When home is a beautiful 35 degrees C during July, travelling to the other side of the world when it’s in the depths of winter probably isn’t the best idea.
It was quite possibly a crazy idea to honeymoon in the southern hemisphere in the grip of winter. But the Fates (teachers’ working hours) decided that we must travel in July: the depths of Patagonian winter. So, off we went.
And while it was certainly the coldest place I’ve ever experienced, it was a wonderful relief from the sticky, clammy, mosquito-riddled air of Malta. Acclimatising wasn’t so difficult: it’s all about adding clothing one layer at a time.
My first thought when we landed at Punta Arenas, capital of the Magallanes region of Chile and technically the southernmost ‘city’ in the world, was: this is cold. Cold, but undeniably beautiful. The low buildings, the muted architecture and the quaint high street reminded me very much of a Welsh town. It was surreal to be so far from all that is familiar, yet to feel so familiar. I half expected to find a little bakery selling Cornish pastries and tea, but sadly, not.
Punta Arenas was just a short stopover after our night flight, before we had to undertake the mammoth journey into the heart of the Torres del Paine National Park. Three and a half hours in a coach to Puerto Natales clinging to the edge of the park, then another three hours into no-man’s land. We were prepared for the cold, and we were prepared for the journey.
Torres del Paine is spectacular in summer, I’m sure. But I found it to be absolutely breath-taking in winter. The winter has several habits: of leaving the sun in bed until practically noon and tucking it in bed for an early night, for wrapping mountains in duvets of permanent cloud. Winter in Malta is a little…damp.
Whilst our short stay next to the beautiful Lago Grey didn’t give us a vast amount of time to wander off, we found just enough to do within trekking distance, and perhaps the more predictable yet generally biting cold conditions worked in our favour. We were lucky enough to avoid any hint of rain or the wind that we heard could be so ferocious.
The winter fog made for a spectacular lakeside walk, one in which the ground and the grass is frozen in place by a layer of frost, the beautiful yellows turned to the softest sand colour. You can walk straight through the mist without realising, until you feel a slight tickle of moisture on the exposed part of your face, and then, if you look behind you, you can’t see the hotel anymore.
The muted tones of winter are gorgeous (as I talked about in my previous post) and winter made them even more spectacular when the clouds almost inexplicably rushed away, to leave a perfect cerulean blue sky, intangible blue glaciers and golden yellows. Clear sky blessed us for a whole day, making the temperature that little bit more bearable and enabling us to take in some truly once-in-a-lifetime scenery.
All this said, I wouldn’t take trekking in Patagonia in winter lightly. The weather can change in an instant and we were lucky: just a week before the temperature had plummeted to -10 and much lower unleashing hellish snowstorms. If you have excursions or hikes planned, then fickle winter can very easily mess up your plans. And if you don’t wrap up warm, you’ll regret it.
However, another advantage to wintering in the Torres is that you’ll see very few fellow tourists. For myself and my husband, artist and writer on our secluded honeymoon adventure, people were the very last thing we wanted to see. I was more than grateful to avoid hordes of backpackers and hippy types, and was glad I was able to enjoy the beauty of this place without interruption.
Here are our top tips for wintering in Patagonia:
1. Don’t take your gloves off. Seriously, don’t. It hurts. If you must take photos, find a device that doesn’t require much fine dexterity of the finger tips.
2. Don’t wait for the sun. The sun is lazy down here, so don’t wait till 10am to get out of bed. Get up early, get creative while it’s still dark and tranquil. Go have breakfast and watch as the sun acts like some sulky teenager, slowly dragging itself into a barely vertical state.
3. Likewise, you’d better make sure you have something to do in the evenings. By about 5.30pm the sun starts to crawl back to bed, so unless you want to, you’d best fill your time with writing, painting and drinking pisco sour. Or hope there’s a good film on. Nights can be long and lonely down here.
4. Stargaze. This one is a must. The days may have been shrouded like Turin, but after about 10pm the skies cleared to reveal a spectacular black sky simply littered with stars and wisps of the Milky Way.
5. Get up high. Just a short hike from us was the Mirador Ferrier, a stunning lookout point over Lago Grey. Find a trail where you can ascend into the heights of Patagonia and check out the views.
6. Keep your eyes out for condors. Bouncing along on a catamaran I saw those stunning fingered wingtips, and I knew straight away what I was looking at. I grabbed the camera and luckily, but barely, it caught not one, but a breeding pair of Andean condors nesting on the lakeside cliffs.
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