Punta Arenas is the capital of the 12th region of Chile, that of Magallanes y Antárctica Chilena.
It is located around the strait that made it possible for the Portuguese explorer to cross the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, for the time being, still almost 200 km to the south.
In the small Israeli cybercafé in Puerto Natales, there were too many contemporary travelers clinging to old computers.
Internet browsing could be compared to those days – sometimes weeks – desperate for the captains and crews of vessels where not a single breeze blew.
The sterile discussions with Moshe, the non-patient owner of the establishment followed one another.
We were no longer surprised by that diaspora of young Jews, also there, in the depths of the Earth. Once dependent on wool, meat and fish exports, Puerto Natales benefited from the growing popularity of the nearby Torres del Paine National Park and became its gateway.
Even more so when the state company NAVIMAG started to admit foreign travelers on board and, in addition to the traditional ways of arriving, these started to arrive from the north, by sea, from Puerto Eden.
The Israelis are known for settling in inexpensive places and they know, in advance, that they are or will soon be part of the unavoidable itineraries of their compatriots.
As far as the Torres del Paine was concerned, it wasn't just teenage Hebrews who worshiped them. It was the universe of adventurers and curious around the world.
Accordingly, we hurriedly dispatch the missing logistical arrangements. Soon, we left the riverside town attracted by the magnetism of the most photogenic and majestic mountains in Patagonia.
Discover Torres del Paine National Park
The first road approach to that granite domain began by underlining its insignificance, as the carripan climbed, with great effort, the unprotected dirt slopes from any possible falls along long cliffs.
Further on, we crossed the goal from Laguna Amarga and the Kusanovik Bridge.
Once installed and on foot, we move to the main circular trail that skirts the main peaks and the small glaciers sheltered between them. Exposed to the elements, we felt the swift westerly wind, even sharper on our faces, due to the near-freezing temperature.
Walking it in its entirety can take from seven to nine days intermediated with rest in camps or refuges and, as we have witnessed, subject to capricious and sometimes inclement weather that can mean the four seasons in one afternoon, as well as two days of rain or almost unbroken snow.
This is a mild punishment if we consider the beauty of the scenery. The Torres del Paine (Monzino, Central and D'Agostini) are the center of everything. They rise almost vertically at approximately 2800 meters above the Patagonian steppe, each with its own altitude.
Paine Grande reaches 3050 meters and the peaks of Los Cuernos 2200 to 2600 meters.
Under a cloudy sky, they are somewhat grayish, but when the twilight falls on them, it dyes them and the rest of the mountain in warm tones that soothe the soul of anyone who admires them.
Although, today, Torres del Paine National Park is one of the most visited in Chile and an essential stop on adventurous itineraries in Patagonia or South America, for a long time it remained completely anonymous.
The Pre-Colonial Exclusivity of the Alacalufes, Onas and Tehuelches Indigenous
Until the arrival of the first European settlers, the natives Alacalufes, Onas and Tehuelches they lived on what they hunted, fished and gathered from nature. Not even the settlers who nearly exterminated them were able to overcome the harsh climate and soil that made any kind of agricultural attempt impossible.
Livestock was a different case.
The current area of the park was part of one of the many sheep farms that occupied those parts of Patagonia.
Almost only the settlers and some natives had had the unconscious privilege of admiring Paine and its unique panoramas.
The name of the place had, in fact, been given by a group of the last ones, the Tehuelches that the men of Fernão Magalhães called Patacões or Patacones, inspired by the predominant blue hue of its icy lakes.
The isolation was not absolute. Over time, some visitors arrived.
Lady Florence Dixie, a British Pioneer from Torres del Paine
Lady Florence Dixie, British traveller, writer, war correspondent and feminist, stood out in a group believed to have been one of the area's first tourists and, in her 1880 book, christened Paine's three towers “Cleopatra's Needles” .
In the immediate decades, several European scientists and explorers followed until, in 1959, the national park was first established as the Lago Gray National Tourism National Park, and in 1970, under its current name.
Eight years later, UNESCO named it the World Biosphere Reserve. The fame of the place reached new proportions. Today, 150.000 visitors per year exploit it. 60% are foreigners.
We walk around the base of the Sur tower when we spot a flock of guanacos watching for the intrusion of unexpected creatures into their vast territory.
With their keen eyesight, the camelids quickly felt the relief that they were humans and not the cougars that prey on them with great voracity, like sheep and stray foals.
Guanacos and pumas coexist in Torres del Paine with llamas, rheas, flamingos, condors and many other animal species, some of which are endemic.
As we walk, we notice the frigid richness of the ecosystem that welcomes them, made up of steppe, coniferous forests, rivers, lakes and glaciers.
Grey: the Blue King of the Torres del Paine Glaciers
Some of fans of the park – as the South Americans of the neighborhood prefer to call glaciers due to their tendency to channel the wind – are small and very hidden among the rocky peaks.
This is the case of Serrano.
Others are arms of the gigantic ice field in Southern Patagonia (where Argentina and Chile continue to debate their borders) and have dimensions to match.
Gray is one of these. At that time, its front remained accessible by boat across the lake of the same name.
We took advantage of the benefit. We didn't take long to approach him.
Pitch-black clouds cover the Quebrada de los Vientos and disperse over the increasingly agitated waters. Even so, we have a shipping order.
Shortly after we set sail, the Gray seems to grow and stir under the storm that is unfolding but which we can only enjoy, almost as if from the inside of a washing machine tub, protected by the boat's reinforced glass.
The flood ends in three stages. Halfway to the front of the glacier, the rain stops. To the delight of passengers, the sky clears. We immediately climbed onto the increasingly disputed deck.
The Majestic Front of the Gray Glacier
At a glance, we have the inaugural view of the seven kilometers across the glacier, still distant but already impressive, nestled between the cliffs of the Paine mountain range.
The commander gets as close as he can to the ice, in slow motion.
Gradually, we see the blueness and overwhelming dimension of that incredible phenomenon intensify and the temperature drop to minus degrees of rapid freezing.
"Now let's have absolute silence, friends, please."
The crew moves us back to a safe distance.
It asks passengers to stop whispering so that we could hear the crackle of the glacier and watch the crash of the next landslide.
The collapse takes time and disappoints. They decide to move on to the next issue. two of them come out in a small zodiac and capture tiny shards of ice from the lake.
On the way back to the main boat, they inaugurate a lecture about the millenary frozen waters that we had witnessed, similarly, in other glaciers and to which we did not pay proper attention.
Shortly thereafter, the return journey began.
The storm resumed its act.
With Bruce Chatwin “In Patagonia” from Torres del Paine
More than not resisting the call of this raw and powerful nature of the end of the world, some characters responded and eternalized it with the best of their art.
One of the most associated with Patagonia and these parts of Magallanes was the English writer Bruce Chatwin.
In the service of the Sunday Times Magazine, Chatwin traveled in the context of frequent international reporting. In 1972, he interviewed 93-year-old architect and designer Eileen Gray at her Paris salon.
Among the decoration of the room, a map of Patagonia that the interviewee had painted caught Chatwin's attention. "I always wanted to go there." Chatwin told him. To which Gray replied, “Me too. Go there for me.”
Two years later, Chatwin was. It flew to Lima and reached Patagonia a month later.
He explored the region for a few months and gathered stories and anecdotes allegedly from people who had settled there who had arrived from other parts.
In 1977, he published “Na Patagonia”, a narrative around his demand for a piece of brontosaurus that had been thrown out of his grandparents' office years before.
The work made Chatwin one of the most highly regarded post-war British writers.
However, little by little, the residents of the narrated areas were denying most of the characters and conversations described by Chatwin, which turned his work into fiction.
Bruce Chatwin died of AIDS in 1989. “In Patagonia” continued to inspire thousands of adventurers to explore the region.
The book has been a good ally of the images of the Torres del Paine National Park, which has gone global in the meantime.