The Windiest National Park Anywhere (Oct 11)

A few hour bus ride brought us to Chile’s Torres Del Paine National Park, and we spent a good part of the day hiking around, so this post will be longer on pictures than words…lucky you.

The park is pretty big, a little under 900 square miles, and is dominated by a spectacular craggy mountain range that looks like it should be part of the Andes but actually isn’t. (It’s a younger range than the Andes and runs east-west instead of north-south.) Here’s the view as we approached the park; the buildings in the foreground are a ranch.

The big peak is called Almirante Nieto

The weather today was uncharacteristically sunny, at least to start out with since conditions in Patagonia are astonishingly and notoriously changeable. (The locals like to say, with unfortunate accuracy, that weather forecasts are useless here since every possible weather condition representing all four seasons will occur at least once every day.) But the clear skies brought out some very exotic visitors: Andean condors, the second largest flying bird in the world. (The “flying” codicil excludes ostriches, which of course are enormous but flightless; the largest flying bird is the wandering albatross.)

One of 36 Andean condors that we saw today

Andean condors are normally sighted in small numbers, but we saw groups of up to five of them soaring all over the place, a glorious and exciting sight. In the end we counted 36 of them including a juvenile, a huge number that amazed our trip lead Julio. Here’s one of them at left.

Although the weather was sunny — a condition that son changed, as promised — the winds were gale-force. Stepping out of the bus was stepping into a wind tunnel, and the was at least one viewpoint where the driver would not even let us out of the vehicle for fear that we would be blown off the lookout and into the valley below. Sounds unlikely but his concern was not unwarranted; during our long hike later in the day the woman I was walking with — a fellow photo hobbyist who like myself lingered behind the rest of the group — literally got blown over onto her back by a strong gust. In short, winds are a seriously big deal here.

(I asked Julio whether any serious efforts have been made to capitalize on wind power to satisfy Chile’s energy needs. The short answer is no: though very strong on average in this part of the country, they are also unreliable, and nearly disappear altogether for about half the year.)

The wind also ensures that fires can get very quickly out of hand, and there have been a couple of serious wildfires that have damaged the extensive beech forests in this part of the park. One fire, set by a careless Czech backpacker who knocked over a camping stove in 2005, burned 20,000 acres. A second, started by an even more careless Israeli camper who decided to burn some trash, burned 40,000 acres in 2011. Both accidental arsonists were fined $200 and kicked out of the country. Interestingly, both became very active in the reforestation effort, raising money and planting trees (and eventually being allowed to return in order to help, and to educate the public to the dangers).

“Hey, I ordered by beech trees rare. These are well done.”

The upshot of all this is that our hike took us through some seriously blasted landscapes. The burnt areas used to be the home of herds of guanácos, who,love to eat beech bark. You may remember them from my posts for the Atacama desert: they are camelids, closely related to llamas. This is about as far south as they are found, and we saw large numbers of them grazing on the hillsides as we drove into the park. To our surprise we encountered one moving hesitantly among the burnt-out beech trunks; I left the hiking trail to stalk him for a couple of minutes to get the shot that you see at right.

The park has a number of lakes of various sizes, and they host large concentrations of Cyanobacteria. Those are very ancient and primitive organisms which back in the day (the day being billions of years ago) helped convert the Earth’s atmosphere from carbon dioxide to oxygen. The other thing about them is that they are a striking blue color, and so the lakes practically glow with a deep cerulean blue. There are a number of small waterfalls in the area too, so the effect is striking, as you can see in the three photos below.

Blue lake, happy non-campers

Striking contrasts in the terrain

Postcard scenery amidst devastation from wildfires

The happy skies in the above pictures did not last; they never do around here. The clouds rolled in and we got the authentic Patagonian variable-weather experience, which is to say that it started to snow. Not very hard, and not for very long, but…c’mon. The temperature eventually climbed to about 50 but the clouds stuck around, and of course the wind never left.

We arrived at a hiking trailhead at about 2 PM and set off over an occasionally rocky path through the burnt out beech forest, towards some peaks collectively called Cuernos del Paine. (“Cuernos” means “horns”, from the shape of the peaks.) the goal was not the peaks themselves, which are high and forbidding and many miles away, but rather a lookout point from which to view them. We covered about 4.5 miles in total, fighting a howling wind for much of the time. The clouds moved in and swirled around the jagged peaks, giving us the sense that we had undertaken some quest through Mordor that no one had told us about. Here’s a scene from along the way:

Did someone lose a ring?

Notice how the branches on the tree have grown: the wind blows pretty much all the time here, and it is never a gentle breeze.

We are spending the night at one of a small number of rustic but comfortably appointed hotels (with wonderful mountain views) that are within the park boundaries. They’re hard to get into because the total number of rooms is small and so reservations must be made far in advance. But thank you, OAT, and here we are. 

Tomorrow is mostly a travel day. The are no roads over the mountains so we will be taking a lengthy roundabout bus ride on a counterclockwise semicircular route around them, south to north, to reach the city of El Calafate where we will be spending the next two nights (hopefully with wifi again so I can actually post this).

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