Most adventurers have some gear or clothing emblazoned with the ubiquitous Patagonia brand name and we finally had the opportunity to travel to the land that inspired it all! Just google Patagonia and ALL that will return is the brand and where to buy it. However, Patagonia itself is a sprawling, vast region covering the southern tip of South America divided between Chile and Argentina with the Andes mountain range as a divider. It includes two World Heritage Parks, Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina and Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile, and the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
We chose to explore the Chilean side of Patagonia and the famously photographed Torres del Paine, which are 3 towering granite peaks of the Paine mountain range. Other highlights include renowned glaciers of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, Grey, Pingo, and Tyndall and the well-known lakes including Grey, Pehoe (on which we stayed), Nordenslold, and Sarmiento. The park has over 900 square miles and hiking is abundant. The two most famous circuits are the “O” and the “W.” The W Circuit is arguably the most popular and you could do a 5 day trek of just this circuit alone.
There are many different bases from which to explore. The closest airport is Puerto Natales located approximately 2 hours from the park. Many travelers choose to stay here and embark on day trips. There are also a limited number of options located within the park including camping, refuges, and deluxe lodging. Note that the Puerto Natales airport only offers flights during the high season, so that leaves Puntas Arenas airport, an approximately 4 hour ride from the park.
We chose the luxurious Explora Patagonia for our base camp (read more below on this splurge) and couldn’t have been happier. From their coveted location in the park, you can essentially hike the entire W circuit in a series of day hikes, horseback ride along sweeping vistas, and take short van rides to see more sites and try to spy the elusive puma. Furthermore, their van picks you up in Puntas Arenas and escorts you to their lodge and takes care of virtually everything from the time you enter their van.
We don’t have much to report from our travels before arriving at Explora as we arrived very late after a flight delay and lost luggage. However, once in the confines of the Explora van, the exploration truly began. I must also say the van driver kindly stopped for every wildlife encounter..flamingos, condors, foxes and patiently waited while we began the onslaught of photography. 4 hours didn’t seem unnecessarily burdensome as the mountain vistas were breathtaking and we stopped at the midway point for lunch at Hotel Posada, Rio Rubens where we had a light lunch and some Magellan beers!
Our arrival to Explora was met with awe. They have a stunning location where their white lodge sits atop a ledge overlooking the turquoise waters of Lake Pehoe. The style is very modern and sleek and we were greeted with a refreshing beverage while we got our overview. If possible, get an upgrade to the Cordillera Paine rooms which look out on the 3 massive granite spires. The room has a large bed with hints of turquoise to mirror the lake and plenty of cubbies and hooks for gear. The bathroom is large with a drying rack and ample toiletries made using local ingredients. We loved the lip balm which was great for fortifying those Patagonian wind chapped lips. The lodge itself is surrounded by catwalks for strolling down to the lake or waterfall or up toward the mountains to get better views of the Torres. They have one ample dining room with walls of windows so you can look across the lake. The lodge only holds about 100 guests so dining and other experiences feel intimate and thoughtful. The dining experience was fantastic. Breakfasts are buffet style and dinners are 3 course masterpieces. All alcohol is included and they have a great bartender/mixologist who concocts a new delicious cocktail each day. I eat mostly a vegetarian palate with some chicken and they had plenty of options for me. Meanwhile, my husband ate virtually everything, including guanaco. Most days you’ve hiked at least 10 miles, so get that dessert too! Finally, they have an indoor pool and 3 outdoor hot tubs which sit on the glacial lake which feel blissful after long days of hiking.
The essence of Explora though is their excursions. Keep this in mind when you are weighing if the cost is worthwhile. You get a guide for a very small group each day (and one day it was just my husband and me) and I think this significant helps justify the cost. Each night you meet in the common spaces outside of the dining room and have a meeting with a guide to go over the options for the next day’s activities. While you warm in front of a crackling fire with a Pisco Sour in hand, you are presented with both full or half day options. Full day options usually involve a longer hike (we chose our full days to essentially complete the W circuit) and you choose your lunch. They offer sandwiches or metal canisters made of quinoa dishes or salad options. The canisters are incredibly filling and much better than the sandwiches in my opinion. Snacks are EVERYwhere and you can load up and refill your reusable water bottle before each trip. Half day trips consist of shorter hikes or horseback rides returning to the lodge to enjoy lunch in the dining room. This experience was also nice as the dining room was usually pretty empty during the day and having a wine after finishing a hike feels pretty indulgent. They do a good job of learning your ability levels and are fairly successful at pairing you with hikers of similar skills/endurance.
Base of the Torres Hike
Unlike our usual adventures, the planning here was pretty straightforward…arrive to Explora and they do the rest! Our biggest decisions were if we wanted to do harder hikes or have a more restful day. We spent 7 nights there which was more than many whose stays overlapped with us. However, they offer a LOT of excellent hikes and rides and I thought it was an ideal amount of time. The excursions are as advertised, if they say hard…they mean it, but they also have many shorter, easier walks for those not up for the challenge.
French Valley Hike
Our longer hikes included 1) The base of the Torres 2) Grey Glacier and 3) the French Valley. All 3 were longer hikes of around 15 miles. We’d always have short rest breaks, a longer lunch, and could stop for photographs whenever we’d like. Layering this time of year (May) is key as hats, mittens are needed earlier in the day and for the cooler stops for lunch but you’ll definitely work up a sweat gaining elevation on the long hauls. They offer complimentary trekking poles and on the Torres hike, I felt like they were helpful. Our shorter hikes were around Lake Sarmiento and Anonikek where the likelihood of seeing a puma is a little higher. We did see one puma at a distance but fellow travelers were lucky enough to capture amazing video at a much closer vantage point.
Finally, we also did two shorter horseback rides. Let me just say…I have ZERO riding experience. While they do offer more advanced rides, they are absolutely able to get you on a horse with no riding background. My horse, Guindo, liked to sneak bites of any grass we passed and consequently we fell to the rear of the group which was fine. We struck gold with one of our rides with warm sun basking over the mountains as we meandered over tiny rivers on our horses across the pampa. Gorgeous.
Grey Glacier Hike
Although this trip was a little indulgent for us, we loved the personalized attention and chance to see so much of the park in a short time. The photos relay more than my words ever could. Find that two for one deal and just go!
(My final recommendation is to do the traditional leap in to the bone chilling glacial lake. There is a small dock outside of the pool/hot tub area that juts into Lake Pehoe. Take a big breath and leap…and make sure your photography friend is ready because you won’t be doing it twice! Then get your butt to the hot tub to rewarm…did I mention they have a champagne fridge poolside?)
Explora. Explora is a collection of boutique hotels in South America that offer incredible excursions and unbelievable service. This comes at a cost. These stays are expensive but if you are looking for a true splurge, they really deliver.
In addition to a gorgeous room in Torres Del Paine National Park, two instances really stand out. First, the hiking extras. In the midst of a 10 – 15 mile hike, when you sit down for lunch, you are spoiled. You’ve chosen a gourmet lunch that they pack for you to take along…either a sandwich or a canister of something like chicken and quinoa. Next, the guide unfurls a cloth napkin and serves little extras like cocoa or homemade granola bars in the middle of the mountains! Our first hike was to the base of the Torres and this was a physical endeavor. Our guide was joking with us as we plodded through the final mile that he was calling ahead for beers. I whispered to my husband, that I’d just love a Diet Coke instead! Well, we hauled our fatigued bodies to the van and they had a spread that included a bucket of ice cold drinks (Diet Coke…I know it’s not the best beverage but I hiked 15 miles and that caffeine and carbonation really were perfect), crostinis, fruit and brie! We were honestly shocked and sat on the grass eating brie feeling on top of the world!
My next example of the exemplary service was with our luggage disaster. Our flight to Santiago was canceled and we had to traverse and criss cross South America to arrive to Puntas Arenas…only to discover our luggage hadn’t made the trek. We were understandably concerned as Explora Patagonia is a 4 hour car ride from the airport. When we arrived with zero gear, we were assured we could borrow anything we needed and our luggage would arrive the next day. After we finished dinner that evening, we were awestruck to discover they had made a run to the airport for a late passenger and stayed at the airport to collect our luggage so we could have it that evening. Truly above and beyond.
Rumor has it the new Explora Patagonia on the Argentinian side opens in 2020 and if it ’s anything like the Chilean side…I’d say go for it!
- My favorite airline, LATAM, separated us from our luggage both to and from Patagonia. My new South American travel requirement is to build in an extra day before any departures after your arrival in your next South American country. It will lead to considerably less anxiety. We now also pack a small carry on in addition to our backback with clothes for a few days.
- Explora offers various times when they have a two for one deal. We got this as it was within a year of our marriage and so could be called a honeymoon. However, I recently got a mailing that was offering two for one on some of their new lodging locations. While it is pricey at their regular rates, the two for one deal I think IS a good value. You are getting one or two daily guided excursions, all meals, alcohol, and luxurious accommodations.
- Go in their autumn. We went in May and honestly, the weather was perfect. Cooler days with less severe winds (as Patagonian winds are legendarily strong) and very few fellow travelers. The lodge was at less than 50% capacity some of the days we visited which made for more individualized attention and room to spread out. More crucially though, the hikes on the W circuit were very empty so you could truly appreciate the wilderness and magnificent quiet. Unlike hiking back home, there were so few sounds…not even birds chirping…just quiet with a cool breeze on your face.