Don’t eat the guanaco and go easy on the merlot: two pieces of advice that seem counterproductive to a trip through Chile. However, when you’re staying more than 2.4km above sea level, I advise soaking up all the tricks and tips to avoiding altitude sickness.
Recently, I chatted with Max Vera, the grandly titled Chief of Excursions at luxury lodge Tierra Atacama, about travelling at high altitudes. Based in San Pedro de Atacama, a village in Chile’s Atacama Desert, he helped me acclimatise with short, scenic walks and horse rides through landscapes that have been movie stand-ins for the moon, before I pushed up to the Geysers del Tatio, at 4.3km. To put that all into perspective, Latin America’s most visited site, Machu Picchu, in neighboring Peru, is the same altitude as San Pedro, at 2.4km.
Down the bottom of Chile, looking south toward Antarctica, Punta Arenas is at the confluence of the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, and has a subpolar, oceanic climate. Its average daytime temperature is 15 degrees and the surrounding ocean water is typically 2 degrees: no wonder no-one is swimming.
It’s the jumping off point north to the popular Patagonian adventures in Torres del Paine National Park and south to the Antarctic peninsula.
Thanks to our fabulous guide with Quasar Expeditions, we managed briefly to slip under the skin of this frontier town – where puffer jackets dominate the fashion scene, guanaco is on the menu, the waterfront wharves are covered in murals and the houses are painted bright pinks and yellows to counteract the heavy, grey skies.
A perfect day in Torres del Paine, Patagonia from sunrise to sunset, starts with dawn with the dirtiest Jeep, and continues with chasing guanacos through the highlands, nose running while clinging to a bolting horse tearing across icy plains, and all day watching snow clouds gather through the towers and teeth of the Paine massif on a winter adventure.
But the real reason we’re here is for the pumas of Patagonia. Nicknamed ‘ghost cats’ because they’re so elusive, they’re the reason we’re braving sub-zero temperatures, snowy afternoons and chill winds that tear down the Patagonian ice fields to claw at our faces.
I’m lucky enough to be able to say that it’s my second time in Torres del Paine national park, and my third time visiting Patagonia, twice on the Chilean side, and once on the Argentinean side.
This time, I travelled with Quasar Expeditions,
If you’re after a chilly, nose-running read on spotting these beautiful pumas, click here and (hopefully) enjoy!
Quasar Expeditions runs five-day Secret Season itineraries from $4300 a person. Puma-tracking itineraries cost from $5540, including a tracking fee and four- or five-star accommodation. See quasarex.com