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House of Travel
Renowned as one of the most beautiful, unspoiled and remote places on the planet, Patagonia’s spectacular mountain ranges, lakes, flora and fauna make it the ideal destination for adventure. By Brett Atkinson
For some strange reason, I’m thinking “Keith Richards on a horse”. Normally anyone wearing a beret, scarf and leather chaps couldn’t be classed as cool, but right now the laidback Patagonian gauchos I’m riding with seem like the hippest guys on the planet. With their legendary equine skills, they’re right at home in the dramatic mountains and valleys of the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile. As my mount follows their languid path downhill, a gossamer-light fall of snow is diffused in the late afternoon light. In the periphery I see waterfalls and a compact lake concealed in an alpine valley. The confident posse of dogs following us obviously knows the way, lured by the lip-smacking promise of a South American asado (barbecue).
Three days earlier, my first experience of the improbable landscapes of Torres del Paine National Park is only revealed after a good night’s sleep. A long day’s travel from Santiago has included a four-hour flight to the windswept southern city of Punta Arenas, followed by a 400-kilometre journey by road. With shearing sheds, sheep and rustic letterboxes announcing the McGregors and the Evanses, the Patagonian farmland is strangely familiar to a Kiwi traveller. That’s before a flock of ostrich-like ñandú, or South American rhea, is spied mingling with the merinos.
After 250km the ramshackle lakeside town of Puerto Natales emerges, and it already feels like we’re at the ends of the Earth. An impending dusk is less than an hour away, but we’ve still got 150km on unsealed roads to go to reach South America’s most spectacularly located luxury accommodation. So it’s only when I open the curtains the following morning that I realise my ten-hour trek south from Santiago has actually delivered me to heaven. My sudden switch from the world’s driest desert to the alpine expanses of (almost literally) the end of the world is pleasantly disorienting. Head south and the only thing stopping me from reaching Antarctica is Cape Horn.
With pink-tinged and snow-capped peaks tantalisingly close across Lago Pehoé, it’s impossible to imagine a more wild and spectacular location than the lakeside setting of Hotel Salto Chico. The name of explora en Patagonia’s southern Chile lodge refers to the “little waterfall” that rushes outside the hotel’s huge picture windows. Only in Patagonia would the thrilling cascade be called little, but in the ludicrously scenic Torres del Paine National Park, everything is relative.
Explora en Patagonia shares a lot with explora en Atacama at the opposite end of the world’s thinnest country: the same laidback, enthusiastic, and informative guides, and a relaxed atmosphere tinged with a distinctive Latin American flair. But the Patagonian explora is also more compact and intimate, and Hotel Salto Chico feels more like a private lodge than a hotel. My short-term membership to this exclusive explora club only lasts the minimum four nights, but most other guests are staying for twice that. Lucky buggers, but I’ll just have to be doubly active to experience the best of the park’s abundant and overachieving beauty.
I kick off with a 14km hike to and from the Gray Glacier, circumnavigating alpine lakes with bobbing icebergs of intensely coloured turquoise ice, and negotiating glacial moraine and beech forests very reminiscent of the South Island. (If anyone from around Glenorchy, Haast or Arthur’s Pass has lost some scenery, I think I know where to look …). But even the South Island was never this big or dramatic, and I’m yet to see any imposing Andean condors with three-metre wingspans cruising the thermals above Coronet Peak or The Remarkables.
Patagonia’s wildlife action is not only air-borne, and explora’s exclusive access to less-visited areas of the Torres del Paine National Park ensures it’s sometimes like the best of an African safari with the added bonus of jaw-dropping scenery. Just a few decades ago the llama’s close cousin the guanaco was endangered, but there are now more than 3,000 of the quizzical camelids (a close relative of the camel apparently) in the park. That’s more than enough to sustain a growing population of pumas. Like any cat they’re solitary and independent creatures, so any sightings are restricted to bigger-than-expected paw prints in the snow. Beside Mum’s robust tracks, my guide Christina carefully points out the more delicate prints of her cubs. In the brutally pragmatic Patagonian eco-system, it’s not just pumas targeting the guanacos. Minutes after descending from a cliff-top cave concealing primitive cave paintings, we chance upon an Andean fox dining on a guanaco carcass. The fox is obviously pretty hungry and keeps eating as megabytes of close-up action quickly fills my memory cards.
Back in the lodge, it’s wildlife with a small “w” as evenings are spent huddled around the incongruous combination of Chilean wine and relief maps of the surrounding national park. Explora’s guides work with guests to establish their active agenda for the following day, with 25 different half- and full-day activities ranging from “Easy” to “Difficult” on offer. Semi-flush with fitness after a week acclimatising at altitude further north on the Andean Altiplano, I’m keen to get as far into the mountains as I can. A nine-hour trek to the base of the legendary Torres del Paine is my preferred option until a heavier than normal early autumn snowfall makes the route impassable. Instead I trek in a small group of three to the Toro Heights with 360-degree views of the park. The strong winds Patagonia is renowned for surge up from expansive Lago Toro, and we scurry quickly down and across a slipping and sliding scree slope to the shelter of our transport. The welcoming glow of the hotel’s unfussy shape soon emerges from the Patagonian dusk, and across Lago Pehoé, stars are suspended like dimmed spotlights above the grand granite stage of the Paine Massif.
The hotel’s interior also plays it smart design-wise with an uncluttered but luxurious ambience that doesn’t detract from the spectacle outside. Huge windows provide a cinematic vantage point from all rooms, and nearby, a pool and spa complex punctuates a rugged bluff just downstream from the rushing Salto Chico waterfall. Most nights in the hotel there’s the option of interesting presentations on the geology, flora, fauna and history of Patagonia, or the less geeky attractions of a leisurely dinner recounting the day’s active adventures with fellow guests. Even more leisurely is a tasting of premium Chilean wines with hotel manager Marcello: in explora’s cosy bar, topographical maps are rolled up out of sight and the conversation turns effortlessly from terrain to terroir.
Back with the gauchos, their dogs are increasingly excited as we reach the asado where explora’s relaxed luxury is effortlessly recreated in a pavilion near the stables. Chinook salmon from nearby rivers is being delicately steamed, and three whole sheep are being grilled in the traditional upright gaucho style. I wash down an empanada (stuffed bread) with a local Austral beer, and the sheep dog lying at my feet licks his lips as a gaucho pulls a big knife from his waistband and starts carving the perfectly grilled meat.
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