Land of ice, wind, white rainbows

Explore the wilderness of Patagonia, with its windswept pinnacles and glaciers in the far south of Latin America

This is what the end of the world looks like. Walking in Patagonia, a place of wilderness in the far south of Latin America, I marvel at a white rainbow that arches over jagged mountains.

Much of Patagonia feels hyperreal, like the white rainbow, which is a rare cloud crafted by powerful winds into a curve in the sky.

Often, the landscape seems digitally transformed to fuse nature and fine-art photography, which heightens the sense that I am on an adventure to the rim of the world.

I have joined a friend and her far- flung family of 16 on vacation in Patagonia, which straddles Chile and Argentina. We spend six days inside Chile's Torres del Paine National Park.

The remoteness of the reserve - triple the size of Singapore and designated as a protected biosphere by Unesco - is deeply appealing.

  • Getting there

  • I fly on Qantas Airways, via Sydney, to the Chilean capital of Santiago, where I spend a couple of days exploring the city and resting after a 29-hour flight, before travelling to Patagonia.

    Travellers have several international flight options, including Singapore Airlines (via Barcelona, Spain, and Sao Paulo, Brazil), before switching to a LAN Airlines flight to Santiago. British Airways flies to Santiago via London.

    From Santiago, I take a 31/2-hour LAN Airlines flight southwards to Punta Arenas city in Chile. It is possible to fly into El Calafate in Argentina as well.

    A van, arranged with the Hotel Las Torres Patagonia where I stay, makes a five-hour shuttle on a scenic highway to the hotel.

    We see herds of guanaco - related to the llama - sprinting and jumping over fences. We also see flamingos, condors, black-necked swans and ostrich-like lesser rhea.

    We stop at a lonely ranch, the Cerro Negro (Black Hill), for lunch - a perfectly barbecued whole lamb - and to watch Merino sheep, meek and mild, being sheared.

    The ranch belongs to a Croatian family, the Kusanovics, who migrated to Patagonia in earlier decades, like other European settlers including Scandinavians and Germans.

    The Kusanovic family also owns the hotel, where we book an all-inclusive six-night stay with daily excursions, guides, rooms, meals, park fees and transfers.

    All-inclusive rates will start at US$1,160 (S$1,600) for a double room for two nights for the next season, stretching from September to April next year.

    The hotel, which is in the superior rather than luxury category, is on a splendid site inside the sprawling Torres del Paine National Park.

    There is a glass-encased bar with a view of the mountains; restaurants; a worthy mini museum on Patagonia wildlife, geology and history; and Wi-Fi.


    Touring Patagonia

    My Patagonia excursions were arranged directly with Hotel Las Torres Patagonia, where I spend six nights. Several companies that work with Singapore tourists have Patagonia itineraries as well.

    Jacada (www.jacadatravel.com) can customise a six-night luxury trip including three nights in the Torres del Paine National Park and glacier trekking for about $5,500.

    Country Holidays (countryholidays.com.sg) can also arrange private tours, such as a 14-day sojourn that includes the national park, the Chilean capital of Santiago, glacier gazing and the Iguazu Falls in Brazil. Prices start at $9,730.

    Lightfoot Travel (www.lightfoottravel.com) lists several itineraries, including a 14-day Glaciers And Fjords Of Patagonia vacation that starts at US$5,995.

    All prices are land costs, minus flights.


    Zika advisory

    Chile is not on the Health Ministry's current list of countries with a Zika virus outbreak or ongoing local transmission. Several Latin American countries are on its list, however. For more information, go to www.moh.gov.sg

Each day, I choose an excursion within the 2,275 sq km park, from glacier gazing to horse-riding on high terrain, from a folksy morning spent with Chilean baqueanos who work with horses to a solitary trek just beyond our hotel.

The morning I spot the splendid cloud, I am making my way on horseback and on foot to the Torres del Paine, a trio of cloud-wreathed granite peaks that dominate the park, soaring 2,800m into the sky.

HORSE AND ABYSS

Our day-long excursion begins with a 5.5km horse ride from Hotel Las Torres Patagonia (www.lastorres.com), our scenic base, up mountains and through beech forests.

While my blonde-chestnut mare, Naty, walks on a narrow mountain trail close to the abyss, I squelch my anxiety about heights and horses.

Intellectually, I know that riding a strong, fleet-footed horse is an ideal way to traverse the many lessaccessible parts of Patagonia.

I have to spur my inner reluctant- rider by remembering two short, fun, low-altitude rides earlier that week to a brilliant turquoise lake and up the pastoral slopes behind our hotel.

As Naty quickens her pace down a rocky, downhill part of the undulating trail, my sporty friend Doreen reminds me: "Your horse knows what it's doing."

In retrospect, that day best symbolises the edge-of-the-world experience that Patagonia is. It is impossible to forget the sensation of being suspended high above Patagonia and the marvellous scenery below Naty's hooves.

I can still see the flash of the pristine blue river, a long way down. The mountains are blue- green in the cool air of the Chilean autumn in March.

After 90 minutes, we dismount and trek uphill for 5km and two hours. A couple of snow flurries and the wonder of being so close to the three immense towers lighten the moment, for the last arduous kilometre resembles a rugged playground of boulders that we manoeuvre over and around with some effort.

The three peaks, the icons of the park, are sprinkled with powder snow. A milky blue lake glows at their base. Against this dreamscape, we have a hurried picnic lunch, however, as the wind is too icy for lingering.

CHILEAN COWBOYS

Ahead of my trip, I had e-mailed the hotel to book a slate of activities, none of them equine, over five days. I adjust my plans after sitting down with the excursion team, which sets up shop every evening at the hotel.

Several excursions involve a choice of either a horse-ride or trek to the natural attractions. A horse will speed me to remote places, while walking is an active, immersive pursuit of the outdoor life - so I try both options in the end.

I decide to start with a gentle introduction to the horses, when I spend a morning with the baqueanos or men who work with the hotel's 240 horses.

The mares, chosen for their docile nature - though I think they can be a little obstinate - work on a rotating schedule to ferry guests or goods in the park. On rest days, they roam the land like free-born creatures.

The baqueanos show us how the horses are shoed, which is frequent as the animals tramp over inhospitable terrain.

Soon, the Chilean cowboys and guests sip and bond over a cup of caffeine-rich mate, a bracing herbal tea popular in some South American countries.

Then the horses are saddled and it is Horse-riding 101 when we are tutored in the basics of controlling the horses with our reins. We set off on a quick ride to explore the gentle paths on the property.

That is a bit of practice before I spend a fuller morning riding to the windswept Lake Nordenskjold two days later.

I like the way my horse, Naty again, seems to think as she fords the streams, looking intently at the pure, glistening water and figuring a way to navigate the round stones.

ELUSIVE PUMA

Soon, we are at the vivid blue lake with its wind-whipped surface. The sensation of waves, wild wind, clouds in the scintillating sky, solitude and feisty movements of my horse meld wonderfully into a multi-sensory portrait of Patagonia, which has stayed with me.

On our way back, I ask my guide, Mr Javier Rivas Barra, 38, about the elusive pumas.

They hide in places such as the golden tufts of grass that our horses are passing, he says. He once spied a puma, metres away, while running as part of his training to be a mountain climber.

"Patagonia is very special for mountain-climbers all over the world,'' he says, noting that there is much potential to forge and name new mountain routes as Patagonia is less explored.

Mr Rivas Barra, who is setting up tour company Patagonia4Real soon to offer treks and local experiences including ranch stays, says: "Patagonia is so far. You feel its wildness - the winds from the Pacific, the strong rain, the open places."

Glaciers are another face of wild Patagonia. We get up close and personal with the Grey Glacier, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world's largest expanse of glaciers beyond the poles.

Grey Glacier, which rises to more than 30m and is melting and retreating every day, can be enjoyed in several ways. Some of us hike along a lovely trail to view it and most of us cruise close to its icy blue spires as well. The intrepid strap on boots with spikes to walk and climb its frosty lunar surface.

Each of these three excursions will highlight a fresh facet of the Grey Glacier.

On my trek, I first see the glacier from a wind-exposed cliff, from a distance. The icy wind blowing from the glacier is estimated to be 60 to 70kmh and this makes me think of the glacier not as an inert ribbon of ice, but as a force of nature.

Then on the 45-minute cruise to Grey Glacier, it is just us in the vessel and the glacier, a serrated wall of ancient ice with deep-blue crevasses and mud in places.

When we are closer, we see its bulbous surface, uncannily resembling the fantastical clouds of Patagonia above. On board, we sip pisco sour cocktails chilled with crystalline glacier ice.

Before and after the cruise, we walk on an extraordinary strip of gravelly land between two glacier- fed lakes. On one side, the water is milky green. But on the other side, the water looks steely blue.

While walking, someone asks me where Patagonia ranks among the beautiful places I have seen and I say: "Among the top three or four."

I also love the "park in the sky" filled with stars in South Island in New Zealand, Iguazu Falls in Brazil and Argentina, and the all-white Snow Country of Japan, while the wonder of the Grand Canyon in the United States never diminishes when I return.

UNCONQUERABLE GLACIER

I do not sign up for the glacier walk, but most of the millennials in our group do.

Mr Lucas Siow, 29, a bank analyst from Toronto, says the ice hike organised by Bigfoot Adventure Patagonia (www.bigfootpatagonia.com) is humbling.

"The glacier is unconquerable,'' he says. "It's a piece of nature without living things. Even algae doesn't survive. I could see for 4 to 5km, and the ice shelf is 350km."

The adventurers are in good shape and equipped with ice picks, helmets, crampons and harnesses. Crevasses, rivers, tunnels and lagoons form part of the glacial landscape.

The lagoons are irresistible for the wild child in our group, who plunges into one. Ms Louise Branth, 25, a client executive in a London branding consultancy, sees it this way: "If I don't do it, I will be thinking about it when I go back."

Patagonia, she says, is a humbling and hyper-real experience and it is her favourite family holiday by far.

She says: "It looks so perfect that it feels like something was done to it." She imagines she is in a "pastiche" - an artistic piece with a style that imitates another work, artist or era.

Her generation is constantly communicating what they do to someone else, she says. But in Patagonia, she does not believe the resplendent experiences can be fully shared in an Instagram post.

There is one day when nearly our entire group goes on a "Full Paine" excursion that highlights the main attractions in the park, including Salto Grande waterfall, a hanging glacier that resembles a condor in the Blue Masiff area and the glacier cruise.

SOLITARY TREK

One afternoon, I break away from the scheduled activities for a reflective solo trek on the trail behind our hotel.

I plan to walk to a lake, but a sense of direction is not my strong suit, and I veer into the hills somehow. Still, I love it and my senses are atingle under the bluest sky. I hear the rushing water of an unseen river. A skittish hare appears, a condor flies high.

It is hot, though Patagonia has a mild micro-climate that averages 22 deg C in the summer months.

An hour ago, the wind was howling. I think about how mercurial the weather is, with rain, sunshine, snow and merciless wind all possible within the day, and how these conditions colour the landscape.

I also think about how Patagonia reminds travellers of New Zealand, with both lands abounding in mythic The Lord Of The Rings scenery.

New Zealand is perhaps the softer face of the lonely hemisphere while Patagonia, with its endless sky, windswept vistas and layers of indomitable mountains, seems more like a curious mix of pastoral and mysterious, moody scenes.

Its intense isolation is also more akin in spirit to Mongolia and Kamchatka in the Russian far east.

Patagonia, hidden so deep in the southern hemisphere, is a step into the unknown where white rainbows are possible and life is an adventure every day.

• Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 22, 2016, with the headline 'Land of ice, wind, white rainbows'. Print Edition | Subscribe