Tierra del Fuego

It was going to be one of those days. Instead of the sunshine and breathtaking views of the southern Andes we’d hoped for, we woke up to snow on our first morning in Patagonian yurts.

Although it was early November, spring-time in Chilean Patagonia, a prolonged winter meant sub-zero temperatures, and a layer of low-lying cloud was covering the spectacular mountains of Torres del Paine.

Over breakfast, the group seemed in good spirits despite the weather depriving us, so far, of what we’d come to see. The snow was providing a certain atmosphere, and we’d had exceptional fortune in Rio de Janeiro, at the Iguazú Falls, in Buenos Aires, during the Lake Crossing through the snow-capped Andes, and on Chiloé Island, with its fantastical myths and legends. Staying the night in luxurious, large eco-friendly yurts, that from the outside appear like tents but inside have all the trappings of a five star hotel, hadn't hurt either. However I knew just how incredibly beautiful the Paine Massif was on a bright clear day, and crossed my fingers for things to improve.

In the afternoon, we were going to drive into the park from our base snugly nestled on the shores of Lake Sarmiento, looking in at the mountains. To kill time after breakfast, the men from the group went fishing. Buffeted by the icy cold wind blowing in off the lake, we caught nothing, but every so often a tantalising glimpse of the mountains would appear behind the grey clouds. Things might clear up.

After checking in for the catamaran excursion to visit the famous Glacier Grey, we walked down to the lake, crossing the bridge over the river in a blizzard, through the forest, and along the beach. It was still snowing hard and a cold breeze blew in our faces; the mountains, usually towering over us by now, were hidden by dense cloud. The weather didn’t look good, and I was sure it was going to be one of those days.

As we reached the shore, we saw a huge bird less than five metres away. It didn’t sense our presence until the last minute because of the driving snow, and it seemed to be drinking from the lake. Startled, it flapped its large, cumbersome black and white wings for what seemed like an age, and clumsily took off, flying back up to its nest hidden on a ledge in the mountains. It was a condor, with a wingspan of ten feet. I’d never seen one so close up before.

As we boarded the catamaran, there was a little cynicism, despite everyone trying to remain positive. We couldn’t see any mountains or glaciers, just low-lying grey cloud. And driving snow.

After cruising for over an hour, we finally got our first glimpse of the glacier. From time to time, the sun would occasionally appear behind the clouds. Each time its rays caught the glacier’s fractures, crevasses and caves, the ice glowed a deep blue colour. A cabin crew member appeared, offering whiskey or the local pisco sour cocktail, chilled with ice from the glacier. We sipped our drinks as the catamaran cruised along the face of the glacier, getting as close as was safe, in case an iceberg fractured from it and hurtled downwards at us.

After around an hour cruising next to the blue and white glacier, the Paine Grande mountain suddenly appeared towering through the clouds, three thousand metres above us, painted white in the snow, with the blue sky behind and the sun shining through, illuminating the turquoise waters of the lake and making the glacial ice glow even bluer. In the distance, we caught a glimpse of the famous horns, jagged peaks of granite spearing impossibly up out of the earth. It was like a scene from a Lord of the Rings film, a magical world appearing behind a mystical layer of swirling clouds.

We arrived back at the shores of the lake, the sun shining now and the mountains clear. Huge icebergs that had calved from the glacier had washed up on the shores of the lake. I looked up and saw the condor poking its head out of its nest above us.

We got back in the minibus, in a good mood, joking that we’d thought it was going to be a day to forget but how it had turned out ok in the end, with the sun, the glowing blue glacier, the spectacular mountains, and the condor.

During the journey back to the yurts, I was lazily staring out of the window when I saw a brown lump in the middle of a field. Something had caught my eye and I took a second glance.

“PUMA!” I shouted.

The driver skidded to a halt, the group’s eyes followed my pointing arm out into the field as their hands fumbled for their cameras. One of the largest wild cats to be found on the continent was crouching in the undergrowth, hidden from the view of some nearby geese, waiting to pounce. It was aware of our presence, and turned its head to nervously examine us with its beady eyes. Then it looked back at the geese, and once again at us. This time it leapt up, darted arrow-like towards the geese, who all escaped, and then sprinted off into the undergrowth.

We couldn’t quite believe our luck, the driver equally impressed by the wild cat’s elegance, and how breakthtaking it was to see the puma’s eyes analysing us, unsure of our intentions, before bolting. Rounding the next corner we saw a newborn fowl, tiny, perhaps born the same day. Its mother was nursing it into the world affectionately, the infant struggling to get up on its legs and walk.

When we arrived back at the yurts, we were all high on adrenaline. We went down to the shores of the lake with our fishing rods and lazily threw out our lines. As the cool wind blew in our faces, we saw the snow-capped mountains, with the horns and other monolithic peaks jutting powerfully up into the sky, and we reflected on the afternoon. I know guides who’ve worked in Torres del Paine for a decade – hiking every day in the rugged terrain – who have never seen a puma.

The reason you travel is in hope of moments like those. The unexpected, the other-worldly, the almost unreal. Such a close encounter with one of nature’s best kept secrets. It was a story to tell friends, perhaps the highlight of the trip. It certainly was one of those days.

Pete Selman, Tour Leader.

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