Chilean Mainland Patagonia

All photos by Jim Reynolds

Roads are few and far between in southern Chile but the views they offer are some of the most spectacular in the Andes. The road from the Perito Moreno glacier crosses into Chile near Torres del Paine (Paine's Towers) National Park. From there, it heads south to Puerto Natales where we will take a boat tour of Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope) Sound before continuing south to Punta Arenas, the southernmost mainland city.

Perhaps the most impressive peaks in the Andes are located in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. These rugged, glacially-carved towers exhibit a granodiorite base capped by black, marine shales with interbedded tuffs. Glaciers still occupy some of the cirques around the towers. The Patagonian Ice Sheet terminates just north of these peaks.

This view of the main towers shows the knife-edged arête that cuts deep into the Cretaceous granodiorite. Small glaciers are still present in the cirques shown here. Recently, Chrysler Corporation released a series of advertisements that were filmed around these peaks.
     The black shales at the summits were deposited in a euxinic back-arc basin that developed in the early stages of the Andean Orogeny in southern Chile.


Magnificent waterfalls cascade along the rivers between the numerous lakes of the park.


It is impossible to take too many pictures of this magnificent scenery. The weather, during my 2001 visit, was just about perfect. About an hour after this was taken, I met the President of Chile, Ricardo Lagos, who was visiting the Hotel Pehoé, where we stopped for coffee prior to returning to Puerto Natales.


From Puerto Natales, we took a boat ride up Ultima Esperanza Sound, a long fjord that stretches almost all of the way up to Torres del Paine. Literally hundreds of waterfalls tumble over the steep cliffs on both sides of the sound.


In addition to all of the pretty waterfalls, there was plenty of structural geology to see in the cliff walls when the lighting was right.


Some of the falls were extremely delicate looking. This one was in the western wall of the sound. Explorer Juan Ladrilleros named the sound, in 1557, as he tried to find the route to the Straits of Magellan from the Pacific Ocean. The name means Last Hope. Needless to say this wasn't the way to go but it wasn't the last hope either since a route was finally found.


The Balmaceda Glacier entered directly into the fjord as recently as 1985.
Its front has retreated about 150 m up the slope since then.


At the north end of the sound we disembarked and took a short walk though the woods, suddenly coming to a small pond with numerous icebergs floating on it.  The Serrano Glacier descends a steep slope from a cirque above the lake.  The glacier exposes the contact between the intrusive rocks and the black shale.

For scale, there are quite a few people on the large rock in front of the glacier just to the right of center.


Guanacos, the wild llama species, abound in Torres del Paine National Park and all other parts of Patagonia. They are usually skittish and run at the first sight of humans but in the park they are remarkably tame and approachable on foot. The guanaco was the main source of food for the native population that once inhabited the Patagonian interior.

Like the guanaco, the rhea, or South American ostrich, is usually quite skittish--except in the national park. Rheas abound in Patagonia. It is not uncommon to see hundreds of them in a single day. They are communal birds who care for each other's young. Frequently, up to two dozen chicks are seen following a single pair of adults.

Two large sounds, Seno Skyring and Seno Otway were gouged out by glaciers descending from the Andes to the west. They were explored by Captain Fitzroy and the H. M. S. Beagle on the voyage that preceded the epic journey of discovery on which Charles Darwin was the ship's naturalist.
     This view shows the north shore of Seno Skyring and the Andes in the distance. The two sounds are separated by Isla Riesco. The road between the sounds runs along the Fitzroy Channel which connects the two.

The Fitzroy Channel as seen looking to the south from Isla Riesco. The channel opens into Seno Otway. Numerous terrace levels are developed on both sides of the channel. The owner of the Hotel Río Verde operates the ferry between the mainland and the island.

Glacial features dominate the southern edge of the continent. This drumlin field is wedged between the Patagonian plateau, seen rising in the background, and the Straits of Magellan, situated about 15 km to the right of the photo.


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Last updated June 13, 2008