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April 4, 2009

Torres del Paine: Lago Sarmiento

Filed under: Chile 2009, Travel, UNESCO World Heritage — anotherheader @ 9:18 pm

Looking across Lago Nordenskjold towards the Horns in Torres del Paine

Looking across Lago Nordenskjold towards the Horns in Torres del Paine

Heading out from Hosteria Las Torres and crossing the Black Bridge, we turned southwest along the base of the collections of peaks that make up the massif of Torres del Paine.  The southeastern portion of the park is made up of rolling hills covered with golden grasses and studded with an amazing variety of lakes.  Torres del Paine is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.  It only takes a short time in the area to realize why this designation was given.

A guanaco

A guanaco

The lowlands of Torres del Paine are mostly treeless as a result of a large, relatively recent forest fire.  As a result, the sightlines from the road are continuously unobstructed and the views are locked-jaw dropping.  From the northern portion of the eastern side of the park, sighting up the Valle Ascencio gives views of the towers.  Further to the south, more of the massif can be seen with the “horns” and the glaciers coming into view.

We made it to the start of the day’s hike when the van let us off at a saddle between the low hills near the large lake, Lago Sarmiento.  The highlight of the hike was the wildlife, particularly the large numbers of guanacos (pronounced whah-NAH-coze), a grazing animal related to the llama.  At Torres del Paine, the guanacos were use to tourists and were not afraid.  Their numbers were staggering.  We saw hundreds on our short hike.  Unseen were the pumas but their presence was evident by the eaten and partially eaten remains of numerous guanacos along our route.  It looked like a killing field with all of the skeletons.  At one point, we came upon a recently killed, partially covered guanaco corpse.  I’m sure that cat had plans for the dead guanaco when the night came.  Tonight, this would not be a good spot for stargazing.

Time for a dirt bath

Time for a dirt bath

The park has numerous pumas, 25 to 40 depending on the guide you asked.  There have not been many problems with the cats and the people.  The cats had plenty to eat with the large guanaco population in the park.  Nevertheless, on our trek, I always tried to keep tasty looking slow people behind me.  That’s probably never a bad idea, no matter where you are.  And, after being penned up and fattened like cattle going to slaughter on the Navimag ferry, it is a detail I paid particular attention to.

Guanaco parts left by a puma on the killing field

Guanaco parts left by a puma on the killing field

Guanacos have an interesting social structure with one dominant male and one dominant female for 20-25 females.  Territories are marked with scat piles located on the perimeter by the females.  The remaining males roam alone.

“Kind of like us,” said our guide, sympathizing with the fate of the remaining males.

Female guanacos mate once a year, soon after giving birth.  They are almost always pregnant.  Ovulation only occurs 45 minutes into mating.  With at least 45 minutes each for 20 to 25 females, I’d guess that the dominant male guanacos must be looking to have their Viagra prescription refilled sometime during mating season!  At the end of the mating season, 10 or 11 months off must seem like a great idea.

A flightless rhea or Ñandú

A flightless rhea or Ñandú

Our trek continued amongst the yellow grass covered low hills.  We saw more wildlife including flightless rheas or Ñandús and Andean condors.  And, of course, we saw more guanacos.  If the guanacos were less attractive, their numbers at Torres del Paine would be described as an infestation!  In any event, it is good to know that all the hard work of the alpha males is paying off.

After stopping to see some cave drawings, the group continued on to the van.  When possible, Las Torres vans would relocate so the treks could be done as point to point walks to minimize retracing the route.  In the van, we headed back to the lodge to recharge and eat lunch.

Lago Sarmiento

Lago Sarmiento

Later, we headed back out across the Black Bridge for another trek.  This time we hiked from the park road through a gentle pass and on to the shores of Lago Sarmiento.  The weather had cleared, at least on the Patagonian standard, with only occasional sprits of rain and gusts of wind.  On the horizon, the skies were dark and threatening.  Gaps in the clouds allowed beams of sunshine to dramatically spotlight areas of the terrain all around us.

The trek continued to the irregular calcite boulder formations that lined shores of Lago Sarmiento.  Similar in composition to the calcium carbonate formations in Mono Lake in California, the jagged porous boulders are scattered about the shores of the lake.  After a break, we left the otherworldly side of the lake to ascend back up to the road and the van.

Calcite formations at Lago Sarmiento

Calcite formations at Lago Sarmiento

With vistas of Lago Nordenskjold, the horns of the massif, and a very sleepy grey fox, we headed back across the Black Bridge to the ranch.  Dinner with a bottle of the Carmenere (a forgotten French varietal that is now Chile’s distinctive varietal red wine) and a massage led to easy sleep.  Tomorrow would be our last full day in Torres del Paine.

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