Travel: Scaling new heights in Patagonia

A rhea walking in the shadow of the Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
A rhea walking in the shadow of the Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

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

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 characterize 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 to the top of neighbouring Cerro Paine Chico.

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.

My pace quickens when we hear news of a possible puma sighting close to the Hotel Las Torres. 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.

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.

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.

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 to the town of Puerto Natales.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 can share.