[top: The silence is shattered by the roar of ice breaking off and splashing into the water at the Grey Glacier Trek.]
By Jovanda Biston
A land of vast emptiness, wind-whipped valleys and commanding peaks, Patagonia in South America has long captivated the imagination of explorers and adventurers with its 'end of the world' feel.
What better place for a trekking adventure holiday than here?
So what if I do not have any trekking experience, have not been to the gym for about a year and have always preferred vacations that centred on gastronomy and easy sightseeing.
The park Nacional Torres del Paine's
crowning glory, Mirador Las Torres, boasts
three imposing granite spires that point
Patagonia is not a country. It is a region at the southern end of South America that spans Argentina and Chile - kind of like how the Himalayas stretch across six countries and Siberia refers to a land mass that includes regions administrated by Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
The 16th century Portuguese maritime explorer Ferdinand Magellan named the land Patagonia, most likely after Patagon, a savage beast-like character in a 16-century Spanish novel.
Indeed, the weather conditions in Patagonia can be savage.
I started questioning the wisdom of my vacation choice when I realised that I had to buy gear for trekking in an infamously rainy and blustery land where the temperature on a summer day can range from a low of 2 deg C to a high of 21 deg C and winds can be as strong as 80kmh.
Buying gear such as trekking boots, a 'breathable' waterproof wind jacket and even thermal undergarments made of a special material that wicks moisture away from the skin was just the first step to Patagonia, maybe not even that.
Getting there proved to be no walk in the park. It is not popularly called the end of the world for nothing.
After arriving in Buenos Aires, I learnt that my 5.40am flight to the Patagonian town of El Calafate was delayed for a couple of hours.
Then the plan changed: I had to fly to a different town, Rio Gallegos, which was three hours by plane from Buenos Aires, followed by a four-hour bus ride to El Calafate. From El Calafate, another four-hour-plus bus ride took us across the Argentinean-Chilean border.
It was almost midnight, more than 18 hours since I arrived in Buenos Aires, by the time I reached the campsite by the Serrano river near the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine.
It did not help that the immigration offices on both sides of the border crossing were minimally staffed - waiting to get my passport stamped and baggage checked took over three hours.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine
The 242,242ha Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile is about 3 1/2 times the size of Singapore and is often said to be South America's finest park for spectacular scenery, effective conservation efforts and good tourist infrastructure.
At almost any place in the park, visitors will see beautiful vistas of rolling grasslands populated with llama-like creatures called guacanos, towering peaks, glacial lakes with condors flying overhead and beech forests.
Attractions include the jagged peaks of the Cuernos del Paine (Horns of the Paine), Lake Pehoe and the Salto Grande waterfall, all of which are a bus or boat ride away.
Fierce winds, slippery trails
But the park's crowning glory is no doubt the Paine Massif, a prominent outcrop in the middle of the steppe that comprises several main mountain groups that include the dramatic Torres (Spanish for towers), which comprises three imposing granite spires that jut majestically heavenwards.
Trekking is the best way to fully experience the park. The two most popular routes are the 'Circuit', a challenging trek that circumnavigates the entire massif, and the abbreviated version of the full circuit, which is called the 'W', named for the shape it makes on the map.
The 'Circuit' takes about seven to 10 days of difficult hiking over rough and steep terrain, the 'W' about five days.
No prizes for guessing which trail this trekking virgin chose.
I did the 'W' trek, staying in a hostel for two nights and at a campsite for another night. (In Patagonia, when I was not doing the 'W', I stayed at a campsite near the Serrano river and in a hotel in El Calafate.)
Refugio Paine Grande was a hostel with indifferent staff, mediocre cafeteria food and temperamental showers, but it had a beautiful setting by the shores of the intensely turquoise Lake Pehoe. On a clear night, the sky was incandescent with stars.
The hostel is a good base for day hikes to Grey Glacier and Valle Frances as the starting points of these trails are a stone's throw away. It has 60 beds in 10 dorm rooms and costs US$89 (S$134) per night for bed and full board.
Trekkers are rewarded with a close-up view of the magnificent grey glacier at the end of the Grey Glacier trail. Along the way, the views of the hills and the slate-grey lake dotted with floating electric-blue ice are nothing short of stunning.
Lying between the Grey Glacier and the Torres trails, Valle Frances lies in the middle of the 'W', a valley surrounded by hanging glaciers and towering granite peaks.
Peace and tranquillity, plus a
spectacular view at a "W" trek
campsite near the Torres trail.
Several times while on the Valle Frances trail, I encountered such ferocious winds that I lost my balance. Even crouching low on the ground did not prevent the howling winds from knocking me over.
And on the Grey Glacier trek, merciless downpours made parts of the trail muddy and treacherously slippery. The guidebook I had did not say what to do in case of a medical emergency, but my guess was that the park ranger's office located by the hostel has basic medical services.
But the highlight of the 'W' for me and for most trekkers was the trek to the base of the Torres.
The first hour was a gruelling uphill struggle, followed by two hours of up-and-down terrain in cool forests and along rushing rivers. The last hour was a punishing ascent up slippery granite moraine.
Clambering up some of the large boulders on all fours, the going got so tough that I considered giving up and turning back. But descending trekkers spurred me on.
'Just 10 more minutes!' they bellowed in encouragement. Ah, perhaps they had wings.
The beauty of the Torres is completely blocked from view until the very end of the trail. 'It will all be worth it when you get there,' said those same fellow trekkers.
And it certainly was.
After I scrambled clumsily over the last few rocks and saw the trio of granite spires soaring above a milky-green tarn, I sat on a rock to slowly savour the awesome grandeur of my surroundings.
Perito Merino Glacier
Another exceptional place that should not be missed is the Perito Merino Glacier, one of the star attractions in Argentinean Patagonia.
Located just a 1 1/2-hour bus ride from the town of El Calafate about 80km away, it is part of Los Glaciares National Park, which is marked as a Unesco World Heritage Site. The Unesco World Heritage Programme, according to the official website, 'seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity'.
This glacier is a mass of ice crevasses, walls and peaks so colossal that the entire city of Buenos Aires (one-third of Singapore) could fit onto it. It is also one of the very few glaciers on the planet that is not receding. Every year, the Perito Merino mass is in equilibrium. What it loses through melting and erosion, it gains back, so it does not recede or advance.
Visitors can view the glacier from the network of boardwalks in the park, but what would be the point of that? It is a trek on the ice face that is unforgettable.
Tour agencies in El Calafate offer guided day tours that include a short excursion on ice for about US$150 per person.
After everyone in my group had crampons strapped onto their boots, the guide gave us a crash course on glaciers and the best way to walk on ice without sliding downhill or falling into the many crevasses. Then I was off for a two-hour trek on ice.
As far as the eye could see, the blank slate of blue-and-white skies collided with the equally vast canvas of blue-and-white ice.
The deep silence of the Narnia-like ice world was occasionally shattered by the thunderous roar of ice breaking off - or calving - and splashing into the water.
At the end of our hike, our guide gave us alfajores, a traditional Argentinean cookie, and poured us glasses of whiskey which we drank with ice that he had chipped away from the glacier.
I drank a toast to the majesty that is Patagonia.
|How to get there
5 things to do
El Calafate is the main tourist centre in Argentine Patagonia. It is a good base for visiting Perito Moreno Glacier and the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine across the border in Chile.
From Buenos Aires' domestic airport of Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (AEP), Aerolineas Argentina has daily flights to El Calafate.
Malaysian Airlines flies direct to Buenos Aires from Kuala Lumpur.
1 Do pack warm clothes even when travelling in the summer months as it often gets chilly.
2 Wear waterproof-breathable clothing when trekking. They will prevent you from getting soaked by the rain or drenched in your own sweat. Gore-Tex is an example of a waterproof and breathable material.
3 Do wear a pair of comfortable, well-worn-in waterproof trekking boots.
4 Eat succulent Patagonian lamb prepared the traditional way in an asado - outdoor open fire.
5 Do book your accommodation in the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine months in advance, especially if you are visiting during the peak season of December to February as the lodges and campsites get booked up quickly.
1 While in El Calafate, do not forget to eat Patagonia's most famous plant - the calafate berry - to ensure your return to the region. The local saying goes, 'El que come el calafate, volvera' (He who eats the calafate will return). Calafate jams are widely available in the town.
2 Do not flout the fire regulations in the national parks.
In 2005, a backpacker camping in the Torres del Paine park caused a fire when the gas stove he was illegally using overturned, sparking a blaze that destroyed some 16,000ha of the park. It took a month to put out.
Jovanda Biston is a freelance writer.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.
For more The Straits Times stories, click here.