At large in land of thrills and chills
IT'S a surreal feeling waking up in Patagonia. The wind is howling outside like nothing I have ever heard before, roaring through the mountains and furiously blasting the lodge.
I'd arrived in the early hours of the morning and while the snow-capped mountains were just visible, I wasn't prepared for how magnificent they would look in the daylight.
The view from my room at Explora's Hotel Salto Chico is spectacular; straight out across the icy blue lake to the famous Paine Massif mountains. I couldn't wait to get out and explore, despite the gusty conditions.
The lodge is in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia, which stretches across 2400 square kilometres and contains glaciers, lakes and valleys. But it's the Paine Massif that dominates the landscape and it calls us to get a better look.
Our first trek is an easy 6km to the Nordenskjold Vista Point. The walk is refreshing to say the least, with the icy winds and snowy views.
We meander back past the thunderous Salto Grande waterfall before heading back to the lodge to de-layer and get out of the wind.We walk along the shore of Lake Pehoe and up through the tussock to a clearing above Lake Nordenskold, where we have a brilliant view of the Massif. The wind is so strong that we struggle to stand up, and one of our group ends up on her backside after a particularly strong gust.
The following day, we head for the Pingo River for an 8km hike. It's an easy walk that allows us to really take in the scenery as the Andes stretch along the horizon ahead of us and the river beside us.
Wild horses roam in places along the trail, which leads us to a small waterfall surrounded by icicle-covered branches.
After 8km of walking and soaking in the superb Patagonian views, we head to Explora's stables, where the horses are tended to by traditional Chilean gauchos.
Before we saddle up for our afternoon ride - which I'm rather nervous about, having not been on a horse in over a decade - the gauchos put on a terrific local lunch for us.
Freshly made empanadas filled with beef, olive and egg; bread made with pumpkin; hearty soup and melt-in-your mouth rack of lamb with baked potatoes. After filling up on Chilean delights, we're not sure how we are going to even get on our horses.
But we manage, and we head off for a trek in the wild Patagonian countryside. It's not the most comfortable thing, riding a horse wearing six layers of clothing, and the fact that I am anxious about being atop a giant chestnut beast doesn't help.
However, once we get going, all that melts away and all I can think about is how lucky I am to see such amazing scenery.
We walk our horses behind our gaucho, Silvio, and guide Ramundo for about an hour, plodding through streams and over the rugged terrain. My horse is a great sport. Silvio notices early on that I'm nervous, but my mount doesn't try anything funny and gets me back in one piece. Well, apart from my aching butt muscles ... you can't go that long without riding a horse and expect it not to hurt.
We retreat back into the warmth of the gauchos' kitchen to sample some traditional yerba mate tea.
It's very strong, almost like an intense green tea, and is prepared by steeping dry leaves from the yerba mate plant in hot water. It's served in a guampa, a hollow gourd, and you drink it from a metal straw.
The guampa is passed around the group and refilled until everyone has had their fill. Its caffeine content is high, so it's an effective late-afternoon pick-me-up.
To soothe our aches and pains, that night we head to the lodge's jacuzzi area. It's dark outside and freezing - literally - but a bottle of champagne, a clear night sky full of stars and bubbling 30C water helps.
The jacuzzis are on a platform at the very edge of the lake, so close you feel like you're in it.
We return the next night, after our full-day trek, to soak away the day's activities and are treated to a magical surprise - snow.
As we relax in the water, again with champagne (this time to celebrate one of the group's 30th birthday), tiny flakes begin to fall.
It really is a breathtaking sight, and one I won't forget in a hurry.