Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Musings on the Massif

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Musings on the Massif

Article excerpt

Considered by many to be the park of parks, Chile's Torres del Paine National Park mesmerizes the senses by its sheer, dramatic beauty

On an autumn afternoon in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, the sun is setting behind the mountains, back-lighting the clouds and saturating the entire scene with tones of pink. This phenomenon, some say, led the Mapuche Indians to name the mountains Paine, meaning pink; others say Paine is the Tehuelche Indian name for blue--perhaps for the sky, lakes, or icebergs--since it is they who first lived there; still others believe the area was named for an early European settler of the region. Whatever the derivation of its name, such sensory images have come to define Torres del Paine for all those who have dwelled and traveled there.

Located in Chile's Region XII, Magallanes y de la Antaarctica Chilena, the Macizo del Paine (Paine Massif) rises near the tip of the South American land-mass, north of Seno de Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope Bay), where almost every name evokes a legend. The massif is essentially a mountainous rectangle within the eastern zone of the Andes, nearly surrounded by the Paine River. Separated from the Andes by deep glaciers, the massif abuts the Patagonian steppe without transition, and the resulting vista juxtaposes two extraordinary landscapes in one.

The rare beauty of the Paine Massif, its glaciers, fauna, and forests, led to the designation of a portion of the area as a national park in 1959, and as a biosphere reserve in 1978. Today, at its current size of 450,000 acres, Torres del Paine is considered one of the hemisphere's outstanding national parks. William C. Leitsch, in his book The National Parks of South America, praised Torres del Paine as "the sort of park that changes its visitors by setting standards of sheer sensory impact against which all other parks are thereafter measured."

Undulating plateaus dominated by sepias and reds are gently punctuated by lagunas, lakes--the Dickson, Paine, Sarmiento, Nordenskjold, Pehoe, and Grey--and rivers with steep banks and waterfalls. Clouds seem to whirl through the peaks, neither settling on them or separating from them. The skyline seems to stretch into the hypnotic hues of the waters, some white, green, or turquoise, because of the algae, others grayish and ocher from the pulverized rocks left by the retreating glacier.

Pleistocene-era glaciations gave the massif its unusual shapes, uncovering granite and eroding the two legendary Cuernos (Horns--8,530 feet) and the three Torres (Towers--6,500 feet) into spectacular formations, which are still subject to folding. Cerro Paine Grande, to the west of these mountains, is the park's highest peak, at just over 10,000 feet.

Looming on the horizon, dominating their surroundings, the Torres seem to beckon to all who behold them to come closer. As the days pass, however, one feels that their spell lies not in their height but in their form: They offer a whole world of lines, clouds, and rocks polished by glaciers.

On the west side of the Torres are vast ice fields. Enormous masses of moving ice lean over the lakes. Some remain, like phantasmagorical drawings, and others melt in the wind and sun. At the edges of the massif, where these different ecosystems meet--steppe and woodland, or mountain and water--there are exceptionally good spots for observing land animals and birds. They live protected in their natural surroundings, where silence is broken by little but the sound of the wind. Here visitors may find Magellan's geese, long-tailed meadowlarks, Andean condors, Chilean flamingos, swans--such as the black-necked and the Coscoroba--and numerous species of ducks. …

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