On the bus ride to Puerto Natales, the bright landscape flies by: yellow grasses, rheas grazing, miles and miles of barbed wire fence, scrubby trees that look like neglected apple orchards. The town is an end-of-the-earth place, with simple, colorful houses and lots of end-of-day sunlight.
We take a bus to Torres del Paine National Park. There are views of the towers, snow-capped peaks, colorful valleys, lakes and lagoons. We board a ferry bobbing in a narrow lake of pale aqua water. It starts to rain almost as soon as we begin our hike, big fat drops that hit us like needles. But atop the ridge, there are incredible views of the lake, first with white caps on gray waves, later with pale blue hues. Closer to the glacier, bright blue icebergs float in the water. The glacier is brilliant white and blue with interesting textures at its calving face. All the way, the wind blows against us, threatening to knock me over.
Small wooden bridges lead us over rushing streams and through valleys where we are sheltered from the wind and where magenta and white foxglove bloom. Dandelions, daisies, and clover grow along the trail. Above, the snow-capped peaks are at times brilliant in sun and at other times shrouded in gray clouds. A caracara stands twenty feet from us, hopping along the ground on white legs, foraging for insects. A woodpecker drums at a fallen log, its black crest comically flipped back behind its head. A gray and bronze culpeo lounges near the side of the trail.
We walk back the way we came in misty morning light, stopping with a view of the glacier to find a rainbow stretching from Gray Lake to the glacier. We reach the place where we began the day before, then continue along the aqua blue lake, climbing grassy and flowery hills and dipping into a valley with silvery, skeletal trees. In the distance, the white trees rise up like the teeth of a comb in the mountain’s shadow. The lake is now dark gray, with white caps on the waves, and clouds move over the mountain peaks where glaciers slide down their slopes. In the forest, vegetation changes from bony trees to their living relatives. Shrubs with tiny white flowers line the path, holly-like. The trail grows muddy and the trees grow taller and closer together until we reach a suspension bridge over a gushing, glacier-fed stream. The wind blows the bridge and the water roars as we cross. Past the bridge, the stream splits in two to feed a lake below.
In the morning, the forest feels like a tropical montane rainforest. It is bright but drizzly, everything is lush and blooming, birds are everywhere, and when we come out of the trees, the views are of greenery and waterfalls and the aqua lake. The trail winds downhill until we reach a rocky beach of black and beige stones, where the aqua waves crash on the shore. The colorscape is perfect. I sit on the wet rocks and watch the waves before continuing on the trail.
The day grows hot—the sun is out and the sky is super blue—and three Andean condors soar above us. The view is always of the lake and the mountains in the distance, with hilly trails and stream crossings and suspension bridges and wildflowers. We stop a lot to lay in the sun and absorb the view.
Our last day hiking is very uphill. We walk along a glacial stream and through the forest, thickly green with a dark-dirt trail. Three Magellanic woodpeckers fly between old trees. Big rocks form both a stream bed and steps to climb, and soon we are above treeline, where the wind is whipping. We climb up a steep sandy hill and across a boulder field. It is cold and snowing at the base of the towers. They rise from a pool of seafoam green water, and there are misty clouds and snowflakes.
When we get back to the bottom, the big moon rises behind the clouds and hares jump through the meadow.