At the bottom of the Chilean mainland on the west shore of the Strait of Magellan across from Tierra del Fuego sits Chile’s southernmost mainland city – Punta Arenas. Blocked from the rest of the country by the Andes Mountains, arriving by land requires a detour through Argentina. The city is also served by an international airport and two ports. One is both a container and a cruise ship port; the other, newer port close to downtown is exclusively for cruise ships, which call regularly during the summer months.

Punta Arenas has much to offer the visitor, the departure point for a four hour road trip north to Torres del Paine National Park — one of the world’s most spectacular mountain settings.

Route 9, which begins at the bottom of the peninsula on which Punta Arenas sits, passes through the city and continues north, past a large methanol plant on the shore of the Strait, then turns northwest.

We hired a truck and were glad we did. This part of Chile’s Patagonia is broad, flat, and windswept. The few, scraggly trees that dot the grassy landscape list several degrees to starboard, thanks to the prevailing winds. Route 9 is wide, well-maintained, and occasionally decorated with unique bus stop shelters. At one point the highway skirts the Argentine border and the frontier is three kilometers to the east.

The Chilean customs and immigration station at Casas Viejas, 3 kilometers from the Argentine border

Two hours north of Punta Arenas the inland port of Puerto Natales sits on east shore of the Admiral Montt Gulf. Funky is the first word that comes to mind when describing this last urban centre before plunging into the wilds of the southern Andes. It’s possible to take a ferry from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales then head into the heart of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, south of Torres del Paine, on smaller, high-powered boats.

From Puerto Natales, it’s another 90 minutes to Torres del Paine with the last hour to the park’s southern entrance on well-maintained gravel roads. It is also possible to continue north and enter the park on its eastern side, or – as we did – to turn west off that road, cut through some estancias and truly spectacular scenery that most tourists miss, then pick up the shorter route a half-hour south of the main park entrance.

Accommodations in the park range from luxe to camping. We opted for a mid-range hotel, the Lago Tyndall, where they gave us a huge room with a stunning view of Torres’ famous peaks.

We had previously decided that the one big outing would be by large zodiac-type boats to a series of glaciers that span not only Torres del Paine but also Bernardo O’Higgins National Park (O’Higgins is the father of Chilean independence). But first we had to suit up in European-designed, well-insulated jump suits that are also built-in life preservers. I felt like Charlie Brown dressing for a romp in the snow. Five of us headed to the boats and our show-off but superbly skilled driver took off with a roar and sharp turn to port that brought the starboard side of the boat out of the water. A 15 minute ride later, we arrived at the first dock – Puerto Esmeralda – then hiked for about ten minutes up and over a hill to the next dock. Within moments of leaving dock #2 – Puerto Donoso – we saw the reason for the hike: serious rapids that would have tested the most skilled white-water rafter.

Then it began to rain and blow. We felt like we were being pelted with wet BBs. Result: we huddled to protect our faces (our jump suits weathered the barrage) which meant we saw nothing of the spectacular scenery. This continued for more than four of the six hour trip. There was no turning back. Scatological thoughts remained unexpressed.

After 40 minutes of being assaulted by nature we arrived at our first and longest stop, the Serrano Glacier. Mercifully, the rain stopped so we enjoyed a hike along the small lake in front of the glacier, saw people and boats dwarfed by the ice-blue wall, and watched a man chipping glacial ice to fill a cooler. Other visitors had arrived from Puerto Natales.

Back in the boat we headed further south to the Balmaceda Glacier, again accompanied by pelting rain.

Then we turned north toward food and warmth. Along the way we spotted cattle on the shore and our guide told us that the huaso (like the 83-year-old Argentine gaucho described in the Esteros del Iberá essay) is completely isolated except for his sixty head of cattle and occasional boat-load of tourists who stop to chat for a couple minutes.

A Chilean huacho (gaucho) who keeps a cattle ranch in splendid isolation near the Serrano Glacier chats with visitors

The rain stopped for good so our driver treated us to an up-close-and-personal view of the rapids we had portaged by earlier in the day. Back at the base camp the day ended with a traditional Chilean asado — chicken and several kinds of meat grilled over an open fire.

On day 2 we headed into Torres del Paine Park in our 4-wheel drive truck. Nature decided we had been punished enough the day before and rewarded us with blue skies, puffy clouds and stunning scenery. After paying a $30.00 entry fee at the administration building just inside the park’s southern entrance, we headed north and began to climb.

We drove along the Paine (pronounced PIE-nay) River, stopped to enjoy the view and Upland Geese, then continued on to Sarmiento Lake. A lake-side sign told us that the white border around the lake is the result of 10,000 year-old microbolite deposits, left when the glaciers began to recede.

Back on the road we encountered what would become a frequent sight — guanacos and stopped periodically for photo ops. Two hours into our trip we reached a T-junction. Going straight would lead to the eastern park entrance. Turning north would take us on a big loop through the park’s northeastern area and eventually bring us back to the main east-west road. The junction is a way-station for hikers, bikers, cyclists, and lazy folk like us who travel on 4 wheels. A friendly park ranger recommended the northern loop.

Heading north, with the Torres (towers) on our left, we stopped at the Paine waterfalls, fields that had been burned in a massive fire accidentally started by a backpacker in 2005, and herds of guanacos.

Darwin’s Rheas — related to the ostrich — stalked around small ponds. Guanaco mares with the young grazed on the shore.

By the time we reached the Estancia Lago Amargo, we were more than ready for lunch. The park ranger had recommended the estancia, which is owned by a third generation Croatian immigrant (There was a large migration from Croatia to Punta Arenas a century ago). On arrival the estancia and restaurant looked deserted but we found the chef by — what else? — walking into the restaurant. There was no menu choice but the soup and main course – fresh, grilled chicken – were delicious.

The views weren’t shabby, either. The estancero appeared and talked with us for much of the meal. A guanaco leapt the fence and strolled by the restaurant window. A wagon, whose base was made in England, was parked next to the estancia’s main house. It had been used long ago for lodging in the far reaches of the estancia.

Fully sated, we headed west and soon reached Lago Amargo – Bitter Lake – which has seen considerable evaporation and left behind grey shores and extremely salty water. The guanacos, however, seems to enjoy resting on the warm salt flats. Further on condors floated on the thermals far above us.

Driving into the park we had passed Lago (Lake) Pehoé, part of the Paine River system, and noticed a lodge – the Hostería Pehoé – built on a 5 ha. island a hundred meters from shore. A foot bridge provides access and we decided that tea time was a good opportunity to check it out. After tea and to-die-for Black Forest Cake we returned to Lago Tyndall and collapsed.

Black Forest cake for afternoon tea at the Hostal Pehoé

The next morning we rose early for the drive back to Punta Arenas… and were rewarded with the golden glow of sunrise on the Torres del Paine.