Hit the Road: Chile’s national parks a hikers’ heaven

Hit the Road: Chile’s national parks a hikers’ heaven
The weather cooperated and hikers captured this view of the “horns” (granite spires) in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s Patagonia region. The park is now part of the country’s recently established national park system, thanks in part to American philanthropists Douglas Tompkins and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins. Photos by Jerry Ondash

Here in the city of Punta Arenas, which sits on the Strait of Magellan in Chile’s Southern Patagonia, it’s all about the wind. That’s because it’s always there — mostly in blustery gusts like tonight. Just getting to our restaurant two blocks away takes energy we rarely have to expend in Southern California.

“But we don’t even talk about the wind until it’s at least 40 miles per hour,” explains our guide, Patricia, who has lived here for many years.

The next day, standing on a beach about 200 miles north of Punta Arenas, I plant my trekking pole deep into the sand, hang for dear life and shout to Patricia, “OK, can we talk about the wind now?”

Patricia confirms that my perceptions are correct.

The wind roaring down this blustery corridor is at least 45 miles per hour, she tells us, so yes, we can talk about it. And we would except that we can barely hear each other over the howling gusts, and I need my energy to stay upright and put one foot in front of the other.

We continue hiking across a sand bar that will be submerged in a few hours when the tide rises. When we reach a trailhead, our group votes to continue to the end of the peninsula where there is a viewpoint.

So begins our first full day of three that we’ll spend in Torres del Paine (Towers of Blue) National Park — a place where stunning landscapes are commonplace, weather is fickle and fierce, and people are few and far between.

Hikers cross a suspended bridge that spans rushing waters in Torres del Paine National Park. The bridge accommodates no more than six people at one time. The waters are high because of recent rain and snow.

It is also Day Eight of the 17-day Patagonian Frontiers Tour offered by Odysseys Unlimited. We began our tour in Santiago and will end in Buenos Aires. In between, we visit four national parks in Chile and Argentina, and take a five-day cruise that includes forests, glaciers, fjords, penguins and a landing on Cape Horn.

Enough can’t be said about the beauty and eye-popping splendor of Chile’s national parks, especially those we visited in Patagonia.

Unlike some popular national parks in the United States, though, there are few people here. And while we sometimes take for granted the U.S. national park system, the idea of uniting millions of acres of public lands under one stewardship is new to Chile. In fact, thanks in large part to American philanthropists, Chile’s national park system was officially born just a few weeks before our mid-March visit to Patagonia.

Millionaire, conservationist and adventurer Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of North Face and Esprit outdoor clothing companies, began in 1991 spending much of his fortune on acreage in Patagonia. His goal was preservation and ecological management of these wild lands.

After Tompkins died in a kayaking accident in Patagonia in 2015, his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins (a former executive with Patagonia outdoor apparel), carried on with the plan to donate their millions of acres to Chile.

There were two stipulations to their donation: the country must add to the donated acres and it must create a national park system.

The result is the Patagonia National Park system — 10 million acres in all — which was inaugurated in February. Creating the system also increased the country’s protected lands by 40 percent.

The change in land policies and ownership was not without its critics — some felt the displacement of those who worked on the land was unjust — but there is no denying that for hikers, Torres del Paine is heaven. Every turn on the trail brings us another panorama of surreal beauty.

The centerpiece of the park is the “massif” — a massive (hence the name) block of rugged mountains with jagged, snow-covered peaks. Within the massif are the three “horns” or granite spires that rise defiantly from the earth. Though no official measurement has been done, the horns are said to be 7,500 feet high more or less and can be seen from many points in the park. From the valley floor, it looks as though there is a lot of weather going on up there.

Along the trail, our camera lenses also find glaciers, rivers, waterfalls, a lake and expansive skies. After a while, our brains are nearly comatose from an overload of Shangri-La landscapes.

Torres del Paine also is the protected home of herds of guanaco (related to the llama); puma (rarely seen); a hundred species of birds, including the Andean condor; and the South Andean deer (huemul), which resembles an overweight deer. The one we encounter has scars on its rump from a run-in with a puma and seems unfazed by the lookie-loos as she munches on grasses near the road.

For information about Odysseys Unlimited tours, visit https://odysseys-unlimited.com. For more photos of Chile’s national parks, visit www.facebook.com/elouise.ondash.

Want to share a trip or adventure? Email eondash@coastnewsgroup.com.

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