Journey to the End of the World

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Just a three-hour flight south of Santiago is the town of Punta Arenas, the regional capital of the Chilean Antarctic. At 8309 miles from my native Tunbridge Wells, it’s safe to say I’ve never been this far away from home.

Punta Arenas is one of three cities in the world, along with Ushuaia in Argentina and Puerto Williams in Chile, to brand itself as the “southernmost city” to boost its tourist appeal. Whilst not technically as southern as the other two, it’s the largest of the settlements and is where my adventure in Patagonia began.

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Racking up the air miles

Upon arrival, my trusty companion Holly and I quickly discovered that there isn’t much to do in Punta Arenas. It’s a bizarre town, with colourful houses spread out in grid formation around the main square and empty streets home to little more than a few supermarkets, pharmacies and hiking gear shops. It soon became obvious that the main reason for visiting Punta Arenas is its proximity to Patagonia’s breathtaking nature spots, and little else!

Our next stop was Puerto Natales, a smaller, quainter town a three-hour bus ride to the north which would bring us closer to Chile’s famous Torres del Paine National Park. It’s most known for the ‘W’ circuit, a four to five-day hike spanning the park’s main attractions including Las Torres, Los Cuernos, Valle Francés and Glacier Grey. Given our time restraints and academic commitments back in Santiago, we opted for a one-day trek to see the majestic granite Torres themselves, which as the name of the park suggests, are by far the highlight.

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Puerto Natales

The day of the hike, we zealously woke up at 6am, ready to catch our bus to the park entrance. Looking around at the other passengers, we were definitely the least prepared (I didn’t even have hiking boots!) but what we lacked in preparation, we made up for in enthusiasm and copious amounts of ham and cheese sandwiches. After another half-hour bus transfer to where our trek began, we finally set off at a leisurely pace around 10.30am.

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A scenic start

The trek started off gently, meaning we could enjoy beautiful views over the valleys without working up too much of a sweat. Two hours later, after traipsing through forests and tempting fate on several dubious-looking bridges across streams and waterfalls, we arrived at refugio chileno, one of the cabins where trekkers doing the ‘W’ can lodge as a more luxurious alternative to camping in the wild.

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Valleys for days

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Playing peekaboo- can you spot the Torres?

The last stretch entailed much rockier terrain and a 45-minute climb up huge boulders at a steep incline. By the time we reached the top of the mirador, our exhaustion levels were at their peak, and we welcomed the opportunity to take a break by the Torres. Much to our disappointment, the towers were shrouded in thick white clouds, and for all we knew, inexistent.

What we came to see…

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…and what we actually saw:

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To add insult to injury, it dawned on us that we only had three hours and a half to get back to catch the bus if we didn’t want to spend a night in the wilderness amongst the pumas, foxes, and condors. At this point, the adrenaline kicked in and after a quick photoshoot, we marched off in determination and managed to complete the descent in just over two and a half hours. Naturally, it was only on our way down that the clouds began to clear…

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Holly on a mission

The next day, we headed back to Punta Arenas and recovered just in time for our upcoming penguin tour to Isla Magdalena, an island home to a colony of approximately 120,000 penguins. One of the four types found in Chile, the Magellan penguin inhabits the island from September to April for breeding and moulting season before returning back to the high seas of the Atlantic and Pacific to feed.

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PINGÜINOS

The penguins are friendly but not overly forthcoming, sometimes retreating to their little caves if you linger for too long. It was great to see the penguins at different stages of the moulting process.  Also included in the tour was a quick visit to Isla Marta to see some sea lions. If you’re lucky, you also get to see dolphins and whales whilst on the boat.

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In my happy place

Overall, Patagonia was an amazing experience; whilst we weren’t blessed with the best weather, we escaped the rain, saw some breathtaking views and got to see my favourite animal in their natural habitat! Soon I’ll be going to Argentina and planning more trips so keep an eye out for my next posts- thanks for reading!

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