A look at why the Patagonia region of Chile is becoming trail running’s most buzzworthy destination.
There’s a stunning, take-your-breath-away sensation the moment you see the spectacular granite spires inside the Torres del Paine National Park for the first time.
The enormous park is a still-unpolished gem of the Chilean side of Patagonia—the large, sparsely populated and awe-inspiring region at the southern end of South America. Long a favorite destination of international sightseers and hikers, Torres del Paine is starting to become a focal point of runners—both for running races and exploring the trails via hut-to-hut running adventures.
The monoliths dominate the horizon line of the enormous Chilean sanctuary and provide a reassuring point of reference amid the huge mountains, thick pine forests, cascading streams, unfathomably blue lakes and austere glaciers. As a runner, those views also perfectly frame your own existence as you ramble over the park’s 135 miles of windblown but otherwise pristine trails.
“It’s a very special place, an amazing place for running,” says Nico Barraza, an American runner from Flagstaff, Ariz. “The first time I was there, I was overwhelmed and completely inspired, both by the trails, the views and the vibe.”
In 2013, while doing research in Chile as a graduate student in environmental engineering, Barraza ventured down to the southernmost part of the world not named Antarctica to run the inaugural Patagonian International Marathon. That race, along with a half marathon and 10K, was held on the rolling gravel roads of Torres del Paine National Park and served up spectacular sights to the handful of runners who traveled from Europe, North America and South Africa to get there.
Soon afterward, race director Stjepan Pavicic, partially from Barraza’s suggestion, created the Ultra Trail Torres del Paine 42K, 67K and 109K trail races, which debuted in September 2014. (The longer two races offer qualifying points for the events held during the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc festival in Chamonix, France, in late August.)
“The road races are great, but getting deep into the park on the trails is magical,” says Barraza, 24, who put his postgraduate education on hold to pursue ultrarunning on a full-time basis. “I fell in love with that place. Being there and experiencing that changed my life and showed me what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be.”
More than two dozen North American runners traveled 25 to 30 hours on multiple flights to Punta Arenas, followed by a two-hour bus ride to overnight in the town of Puerto Natales and then another two-hour bus ride to Torres del Paine to run one of the road or trail races in the park last fall.
“I lived in Chile about 30 years ago for a couple of years, but I never made it down to Torres del Paine and always wanted to go there,” says Brett Johnson, an avid marathoner and Los Angeles attorney who ran the Patagonian International Marathon last September. “The minute I found out about the race, I knew I had to do it. How often do you get to run in such a beautiful place, where your company is a condor flying overhead or a fox alongside the road? It’s just completely unique part of the world.”
Running isn’t new to Patagonia. The ancient indigenous Patagone people, literally known as “people of big feet” to the first European explorers, were subsistence hunters who would run down deer, large flightless birds and guanaco (an animal similar to a llama) for food. While those ancient people and their culture have since disappeared, the lush environment and raw remoteness remain.
“It is so peaceful,” says Yassine Diboun, 34, an ultrarunner from Portland, Ore. “I had to keep reminding myself that we were at the very bottom of the world. It’s so crazy to think about where you are. You kind of lose yourself in such an amazing place like that.”
Last September, for the second straight year, Diboun won one of the Patagonia races. He won the inaugural 109K trail event handily, but it was in the days afterward that the splendor of the park really unfolded for him. Along with fellow Americans Matt Flaherty, Willie McBride and Anne-Marie Dunhill, he spent a day running and hiking up to a hidden glacier with a close view of the famous stone towers (with some new Chilean running friends), then spent two more days running the legendary “W” hiking route—a 30-mile trail through three of the park’s most magnificent canyons.
At night they retired to a rented cabin at Refugio Los Cuernos, and after a dip in the wood-fired hot tub, they shared meals, told stories and chilled by the fire while Flaherty strummed a few songs on the house guitar and regaled the group with stories about Bob Dylan.
“It was an amazing way to disconnect from the world but connect with the people you share the trail with,” Diboun says. “We had great conversations and developed friendships based on our being there and experiencing all of that together.”
Despite the advent of a few races—all of which benefit a regional reforestation organization—don’t expect the park to be overcome by runners anytime soon. Running is booming in Chile and Argentina, but most of the runners, races and running culture can be found in and around the capital cities of Santiago and Buenos Aires, more than 2,000 miles away.
“Not many Chileans have visited Torres del Paine, but we all know what a beautiful place it is,” says Max Keith, 26, an up-and-coming Chilean ultrarunner from Santiago. “For me, what makes it so special is meeting runners from other places and spending time with them on the trails. That’s what trail running is all about, no matter where you live.”
Ultra Fiord is a new ultra-distance trail running event that was held in April in the remote backcountry areas on the outskirts of Torres del Paine National Park. In addition to 30K, 70K and 100K races, the event included the first 100-mile race in Chilean Patagonia.
Through the race’s Corre y Reforesta (Run and Reforest) program, proceeds benefit Reforestemos Patagonia (an organization committed to helping replant trees burned in a 2010 forest fire) and one new native tree was planted for every runner who participated in the races. The next Ultra Fiord races are slated for April 14-16, 2016. For more, visit ultrafiord.com.