Patagonia many times, because any effort it worth it.