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05.03.2006

Las Torres Del Paine

A better name for this place would be Holy Sweet Mother of Jesus National Park, since this is what you will say the first time you set eyes on it. The Torres del Paine is an absolutely ridiculous collection of mountains and lakes squeezed between Argentina and the Pacific ocean in Chilean Patagonia, not far from where Chile turns east at the bottom of the continent. The Torres del Paine are enormous triangles of rock, all that remains of a granitic outcrop that was injected under the earth, like a giant tectonic zit, when this area was still covered in kilometers of ice. Glaciers and erosion have exposed the dome of rock and worn it down to the extremely photogenic snaggle teeth that remain.

There is not a lot that words or even photographs can do to convey what it's like to be here. Many parts of the world have spectacular topography, but few of them offer this kind of sky show along with it. Low clouds that have not seen land since Japan blow in from over the ocean and have their bellies ripped out by the sharp granite teeth. All kinds of swirls and giant structures form, at all altitudes, as masses of air that have fallen out of the habit of stopping for anything run into the immovable wall of the Andes. The pace is terrific; at times the sky resembles time-lapse cloud photography more than anything you've seen happen in real time. The air condenses into a baroque mess and then blows quickly off stage right while new material scuds in from the ocean. It is a celestial vaudeville act.

If you are a wind lover, Torres del Paine will be a dream come true for you. Round a corner unexpectedly and you are perfectly liable to be knocked flat by a tender kiss of air. The wind blows all the time from off the sea, sometimes as a gentle gale, sometimes in more powerful gusts that lift small rocks and animals into the air. Waves forming in the glacial lakes are actually picked up and turned into fine spray by the stronger gusts. Any plant can become a tumbleweed.

It almost never snows at ground level here, but there are glaciers everywhere in the hills. This is country the Patagonian ice field very recently abandoned and would gladly reclaim. Many of the slopes are still finely crumbled slate that has not had time to turn into soil, piled up in little chips lying at the angle of repose. Where trails cut along the slope, the less weathered rock churned up by footprints stands out in a lighter color.

The landscape looks utterly different than Argentine Patagonia, behind the world's largest windbreak just a few dozen kilometers to the east. All of the rainfall that fails to make it over to the Argentine side is squeezed out here. Dampness and fog prevail, and the ground is green instead of desert. The limiting factor for growth is no longer aridity but wind - there is plenty of moisture and even decent sun for the few plants that can keep their grip long enough to enjoy it.

Torres del Paine and the country around it is one of the rare habitable pieces of land that never had an indigeneous population. The very tough hunting tribes of Patagonia would roam through here, but found the place too inhospitable to stay (and these are people who thought Tierra del Fuego was comfy). When whitey came, he wasn't in a hurry to live here, either. It took the introduction of sheep ranching and some serious arm-twisting by the Argentine and Chilean governments (anxious to 'assert sovereignty') to get people to settle here at all. A measure of how remote and forbidding this area is the fact that the entire park - which absolutely screams out "world heritage site" - was a private sheep ranch until the 1960's, when its Italian owner died and ceded it to the state.

The wildlife in Torres del Paine looks like it was bought at a zoo surplus sale - there are flamingoes, foxes, hawks, ducks, guanaco, puma, horses, hares, condor and an elusive and somewhat pitiful animal known as Geoffrey's cat, a racoon-sized dotted predator who spends his days sleeping in old tree trunks, hiding from the wind, and his nights in search of frogs and hare. The European hare is really the most set-upon animal in this whole menagerie; the park's main office has multiple pie charts showing the diet of the various predators in Torres del Paine, and the biggest slice on each shows the same photograph of a very scared and tense-looking hare. Baby guanacoes don't fare well either; nearly a third are lost to puma before they grow big enough to defend themselves.

Condors love this place. The are gigantic birds, with exceptional eyesight that lets them soar high overhead, and a lazy fondness for the kind of high winds that let them soar without flapping their wings. At times they descend low enough that you can see the gray tops of their wings as they bank; most of the time they are tiny black specks, barely visible in the sky. They have a way of flying with their wingtip feathers spread far apart that suggests a fastiduous completely out of keeping with their diet - carrion and the European hare. The condors are known to be a little loose in their definition of carrion - my geologist friend Jill told me a horror story of being dived on by multiple birds as she climbed a steep mountain path, trying to hurry along the cycle of life and turn her into a tasty snack on the rocks far below. Torres del Paine is not easy to reach. You can see the tops of the Torres from near the Perito Moreno glacier, served by a busy airport, but the only way to get to the Chilean park is by detouring far to the south through the Chilean town of Puerto Natales, crossing a flat plateau full of flamingoes and rhea (ostrich substitutes). The trip takes about six hours, including one leisurely hour queueing up first at the Argentine and then the Chilean border posts, to submit to the rigorous inspection protocol each country uses to protect its frontier.

The official border between Chile and Argentina runs along a ridgeline, but each country has prudently built its customs post further downslope. It's still likely to be drizzling and miserable as you queue up in front of each building, but at least you are not standing in the way of several cubic kilometers of grouchy Pacific air trying to get back down to the sea.

Border formalities would be fun if not for the icy rain. On the Argentine side there are three conscripts, a drug beagle, and an old radio. The conscripts struggle with a hopeless Internet connection before giving up and waving everyone through. They have rigged a giant road sign on their side of the border reading LAS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS, in the same way a saner country might warn BRIDGES FREEZE BEFORE ROAD. I'm told that every land crossing to Argentina is rigged with these signs, preventing countless drivers from careening off the road due to geopolitical anxiety over the status of the Falkland Islands. The effect is somewhat like bringing a new friend home for Thanksgiving only to have your conservative uncle start ranting at him about politics.

On the Chilean side, there is a very serious man in a jacket reading DETECTIVE who peers at your passport and then sends you to the inspection table. Here condor-eyed agricultural inspectors search your bags for the slightest trace of forbidden fruit or meat. The search is thorough but strangely limited to what you physically bring with you into the building. Apparently the Chilean border service cannot conceive of a criminal mind so devious it would think to leave contraband on the bus.

Not so long ago, Argentina was the most expensive country in Latin America, and Chile was its poorer relation. The roles have switched since Argentina's recent and spectacular financial flameout, although you can't tell this by looking at the surroundings. The Chilean shard of Patagonia is noticeably more ramshackle than the Argentine side, with peeling paint, sagging buildings, and geriatric buses. Nevertheless, after crossing the border into Chile you go from spending Monopoly money to something approaching normal prices. This can come as quite a psychological shock after a few months of two-dollar steak dinners. It doesn't help matters that the Chilean currency is rich in zeroes.

Puerto Natales is the support town for Torres del Paine, full of outfitters, places to rent equipment, and grocery stores. It is a scruffy but extremely pleasant small city. If you have the money, you can reach it in style on a four-day ferry ride down from Puerto Montt (beware, ferry contains Canadians), which weaves through innumerable islands and fjords, passes several glaciers, and looks like a spectacular way to experience the various kinds of horizontal rain Chile is famous for. With less money, you are most likely to arrive in by bus, either from Argentina or Tierra del Fuego.

The demographics of the park itself are interesting. Torres del Paine is a rough two hour ride from Puerto Natales, and its vast internal roads are very hard to negotiate. This - coupled with the fact that the wind could probably lift a small child straight into the claws of a waiting condor - discourages families from visiting the place. The only people you meet are either dedicated hikers or an elderly, wealthy Condé Nast crowd with enough money to afford nights at the Lago Grey or the even more posh Hotel Explora. Of course, these guests still have to face the atrocious park roads (the great equalizer), so few people come here who don't have at least some outdoor bent.

A boat goes out from the Lago Grey hotel to visit the Grey Glacier at the other end of the lake. The water here is filled with glacial flour from the scraping taking place up at the business end of the glacier. The Grey Glacier periodically sends icebergs floating down the lake in an attempt to destroy the luxury hotel; these settle at its southern end like giant Windex-colored boulders. We caught ourselves trying to crop them out of photos, thinking they were blue plastic hangars of some kind before realizing their true nature. Like nearly every glacier in Patagonia, the Grey Glacier is retiring, but doing so in style.

A little Zodiac takes you out to the boat, which then heads up the lake. As we manoeuver past an imposing cliff, the captain taps the "Release Condor" button on the main panel and an enormous bird dutifully takes off from his nest a hundred feet above the water.

The entire boat ride feels this scripted. As we near the glacier, clouds roll in and start dropping rain and sleet on the boat. The ice is half-visible and ghostly through the mist. Then, as we pull within twenty meters of the glacier face (the retreating glacier doesn't pose the kind of threat from calving ice as the Perito Moreno), the clouds open and a lone sunbeam strikes the ice from the side. I turn around to look at a brilliant double rainbow to the south of the boat, and just then I hear a tinkling sound of ice on glass and a soft voice behind me, speaking the four most beautiful words in the Spanish language:

"Whisky o pisco sour?"

Our pilot has climbed up the metal ladder in horizontal rain to bring up a tray of cocktails. At this point I would not be surprised to see a pink-hooved pegasus flying in, bringing sandwiches.

Lacking any kind of camping equipment, I had to stay at the cheapest of the park hotels, a place next to park headquarters that looked like an abandoned summer camp. With autumn coming in, the hotel was almost empty, and had an aura of mystery. If Kafka had been an outdoorsman, this is the kind of place he might have written about. Silent figures would float through in the background, taciturn groundsmen would occasionaly emerge from nowhere, on mysterious errands, and every deserted room felt like someone had just walked out, or was about to return. The caretaker was a grandfatherly, silent man who spent most of his time futzing with the generator out back (turned off at noon, on at dusk). Sometimes he would come in and listen to the CB radio traffic in the lobby, where a fire managed to flicker without giving off any heat whatsoever.

The room ($90, no longer Argentina) was Spartan and contained twin bunk beds and a small table. The only source of heat was a wood stove in the hallway, mercifully stoked to near-red-heat in the evenings by unseen hands. The door left open to let the heat in would be closed by someone as soon as you let it out of your sight. A couple in the room next door spoke softly; I assumed they were father and daughter until I saw them making out on the glacier boat the next day.

The two other, high-end hotels in the park have every amenity, but the only way to reach the outside world from this one was by a scratchy radio link. This gave the place an exciting sense of isolation. I might have expected a fearsome thunderstorm to come through and cut us off, movie style, but even the biggest storm couldn't find a way to linger here for more than twenty minutes before being swept out into Argentina. Liquor bottles on the restaurant shelf carried enigmatic names ("Coq de Lorraine", "Gran Pisco") and a thick covering of dust. Only the kitchen staff broke the Edward Gorey spell, whistling and singing from behind the stove, and setting out little tubes of Sanka in the dining room to fortify the morning hiker.

I had thoughtlessly come without much Chilean currency, and had envisioned myself chopping wood for the next three weeks when this was discovered on checkout, but to my astonishment the affable caretaker accepted a credit card. He then put on his glasses, picked up the microphone and broadcast on the common radio circuit, used by every bus and van between here and Puerto Natales:

ATENCIÓN ATENCIÓN TENGO UNA TARJETA DE CREDITO NÚMERO CUATRO DOS DOS SEIS OCHO...

Someday they will finish paving the new road to Torres del Paine, Puerto Natales will upgrade its airport, and the Uluruization of Torres del Paine will set in. For now, though, it's still enough of a pain in the neck to get to to make you feel like you're alone in the world with this astonishing display of nature. Don't tell anyone.

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