At Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, Watching Nature’s Drama Unfold

Los Cuernos, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Los Cuernos, Torres del Paine National Park

The guide in the ski cap stands stock-still, squinting through the binoculars at the blue ice.  From off the lake, high winds stir his big-grizzly beard.  He looks over.

“Looks kinda like space aliens, don’t it?”

He offers you the glasses.  You tug your parka’s sleeves down over your knuckles, taking careful hold with your makeshift mittens.  What you see, pressing the cold metal to your eyes, is indeed otherworldly.  A shard of glacier, mast high, with a large-bore hole dead in the center and trailing a litter of slush.  A 2001 monolith—only real, and glowing an electric blue.

“That there’s the preview.  Main feature’s still coming, just you wait.”

He’s not lying.  Not long after, the scene changes.  As the wind falls off, the ice floes crowd more thickly, out here on Grey Lake.  The launch has slowed now, to half throttle, allowing you and the other life-vest-clad passengers take in the view.  What presently appears is a field of surrealist forms, adrift in the glassy smoothness of the water.  Ice rings, saddles, colossal fingers pointing skyward: a whole Dalí dreamscape, carved out of blue topaz.

“I’ma get the pilot to take her in closer,” the guide says, pulling out his walkie-talkie.

Within moments, the launch has slowed to a near idle.  You find yourself staring at a huge icecap, a flat-topped mesa with sides tapering down to the water, the molar of some antediluvian giant.  A meat-locker wet freeze radiates off it; you hug the sleeves of your parka.  Meanwhile, to your right, a Hamburg underwriter is filming with his camcorder.  “Remarkable,” he mumbles, “just remarkable,” raising his head from time to time to peer above the lens.

Presently the launch banks left; the details of the glacier’s main pack are now clearly visible.  In the near distance you make out the wall of blue cliffs, some soapy-sheened, like chunks of rock cocaine, others dissolving here and there in tiny snowdrifts.  A stormy sea, frozen in mid-surge, punctured by cave-like openings at the waterline.  Your imagination fumbles—Fortress of Solitude?  Hall strayed out of Norse mythology?—as you grope for some attempt at a description.

Grey Glacier, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Grey Glacier

Suddenly, a shout.  Your head jerks left, in time to see a huge slab shear off another glacier, its integrity abruptly giving way as it falls in slow motion into the lake.  Another slab follows, and another, in a chain reaction that threatens to take down the entire line of crags in a flurry of spray and snow and sleet.  “Scheisse!” the underwriter whispers, lowering the camcorder, as a whale-sized mass comes roaring to the surface, a leviathan of black ice calved from geologic stresses tens of thousands of years in the making, shedding water as it bobs, then rights itself.

“Yo, let’s go!” the guide yells.  The calving has produced a wave. It’s headed right for the boat.

The pilot doesn’t wait.  He opens up the throttle, to put distance between launch and cataclysm.  You’re moving.  The craft sways, pitching.  Then, quiet.

The commotion.  It’s behind you.

You shudder, looking up.  Overhead, a condor is circling.  It is black, etched against the all-enfolding blue of sea, ice, and sky.

Dramatic?  No doubt.  But then those who’ve explored Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park are well acquainted with its theatrical side, which encompasses not just the slip and shock of the blue ice at Grey Glacier, but booming waterfalls, rockslides, abrupt snowstorms that swathe the granite peaks in gray smoke.  When National Geographic put the park on its World’s Most Beautiful Places cover in 2013, it did so in tribute to its jaw-dropping views.  But behind the picture-postcard prettiness, what most characterizes nature in this tract of Chilean Patagonia is a roiling ferment, a dynamism that makes Torres del Paine not just gorgeous, but a place that’s the very definition of extreme.

Meaning, if subdued pleasures are what you’re after, you might want to head to the beach instead.

Puma, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Predator and Prey

“Shhh.  Don’t scare her.”  Diego Araya has one finger up, to warn the expedition members: no sudden movements.

The three trekkers stop, not daring to make a sound.  Then, one by one, they advance, slowly, peering around the boulder’s edge.

There she is.  In the cleft: a female puma, her eyes like yellow agate, enthroned on the rocky outcrop and scowling right at them, as her cub nips at her paw.  Slowly, Araya comes around to where she can see him, raising his telephoto lens.

“One basic rule is, you never, never surprise a puma with her cub.  She needs to see you, know where you are, so she can see you’re not a threat.”

The camera gives a few shutter-clicks.  The guide steps carefully back.

Puma etiquette is by now second nature to Araya.  He’s been tracking the big cats in Torres del Paine for more than ten years, as part of his consuming passion for the wildlife in southern Chile.  A trained biologist and the founder of the photography firm Wild Patagonia, he’s out today to instruct a small group of guests in the finer points of felid finding.

“Pumas are really charismatic, but they’re hard to locate.  There’s only maybe about 70 in the park, so you have to develop a strategy to see them.  And even then, they escape you.  Really, these guys are ghosts.”

However hard pumas may be to spot, they’re definitely on naturalists’ radar.  As the interest in extreme animals continues to grow, zoologists and laypeople both are increasingly finding their way to Torres del Paine, where the big cats have found a congenial habitat among the park’s lakeside paths and shelves of sedentary rock.  There, guests can hire guides and track not only the blonde felines, but a whole host of exotic species, including condors, Andean gray foxes, dwarf armadillos, buzzard eagles, flamingos, rheas (ñandús, locals call them), even a rare Andean deer called the huemul.

It’s the Americas’ own version of an extreme safari.

Extreme, at least, in relative terms.  As Araya is quick to point out, humans aren’t pumas’ natural prey, so the big cats are generally tame in the presence of visitors.  Only when they feel threatened do they present any trouble.  Indeed, the biggest problem for most tourists is finding them in the first place.

Here Araya is a man of a thousand stratagems.  One trick, used by his group this morning, is to stake out the cats’ dens, high up in the cliffs.  Pumas are night hunters, and typically return from their nocturnal stalking just before first light.  And in fact, today this approach has yielded dividends: witness the Madonna-like moment between mama and cub.

Other tracking methods are more dramatic.  The guanaco, a llama-like camelid, clusters in herds on the park’s grasslands and is the puma’s main prey.  If Araya spots a group of them on the steppe late in the day, he’ll sometimes set up camp and watch.  If he sees them looking skittish, or hears the rasping chirr they emit when in danger, he knows a puma is near.

“A couple weeks ago, I was down by the lake, and a herd of guanacos came down to drink.  And as always, one of them was the outlier—you know, standing apart, as a lookout to warn the others.

“Well, just at that moment, along comes a puma.  A big, powerful one, a golden female.  Chit chit chit, goes the guanaco, and they all go running off.  But the puma, she’s too fast, and she grabs it and drags it down. Drags it to the lake edge, where she starts tearing it apart.  It was unbelievable.  Her cubs fed off that carcass for several days.”

And Torres del Paine itself?  Why track the big cats here, and not someplace else?

“Bueno, ever since I started working for the National Park Service in Chile ten years ago, I’ve felt this is one of the most beautiful places on Earth.  A wild place, but also a place more and more people are learning about nature, where the mentality about pumas is changing.

“This means it’s a sanctuary, for me as well as the animals.  Really, they own this territory.”

Salto Grande Waterfall, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
Salto Grande Waterfall

A Planet in Motion

Late afternoon, under the black and gray jags of Cuernos del Paine.  Westward-sloping sun.  Armando Iglesias is trying to talk about water, but is having trouble keeping his balance.

The problem, in part, is the wind.  Patagonia in general is known for the gale-force blasts that scour its steppes.  But here, at Salto Grande waterfall, the gusts surge with the force of a sledgehammer.  Just now, it’s all the veteran tour guide can do to keep his gaucho beret on his head.

Nor is the earth under him helping any.  As Iglesias shouts to make himself heard, the trekkers in his group look at each other: is the ground trembling?  Not from an earthquake, but from the falls themselves.  Its 27,000 gallons roaring by per second set up an unbelievable clamor, a tremor in the rocks near the thundering brink.

Salto Grande reveals yet another dramatic aspect to Torres del Paine, a side even more striking for passing unnoticed by unsuspecting hikers.  The park’s monumental vistas may look unchanging, but they’re really the product of violent forces, forces that have split the rocks and carved the terrain over millions of years.  Water, wind, soil: here all three testify to Earth’s hidden dynamism.

“This current you’re seeing?”  Iglesias points to the falls.  “It’s all melt from off the glaciers.  The glaciers fill the lakes, and then the lakes flow out to the ocean.  The wind is the same.  It molds the trees, the ice.

“You have to remember, when you look at this landscape, you’re only seeing one frame of a very long movie.  This whole park is part of a planet in motion.”

Indeed it is—and not just here at the falls.  All of Torres del Paine’s most distinctive features reflect this dynamism.

It all started 13 million years ago, with an eruption from an underwater volcano.  (Back then, all of what is today Patagonia lay at the bottom of the ocean, after a cataclysmic flood that covered huge parts of the planet.)   During that eruption, red-hot magma from deep in the Earth forced itself up into a layer of sediment, and then began to cool.  The magma eventually hardened into a thick band of granite, while the sediment around it got compressed into darker, softer rock.

That granite didn’t stay submerged.  Instead, tectonic movements caused it to break out into the light of day.  When the Pacific or Nazca Plate collided with the South American continental shelf just off the coast of modern-day Chile, the different rocks were pushed up and up, forming what is today the Andes—specifically the Cordillera del Paine that so attracts contemporary visitors.

But the Cordillera wasn’t yet the jagged peaks Iglesias and his charges have come to see this afternoon.  To take on that form, glaciers were needed.  These glaciers appeared during three distinct periods—3.5 million, 1.2 million, and 15,000 years ago—and collectively they eroded the rock, carving the peaks and valleys visible today from the falls of Salto Grande.

“Everyone who sees the Cuernos del Paine asks the same thing,” Iglesias says. “‘How’d those dark and light bands get there?’ And I always tell them: it’s from the glaciers, rubbing away those sedentary and granite rocks.

“A laccolith, is the technical name for it.  And geologists from all over the world come to study it, due to its exposure.”

Nor have the glaciers disappeared.  They continue to exist—albeit in much-reduced form—in the great Southern Ice Field, of which Grey Glacier is a just one sliver.  Extending for more than 200 miles, the field is the second largest in the world, and is the source of Torres del Paine’s network of lakes.  The meltwater from off of them, turquoise from rock-flour particles dislodged by erosion, flows through cataracts like Salto Grande, slowly but steadily etching the landscape even further.

“When you see the ice floes break off the glaciers in the lake, well, that’s just part of a chain that’s visible all around you.

“Torres del Paine is like that.  If you pay attention, you can experience nature’s drama as it unfolds.”

The afternoon is getting on.  The sun barely peeks above the granite crests.  Iglesias and his charges have arrived at one of the park’s refugios (shelters) to unwind.

As the weary hikers slip off their packs and collapse on the sofas, the multi-talented guide is already in the kitchen, whipping up plates of chicken curry and rice.  Within minutes, the bowls are steaming, ready to serve.

Sitting down with his guests, Iglesias rubs his beard, talks of his experience as a rock-climber, bird-watcher, cook for archaeological expeditions.  He’s traveled all over Patagonia.  He says he plans to retire next year.

“I love Torres del Paine.  But now I want to return to my farm, to work with the horses.”  He smiles.

“Something a little quieter, you know?”

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