November 25-30, 2013 (Monday-Saturday)
We spent five nights in the Torres del Paine area of Chilean Patagonia. The scenery is jaw-dropping and our activities consisted of two full-day hikes, a scenic tour of the whole park, some lighter walks and an afternoon horseback riding. Since we booked Chile when we planned to maintain gainful employment and take no other major trips for the year, our accommodation at Tierra Patagonia was a massive splurge.
Our early morning flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas afforded superb views of the Andes mountains at sunrise. I could not get a good look out the other side, but I think it is preferable to request seats on the left side of the plane when facing the front.
Punta Arenas airport is small with one terminal, and we were met promptly by a representative from Tierra Patagonia. Over the next four hours we became acquainted with the 12-person Ford vans that would be a constant presence during our time in Patagonia. We also met our new friends Kenneth and Dawn from North Carolina and Karl and Amanda from Chicago.
Kenneth and Dawn provided the two best lines I heard down there. First, they dubbed the delicious cereal bars that Tierra Patagonia makes “Guanaco logs.” Second, Dawn said that Kenneth refuses to call it the NASDAQ and instead refers to it only as the NADSAQ. It goes up or down, and you cannot control it. Brilliant.
Light lunches were provided and we stopped halfway at a roadside restaurant for coffee and baños. If you are going to nap, it would be preferable early in the trip as the views become progressively better. It is nearly always windy, and the landscape is rugged with sparse tree cover. Parts of the drive are near the ocean (on either side) and we made a quick tour of Puerto Natales, a neat town of about 20k with several outdoor outfitters and accommodation options. It is the last substantial outpost before Torres del Paine, and one could probably organize tours and treks from here. The Singular hotel is nearby and while I am not sure the desirability of this location given its distance from the park, I heard great things and especially regarding the cuisine. When hiking the Base del Torres, we saw a couple from there so day trips are doable and it may be convenient to certain other attractions.
Closer to Tierra Patagonia is the tiny outpost of Cerro Castillo, at the border with Argentina and where the road splits off to El Calafate where I am told the Moreno Glacier is wonderful. A bit beyond here the road turns to dirt, and we would not touch pavement again until our return trip to the airport. The entrance to the hotel property is unassuming, in keeping with the structure’s design to blend into the landscape. A few minutes driving on a rougher dirt road passing many sheep and lambs and the occasional rhea or rabbit and we arrived at the hotel, set back a distance from Lago Sarmiento.
Note that Tierra Patagonia is actually outside the national park and driving times to certain excursions are longer, but this is not necessarily a disadvantage. See my comparison vs. Explora below for more on this.
This place is truly spectacular. And it will be difficult for me to limit my use of that word when describing the next few days. The hotel is a modern, undulating wood building with incredible views from the public areas and all guest rooms of the Paine Massif across the lake. Styling reminds me of Scandinavian with light woods and clean lines. Our spacious room (#32) was on the second (top) floor. I believe all the rooms have amazing views, and I think the main decision is whether you want to be closer to the entrance, lounging and dining area or closer to the hot tub, pool and spa. WiFi is available but only in the common area. Tierra Patagonia is all-inclusive, except for a few excursions and of course spa treatments.
Breakfast is a nice spread of fruits, meats, cheeses, toast and jams and scrambled eggs and cooked ham. It is more than adequate though not over the top, i.e. there is no omelet station nor raw bar etc. Lunch at the hotel is a proper three-course meal, though if you do a full-day excursion your lunch will be packed and ample to satiate any appetite but less luxurious. Dinner is also a proper three-course meal with three options each for appetizer and entree and two options for dessert. The appetizer options always include one soup, one salad and something else, perhaps a tartare or carpaccio. The entree options were typically some combo of pasta, fish or meat, plus always a vegetarian option. Dessert is either fruit salad or some tart or dairy based item. Overall, I would say the food was very good and at times great but not consistently great. I am being rather picky given the extreme pricing, but this is not the place to come for the best food of your life.
All alcohol is included except for certain premium brands, which we never even considered. The house pinot noir was excellent and the carmenere was very good. I enjoyed the Austral Calafate Ale which has a slight blueberry flavor, like the calafate bush. There was a specialty cocktail each day, usually pretty tasty.
Excursions and General
There are morning and afternoon half-day excursions, as well as full-day excursions. As one might expect, weather is a big factor down here. Clouds and wind can have a major impact. Some visit for days and never see the iconic Torres (for which the park is named) fully exposed. Calm air seems an even greater rarity. We were lucky and enjoyed clear views to start and a couple other days. Lakes and rivers feature prominently, some more green/grey and milky from the glacial silt and others turqoise blue like tropical seas. Clouds often appear like UFOs with oblong shapes and flat, darker bottoms.
I was surprised to learn that neither the elevations nor latitude are what I had imagined. The park sits around 51 degrees south, the equivalent of parts of Europe. It is nowhere near the Antarctic Circle. It is also pretty much at sea level. Thus, the mountains are spectacular and some rise 10k feet, but that means the highest peak is only about 10k feet. The tops of the Torres are no higher than Guadalupe Mountain in Texas.
Our first afternoon we chose the Laguna Azul excursion. On the drive we saw countless guanacos and stopped at the Laguna Amarga, a salty lake tossing about in strong winds.
The Salto (waterfall) Paine backed by the Torres was magnificent. At Laguna Azul we walked around a bit, saw some interesting birds and learned of the calafate bush which serves as an amazing shelter from the wind. Inside a hut was coffee, tea, hot cocao and pisco sours, with a tip requested in return. On the ride back to the hotel we saw a rhea (aka ñandu) running with an adorable baby about the size of a chicken. We also saw several flamingoes down here, which was quite surprising as I had associated them with warmer environs.
Base del Torres
Tuesday was a glorious day so we wisely decided to get straight to the most famous hike in the region. Look at the amazing reflection in the Laguna Amarga and the contrast between yesterday (windy) and today (calm).
After a 45 minute drive we arrived at the Hotel Las Torres (more in the accommodation section below). Here and stretching well past the Campamento Chileno is the only private property inside the park, and what an astounding piece of real estate it is! Fortunately the owners do not exact a toll on those passing through.
The trail crosses a river on a suspension bridge with a max capacity of two before ascending to the top of a hill and then descending to the Campamento Chileno. On the river just past here we saw a lovely male Torrent duck, so named because it apparently can swim up waterfalls.
We then hiked through forest before coming to the most challening part where the path becomes exposed and rocky. At the top is a small lake and stunning, head-on views of the Torres. We ate lunch here and fortunately the setting was so majestic that the brutal winds did little to dampen our enjoyment.
On our descent the trail was even more crowded. I cannot fault others for doing the same thing, but this is not where you come for solitude. It is difficult to recall a more crowded trail I have seen. Of course in this area layers are key, because a lightweight shirt may be appropriate for the ascent while a jacket, hat and gloves are desired at the top. I think the stats are 11.3 miles roundtrip and 3k vertical feet. Some difficult footing and strong winds make this a harder hike than the numbers suggest. We began at 9:45 am, summited at 1:30 pm, descended just before 2:30 pm and returned to the van at 5:10 pm.
Estancia Las Chinas
Wednesday got off to a rocky start as most excursions were canceled due to the wind and there was a bit of miscommunication between ourselves and the hotel. We ended up on a half-day excursion in a van with just ourselves and Jocelyn (Josy) and saw more of the area east of the park. Big, unpopulated valleys with nobody else other than a couple gauchos. We passed a herd of cattle being moved from Hotel Las Torres to their summer pastures and then met Jose, who invited us to spend more time since he is always alone out here.
Though we never did the hotel’s exclusive excursion to a ridge where condors are often seen up close, today we saw about 10 flying nearby. The younger lads have less white on their wings, and Josy said these giant birds can live 50+ years and may commit suicide when old and weak by plunging head first. We ended our drive at Estancia Las Chinas and crossed a wooden bridge over the milky Baguales River lined with wind-gnarled trees. We walked up the hillside in heavy winds and saw guanacos, a horse carcass, massive views and zero humans. This felt very “Patagonia” to me.
Estancia Lazo Horseback
Jenni was sick a bit of our time here and not that interested in horseback riding, so she rested up while I went on an afternoon excursion to Estancia Lazo. I am not much of a rider but decided to brave the cold, windy weather for this unique experience. On the hour-long drive there I saw Lago Sarmiento from a different side.
The horseback tour was by Laguna Verde, and we ascended to a lookout though it was fairly socked in so mostly the scenery was forest. After two hours, I was thrilled to see an owl up close and get off that horse and into a heated van.
To give Jenni an additional recovery day, we postponed the French Valley trek and instead did the full day tour of the park. I am happy we did so because it was a perfect day and the scenery was spectacular, enhanced by some snow at elevation last night.
Plus, I had indulged heartily the night before with Kenneth, Dawn, Karl and Amanda. We stopped at some viewpoints and then walked a short way to Salto Grande, a nice waterfall in an incredible setting backed by the Paine Grande and Cuernos. Paine Grande has four separate peaks, including the highest point in the park, and it is partially covered by hanging glaciers.
This is where the Mirador Cuernos hike starts and is just past the boat (that we would take tomorrow) to Refugio Paine Grande, the starting point for the French Valley and Grey Glacier treks. From here we continued around Lago Pehoe to a classic lookout above Hostaria Pehoe, next crossing the Weber bridge and lunching inside by Rio Serrano, the most developed area of the park.
I believe one may kayak around here or take a zodiac to Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, the largest in Chile. Lunch was a great spread of meats, cheeses, soup, lox, quail eggs, etc. And some glasses of carmenere and Cabernet Sauvignon. One of the delights of a day mostly driving is that wine is anything but verboten.
After lunch we drove to Guarderia Lago Grey where we walked across another wooden suspension bridge on the Rio Pingo to a short path leading to a huge gravel beach we crossed to arrive at a path cut into the rocky hillside ascending to the Grey Glacier lookout. Quite the spot, with a massive glacier across the lake, icebergs floating nearby and in-your-face views of Paine Grande and the Cuernos. Josy treated us to some calafate sours, a maroon take on the pisco sour. Legend has it that he who drinks the calafate sour will return to this land.
There is a boat ride offered here that takes you up close to the glacier but I think it costs $110/person. Word is that especially if you have seen the Moreno glacier in Argentina then this is not worthwhile. On the drive back to the hotel I asked to stop at Explora to check out Salto Chico and get a better sense of the property.
More on that below. I strongly recommend the full day tour to anyone with enough time, as we saw so much of the park and it was beautiful.
If I could not spend Thanksgiving eating turkey, watching football and drinking scotch with my family, then this is how I would want to spend it. A little FaceTime with Mom’s side at Leslie’s house was nice, as was the Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks to make me feel at home.
For our last full day we did the French Valley trek, another classic. Josy again led us, and we were joined by Iana and Rich. In another small world occurrence, they are both New York based restructuring professionals and we have some mutual friends.
On the drive to the boat Jenni, from the left side of the van, had a legendary spotting of some baby grey foxes on the right side of the road. The driver backed up and we enjoyed just about the cutest creatures I can imagine!
We took the 9:30 am boat across Lake Pehoe and hiked a trail past wildflowers with views of the Cuernos, the French Glacier and turquoise blue Lago Pehoe. The hike ascends modestly until the Campamento Italiano where it steepens heading up the valley towards the Campamento Britanico.
We enjoyed a nice lunch spread (hot soup, veggie skewers, hard boiled eggs plus individual sandwiches and snacks) on a boulder overlooking the glacier and valley. After this we continued a bit but did not reach the top as we conservatively turned back at 2:30 pm to ensure we did not miss the 6:30 pm boat back across the lake, after which you are stuck until the morning.
Josy had brought a cooler to wait for us at Refugio Paine Grande, and cold Austral cervezas went great with conversation about skiing in different geographies.
Accommodation in the Area
There are a host of options, including the basic decision whether you want to trek from one refugio (or campsite) to another or sleep in the same bed each night with daily excursions. For more avid trekkers, the classic route is the “W”, which I believe goes in whichever order from Refugio Grey to Paine Grande to the French Valley to Base of the Towers and ending at Hotel Las Torres. There is no single way to do this and various hike and accommodation combinations are possible. You could arrange this on your own or go with any of several operators offering assisted treks, ranging from help booking lodging and meals to fully guided treks. Really serious trekkers can opt for the full Paine Circuit, a 7-11 day adventure where I would assume solitude is on offer for the non-W portions.
If you prefer to stick with one base, there are several different areas to stay. I cover Explora and Tierra Patagonia below. It seemed like Rio Serrano is the most developed area, but that is a very low bar. Names of properties I recall include Tyndall, Rio Serrano, Paine Cabins and Lago Toro, and I think a new lodge is being built by the river. There is more grass here and lovely views of the Paine Massif. Hotel Lago Grey is on the lake but you’d need binoculars to see the glacier well. Hostaria Pehoe is an older place but the location looks spectacular, jutting into the lake in between Explora and the mountains. Camping Pehoe is nearby. My friend Leila stayed at Hotel Las Torres and liked it a lot, and this would be the ideal location for maximizing your chance of catching the Torres on a nice day. You walk out the hotel and onto the Base del Torres trail.
Anyway, the thing to remember is that trails are somewhat spread out and roads go around lakes and mountains rather than through them, and some accommodation is accessible from the road while other requires a boat ride and/or hike.
Tierra Patagonia vs. Explora
As best I can tell, if you seek the all-inclusive luxury experience then you are deciding between Explora and Tierra Patagonia. We strongly considered the former, but Explora is much less flexible in that it requires either a four or eight night stay and only beginning and ending on specific dates. I did not see the inside of Explora so cannot offer a completely informed analysis, but my understanding is that Tierra Patagonia is nicer. The main advantage of Explora is its location inside the park, perched above Lago Pehoe with extraordinary views of Paine Grande and the Cuernos. These mountains are so much closer here, and it is a more awe-inspiring view. When on Explora’s property you really feel that you are set amidst the grandeur of it all, whereas at Tierra Patagonia you visit for the day and then enjoy expansive views from a safe and luxurious distance.
Explora also has its own boat leaving right from the property, which means access to the trailhead for both the French Valley and Grey Glacier treks is delightfully convenient and entirely independent of the operating schedule adopted by the boat concessionnaire to which all others are subject. I believe the “public” boat runs only twice a day. Given that these are two of the three most prominent portions of the W-trek, this is nice. That said, on the day we trekked the French Valley, I found the experience of waiting around and taking the public boat among such an international crowd to be very enjoyable. It is also worth noting that the trailhead for Base del Torres may be equidistant from Explora and Tierra Patagonia (check this).
The hot tubs and pool at Explora require quite an outdoor walk in what is generally cool and windy weather. Far worse, they are down the hill and facing the wrong direction. I must have seen some annex or there must be some other regulatory or safety justification for not locating these features to enjoy one of the best views anywhere in the world. Otherwise, I hereby demand the immediate drawing and quartering of the designer. Truly baffling.
Interior design, comfort and food aside (I know that is a big aside, but I simply cannot compare those aspects), the glaring advantage of Tierra Patagonia is that its location allows for more off-the-beaten-path excursions and means the visitor simply sees more of the area. I found the vast expanses of earthen toned land and hills with virtually no signs of civilization other than the occasional estancia or gaucho to be a substantial part of the appeal. Some excursions are exclusive to Tierra Patagonia, owing to the vastness of its property and arrangements it has made with other owners. Around Explora we saw zero wildlife, whereas around Tierra Patagonia we saw hundreds of guanacos, tons of sheep and lambs, rhea, lots of birds, an armadillo, etc. And had we been staying at Explora, we never would have seen those baby foxes on the way to the French Valley. Shame on you if you can put a price on seeing baby foxes.
In general, wildlife seemed much more abundant outside than within the park. The silhouette of a guanaco standing atop a hill searching for pumas does not get old. Sadly we did not see a puma, though there was a group staying at Tierra Patagonia solely to photograph pumas and I heard they saw many on their independent, early morning excursions. The lambs are adorable, and it is endearing to hear the local guides refer to sheep as “cheaps.”
Guests and staff were supremely friendly. We made many new friends and it was touching how many people inquired whether Jenni felt better after knowing she had been sick. Ditto the staff who brought her a three-course meal in bed on the worst night, after which just about every one we came across asked how she was. The crowd is predominantly American, moreso than I expected. Most are interesting and well-traveled, just as I expected. Many guides are from Punta Arenas, though Spain, Australia and Turkey (as Jenni would say, woot woot!) were also represented.
On Saturday we left the hotel at 10 am which meant a good few hours in the airport before our 5:45 pm flight to Santiago (and 30+ hours of travel time back to Los Angeles). We spent no time in Punta Arenas, though I would imagine this small city of 120k has some interesting aspects. One of our guides said that Sotito’s is the place for king crab. Penguin trips are available to Otway Sound onshore or Isla Magdalena offshore, and perhaps others.
The owners of Tierra Patagonia also own Tierra Atacama and the Portillo ski resort. I think they may offer some packages when combining more than one location. Tierra Atacama is in a little town in the Atacama desert, the driest place on earth. Some others had stayed there and loved it, even suggesting the excursions might be better. I think it is at substantial elevation and one excursion is being taken by car up to about 17k feet and then hiking to the top of a volcano. One guest said the geyser excursion is a must.
Torres del Paine is quite a haul but the reward is worth the effort!