Peace, tranquility and silence in Torres del Paine

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Text and photos by Clara Ribera
Translation by Katy Harris
It is 8:00 am and still dark. I am in the minivan with three Scottish guests, the guide and the driver. My eyelids are still stuck together as I think about the bed that I abandoned far too early at 5:30 am. I can feel my stomach being thrown around on the winding gravel road that we have taken from some cabins to Hotel Las Torres. It isn’t the best circumstances for keeping my senses alert.
We arrive at the complex, which is closed in winter. The place has a ghostly atmosphere. There, it would seem that one of the Scottish guests, Alasdair, has had enough sleep and his breakfast had gone down better than mine.
“A puma!” he shouts suddenly.
We stop abruptly, reverse, open the doors, and stealthily get out of the van. And there is the beast, paused in the road. We look at each other. Silence. It is so dark that I can only make out a slender silhouette. A marked back that gives it an elegant air. I have no fear. I think that my limited knowledge of the animal world helps. Without realizing the strength that a puma can have, I am calmer observing this feline. My momentary astonishment comes to an end and the animal stops crossing the road and disappears once again into the shrubs that protect and camouflage it, helping it to hide from its next prey.
No doubt, the animal has shown up close to this hotel because it is now empty. And it is unique moments like this one which make visiting Torres del Paine National Park in autumn or winter a special time.
Tourist-free and mild weather
Four days ago, the park was waking up in its most authentic Magellanic tranquility. It was the middle of June. The end of a fairly mild autumn that was hinting at a dry winter. Nevertheless, I was prepared for it to be cold, to see snow and to use crampons if necessary while hiking. I was there with a group organized by Chile Nativo, a tour operator based in the nearby town of Puerto Natales. The plan was to complete a winter variation of the famous “W” trail, as not all of the trail shelters are open in autumn and winter, nor do boats crosss Lake Pehoé and Lake Grey.
Torres del Paine National Park, in addition to being known as one of the most fascinating places in the world, also bears the brunt of an increasing overload of tourism in summer, when 70 percent of visits take place, according to statistics from Chile’s national park service (Conaf). In 2015, 213,000 visitors passed through the park. “In summer, it is impossible to walk more than a minute without seeing someone,” explains Armando Iglesias, the guide who accompanied us throughout our five day trip.
He always wears a gaucho beret and walks accompanied by two trekking poles that move lightly, as though they already know the route. Armando, who has 19 years of experience guiding in Patagonia, has plans to resign in 2017 and return to work with the horses on his farm. He is a serious person. He has guided so many tourists that few things surprise him. But on occasions he happens to smile and you can see that he respects his work and that he still has a desire to show people the park.
The minivan dropped us off on the Serrano bridge, barely a kilometer from the similarly named headquarters on the western side of the park. We skirted the Serrano River, which was a milky color, and then Lake Pehoé, which was surprisingly turquoise amidst the dry Patagonian plains. Between clouds and the odd ray of sunshine, the imposing Paine mountain range in the background took us by surprise.
We were traveling lighter than most people, as porters were carrying the food required each day and we didn’t need a tent for sleeping. Nevertheless, we were being lashed furiously by the wind and at one point I thought I was going to fall. When two young porters overtook us wearing backpacks that almost doubled their height, I felt insignificant. I almost couldn’t manage with mine – which must not have weighed 10 kilos – and yet they were flying past with baggage that probably weighed more than 20. What’s more, one of them was using Crocs, his hiking boots hanging from his backpack.
The hike lasted a little over four hours and ended with a comforting bowl of chicken curry and rice, courtesy of our dedicated guide. Armando did this without fail: each day, after arriving at the trail shelter, he would go to the kitchen without resting for even a minute in order to prepare delicious dinners.
The Paine Grande shelter was empty during this time of year. It was the only one open in the park and it reminded me of the film The Shining, in which the actor Jack Nicholson plays a winter caretaker that goes mad at an isolated mountain hotel that is closed out of season. We only had electricity between 5:00 and 10:00 pm and afterwards the building sunk into deep darkness and silence. If the few guests weren’t already asleep then they would move about using headlamps and flashlights, filling the emptiness with the echo of their footsteps.
They advised me to bring a good sleeping bag. Even staying inside, it could be icy because a wood-burning stove heated only one room in the shelter and the rest of the place was left to the mercy of the building’s insulation. It wasn’t too cold though. I didn’t see any snow or ice on the path nor did I feel that the cold temperatures affected me during moments of rest.
Being in the shelter when it was starting to get dark was comforting, especially with the gusts of wind that whistled fiercely through the little stove that huddled around for warmth. I felt fortunate: even in winter there were still brave souls camping outside.
During the coldest months, the paths and views that are crowded with other tourists during January and February, now are almost entirely for yourself. Without doubt, this more than makes up for the low temperatures and short winter days near the bottom of the South America continent. And as Gonzalo Fuenzalida, the founder of Chile Nativo, told me, there are better and more frequent opportunities to see the sunrise and sunset at this time of year.
When the mountains speak
The second day dawned so bright and clear that I ate breakfast hurriedly in order to take some photos of the sunrise. The wind had eased and the stars were still shining high above as the sun began to rise in the east. I didn’t see a sky full of a thousand colors. Instead, I saw an intense blue that got lighter and lighter as the minutes went by, tinged with a timid pink that welcomed our new day on the trail. I felt full of energy and enthusiasm. Armando then decided that it was better to go to French Valley instead of the Grey Glacier, as everything seemed so clear.
After 11 kilometers of hiking, we reached a hill. Almost as if the mountain had been waiting for us to arrive at the valley viewpoint, a natural spectacle soon began. An avalanche of considerable size began to descend loudly, making the whole area thunder with the kind of noise that you might expect if one day the world was coming to an end. I could only take one photo, because the rest of the time I was mesmerized. I observed it with astonishment, thinking that this explosion of snow and ice was coming down with such force that it might reach us. I voiced my concerns aloud but Armando didn’t reply. I took his lack of response to mean all was good.
When we got back to the shelter, I happened to turn around. How fortunate that I did! It was only 4 p.m. but the sun was already going down and the towering peaks were covered in a yellowish light that I like to call winter yellow. That shade that you only find in cold landscapes when the sun shyly covers the sky without managing to rise very much. That horizontal light, cold yet warm at the same time. That is what winter has: short days but different tones, just as captivating, if not more, than the warm light of summer.
On this day we carried crampons in our backpacks, hoping to find some ice on our ascent. But nothing. In this unusual year, there hasn’t been much precipitation of rain, nor snow since December.
Winter? Are you sure?
The next day was the longest, covering 25 kilometers. As we got close to Grey Glacier, the guide looked to his right, to Paine Grande, and nodded with his head. He asked me to take a photo of the mountains that form the massif, and later, while we were eating lunch, we compared it with another image taken with his camera the previous September. Some of the ice formations that defined the mountain chain were no longer there. An alarming observation, without a doubt, because if the winter is dry then summer will be even worse. Amongst other things, it will increase the risk of fire.
In fact, trees burned by human catastrophes in 2006 and 2011 defined part of the landscape that I saw during my stay in the park. Almost daily we walked through cemeteries of native lenga, ñirre and coihue trees, with ashen trunks, almost white, which cover large areas of the park. Although there is reforestation work underway by the park service and the non-profit AMA Torres Del Paine, it will be decades before the results are visible. For now, there are only vivid memories of what were once leafy areas of forest.
Our fourth day was to be enjoyed as we repeated the 18-kilometer hike from day one. This time the wind was in our favor. The temperature made it feel like a spring day and the path seemed flat. We left the granite massif behind us, which at that moment was enveloped in a large black cloud. “I hope it rains!,” I thought to myself. Later, after hearing comments from the park veterans and observing the river and glacier levels for myself, I understood that the lack of precipitation in the previous months was concerning.
The Torres
The alarm went off at 5:30 am, waking me up for our final excursion day. A breakfast of bread, eggs, ham and cheese gave me energy to begin the day. After eating and packing, we traveled for an hour in the minivan crossing the park from west to east. At the end we would see the three granite monsters that give the park its name. According to our guide, this would be the hardest day. The path would be very uneven and we had to start before the sun came up, if we wanted to return before it got dark.
The whole group was motivated to see the famed torres, or towers, except for me.
But as the popular old saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining. And so it was for me. I didn’t climb to the viewpoint of the towers because my feet told me that enough was enough. I didn’t get annoyed at myself and instead I let Luis, the Chile Nativo van driver, show me around the park. I was surprised by panoramic views of the mountains peaks that make up the renowned postcard images of the park, and the beautiful guanacos whose long eyelashes greeted us as we passed by.
Seeing a puma wasn’t the only gift of the day. The second one came a few minutes later, with the cloudy dawn. A ray of sunlight escaped from between the clouds and illuminated the three big towers of the park, turning them an intense orange color. I couldn’t stop snapping my camera as the play of light and shadow changed from moment to moment. In the end, I decided I had enough memories to wake up my fragile memory if one day my brain happened to forget this spectacle.
I devoted those last moments to myself, engrossed in the beauty before me. My heart, shrunk. My eyes, they went wide as plates. My body, it froze. I didn’t dare move for fear of missing one single second of this amazing scene that nature was showing me without asking for anything in return.
Thus, it ended the way it began. Five days of hard work, good food and unforgettable landscapes. Now I have no choice but to return some day to climb to the base of Las Torres. And I wouldn’t hesitate to return in winter again, when the park received me with its most intense peace, tranquility and silence. Torres del Paine, I will return. 
Chile Nativo offers trekking, horseback riding and special interest excursions throughout the year in Torres del Paine. This tour operator covers a wide area of the park and has experienced guides. It offers tourists a quality service, from before the trip begins right up until you return to your hotel. Throughout the excursions, your guide will be focused entirely on you, offering high quality food and all the assistance you require. For more information visit
To stay in a shelter within the park, the only option between May and September is the Paine Grande Refuge, run by Vértice Patagonia. Due to the low influx of tourists in winter, reservations are not necessary. The accommodation provides hot water and electricity between 5:00 and 10:00pm. Restaurant service is not provided during low season. More information at