Torres del Paine, Chile

You need to be in good shape to get the most out of Torres del Paine National Park. It is a hikers’ world. Backpackers extract the most out of the experience because they get into and around and through the extraordinary beauty of this craggy massif of granite and sedimentary rock. Limited in time and youth, I did not do the seven-day circuit of the massif, but I hiked two challenging day routes, including what is generally considered the most difficult, the trail to the foot of the torres, or towers in English. It’s a nine-mile trek with a total 4,000-foot gain. The last kilometer is steep and hard, but the payoff is worth it:

Like everything that pokes above ground level in these parts, a couple of hairs north of the fearsome Roaring Forties in latitude, the massif is blasted by gale-strength winds. It is so impressive that experiencing the gusts that can knock you over is worth a visit in itself, and far better than a roller coaster because its nature in its

Torres del Paine is a dance of light and shadow, of rainbows and glaciers, of guanacos and pumas, of soaring buzzards and eagles that surf the storm. It is erosion and change and elemental forces. A human feels small on this stage. Where it’s flat, the pampas feels like an ocean, as U.S. pioneers in stagecoaches described the Great Plains. Beret-topped gauchos in heavy parkas come and go on horseback, providing color. But they don’t ride like our cowboys nor do they look like them. More like Andalusian horsemen I know from Spain, a riding style that seems more a part of the horse rather than a rider on the horse. Like mythical centaurs. I wondered if they ever dismounted. Whenever I saw one, wind whipped his clothing. Dressed in so many layers, he was shaped like an egg. Or maybe the gauchos just eat and drank a lot, which is understandable in this climate.

Tierra Patagonia, the hotel I stayed in, looks a part of the terrain, or a sinuous wing hovering just above it. You see sheep grazing on the land through every hotel window. The hotel feels like a cross between a Swiss 5-star hotel and an alpine hostel. The guides are friendly fixtures. Full of youth, life, energy and excitement, they rally the guests to challenging feats or simply to comfortable drives through the magnificent landscape. People don’t interact much unless they’ve become friends during excursions. They pass by your table at dinner the night before they leave, and you scribble contact info, say a warm goodbye, “yes, let’s exchange photos,” and then they fade into the mist of a poor memory. Nice people, self-selected by the kind of destination it is.

But the animals I loved most in Patagonia were not the humans but the sheep and guanacos. They dot the land like juniper dots Georgia O’Keefe’s northern New Mexico landscapes. I loved watching the eagles soar in the wind and streak across the sky, like windsurfers on a broad reach, or loop skyward on thermals, a sharp eye out for infirm guanacos, their favorite prey. A guide told me that when a baby is born, the 10 or so females in a herd encircle it until it is able to run from eagles fast with the herd.