Towering eight feet above me, the giant sloth emerging from the shadows of a cave below the Cerro Benitez would be terrifying if it wasn’t carved from stone.
Had I been standing here 14,000 years ago, the mylodon might have been a real threat, but now, this life-size statue is simply a reminder of the enormous creatures that once roamed Patagonia’s fittingly large-scale landscapes.
Vast grass plains, inhospitable ice fields and magnificent mountain ranges characterise this region, which straddles Chile and Argentina.
It’s also home to one of South America’s most popular tourist attractions, the Torres del Paine National Park, where thousands of people come each year, from October to March, to complete the five-day W trek. But with no limit on visitor numbers, the popular trail is at risk of becoming overcrowded.
Determined to get even further off the beaten track, I’m here to explore the area’s forgotten trails, hidden caves and rarely used glacial waterways.
Standing outside the park at sunrise, in the grounds of the Estancia Cerro Guido, I watch the pink-tipped granite towers of the Paine massif emerge fleetingly from the clouds. A metal sign clatters urgently as wind rages across the endless, empty plains and a splintered wagon wheel, bent like plasticine by age and wind, is a reminder that this estancia is still a working sheep farm.
Thanks to government subsidies, the estancia has its own school, gymnasium and bus shelter, even though there are only 20 residents. Many are gauchos: stern-faced, sullen men wearing flat, felt hats strung with pom-poms, who seem happiest when galloping on horseback across the plains, or sat around a campfire.
I barely exchange a word with my horse-riding guide as we tackle the rugged trail up to Sierra Baguales. Any small talk would nevertheless be lost in the wind. Beneath us, yellow lady’s slipper orchids, buttercups and mounds of prickly hard grass. Impaled on a barbed wire fence is the carcass of a guanaco, licked clean by a puma, condors and caracara birds.
Although pumas are widespread in Patagonia, they are often difficult to track. When I reach the campsite at Laguna Azul, even closer to the magical towers, I’m excited to hear there have been sightings in the area.
While a train of backpackers is setting off on the W trek, my guide, Nico, and I take a different path, through calafate bushes and lenga forest, to the top of neighbouring Cerro Paine Chico. We don’t encounter a single person along the way.
Nico has lost one of his fingers – not to mention several of his friends – in climbing accidents. Yet his life revolves around the mountains. “Over time, your fear threshold grows,” he tells me.
My pace quickens, though, when we hear news of a possible puma sighting close to the Hotel Las Torres. I’m determined to lay eyes on the elusive mountain lion.
Resting in the scrub, close to Nordenskjold Lake, the muscular tawny cat is remarkably close to the trail. Raising alarm, two enormous tucuquere owls, puff out their feathers and screech insistently from nearby trees.
Sensing our approach, the puma shifts slowly uphill, hunching his shoulders as he stalks and pounces on a hare. On the return journey I stop at the Salto Grande waterfall.
Wearing a heavy dry suit, I set off in a sea kayak along the Serrano River towards the neighbouring Bernardo O’Higgins Park. We paddle past sand dunes sculpted by the wind, and I enjoy a moment of calm looking back at the Paine massif behind me.
But as strong gusts create spindrifts and the current becomes overpowering, I’m forced to ask my guide, Will, a 23-year old Scot, for help. Exhausted and bedraggled, I make it to our wild camping spot for the night, and stumble up a hill for a view of the Tyndall Glacier. Will tells me the nearest person is 40km away.
After a cold and rainy night, we kayak towards the Serrano Glacier, weaving through an obstacle course of ice floes.
A passenger ferry carries us and the kayaks back to Puerto Natales, and Will tells me of his plan to one day jump off the boat in a dry suit, swim ashore and trek across the mountains.
Looking at the same snow-covered, jagged ridgeline, all I can see is difficulty, discomfort and potential danger.
But I do also recognise its beauty. That’s one view every visitor to Patagonia can share.
• Sarah Marshall was a guest of Swoop Patagonia (0117 369 0196, swoop-patagonia.co.uk). They offer a 12-day wildlife and adventure trip to Torres del Paine, Patagonia, including private guide and transport, two nights (full board) at Estancia Cerro Guido, five nights supported camping in and around the park, a two day kayak trip with overnight camping and two nights in Puerto Natales, from £2,950 per person. Flights extra.