In Patagonia

A journey to the end of the earth reveals that, sometimes, we need to go far to go deep. 

From Virtuoso Life, Sept/Oct 2017.  Photography by Luis Garcia.

THE AMOUNT OF DRAMA WAS HIGH FOR A HOTEL. As the late-afternoon wind whistled up from the sound, my storm-lashed window shook in its frame, purple clouds scudded across the sky, and, periodically, the walls of the building – a wild U-shaped structure clad in black asphalt and meant to suggest a stylized barn – gave an extravagant shudder. It had been a long day. Then again, it had been a long year. I splashed some water on my face, laced up my sneakers, and started walking. 

I set out from a field of sunlit grass above Last Hope Sound, where Remota Patagonia Lodge has perched over a profound landscape of fjord, glacier, and sky for more than a decade. It was my first day in Patagonia, and I’d flown about 7,500 miles to get here. The endless plain, a sea of gray-green scrub with clouds rushing across it and a howling wind, really did feel like the end of the earth. Patagonia, the vast region that straddles southern Chile and Argentina, was a place I’d dreamed of visiting my entire traveling life. I just hoped my idea of it wouldn’t eclipse the reality. 

A gravel road curled down from the hotel, met a two-lane highway edging the water, and, on the far side of that, intersected a path. Up ahead, my husband bent against the gale. We were pummeled, as foretold. No one goes to Patagonia without first being warned 400 times about the wind. I’d half listened, then packed my favorite Arc’teryx jacket and figured what the heck – we won’t blow away. A sunny beach in Hawaii might soothe some people’s souls, but now and then you just need to get scoured.

A narrow path ran along the water, and I sometimes thought I heard a car behind me, but it was the wind. Soon raindrops smacked the pavement. When I caught up to my husband, he grinned at the golden-hour light and spray blowing off the sound and yelled, “All the elements of Patagonia are here, and we’re getting them right in the face!” 

There is mysticism about this corner of the world, the very idea of it. “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness,” Bruce Chatwin wrote in his travel classic In Patagonia. Blessed with remoteness, the region has a spiritual draw. It’s one of the last edges of the world where you can lose yourself in a sheer enormity of physical space by day (and happily recover in inspired architectural spaces by night). For adventurous souls, its pull is as powerful as the moon’s.

Traditionally, travelers start in Santiago, Chile (or Buenos Aires, if they’re doing the Argentine side), then fly three and a half hours south. The hardest part? Mapping out logistics.

“Southern Patagonia is a bucket-list destination of awe-inspiring beauty. But it’s not for the faint of heart – the journey to the  national park is long, and the weather can be unpredictable,”  Seattle-based Virtuoso travel advisor Ellen Rubinfeld told me. “If you’re a hiker, a horseback rider, or an adventure seeker, it’s  magical! If you prefer to relax by the pool, it’s probably not for you.”

I adore hiking and can usually hang on to a horse, so I decided to do a deep dive into Chilean Patagonia, staying first at Remota Lodge to explore some of the history and culture around Puerto Natales, and then at two lodges on opposite sides of Torres del Paine National Park. Ellen sent me her personal packing list, and we mapped out a ten-day loop through some of the world’s most fabled landscapes.

For adventurous souls, Patagonia’s pull is as powerful as the moon’s.

BACK IN OUR HOTEL ROOM THAT EVENING, I stared out at the churning sound, then noticed two wool ponchos hanging from brackets on the wall where a TV would have been. I nearly wept with gratitude. There was no Wi-Fi in the rooms either (although there was in the lobby), and after a year of daily TV news whiplash, getting away from it all – literally – had taken on new meaning. 

I wandered up to the heart of the lodge, a soaring space of unfinished concrete with a ceiling of raw two-by-fours inspired by Patagonian sheep-shearing barns, and fell into conversation with a lively young woman. Her name was Jennifer Coll Luddeck, and she turned out to be the hotel’s general manager. I loved that even though she ran the place she was dressed in jeans, a fleece, and suede riding boots. 

“We have a word here, ‘salvaje,’ which means a little bit wild,” she said, smiling, as the wind – now gusting close to 60 miles per hour – screeched and the windows shook. “I think Patagonia is a little bit salvaje,” she observed, adding that Germán del Sol, the great Chilean architect behind both Remota and the groundbreaking Explora properties, wanted the building to feel “alive,” so he designed the structure’s outer shell to flex imperceptibly.

 “Is this much wind normal?” I asked a waiter, as he cleared away our guanaco carpaccio later. The walls creaked, the pendant lights swung, and I noticed fellow diners leaning in to hear his answer.

Sí.” He smiled and shrugged, as if to say, THIS, señora? This is nothing!

THE NEXT MORNING, we drove an hour and a half north to Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa, a low-lying glass-and-wood structure set on the shores of Lake Sarmiento, a 20-minute private van ride from Torres del Paine National Park. At first, the rugged landscape seemed reminiscent of Montana or Wyoming. But the farther we drove, the more otherworldly the beauty grew: condors soaring, doe-eyed guanaco grazing, long-legged ostrichlike birds (nandu) sprinting, a handful of humble estancia buildings with flat tin roofs, and an armadillo with tiny ears and an armored shell scurrying down the road like a tank.

Tierra, designed by another celebrated Chilean architect, Cazú Zegers, is a poetic interpretation of this mythic setting. Evoking an old fossil, or perhaps the bones of an animal collected by Darwin, it’s built almost entirely of native lenga wood. Walk to the edge of Lake Sarmiento, turn, and look back, and the building’s spine blends seamlessly into the terrain, the wood’s silvery sheen fading to reveal swirling clouds reflected in glass. 

These people from all over the world had flown thousands of miles and driven hours across the pampas and hiked all this way. Why?

Inside, an undulating ceiling composed of thin strips of lenga warms a cathedral-like dining room, and a lenga-wood hallway leads to the guest wing. The rooms are serene, wood-floored spaces with sheepskin rugs and wool throws, their most prominent feature another wide picture window framing the stunning view. Again, there is no Wi-Fi or TV: Nature with a capital N is the show.

Tierra, like all these lodges, specializes not only in drawing your gaze toward the natural world, but also pushing you into it. The first thing you do upon arrival is sit down with an excursion coordinator and map out your days – which is how I found myself crawling sleepily from bed at dawn the next morning, padding across a puff of white sheepskin on the floor, and raising  the blinds. 

I’d somehow signed up for a 13-mile hike with an 8 AM departure, which now seemed like a terrible idea, but I woke in an instant. The PEAKS. There they were, the entire Paine massif shouldering up out of nowhere in the pink dawn light. I couldn’t believe our good fortune: not only clear sky, but a windless morning to attempt the Base of the Towers, Patagonia’s most iconic hike.

Eight of us piled into the Tierra van and bounced to the trailhead just inside the park. By 9 we’d donned day packs and  started the climb. We ranged in age from mid-30s to mid-70s, but our Tierra guide set a measured pace, keeping the couple in their 70s (hardy Australians) right at his back. The rest of us fell in behind.

The day was perfect: temperatures in the 60s and just a hint of breeze – unheard of here. We devoured picnic lunches in a shady glen, then continued up through beech forest while a turquoise river tumbled far below. The final push was the hardest, a slog over big boulders, and as the trail steepened, it grew surprisingly crowded. Patagonia is one of the most sparsely populated regions on the planet, but on this sunny Saturday it was as if everyone for miles around had had the same idea. 

I was mopping sweat from my brow and grumbling about the trail traffic when we rounded a final outcrop. Suddenly I understood why I had come. My spirits soared. 

“Wow. Just ... wow,” said the woman behind me. 

Patagonia’s most iconic peaks, the three “Torres,” loomed over an aquamarine lagoon, each granite spire framed by cobalt-blue sky. A friend of mine back home confessed she’d hiked the same trail two days in a row, just hoping to catch a glimpse of these peaks between clouds. But today, here they were, every vertical foot visible – as were about 300 other hikers sprawled at the base.

These people from all over the world had flown thousands of miles and driven hours across the pampas and hiked all this way. Why? To see something as real as rock. To see something wondrous that they would then, for the rest of their lives, have seen.

TWO DAYS LATER, A DRIVER FROM EXPLORA PATAGONIA lodge ferried us farther into the park. We bounced over gravel roads, gazing out the window at one vivid-blue lake after another, walls of sheer granite knifing up behind. Although Explora is the oldest of the three lodges we visited, it’s also the most legendary – and the only high-end lodge inside the national park. Del Sol’s first property, it has a clean, Scandinavian look and sits like a white ship on the shores of Lake Pehoé, surrounded by an amphitheater of craggy peaks.

Rooms are simple: lots of varnished-beech tongue-and-groove, a small bath, and a pair of slipcovered chairs facing a stupendous picture-window view. (Although Explora’s dining room and service are top-notch, we did meet a few guests surprised by their rooms’ simplicity.) Lounging in bed, though, isn’t the reason you’re here.

“This is nuts!” my husband said the next morning as we hurried down a steep, unlit wooden walkway in the dark. He was right. Boarding Explora’s high-speed ferry by 7 AM felt out there, but thrillingly so – the kind of experience that pushes you just far enough past your comfort zone.

We were crossing the lake with a small guided group to hike French Valley – which, along with the Base of the Towers, is a segment of the classic W trail, one of the park’s most popular multiday treks. After landing on the far shore, the seven of us set out in the early-morning light at a brisk pace. The trail wound through low grass and scrub, then began climbing through an expansive valley with vistas of the plains beyond us, the Andes beside us, and, above, the rugged granite that makes this part of Patagonia so spectacular. After a final, steep push, we reached a high plateau. The bowl of a glacier shimmered overhead and, above that, towering peaks frosted with slabs of snow and ice loomed. It was awesome – and there were only four other people there.

Glaciers this scale make you realize we live largely subject to forces beyond our control. But there is this, too: You can decide to put yourself on a trail at the end of the earth, where you happen to turn around for no apparent reason and look over your shoulder. You might hear ice rumble, or catch an avalanche, or see, as I did, a thin white river falling through the air. It looked like a waterfall. But it wasn’t water. 

“Is that snow?” I said to my husband, who had stopped and turned around also.

“It is,” he replied.

It was just an instant. And then it was gone.

There’s something so purifying about walking through a wilderness, you’re almost sorry to reach the end of the trail. But after the long hike back down, you board a boat, the boatmen pass out chilled cervezas, and the beer tastes cool and clean in the sun. You speed back across a lake, limp up the same stairs you stumbled down that morning, and know in your bones the instant they hit the hot tub: We are all travelers in the wilderness of this world, and sometimes it exceeds our wildest dreams. 

Southern Exposure

Patagonian exploration done right.

Many assume that the best time to visit Patagonia is from late November through early March (the peak of summer), but
insiders know that spring and fall (early November and late March/April) are far less crowded and equally stunning. We had great weather in mid-March, with five days of light winds, blue skies, and crimson foliage. 

With multiple flight connections, transfers, and vast terrain, planning a Patagonia trip can prove confusing, even for the most experienced travelers, so it’s best to work with someone who knows the lay of the land. That’s where Virtuoso advisor Ellen Rubinfeld’s insight was invaluable. Be sure to pack breathable waterproof layers, a hat, sun-glasses, sturdy hiking boots, a day pack, and high-SPF sunblock.

Remota Patagonia Lodge
(a convenient stay just outside Puerto Natales, the province’s only city, but a long drive from Torres del Paine) makes a strong statement: Within a black building topped by gigantic curved exhaust pipes, set in fields of shimmering golden grass overlooking Last Hope Sound, lies a dazzling interior with sun-drenched spaces and dramatic views. Its 72 guest rooms are more humble – slate floors, concrete, and raw wood used in inventive ways. Remota offers horseback riding, mountain biking, and a terrific range of Patagonian cultural experiences. Doubles from $1,900 for a three-night stay, including airport transfers, all meals and beverages, and one full-day or two half-day excursions.

One of Chile’s most notable all-wood structures, Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa is an exquisite example of a property intimately linked to its terrain. Set on the edge of Lake Sarmiento, Tierra’s interiors evoke a sense of simplicity. Each of its 40 rooms has an organic feel, a neutral palette, and lake (and Torres del Paine) views. After enjoying the spa and pool, guests gravitate to the lenga-wood lounge’s open fireplace and bar. Tierra’s activities include a menu of hikes and horseback rides, and its mostly Chilean guides are first-rate. Four nights from $3,400 per person, including airport transfers, all meals and beverages, and one full-day or two half-day excursions.

Explora Patagonia, the only top-flight hotel located in the heart of Torres del Paine National Park, pioneered the kind of guided experiential adventures these lodges all offer today. With its setting on electric-blue Lake Pehoé and its excellent service, Explora is Patagonian heaven. Its 49 rooms are simple but comfortable, with spectacular views. Doubles from $5,403 for a three-night stay, including airport transfers, all meals and beverages, and excursions.  

By Kim Brown Seely.  All rights reserved.