It's just starting to get light when trail guide Jose Ignacio Roca reaches Lake Sarmiento in Chile with his group. Most are still a bit sleepy, no surprise since they had already left the Andes backpacking town of Ultima Esperanza Fjord at 5am.
But a warning sign jolts the hikers awake: The trekking trail could see a “potential danger of attack” by pumas. Roca immediately calms the group’s nerves. “We aren’t of any interest to the pumas. We don’t belong to their list of prey.”
Instead, their appetite is for guanacos, llama-like camelids in the Andes. Soon enough, their skeletons litter the side of the hiking trail, evidence of the dietary preference of the pumas. Around 100 of the wild cats, weighing up to 80kg, inhabit the region, more than in any other part of South America.
Suddenly, a small herd of guanacos break out in flight, a sign of an attack by a puma. Roca motions for the group to stop and be silent. As quickly as it appeared, the puma has disappeared again before Roca can pass a pair of binoculars around.
Seeing condors majestically circling the skies above is, however, compensation enough for missing a glimpse of the pumas. And the following day a new adventure awaits the group – the Torres del Paine (towers of del Paine).
The three granite spires nearly 3,000m high are the region’s trademark. The national park in the Chilean part of Patagonia covers some 2,400sq km, with its wild landscape shaped by turquoise-coloured lakes, pristine deciduous forests, snow-covered peaks, fjords, raging rivers, waterfalls and glaciers.
At the visitors’ centre, hikers face a choice between two trek circuits, labelled “W” and “O”. The latter covers a distance of 130km, taking eight days and requiring trekkers to surmount altitudes of up to 4,500m. The trails are remote and there are few protective shelters. Hikers have to carry their own provisions and tents.
The “W” trek circuit is 70km, reaching as high as 2,500m and taking four days. Along the way there are a few simple hotels, shelters and camping grounds offering full meals, so no provisions have to be carried.
Our group has chosen the four-day tour. The first day is a challenge right off, but it’s rewarding because it leads right to the picture-postcard panorama of Chile. To reach the lookout point Mirador de las Torres at the glacial lake at the foot of the Torres del Paine cliffs, it takes 9km of uphill climbing, to around 1,200m.
The granite needles evolved more than 10 million years ago. Later, Ice-Age glaciers formed the rock towers, above the tops of which condors not infrequently can be seen flying their rounds.
The next day: A somewhat less taxing route through a hilly landscape along the stunningly beautiful Nordenskjold Lake. On the right, countless waterfalls plunge down the steep sides of the Cuernos cliffs. The name comes from the horn shape of the peak and, in terms of visual beauty, the Cuernos need not shy from comparisons with the Torres del Paine.
The third day means rising early. The morning sky is a fire-red. After an hour-long trek the heavy backpacks can be set down in Campamento Italiano (Italian camp) and traded for a smaller pack for the day’s excursion to the lookout point Mirador Britanico. The hike takes three hours each way.
Mighty thunder resounds ominously through the dark forests. However, it’s not an approaching thunderstorm, but avalanches plunging from the glaciers up on the mountain peaks. Over and over, almost every 10 minutes, huge masses of ice slide down the steep walls to mix with the waterfalls. The sky above the basin of the Vallée del Francés is looking ominous, while the climb means having to scramble across a boulder field. But once at the top, all the effort is forgotten. The mountain scenery with the Cuernos massif is like something out of a picture book, looking out over the seemingly endless Patagonian forests.
Enormous glacier tongue
The final day’s trek is child’s play compared with the previous stages. Supposedly only four hours’ walk. But nobody does it – how can they, when more and more bright blue ice floes come floating up on the lake of the Grey Glacier, all needing to be admired?
Finally, one is standing before a gigantic wall of ice. The glacier tongue is part of the South Patagonian ice field, the largest ice surface in the southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica. The Grey Glacier alone is 28km long.
From the Grey campsite an excursion boat takes trekkers to Hotel Lago Grey, where shuttle buses to Puerto Natales are available. The boat passes the enormous ice walls, best admired at close range with a “Chilean Pisco Sour” in hand. And of course, the cocktail based on the Chilean national drink is served with glacier ice. – MANUEL MEYER/dpa