Saddle Up: Horseback Riding in Chile's Torres del Paine

It's not naïve to think that your vacation can live up to your fantasy. The particulars of any journey will remain unknown until your feet meet foreign soil—and so it should; these details make each trip a true adventure. But in the case of Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, those grandiose notions of what will be are matched, if not exceeded, by the massive, rugged beauty of its Patagonian landscape. And the operative term is massive: the national park stretches over 59,000 acres—a hiker's playground beyond compare, but for a full exposure, we recommend you take to this land on horseback, much like the Spanish conquistadors did some 500 years ago.
According to legend, Torres del Paine's signature image, an ominous pair of granite horns, originated from an evil serpent named Cai Cai who caused a flood and killed the warrior tribe inhabiting the region. The snake turned the tribes' bodies into stone and thereafter created the lurching, 6,300-foot Cuernos del Paine. Beyond these recalcitrant pillars, an intricate series of trails weave through glistening lakes, sprawling glaciers, gushing waterfalls, and a rapidly growing wildlife population.
The private road on the north shore of Lago Sarmiento, accessible via horseback, provides astonishing vistas without the congestion. Unfettered by noise, herds of Guanaco and flocks of flamingo gather on the nearby plains. From Laguna Linda, it's a straight gallop to the Cuernos. Ride south for two hours to Refugio Pehoé for the night. Start the next day with a morning gallop to the Grey Peninsula, leading to Gray Glacier ice field, where enormous chunks of ice drop into Grey Lake with the sound of thunderous applause. Although Grey is the most visited glacier, the stunning spectacle is worth braving the camera-wielding hordes. Both Zapata Glacier, directly south of Grey, and Los Perros Glacier (near Dickinson Glacier, on the oft-avoided 10-day circuit) are rarely visited, so riders usually have the entire expanse to themselves.
Once you've circumnavigated the Torres, gallop through Ascencio Valley directly to the floor of the granite massif of El Paine. And after the long hike up this giant spire, the canter down to Refugio del Torres for a last spectacular sunset against the austere "torres" will feel all the more revitalizing.
Your steed also provides easy access to the park's most remote hikes, such as around Lagos Paine, Dickinson (north of Lago Grey), and the popular "W" trek, whose Valle Francés offshoot awards the willing with views of both the 10,000-foot Paine Grande to the west and Cuernos del Paine to the east. Then rope the horses and navigate the nearby Lake Pehoé aboard a catamaran. On the lake's shore, Salto Grande, a formidable waterfall so powerful that it recently destroyed an iron bridge, drops from Lake Nordenskjöld.

Published: 10 Feb 2003 | Last Updated: 3 Dec 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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