Our guide was at the hotel promptly at 10am with a minivan to take us to Puerto Natales and then on to Torres del Paine. The road led through mostly flat, open land, with glimpses of pink flamingos in a distant lake, and occasional rheas (like ostriches) and guanacos (like llamas) by the road. The famous Patagonian Andes were visible in the far distance, along one horizon line paralleling our route. About 2 hours later we arrived in the little town of Puerto Natales. This is clearly a town that exists for trekkers bound for Torres del Paine (which is the crown jewel of Chile’s national parks)…every street has little shops offering various guide services and adventure tours, and little cafes for the tourist. I had the feeling that when the winter season closes in Puerto Natales becomes a quiet place indeed. We were taken to a restaurant for lunch, and then loaded in the van to continue our journey.
The next stop was to visit the realm of a prehistoric sloth, the Milodon, which apparently roamed Patagonia 10,000 years ago. This stop turned out to feature a cave where skeletal remains of this bear-like herbivore had been found. A number of shallow pits near the entrance marked where excavations had been carried out. The cave was as interesting as the creature (represented by a sculpture just inside the entrance…the actual remains apparently are in the British Museum in London). The sedimentary rock of an ancient seabed has uplifted over time, and later seas had eroded softer layers out to create flattened caverns under the harder layers. The Milodon cave exhibit was at one of the larger examples of these caves, but in nearby outcrops similar (if smaller) caves of the same type could be seen.
We had been concerned about the long travel times between rest stops (no rest areas in South America) and had been careful to keep our morning coffee intake low, but another hour’s travel and we stopped at the little hamlet of Cerro Castillo. In fact all the people transporting us during the entire trip were very considerate about making stops whenever possible (keep those tourists happy!). Here there were at least two major gift shops as well as the all-important coffee and restrooms. There were lots of maps and guidebooks in a variety of languages…a laminated Torres del Paine trekkers map was available there at half the price I’d paid earlier for a non-laminated version. On the other hand, the standard traveller’s souvenir t-shirt was hard to find…what was available there and most other places had odd colors and designs, and/or only smaller sizes. Maybe this was because we were at the end of the tourist season and stock was low (in March, winter is approaching).
From Cerro Castillo our minivan at last turned directly toward the line of Patagonian Andes that made up the far western horizon. The scenery reminded me of what you see from the Great Plains of the US and Canada as you drive west toward the chain of the Rockies…the difference being that the Rockies are more triangular, and the Andes are bulkier (think football players become mountains) with occasional horn-like spires. And the Andes seem to typically have clouds lurking about the peaks even when the lower lands are sunny and golden.
Arriving at the official entrance to Torres del Paine park, our guide hopped out to take care of entrance fees and get us a round of park maps, with no request for the $30 US per person in entrance fees we were supposed to have ready to pay in Chilean pesos. (I think we all wound up giving the guide that money as part of his tip at the end of our stay).
The land was getting more interesting and the mountains were closer but still shrouded in clouds, and guanacos started making regular appearances on both sides of the road. The minivan approached and then (as we held our collective breath, thinking SURELY we are not driving across THAT) cautiously crossed a bridge which looked like it could not possibly hold a motor vehicle. Only on a later crossing did we see the sign that says not to cross the bridge if you have passengers, to let them off and let them walk across! Depending on our driver (and his mood) in the days following, sometimes we were sent to walk across, and sometimes he just went ahead and crossed while we all rode (fascinating to see the bridge struts just slight inches from the side of the vehicle).
Finally we arrived at the Eco-Camp, our home for the next three nights. The setting was spectacular, on a small hill with (when the clouds lifted) grand views of the star-quality peaks of Torres del Paine Park. There were luxury tent-domes (with their own bathrooms, which our fellow travellers had booked) and standard domes (which we had, with communal facilities in a central building). These were connected by boardwalks which lead down to the main dining domes, where we were greeted with a round of Pisco Sours (but of course!), orientation to the coming activities, and dinner (with ample Chilean wine).
Getting up at night to visit the facilities yielded an unexpected pleasure outside...a clear night sky ablaze with the star constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. No Big Dipper here, nothing familiar except the white splash of the Milky Way, although I wondered if three stars I saw low on the horizon were Orion's Belt seen at an unfamiliar angle. Note to self: if we ever come this way again, bring a star map of the southern sky.