January 26, 2023
Our rustic room’s window looked out over the mountains and as the sun rose, it cast pink upon the snowy peaks. It was cold in the room because the heat from the wood stove downstairs on the other side of the building didn’t reach our room. We were still recovering from our sore throats but another negative Covid test assured us at least that wasn’t what ailed us. Soon, we smelled coffee and after luxurious hot showers, we had a simple breakfast downstairs with a young dentist and his girlfriend from the U.S. as we planned our day.
The refugio was just outside the park’s borders and we headed to the entrance right after breakfast. The usual Patagonian rain/light snow was spitting on and off as we drove. We were in an entirely different section of the park now and the road soon passed alongside what many consider to be Torres del Paine’s (indeed, one of the world’s) prettiest lake, Lake Pehoe. As if the turquoise lake weren’t pretty enough, as we rounded a bend, suddenly the magnificent towers came out of the clouds directly ahead of us.
We weren’t well enough for a long hike but we sought out a short one, Mirador Pehoe, overlooking the lake. We bundled up and started up a trail, unsure if it was the correct one, and met a cheerful Swiss hiker along the way who informed us we were on a different trail and told us where we needed to go.
For now, wrong or right, the trail was beautiful with views over the lake and out toward the towers, so we stayed the course. After hiking about a mile, the trail turned away from the lake and mountain views and headed steeply upward. We decided to turn back. To reach the correct trail we’d have to drive back a little from the direction we came, so we decided to do the “correct” trail on the way back to our refugio later in the day.
As we drove deeper into the park, an occasional small bus or car shared the road but despite the absolutely spectacular views of the mountains, there couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people in this whole section of the park. The wind was predicted to be strong today and we were about to find out just how strong the winds could be at Torres del Paine. As we drove, the wind kicked up dust from the road and I steered hard to keep the little Renault from being blown off the road altogether. By now, the poorly sealed doors had let in a thin layer of dust as we rattled and squeaked down the potholed road.
Suddenly off to our left, we saw a low blue waterfall in the near distance emptying into a lake and determined to find a road to it. But first, we stopped for a couple of German hitchhikers who were heading in the same direction and were ecstatic not to have to walk a few extra miles. As we dropped them off, two young Argentine men asked if we could take them less than a mile farther – to the Salto Grande waterfall we were looking for, it turned out – and we told them to jump in. With so few vehicles in the park and a high number of backpackers trying to reach the trails, it seemed there were as many hitchhikers as there were cars.
The wind was really howling by now. At a parking lot for the Salto Grande waterfall, people were stumbling against the wind and we decided to put on our balaclavas to keep the hair out of our faces. It was a good move. The waterfall was about half a mile away down a dirt trail.
Along the way, we stopped at a sign advising of potentially dangerous wind on the trail. The sign said to expect 80-plus kph (50-plus mph) wind at most times. Past the sign, the wind became ridiculous as we leaned into it.
At the waterfall it was pandemonium. The wind was pushing us around like toys. We had to hang on to a wooden rail overlooking the waterfall and I couldn’t let go to get my phone out to take a photo, until the wind took a three-second break to only 40 mph.
I was seriously worried that Susan might be blown off the platform and it was all I could do to keep myself upright. Our balaclavas were working but the wind had ceased being a novelty and was now bordering on dangerous as we stumbled back to the car. I’d never felt such brutal wind in my life and we collapsed in the car panting before we could take off our layers. The car rocked with the gusts as we rested. After peeling off our sweaters and jackets, we looked at each other and grinned. Que divertido! How fun!
We left the parking lot and continued up the road a mile until Susan asked me to stop so she could take a photo. As she opened her door, the gale-force wind caught it and as she tried to stop the door from being ripped off its hinges, it physically pulled her out of the car as she yelled for help. She was stuck, unable to close the door and powerless to get back inside. Just then the gust let up and using all her strength she was just able to get back in the car with a terrified look on her face. This was wind at a higher level.
We continued our way deeper into the park, stopping for a while at an overlook where four other cars and a tour bus had pulled over. We stepped out of the car to check out the view and quickly realized we needed to bundle up again against the still-fierce wind before following the short trail at the overlook. When we returned to our car, we found it to be blocked in by another tour bus. It didn’t bother us much since we were parked in a sunny spot with an excellent view and it gave us a chance to rest and recover from the wind for a while.
Soon, the other cars and tour buses left and we lingered a bit longer, enjoying the serenity of having the stunning spot all to ourselves. The towers were at times shrouded in thick clouds then bathed in sunlight, neither lasting for more than a few minutes.
From there, we headed toward the area of the park known for puma sightings and drove by several lakes where we saw a few herds of guanacos, which tend to be the puma’s main diet. Unfortunately, no pumas showed themselves.
We also looped back past Laguna Armada where we enjoyed another visit with the pink flamingos and a somewhat clearer view of the Towers than we’d had the day before. A lone guanaco stood by the shore of the lake.
The long drive through the nearly empty park was just what we needed. We were glad it wasn’t being overrun by visitors; with the difficulty of getting to this part of Patagonia coupled with the bad roads, it seemed to be in no danger of being over-loved.
On the way back, we found the Mirador Pehoe trailhead we were looking for earlier and set out. Halfway up, we were being pushed around by constant 30+ mph winds and actually began to worry about being blown off of the steep trail by the higher gusts.
The spectacular view of Lago Pehoe with the jagged snow-covered peaks behind helped us overcome the fear until eventually we were forced back down just shy of the summit. By now, we’d had our fill of wind. Too much of it can really get to you and between the cold disheveled feeling and the constant roar, we were ready for some peace.
Heading back toward our refugio, we stopped for another couple of hitchhikers. They were heading to Puerto Natales (the town where we got gas the day before), at least an hour and a half away. We weren’t going far enough so they declined the ride since they were at a good spot where cars could easily stop. We felt bad for them, as there were few cars on the road and pretty soon it would be getting dark.
An hour later, we found a vastly overpriced dinner at one of the few hotels/restaurants in the Rio Serrano Valley near our refugio and chatted with a Scottish couple over a couple of small dishes. The wind was still howling back at our room, but now we were inside and could relax by the wood stove and thaw our cold, wind-blown faces.