You have to keep your head down. Despite the spray-laden wind, it’s tempting to lift it above the rim of the boat and look ahead, so you can see the foam-capped waves racing past as the Zodiac inflatable roars upstream. Soon, in the distance, a towering peak of rock rises up. As you get closer you see shattering precipices and giant towers dusted with snow.
This is Torres del Paine, the citadel of Chile’s epic south and one of the wildest national parks in the world. When the inboard of the Zodiac inflatable is finally switched off, all you can hear is the fury of the wind. The waves die down and the water reflects the massif in a pool as perfect as you could imagine, fringed by gnarled trees and blasted by bitter winds. Close by is a huge glacier, an offshoot of one of the largest ice fields in the world.
Then you set off walking, shifting the weight of your pack to get comfortable. There are other hikers around you, too – this isn’t deserted wilderness by any means – but the largeness of the landscape can more than accommodate everyone. High up to the east, and overlooking the scrub and blasted forest, are the unnaturally sculpted Paine Towers themselves, and in front of you, dark-capped, are weird sculptures of the peaks of the Cuernos del Paine. If you’re lucky you’ll stumble across some guanacos, wild relations of the llama, or even a shy ñandú, the South American ostrich. But perhaps the best experience to be had here is simply to inhale the air, which is so crisp and thin that breathing is like drinking iced water.
Guided treks run to Torres del Paine from Puerto Natales, or you can travel to the park by bus or Zodiac.