Thirty years ago, the seaside town of Puerto Natales didn’t have a single traffic light, but it was already the gateway to Torres del Paine – even though many of those on a Patagonia expedition were shoestring backpackers who thumbed their way to Chile’s most famous national park. Most of them stayed in town only long enough to acquire supplies for rugged treks that often meant a week or more with limited luxuries, to say the least

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Today, with its modernized waterfront, innovative hotels and surprising sophisticated restaurants, Natales has become something of a destination in its own right – still the gateway to the park, but also the takeoff point for excursions including the day trip up Seno Última Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”) to the Balmaceda Glacier. That’s a full day but, even if there’s just an afternoon available before or after visiting Paine, there’s a rewarding possibility that fits in between lunch and dinner.

That’s the short but scenic climb up Cerro Dorotea, the 549-meter (1,800-foot) ridge that overlooks Última Esperanza just to the north of town. It’s a short taxi ride to the trailhead, where local farmer Juan de Dios Saavedra collects a token trailhead access fee and, when you return, provides afternoon tea. The footpath, on private property, climbs steeply and then more gently to panoramic views of the sound and, on a clear day, Torres del Paine in the distance.

There are forests of southern beech here, most of it secondary growth that includes some remarkable wind-flagged specimens. The wind, which often blows relentlessly, can be the most trying part of the trip – but that’s one reason why Patagonia excursions are so memorable to so many people.

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