The headwind is unrelenting. It takes me an hour to pedal just three kilometres — sixty minutes of grinding low gears, head dipped, eyes averted as if unwilling to embrace the challenge ahead. Eventually, I accept defeat and U-turn to effortlessly freewheel back along the road, the wind behind me, and seek refuge in a ramshackle wooden hut I spotted an hour earlier. Today I’ll pace between its draughty walls and peer out through its windows of cracked glass that rattle in weathered frames. Patagonia is about seizing opportunities, so I’ll bide my time, and if the wind doesn’t subside, I’ll unfurl my foam mat and sleeping bag on the bare wooden floorboards and tear open a Tetrapack of Gato Negro wine.
The wine tasted good.
That was 21 years ago — my first stab at riding bikes though the wild, seemingly untameable landscape of Torres del Paine National Park. It was heaven, and it was hell. But time is a good healer of scars and now, more than two decades later, I’m once again battling the fierce Patagonian wind as it snatches angrily at the bike that, this time, is suspended across my back. You cannot see the wind; only hear it coming and feel its effect, and each successive gust closes in like a snarling monster rising from its lair. I watch the bushes ahead bend as another gust heads my way and I hunker down, dropping to the ground as an invisible pressure wave surges over me, dragging up old memories of defeats suffered among these battlefields and making me ask what the fuck I’m doing back here again.
But however challenging the wind may be, at least it’s consistent — it’s perhaps one of the few things that is among the constant flux of visitors cramming its trails and newly renovated refuges. The mighty rock towers that dwarf them operate on a geological time scale, but us humans are in a hurry, and we fill the park with countless visitors and update its hotel infrastructure to accommodate them. This time there are no cracked window panes or ramshackle wooden huts bookending each day of failure or success; just expensive bunkhouses with duvets supplied. It’s the price of popularity: dirtbag backpackers need not apply.
"Its dramatically spiky peaks, topping out at 3000 metres, jut abruptly from a lumpy sea of golden meadows"
Torres del Paine has been the gem in Chile’s wilderness-studded crown since the National Park’s creation in 1970. Its dramatically spiky peaks, topping out at 3000 metres, jut abruptly from a lumpy sea of golden meadows, while icebergs calved from the towering faces of glaciers drift across turquoise lagoons at their base. Such iconic landscapes score countless front covers on the world’s travel guides and Sunday supplements, so it’s unsurprising that the park has become a Mecca for hikers and cycle tourists willing to baton down the hatches and brave its fickle weather, all for an injection of type two fun and a lifetime of Instagram likes.
And I’m no different.
The park’s guarantee of adventure and life-affirming experiences to be sought among its gob-smacking landscapes has convinced me to return, again. I’ve endured its meteorological mood swings on two previous occasions, and however unlikely it seems in retrospect, both involved bikes — the first, riding its dirt roads during a year-long bike tour, and the second in 2008 mountain biking the trails that skirt the park’s outer fringe. But this time it’s different. This time I’m riding bikes on trails in the very heart of the park; something that has scarcely, if ever, been done before. But now I’m here, I can’t help but wonder if I should be.
I’ve come with Matt Hunter, Rene Wildhaber, Euan Wilson and Matty Miles and together we add five more people to the reported 300,000 that already flock to the park each year, mostly in the summer months between December and March. Some make the day trip on guided bus tours from Puerto Natales, 150 Kilometres away to the south, but many are here to hike just a couple of the Park’s waymarked trails. Both these popular trails run right past the Hosteria las Torres outside which we’re now sitting, beers in hand. Overpriced or not, our beers are well earned; This morning we tried to scale the nearby Cerro Paine, a 1300 metre ascent, that frustratingly but mercifully proved fruitless.
Beaten back by the wind just 200 metres shy of its scree-covered summit, we let our bikes run fast and loose back down the same narrow ribbon of singletrack we’d hiked up.
Three hours up became half hour down and on both ascent and descent we didn’t encounter another soul. Not so for hikers on the trail that faces us on the opposite side of the plunging Rio Ascensio valley. Forming the middle section of the ‘W’ trek to Camp Torres, this trail is awash with colourful hikers. From our vantage point they look like busy, purposeful ants.
"Ferocious at times, merely persuasive at others, the westerly wind that tears across this wild place whips its picture postcard turquoise-blue lakes into foaming monsters"
The unexpected solitude on Cerro Paine is explained by the fact that the trail we ride sits just off the radar of most trekkers. In fact, most of Paine’s hikers tread just two trails — the 5-day ‘W’ point to point, or the 9-day ‘Paine Circuit’ circumnavigation of the park’s most dramatic peaks. No matter how many words are written extolling the virtues of the park’s other eight trails, these two trails have become bucket-list experiences and their users are driven by agendas and boxes to tick. And while our bikes make us stand out from the hikers, we are really no different. The endorphin-release of new experiences fuels my own wanderlust and always has, so when I learned that some of the Paine’s most centrally located trails had been recently opened up to mountain bikers, I jumped at the opportunity to ride them.
Back in 2008 riding trails at the heart of Torres del Paine never entered my ambitions, anticipating that the sheer numbers of hikers would make the stop-start experience too frustrating. But now all recollections of being blown from my bike on previous visits quickly became downgraded to over-embellished story telling. Like anyone, I need little excuse to immerse myself in the majesty of Torres del Paine. Our trip comes as a result of the efforts of Punta Arenas-based guide Javier Aguilar, who having guided treks in the park, aspired to imbibe his own mountain biking with the same eye-candy rewards and character building challenges that elevate the Torres del Paine experience above the ordinary for hikers. But knowing the access limitations imposed by Chile’s National Park administration CONAF on most of the park’s public land, Javier turned instead to the private estancia owners, whose ranches occupy a serious chunk of Paine’s prime real-estate, Cerro Paine included.
For three days we base ourselves at the Hosteria las Torres, swallowing its elevated prices for the privilege of sleeping in a six-bed dorm in the very heart of the park’s towering peaks. And we push up Cerro Paine, twice, before retreating to ride an undulating trail north alongside the Rio Paine to Camp Serron — the only part of the classic Paine Circuit that cuts across private land, and so has permission to mountain bike. We share the Hosteria’s busy dining room with 130 other guests, swilling expensive Chilean wine and choosing from a menu of local lamb or vegan options. It’s a far cry from huddling in a draughty old wooden shack and chugging from a Tetrapak.
And then we turn our attention to the Lazo ranch on the southern edge of the park, another estancia that offers us the same jaw-dropping vistas of the Paine’s rugged peaks from more empty trails. It’s just five days, but it’s five days that leave boxes ticked, ambitions fulfilled and life-affirming experiences shared. With Javier at the helm, we’ve pioneered trails and no doubt others will follow — echoing Torres del Paine’s mantra since the first British tourists arrived in the 1880’s.
Undoubtedly there are quieter, and certainly meteorologically more bike-friendly places to ride than Torres del Paine. But there are quieter places to hike too, and yet still they come, not surprisingly. Torres del Paine delivers a unique experience. But with its popularity still growing, and with talk of the authorities limiting future numbers, this jewel in Chile’s crown has become a paradox. From above treeline on Cerro Paine, I looked down at the vast rolling swathe of wilderness stretching out as far as I could see, and also at the incessant buzz of vehicles arriving and departing at the Hosteria nestled at the foot of the mountain. Tragic, devastating wildfires, caused by careless campers aside, I wonder what impact we are having on the park itself. We all tread — or pedal— the same limited trails, and camp or sleep in the same few hostels and hotels and the rest of the park remains untouched — an untamed or untameable wilderness left to the mercy of the wind.
Nestled between the warring oceanic pressure systems of the Pacific and Atlantic, Chile’s Torres del Paine is shaped by wind. Ferocious at times, merely persuasive at others, the westerly that tears across this wild place whips its picture postcard turquoise-blue lakes into foaming monsters and sculpts trees into twisted, tormented land art. It is perhaps the most unlikely place to ride a bike or camp, but I keep coming back.
Mountain biking through this wild landscape is enchantment found. The challenges and rewards that fill every ride are Torres del Paine’s irrepressible allure, and explain its rise to fame among the adventurous. We are just five among a rising numbers of tourists, all coming, seeing and leaving with senses ablaze and wind-leathered skin.
Twenty one years ago I never foresaw returning to ride singletrack at the epicentre of Patagonia, but then through that cracked window pane of a wooden shack I never foresaw the rise in popularity of the park either. But if visitor numbers are limited, then further price rises and exclusivity will surely follow, placing the Torres del Paine experience further out of reach for budget backpackers, independent climbers and dirtbag cycle tourists - the very demographic that put it on the traveller’s map to begin with.
Change is happening in Torres del Paine, but one thing remains constant, and it blows from the West.
Do It Yourself:
Torres del Paine is one of the most incredible landscapes you’ll ever see or ride bikes through. There is no other reason needed to visit.
Peak season is January – February but the park is accessible from October – April. Temperatures vary from 5 C to 20 C and you can expect any weather at any time, from snow to cloudless sunny days. Javier Aguilar runs his own guiding company www.patagoniamtbtrails.com from the southern city of Punta Arenas, where there are more trails. H+I Adventures offer 4 days riding in Torres del Paine as part of their already popular Chile program that starts among the volcanoes further north. See www.mountainbikeworldwide.com for details.