11.18.2012 - 11.18.2012 57 °F
We sleep in until 8 and have breakfast in view of the mighty towers that we just yesterday hiked to. Our muscles still ache and our knees are sore when they bend, so we decide to take a leisurely drive through the park to see some of the other popular sights.
As we drive deeper into the park, we see a whole wide variety of different Patagonian wildlife on the hills and near the lagoons. There are herds of guanacos (which are a lot like alpacas, but seem to have shorter, lighter fur), foxes running through the bushes, flamingos along the shoreline, emus, hawks, and ducks. At one point, a family of emus, with about six or seven little babies, cross the road in front of our car to join a guanaco herd in grazing.
We stop next to Laguna Amarga to take some pictures and meet a couple from San Francisco that is also staying at Cerro Guido. They tell us that they came to Torres del Paine after a few days at Fitz Roy, Argentina and then talk about the great sailing in the Bay area, should we decide to move there. They had hiked to the towers yesterday as well and, like us, are taking an easy day just driving around the park.
We continue on our way south along Lago Nordenskjold to Salto Grande, a famous waterfall within the park that is the emptying point from Lago Nordenskjold to Lago Pehoe. As soon as we step out of the car, the wind punches us in the face and throws dirt and gravel all over us. I wrap my arms around my body as we try to walk the path toward the waterfall. It feels as if we are in a wind tunnel, and we might be blown off our feet with every step. This is the famous Patagonia wind, and it does not disappoint.
By the time we make it to the lookout over the waterfall, the wind is so strong that we have trouble staying upright. Around us, other visitors take wide stances and try to brace themselves but end up stumbling and holding onto each other. We can't hear a word the other says, even when just a foot apart. We burst out into hysterical laughter at this, at how a wind stronger than any we've ever felt before has reduced us to stumbling over the gravel and yelling futilely into the air.
The waterfall is beautiful, bright turquoise water that, in the wind, froths and throws mist onto the onlookers. A path leads down closer to the falls, and another jets up a small hill for what I imagine are great views of the mountain range, but we just don't feel safe trying to walk either of those. We have trouble merely staying on our feet; we are in no shape to walk down near the water or up on a hill in this kind of wind.
Back in the car, we drive south along Lago Pehoe and are captivated by the views of the famed Cuernos del Paine behind the crystalline turquoise water of the lake, white caps curling over the waves. The landscape here is so dramatic and extreme, it literally takes our breath away.
The road leads through the remnants of last year's devastating wildfire, which consumed more than 30,000 acres of land in the heart of the park. The grass has made a slight comeback—the colors of spring peek through what was an ashy, burnt landscape just one year ago. Most devastating, however, is the loss of the native trees, trees that will take more than 100 years to regrow. From what I’ve read, these Patagonian forests were lush and beautiful before the fire, but today they are somber, browned skeletons. This is a heartbreaking loss for the wildlife of the park as well as for the next generation of hikers—myself and Matt included—who will never see these forests in their rich beauty.
The fire had started when a young hiker carelessly burned his toilet paper in the middle of high winds and a dry spell within the park. The fire spread much quicker than authorities were able to contain it. Hikers were evacuated and the park remained closed for a long time after while the embers continued to smolder. Looking at the dead trees and destruction of so much natural habitat makes me extremely sad. I want to hate the hiker who did this to such a fragile ecosystem, but at the same time, all hikers in the park come here because they love nature and want to be immersed in it. I'm sure, as a fellow lover of the outdoors and the fabulous parks around the world, this man would be devastated by what happened and that he caused it.
We follow the road until we reach Salto Chico waterfall, located just behind Hotel Explora, which is the most expensive hotel in the area at about $800 per night. Just for the heck of it, we walk into the lobby and check out the restaurant area, wine bar and the comfortable sitting lounge with gorgeous views of the mountains and lakes. The cushiest couches and loveseats I've ever seen line a stylish room with wraparound windows facing the park. We sink into a couch and pretend for a minute that we are rich enough to afford a hotel like this.
As the day goes on, the wind gets stronger and stronger. Our noses and foreheads turn numb when we walk around outside and it's difficult to hold our cameras steady to take pictures. On our way out of the park, we stop at the ranger station and ask how strong the winds are today. The person working the station says that on a windy day like today, winds at Salto Grande are anywhere from 60- to 75-miles-an-hour, though likely on the higher side of that today.
We make our way back out of the park and return to Cerro Guido in time for lunch. The restaurant doesn't really have anything prepared for us to eat, so the chef puts together a special meal for us. He brings out delicious homemade cream of spinach soup with pistachios, which I eat with a plate of rolls. The main course is a salad with marinated tuna steak, hearts of palm, grilled zucchini and tomatoes. We eat our food and sip pisco sours while the wind rattles the windows next to us.
After lunch we relax in the room, soaking our muscles and napping before dinner. At about 7:30 we sit down for a meal of tartare and corn cakes; salad and rolls; carrot and ginger soup; lamb shank with a chocolate sauce and roasted rosemary potatoes (for me); sirloin with ratatouille and a red wine reduction (for Matt); and layers of chocolate bark, custard, and strawberries and blueberries for dessert.
We spend some time in Cerro Guido's lobby to use the Wi-Fi then settle down in our soft bed with a warm fire. There's something about being here in Patagonia, with the wide open spaces, breathtaking mountains, and bright blue lakes that reminds us of how small we are in this big, wonderful world.