Opening the Gates

The spires of Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, Chile look down on Lago Grey, a glacially fed lake on the west side of the park. Grey Glacier, which is nearly four miles wide and 90 feet thick, often calves large icebergs that float into the lake.

Opening the Gates Torres del Paine National Park's Mechanized Motives

My obsession with Chile’s Patagonia region began in 2003, when I was given a coffee-table book titled Edge of the Earth, Corner of the Sky by a Seattle-based nature photographer named Art Wolfe.

Inside were spectacular low-light landscape photos depicting the breathtaking peaks of Los Torres and the Cuernos del Paine, located in Torres del Paine National Park.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994, named the fifth most beautiful place on the planet by National Geographic, and dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World by TripAdvisor, Torres del Paine is world famous among hikers and backpackers. Two routes are particularly famous: the O and W Circuits, multi-day treks through some of the most scenic landscapes on the planet, including Los Torres, the twin granite spires that are a focal point of the park. And it sees a mere 250,000 visitors per year; in comparison, Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks see some 3.3 and 4.1 million visitors, respectively.

But beyond visitor numbers, Torres del Paine differs from the United States National Park model in one key aspect: the one that stipulates “no mechanized travel allowed.” The park’s unrivaled beauty is open to mountain bikes.

I discovered this after reading a random blog discussing mountain bike access in Torres del Paine, which started my mental wheels spinning. In the words of documentary filmmaker Jeff Johnson, “A friend once told me the best journeys answer questions that, in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.”

My first answer came during my third trip to the country in 2016. My guide was a retired pro skateboarder, an Aussie named Chris Theobald (known among the locals as “El Canguro,” the Spanish equivalent of “The Kangaroo”). Chris fell in love with the changing light, sweeping valleys and high granite peaks of this place, and decided he should stay awhile. Awhile ended up being six years.

I am a pretty direct guy. My East Coast roots dictate a no-bullshit approach to life. Once I knew Chris was someone I could get along with, I asked him about mountain biking in the park. His immediate reaction was to say it wasn’t possible, but I told him about the online article. Months later, after talking to “his guy,” Chris confirmed the story was correct; we could potentially ride in Torres del Paine. The Canguro started working the angles to set things up.

Two days after packing up the bikes and 27 hours of travel later, we were sitting in my favorite coffee shop in Puerto Natales waiting to meet our guide, Mauricio Quinteros Ozellana. Mauricio is a stocky Columbian, whose shaved, muscular calves immediately give away his obsession with riding.

Mauricio took us to one of the two bike shops in town, El Rey de la Bicicleta. El Rey has been run by the same family for three generations, and my wife Heather was soon talking with the entire family while I bikegeeked around, looking for replacement parts for my Santa Cruz.

It’s no exaggeration to say Mauricio is the sole catalyst behind riding in this region; it was he who convinced the park to open its gates to mountain bikers. He did so by simply walking into the Torres del Paine headquarters doors one day and talking with the superintendent about riding in the park. He explained his dedication to the environment and how mountain biking could potentially help with park revenue and increasing visitor numbers. The park officials agreed some of the trails within the park would be acceptable for bikes, while others could be ridden with prior permission (or if you had Mauricio as your guide).

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