I encourage others to share their travels in hopes it inspires others. Whenever a close friend of mine goes on a trip, I ask if they are willing to share on AngelaTravels. To my delight, my friend, Tobias, went on an epic trip to South America and was willing to share his story.

How many cliches have been exercised when describing Torres del Paine? All of them? With “indescribable beauty” being the most played out?

Los Cuernos

One of the many peaks in Torres del Paine National Park. Photo credit: Tobias Cortese.

I do not intend to indict those who have uttered the phrase, merely to suggest that the act of attempting to convey the park’s supernatural awe in words or pictures is futile, at best.
Seen under favorable weather, an imposition in this part of the planet (we were the beneficiaries of mostly clear skies until our last hike when we seemed to experience spring, summer, fall, and winter over the course of our several hours on the Grey Glacier Mirador trail which lead us to dub the trail “Four Seasons Trail;” however, despite the shifting weather, shortly after we reached the viewpoint, the clouds miraculously parted just enough to take satisfactory photos of the glacier). It may not be possible to hold an expectation high enough to adequately challenge the park’s majesty.

I climb mountains as a hobby, and I think that, even if they’ve never been asked, every
member of the climbing community has prepared an answer to the question, “Why do you climb?” Often, the answer is a quote from some long dead Eastern philosopher familiar to very few, or a thought from a famed naturalist such as John Muir (a genuinely great man, indeed, so absolutely no shame in referencing his works), which inevitably boils down to “live life to its fullest.”

Personally, The power of awe keeps me coming back. Recent research suggests that awe, aptly defined as “that sense of wonder we feel in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world,” decreases inflammation, improves sleep and memory, increases generosity, and induces people to feel smaller, less self-important, and more interested in the welfare of others. These findings align with my own experiences. After a weekend highlighted by reaching a summit, I often feel absurd on Monday morning as I sit in my desk with the knowledge that less than twenty-four hours earlier I stood on top of a legitimate mountain, a feeling which is synonymous with Tyler Durden’s experiences after a night spent at “Fight Club.”

Awe mutes every crisis, complaint, request or action item and begs the question, “Why is this important?” Awe freely gives itself to those who seek it. Because awe cannot be bought, it mitigates the value of money. Awe instills a feeling of connectedness with your environment, and leads you to see others as part of the same whole. Thus, awe encourages donating to those in need. And awe ignites the brain in a manner that makes you feel smarter.

I do not climb because I am an adrenaline junkie (truth be told, the climbs and routes that I choose are relatively safe so long as one respects and accounts for the very real dangers at hand). I climb to feel awe, thus it makes little sense to court death, as death means the loss of many more awful moments. It is not necessary to climb mountains to feel awe. Many very safe places on this planet instill the super-emotion; Torres del Paine is one.

The views in Torres del Paine pound the synapses and overload the neurons to exhaustion making a brief look away, closing the eyes, or a mundane section of the trail, desirable and sometimes necessary. Imagine being tickled to the point of pain, or eating ice cream to the point of sickness; this is Torres del Paine. Mentally haggard from uncontrollably snapping pictures, I often promised myself a break, only to raise the viewfinder to my eye seconds later.

I expressed relief each night when we reached our campground nestled in the trees, a position which offered the opportunity to let my mind go blank, and my senses untriggered. Park planners designed the trails to be comfortable for the greenest of hikers, and some of the accommodations (officially outside the park) are downright luxurious (at least one includes a hot tub with enviable views).

Once again, Chile impressed, specifically the forestry service, as the trails, structures, and other system components were well planned, staffed, maintained, sensible and offered at a fair price, resulting in a clean, comfortable adventure which rewards the seasoned backcountry explorer but can be had by the novice with a family of four.

On our last day, we waited for the catamaran to shuttle us from the Paine Grande refugio to Pudeto where we would catch a bus to Puerto Natales, the regional transportation hub. We killed time by embarking on a two-hour-there-and-back hike to Mirador Pehoe’ (the trailhead essentially intersects with the catamaran boarding dock).

During our trip we sampled two edible berries; the Calafate berry (bittersweet blueberries), and the Prickly Heath (a red berry with the texture of a crisp apple). Even at their ripest, the Calafate berries tasted quite bitter and seemed hardly worth eating. However, about halfway to Mirador Pehoe’ we encountered a trailside field of perfectly red and ripe Prickly Heath berries. To that moment, most of the Prickly Heath berries we had seen were lighter shades of red or pink. Each ripe berry bite delivered heavenly sweetness and refreshing juiciness, making it nearly impossible to not eat another.

IMGP3366

The insatiably delicious Prickly Heath berries. Photo credit: Tobias Cortese.

From December 2011 to January 2012, more than 16,000 hectares of Torres del Paine burned (Angela actually was visiting the park at that very time). The fire felled many of the taller trees, and reduced others to groves of lifeless, leafless skeletons. Absent of the overgrowth, the underbrush in the recovering areas receives an inordinate amount of sun. Thus, we surmised that the sun particularly awashed this section resulting in the berry treats we now enjoyed. If you get a chance, I unequivocally recommend taking the opportunity to experience it for yourself, you won’t be disappointed.

We arrived in Puerto Natales and proceeded to our previously booked en suite at La Estancia Hostel just steps away from the transportation center. We were glad for the short walk and the hostel with its clean, comfortable rooms, towel service, spacious bathrooms, free wifi, in room televisions with cable, toilet paper (Chile seems to be a country that lacks toilet paper and soap in its public bathrooms, so if you value convenient access to those items, BYO), hot showers and friendly, accommodating owner.

I fantasize about through-hiking the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) but the extent to which I was relieved and grateful to clean up causes me to wonder if I possess the moxie to complete such a task. After settling in, we headed downtown to re-supply at the supermercado and then meet some trail friends at a vegetarian restaurant. While waiting, I witnessed a dog run out in the middle of the street to bark at a passing car and attempt to bite the car’s tires. Though a classic cartoon trope, I don’t believe I had previously ever actually witnessed “dog barking at moving car and biting tires” in North America, but saw it several times in South America and I’m not sure what to make of that.

Our trail friends failed to show (we happened upon them in El Chalten several days later) leaving us free to eat at the asado next door where we enjoyed unbelievably succulent lamb with unprecedented flavor, and the region’s trademark drink, the Pisco sour, which lived up to the hype. It was an apt way to cap off the Chilean leg of our journey, as the meal solidified the country’s lofty position in my personal rankings.

Written by Tobias Cortese.

Trip Date: December 24, 2015