Few places in the world have captivated the imagination of explorers and travelers like Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. The region’s harsh, wind-whipped climate and its geological curiosities have produced some of the most beautiful natural attractions in the world: the granite towers of Torres del Paine and Los Glaciares national parks, the Southern and Northern ice fields with their colossal glaciers, the flat pampa broken by multicolored sedimentary bluffs, and the emerald fiords and turquoise lakes. In the end, this is what compels most travelers to plan a trip down here, but Patagonia’s seduction also lies in the “remote”—the very notion of traveling to “the end of the world.”
POINTS OF INTEREST
Punta Arenas is the capital of the Magellanic and Antarctic Región XII, and it is Patagonia’s most important city, with a population of 110,000. Upon arrival, it seems unbelievable that Punta Arenas is able to prosper as well as it does in such a forsaken location on the gusty shore of the Strait of Magellan, but its streets hum with activity and its airport and seaports bustle with traffic passing through the strait or in transit to Antarctica. Citizens from Punta Arenas consider themselves somewhat of an independent republic due to their isolation from the rest of Chile, and they are an indefatigable bunch who brace themselves every summer against the gales that blow through this town like a hurricane. Punta Arenas’s history, extreme climate, and position overlooking the renowned Strait of Magellan make for a fascinating place to explore. There’s enough to do here to fill a day, and you’ll want to plan on spending 1 night here, even if your plans are to head directly to Torres del Paine.
PENGUIN COLONIES AT SENO OTWAY & ISLA MAGDALENA
One of the highlights of a visit to Punta Arenas is a trip to the penguin colonies at Seno Otway and Isla Magdalena. Both colonies allow visitors to get surprisingly close to the amusing Magellanic penguins at their nesting sites, whisking out sprays of sand or poking their heads out of their burrows. But, this only happens during their natural nesting cycle from October to March—and even by early March they’ve all pretty much packed up and headed north. November to February provides the most active viewing. Isla Magdalena is the best colony to view the penguins (with an estimated 150,000, as compared to 3,000 at Seno Otway). The trip involves a ferry ride.
Puerto Natales is a rambling town of 15,000, spread along the sloping coast of the Señoret Canal between the Ultima Esperanza Sound and the Almirante Montt Gulf. This is the jump-off point for trips to Torres del Paine, and most visitors find themselves spending at least 1 night here. The town itself is nothing more than a small center and rows and rows of weather-beaten tin and wooden houses, but it has a frontier-town appeal, and it boasts a stunning location with grand views out onto a grassy peninsula and the glacier-capped peaks of the national parks Bernardo O’Higgins and Torres del Paine in the distance. Along the Costanera, elegant black-necked swans drift along the rocky shore. From May to September, the town virtually goes into hibernation, but come October, the town’s streets begin to fill with travelers decked out in parkas and hiking boots on their way to the park.
PARQUE NACIONAL BERNARDO O’HIGGINS
This national park, tremendous in its size, is largely unreachable except by boat tours to the glaciers Balmaceda and Serrano, tours that involve kayaking, and the new Skorpios journey to the grand Pio XI glacier. A low-key, traditional day trip takes travelers to the Serrano and Balmaceda glaciers.
PARQUE NACIONAL TORRES DEL PAINE
This is Chile’s prized jewel, a national park so magnificent that few in the world can claim a rank in its class. The park is made of granite peaks and towers that soar to the sky, golden pampas and steppes that are home to guanacos and more than 100 species of colorful birds, such as parakeets and flamingos; electric-blue icebergs that cleave from glaciers descending from the Southern Ice Field; and thick, virgin beech forest. The park is not something you visit; it is something you experience.
Although it sits next to the Andes, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is a separate geologic formation created roughly 3 million years ago when bubbling magma pushed its way up, taking a thick sedimentary layer with it. Glaciation and severe climate weathered away the softer rock, leaving the spectacular Paine Massif whose prominent features are the Cuernos (which means “horns”) and the one-of-a-kind Torres—three salmon-colored, spherical granite towers. Paine is the Tehuelche Indian word for “blue,” and it brings to mind the varying shades found in the lakes that surround this massif—among them the milky, turquoise waters of lakes Nordenskjold and Pehoé.