It’s a long way – physically and figuratively – from buzzing, tropical Singapore to the southern tip of South America. As PHILIPPA BARR discovers, though, this is a destination that offers plenty of rewards.
The end of the world. It doesn’t really sound like a drawcard for tourists, yet it’s the phrase that is proudly touted as the claim to fame of Punta Arenas, the capital city of Chile’s southernmost region.
Technically, you could go further. There is Ushuaia, a couple of hundred kilometres to the southeast and the launching place for cruise ships to Antarctica, but as you bank low over the grey Magellan Straits and Arenas’s windswept tundra to land at the small airport, it’s easy to feel that they may have a point. Yet as the main entry point to southern Patagonia, Punta Arenas draws a growing number of intrepid international travellers, arriving via Santiago or Buenos Aires.
Patagonia is a sparsely populated region of a million square kilometres, shared between Chile and Argentina. It’s bordered to the west by the Pacific Ocean and to the east by the Atlantic Ocean; the divide between the two countries is defined as the highest point of the Andes mountain range. Chilean Patagonia is green, liberally watered by clouds that form across the Pacific and deposit their load when they strike land; Argentinian Patagonia is far drier. The two countries share the massive Patagonian ice field – the world’s second-largest reserve of fresh water, and birthplace of 356 Patagonian glaciers.
A couple of hours’ drive from Punta Arenas is Puerto Natales, a sweet and largely seasonal town filled with hardy types. Fit-looking individuals from all over the globe sport the uniform of the outdoors: sturdy boots, jackets and trousers with lots of pockets, and headwear that changes with the weather. You can stock up on a wealth of dried and dehydrated delicacies, visit the lavanderia to refresh your smalls, or be tempted by the surprisingly wide (if overpriced) range of trekkers’ paraphernalia.
Puerto Natales is the launching pad for exploring the Torres del Paine National Park, a short distance north. The W-Trek (named for its shape) is fast becoming one of the world’s most popular and achievable multi-day treks, its spectacular scenery complemented by well-serviced accommodation options ranging from camping to warm, dry dormitory-style refugios complete with hot meals and wine – not to mention passable pisco sours!
With the aid of our specialist booking agency, Swoop, we were able to cherrypick the best of the trek for our four-day visit, reaching the iconic mirador at the base of the Towers, ascending the French Valley, and braving the precarious swing bridges above Glacier Grey, while only carrying complete backpacks for one short 11km walk. For the rest, daypacks were all that was needed for water and food, cameras, clothing layers and basic first aid. The W-Trek is easy to follow and we were comfortable without a guide, though it’s also possible to join a Swoop group trek for additional support and information.
It’s evident that the Chilean authorities are aware just what a rare asset they have in Torres del Paine. They are taking great care to ensure that it remains pristine: visitor numbers are limited to those that have accommodation booked; pathways and tent sites in damp areas are elevated; you can drink water from the streams; trails, bridges and signage are immaculate, and there is not a scrap of rubbish in sight. The majority of visitors stick to the southern trails of the Park, but a few dedicate eight to 10 days to tackling the full 93km Towers loop.
While Torres del Paine has star status, across the border in Argentina – via two comfortable coach journeys totalling around seven hours including the border crossing – El Chalten is an excellent second base for exploring southern Patagonia. Nestled in a flat river delta in the shadows of Cerro Fitz Roy, El Chalten dates to just 1985, when Chile and Argentina were still disputing the exact site of their border and the Argentinians wanted to stamp a little occupational evidence. It’s now a neat little patchwork of roads and colourful low-rise buildings, welcoming weary trekking legs home with waffles, marshmallow hot chocolate and locally brewed beer.
El Chalten sits within the Los Glaciares National Park, the skyline of which is familiar as the outline of the Patagonia clothing company logo. Day treks, some of which have very steep stretches, leave from the outskirts of El Chalten to access hidden lakes glowing glacial blue, towering granite peaks, and ice tongues snaking down otherwise arid valleys. Wildflowers defy the elements to cling to windswept moraine and flourish in protected hollows; condors ply the skies overhead, surfing the constant wind; distinctive hammering heralds bright red-headed woodpeckers drilling for snacks. Again, with the advice of Swoop and the assistance of their local partner Walk Patagonia, we were well advised on the best routes, and enjoyed transfers to access remoter reaches of the park for one-way walks.
Weather is predictably unpredictable in Los Glaciares. It’s not worth fussing over a cloudy morning when the peaks are hidden by drizzle; it’s also misguided to leave your rain pants at home because the sun is shining. Neither is likely to last. Invest in one of the boxed lunches on offer at hotels, hostels and cafes, and plan to be out for the day. With long summer daylight hours you can tackle most trails even with a sleep-in or a lingering breakfast – both of which will help you resist the hunger pangs of waiting for the typical 9pm Argentine dinner hour.
Rather than return to Punta Arenas, connecting flights to southern Patagonia also use El Calafate airport. El Calafate, population 22,000, seems a metropolis after ten days away from urbanity, though its greatest claim to fame is access to Perito Moreno glacier, a 30km stretch of ice that, unusually, continues to grow. An elaborate network of viewing platforms snakes over the tip of Peninsula Magellanes to let guests view Perito Moreno safely. Some seasons, the peninsula and the glacier meet, forming a dam across Lago Argentino. The spectacular crash of ice and subsequent gush of water when the dam bursts in spring is YouTube famous, but even watching the everyday drama of ice chunks cannoning into the lake is mesmerising.
Tourism numbers are burgeoning all over the world, and reaching new frontiers is a popular pursuit. More and more international flights are scheduled to South America’s emerging capitals, and Patagonian tourism is booming – relatively speaking. It is still an enormously long way from anywhere, and to see the best of it, you should be prepared for long distances, changeable and potentially bleak weather, and variable standards of food and lodging. That said, the rewards are enormous. Exploring el fin del mundo challenges you in every way; it is, quite literally, awesome.
Swoop runs a wide range of scheduled tours in the far south, around the fjords and across to Antarctica, and in lesser known northern Patagonia. They helped us tailor independent travel, book the best available accommodation, and negotiate local transport. Via local partners they also provided private transfers and guides, and advised on activities and restaurants. Particularly welcome were reserved seats on regional flights – flying north and south along the Andes range, one side of the aircraft invariably meant better views! Visit swoop-patagonia.com for more information. Punta Areanas is a three hour flight from the Chilean capital Santiago, which can be reached on Singapore Airlines and Qantas flights via Sydney.
Like this? Read more at our travel section.