Travel: Off the beaten track in Patagonia

A rhea walking in the shadow of the Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile. Picture: PA
A rhea walking in the shadow of the Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile. Picture: PA
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The W trek in Patagonia is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in South America, with visitor numbers reaching an unsustainable peak. Sarah Marshall looks at less crowded options for exploring the Torres del Paine National Park

Towering two and a half metres above me, the giant sloth emerging from the shadows of a cave below the Cerro Benitez would be terrifying if it wasn’t carved from stone.

Had I been standing here 14,000 years ago, the mylodon might have been a real threat, but now, this life-size statue is simply a reminder of the enormous creatures that once roamed Patagonia’s fittingly large-scale landscapes.

Vast grass plains, inhospitable ice fields and magnificent mountain ranges characterise this region, which straddles Chile and Argentina, and slopes towards the end of the earth.

It’s also home to one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions, the Torres del Paine National Park, where thousands of people come each year, from October to March, to complete the five-day W trek.

But with no limit on visitor numbers, the popular trail is at risk of becoming overcrowded - quite ironic when you consider how much space Patagonia has to offer.

Determined to get even further off the beaten track, I’m here to explore the area’s forgotten trails, hidden caves and rarely used glacial waterways, hoping to experience the real pull of Patagonia: quiet isolation and the opportunity for adventure.

Standing outside the park at sunrise, in the grounds of the Estancia Cerro Guido, I watch the pink-tipped granite towers of the Paine massif emerge fleetingly from the clouds.

Early travel writer and explorer Florence Dixie probably visited this very spot 137 years ago, leading her to compare the cordillera to Cleopatra’s Needle - the Egyptian obelisk erected at London’s Victoria Embankment in the 19th century - in her book, Across Patagonia.

A metal sign clatters urgently as wind rages across the endless, empty plains, where I imagine several hundred mylodons could comfortably have roamed. Now only skunks, foxes and rheas skulk through the rippling fronds of lilac and russet grass.

A splintered wagon wheel, bent like plasticine by age and wind, is a reminder that this estancia - which offers 10 guest rooms - is still a working sheep farm.

I wander through a warehouse, built by early pioneers in 1927, where an antique industrial press made by John Shaw & Sons, Salford, was still in use up until three years ago.

Thanks to government subsidies, the estancia has its own school, gymnasium and bus shelter, even though there are only 20 residents living on site.

Many are gauchos: stern-faced, sullen men wearing flat, felt hats strung with pom-poms, who seem happiest when galloping on horseback across the plains, or sat around a campfire drinking mate from a gourd.

I barely exchange a word with my horse-riding guide as we tackle the rugged trail up to Sierra Baguales, where the blocky mountain ridge resembles a lower set of molars. Any small talk would nevertheless be lost in the wind.

Beneath us, yellow lady’s slipper orchids, buttercups and mounds of prickly hard grass, affectionately known as ‘mother-in-law cushions’, carpet the landscape. Impaled on a barbed wire fence is the carcass of a guanaco, licked clean by a puma, condors and caracara birds.

Although pumas are widespread in Patagonia, they are often difficult to track in summer months. When I reach the campsite at Laguna Azul, even closer to the magical towers, I’m excited to hear there have been sightings in the area.

Only two tents are pitched at the quiet site, where strong gusts cause water from the lagoon to lap the shore like ocean waves.

It’s a very different story when I enter the park, and pitch my tent at the busy Torres campsite, where the majority of people are planning to set off on the W trek.

As a train of backpackers with walking poles snakes towards the towers, now barely visible in the clouds, my guide, Nico, and I take a different path, through calafate bushes and lenga forest, to the top of neighbouring Cerro Paine Chico. We don’t encounter a single person along the way.

An avid alpine mountaineer, Nico has lost one of his fingers - not to mention several of his friends - in climbing accidents. Yet his life revolves around the mountains. “Over time, your fear threshold grows,” he tells me.

It’s obvious he can read the rocks around us in a way I’ll never understand.

“There’s a new route I’ve been thinking about for some time,” he says, pointing to a faint thread etched along one of the towers. “It’s every climber’s dream to find a new line.”

I admire Nico’s adventurous spirit, but as the loose shale gives way beneath me on our descent, I accept my fear threshold will probably never expand.

My pace quickens, though, when we hear news of a possible puma sighting close to the Hotel Las Torres. Most trekkers are more fixed on reaching their campsite for the night, but I’m determined to lay eyes on the elusive mountain lion while there’s still a glimmer of daylight.

Resting in the scrub, close to Nordenskjold Lake, the muscular tawny cat is remarkably close to the trail. Raising alarm, two enormous tucuquere owls, the size of baboons, puff out their feathers and screech insistently from the branches of nearby trees.

Sensing our approach, the puma shifts slowly uphill, hunching his shoulders as he stalks and successfully pounces on a hare, then disappears into the bushes.

On our way back to the campsite, we step over the mangled silver husks of dead trees, strewn across the ground like soldiers on a windswept battlefield.

A flock of birds become ghostly apparitions in the heavy mist, fading in and out of view, and as snow begins to fall, we prepare for another night in the wilderness.

Putting my hiking boots to one side, I decide to leave the park by a different means. As summer comes, glacial meltwater creates a network of temporary channels, allowing access to new areas.

I stop at the Salto Grande waterfall, and am reminded of Tennyson’s The Charge Of The Light Brigade as a cavalry of watery, white horses crashes over the rocks.

Wearing a heavy dry suit, I set off in a sea kayak along the Serrano River towards the neighbouring Bernardo O’Higgins Park. We paddle past sand dunes sculpted by the wind, and I enjoy a moment of calm looking back at the Paine massif behind me.

But as strong gusts create spindrifts on the water and the current becomes overpowering, I’m forced to ask my guide, Will, a 23-year old Scot who spent three months kayaking around the coast of Scotland, for help.

Exhausted and bedraggled, I make it to our wild camping spot for the night, and stumble up a hill for a view of the Tyndall Glacier. Will tells me the nearest person is 40km away, a hermit gaucho who lives in the park.

After a cold and rainy night, my spirits are lifted as we kayak towards the Serrano Glacier, weaving through an obstacle course of ice floes.

A passenger ferry carries us and the kayaks for the remaining journey back to the town of Puerto Natales, and Will tells me of his plan to one day jump off the boat in a dry suit, swim ashore and trek across the mountains, sleeping in snow holes. Tracing the route line with his index finger, he’s already imagining the possibilities for adventure.

Looking at the same snow-covered, jagged ridgeline, all I can see is difficulty, discomfort and potential danger.

But I do also recognise its beauty.

That’s one view every visitor to Patagonia - no matter where they might be standing - can share.

• Sarah Marshall was a guest of Swoop Patagonia who offers a 12-day wildlife and adventure trip to Torres del Paine, Patagonia, including private guide and transport, two nights (full board) at Estancia Cerro Guido, five nights supported camping in and around the park, a two day kayak trip with overnight camping and two nights in Puerto Natales, from £2,950 per person. Flights extra. Visit www.swoop-patagonia.co.uk or call 0117 369 0196