DAY 5: Just a stroll in the neighborhood.
Of course this isn’t our neighborhood–the sweeping expanse of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s Patagonia belongs to herds of rhea (small ostriches), the gray fox, and herds of guanaco—a kind of llama who totally ignore our presence as the males chase each other (only one male can be dominant in a herd of females) and the females nurse their oh so cute babies. More than a dozen condors fly over head so close we can make out the white on their wings. What a wing span- nine feet across!
Many say this huge park is the most beautiful in South America and it is heart-stopping gorgeous—turquoise-blue lakes, soaring snow-covered peaks, fields dotted with red grasses and green and yellow shrubs called “mother in law’s chair” because of their thorns, our guide Gabriela Flores tells us.
More people are discovering this park too—visitation has tripled to more than 140,000 in the last 15 years. But to put that in perspective—there are 500,000 acres here. Compare that to a major American park like Yosemite or Yellowstone that gets millions of visitors a year.
Today, the kids–my daughters Mel, Reggie and Reggie’s boyfriend Dan Foldes–opt for the popular and extremely challenging hike to the base camp of the park’s famous “three towers” where rock climbers camp before attempting to scale the towers. It is an arduous all day hike, with an hour of trekking straight up. (The kids’ bonus travel diary on this hike appears here tomorrow).
Because of my bad knee, we opt for a slower-paced four-mile hike through the park, followed by a picnic. That is the beauty of a hotel like Remota where we are staying about an hour and half from the park in Puerto Natales—there are a range of guided excursions offered every day—included in the rates—and all we have to do is choose. (www.remota.cl)
This couldn’t be more different than visiting an American national park—this park was created in 1959 and became part of the International Biosphere Reserve Network in 1978. We learn the mountains here are completely independent from the Patagonian Andes, formed some 12 million years ago when magma penetrated through a crack in Magellan’s basin and sedimentary rock was pushed upwards. Both the last ice age and the Patagonian weather have eroded the rock to give the towers and other mountains their distinctive shape. The 934-square mile park’s is known for the sparkling lakes of astonishing blues and of course those famous towers.
As we hike, we pass skeletons of the guanaco that have been picked clean by the pumas and condors. Remota guest George Corey from Washington D.C. and Andy pose for pictures with the bleached bones in hand. Babies are easy prey, our guide Gabriela Flores tells us. We see backpackers gathering for the famous “W” trail which takes four or five days of trekking around the park, staying in park “refuges” or shelters along the way.
We appreciate the vastness of the park just from our little hike north of the Lago Sarmiento. The winds are blowing fiercely—more than 30 mph—but it isn’t cold. Still, we are wearing three layers and it is summer here!
Twenty-four year old Colin Mistele, visiting here with his parents and younger brother and sister pronounced the hike to the towers—about 8 miles with a gain of about 2700 feet in elevation like nothing he has ever seen. When our gang returned after their trek, they were all smiles and their pictures told the story—them perched on snow-covered slopes. Their guide offered them Pisco Sours, the traditional Chilean drink, as well as soup and sandwiches.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to have watched the wildlife up close–the condors and the guanacos. We stand and watch as one male chases another male away from his “harem.” We see babies—no more than a month or two old –nuzzling their mamas. Our guide tells us they stay with the herd until they are 14 months old or so when they have to walk away and find their own future. She points to two baby males, already nipping at each other to declare dominance. “Definitely easier for the girls,” Gabriela declares.
Glad it is easier for girls in some places! As we hike, I’m thoroughly enjoying the day-the vistas, my husband’s company as well as the other couple along with us, the slower pace that allows us the chance to watch the animals and drink in the beauty all around us. It underscores again that family—as much as you love them—don’t have to be in lockstep on vacation every minute. I’m guessing the kids are glad to be away from us too.
We recount our adventures—and show off our pictures—over dinner.