Chilean Patagonia

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When I said Chile was far, I was misinformed. Patagonia is far. For your understanding, to get from our hotel in Patagonia (Tierra Patagonia) to Los Angeles we had to drive four hours, take a three-hour flight to Santiago, wait five hours for a six-hour flight to Panama City, and then take another six-hour flight to LAX. Woah. I’m writing this post as we begin this fun journey, so in a mere thirty-something hours, I’ll be stateside! (For less than 48 hours before we’re off to Asia mind you. AHH!!!)

But this remote destination is WELL worth the extra effort. Patagonia is full of sublime natural beauty, so other-worldly to me that I kept catching myself saying “it looks unnatural,” for instance, the anti-freeze colored icebergs and glaciers, the variations of turquoise and milky green colored glacial lakes and rivers, and the tropical looking red bush flowers and wild orchids.

We stayed at a phenomenally beautiful hotel in the Torres del Paine region of Chilean Patagonia. It’s incredibly expensive (booked before we decided to quit our jobs of course) and we had a few opinions on this (in a nutshell, worth it. The hotel could improve on some organizational issues, but altogether the staff is eager to please and the beauty of the area and the hotel is top notch).

The hotel is stunning, impeccably designed and situated in a most incredible location. The building itself blends in with the surroundings such that you can’t even detect it from across the lake unless you know what you’re looking for. Likewise, it’s interior is brilliantly done. Each room has a five-star view of Paine Massif, including the three towers and Admiral Nieto in front. The common areas too have windows spanning across the large space offering panoramic views of Lake Sarmiento and the mountains behind it while you dine, drink, and make other general Patagonian merriment. We were lucky and got several days with clear enough skies to see the towers in all their commanding glory. The hotel is long and narrow, so that everyone and everything is focused on the view, and the windows along the hallways towards the back open up at ground level so that you can watch the sheep (or cheeps as they call them here) and the too stinkin’ cute baby lambs munch away right before your eyes. Also, the rabbits.

Hotel shuttles picked us up at the airport for the four-hour drive to Tierra. The drive starts out beautiful – remote feeling as you pass through vast fields of shrubbery dotted with an occasional sheep (cheeps), these emu/ostrich looking birds called rhea, small flocks of flamingos in little ponds, and then these curious little creatures that appear to be a cross between a prong-horn deer and a llama, called guanacos (the “g” pronounced as a “y”). As you get closer and closer to Tierra the views get more and more breathtaking, as does the frequency with which you spot wildlife. The clouds too are beautiful. So many look like UFOs for some reason, I have to assume its related to the strong winds in the area. Before arriving to our final destination, we passed through Puerto Natales, a town of about 20,000 people about an hour from our hotel, and then past a tiny little town that borders Argentina. So I saw Argentina at least! We shared the shuttle with two other couples that were very nice and both wound up doing the biggest hike with us the next day. They were our first friends made at Tierra. While I hadn’t anticipated as much mingling with the guests, the place really affords the opportunity to get know the other guests as you go on excursions together and drink at the bar together. People who go to Tierra Patagonia tend to be awesome (if I do say so myself). We really enjoyed this aspect and hope to keep in touch with those me met.

The food at Tierra Patagonia is plentiful. Lunches and dinners on site are three courses, served with wine (or whatever you please). The quality of the food is hit or miss, some of the dishes (actually almost all the pastas) were fantastic, others were disappointing. One of our favorite snacks were dubbed “guanaco logs” by Kenneth and Dawn, two of our fellow vacationers. They appropriately named these sticks of cereal and nuts after where it is they look like they might have come from. But no worries, they don’t taste it. I also love the galletas they give you. It’s basically like a vanilla oreo dipped in chocolate, mmm mmm mmm. The wines are great. We especially liked the pinot noir (Coralillo 2010). There were also specialty house cocktails every night which Alan thoroughly enjoyed (though I’d advise steering clear of the Baby Alpaca). I got a cold so didn’t take as great an advantage of the imbibing options, but Alan made sure we got our money’s worth ;).

We arrived at the hotel on Monday just in time to grab lunch, which we ate quickly in order to get on a half-day excursion and take advantage of the pristine views afforded on that day. We did the Blue Lagoon tour, which gave us a great introduction to the area. We saw many more of the sheep, guanaco and rhea (including a baby one who ran like a little chicken), checked out a beautiful waterfall – Cascade Rio Paine, and stopped to see the view over Laguna Amarga.

After the tour we checked out the hot tub. It’s outdoors and of course has that phenomenal view, but the winds are so intense that the water laps up any part of your body not in the water and your wet exposed head gets cold fast. The lowest winds we saw on the weather report throughout our time at Tierra were 20km per hour, the max were said to be about 100km per hour. These aren’t just some light breezes… that’s real wind. Word to the wise, hit up the hot tub on the 20km/hr wind days.

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The next morning we headed out for the big hike – part of the classic Patagonian “W” hiking route– the base of the towers. This hike forms the easternmost prong of the “W.” We rushed through breakfast, getting on the van at 8am, and getting to the start of the hike at about 9:45. We lucked out with incredible weather, even seeing Laguna Amarga on the way so still that it created a perfect mirror image of the towers (just the day before it was as choppy as an ocean).

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The hike is divided into three sections. The first is relatively steep before it descends almost all the vertical you’ve gained, until you get to a camp area. Then you walk through a relatively flat, forested area, where we saw torrent ducks in the river, which can apparently swim up waterfalls! The last part is about 45 minutes of a steep climb up big rocks that is challenging and cold with the winds that get stronger up near the top. The work is awarded, however, by the picturesque view of the towers against a turquoise glacial lake. We ate our packed lunches at the top and trekked back to the van. All in it’s about 11.3 miles, around 3,000 vertical feet. It took our group maybe 6 and a half hours plus an hour or so at the top for lunch and pictures. I was impressed how speedy everyone, especially given that I was the youngest by maybe as much as 25 or 30 years for some of our hiking partners. It’s a tough hike, and my knees were killing me by the time we got down. I thought the hardest part was the last 100 yards, when the van was in view but the winds had picked up so strong that it was like walking through water neck deep. Oh how happy I was to get in that van, open a cold drink and eat my chocolate.

I had a feeling I was getting a cold, and this hike made it a reality. I felt too sick to do a big hike the day so we had opted for a full day tour primarily spent driving and taking pictures, no serious walks. Turns out pretty much every excursion was cancelled that day because it was so windy that it was dangerous to enter the park. Apparently a car accident had happened on a windy day a few weeks prior in which two people died. Since we found out late that our tour was cancelled, the two of us went on a somewhat impromptu excursion with our new guide, Josy, to an area outside the park that was less windy. On the way we saw a real gaucho riding his horse in the vast fields of nothingness. Our driver knew him and so he stopped to say hello and asked if we could take a photo with him. He obliged. We also saw men on their horses and with their dogs moving a large herd of cattle to an area with “better grass.” It’s really fascinating to watch. We later saw others doing the same with the cheeps. We also saw several condors, and Josy told us how they commit suicide when they’re ready to die! They just fly way up and then stop. What dark creatures. The van stopped at Estancia Las Chinas where we walked for a bit among the guanacos and nothingness. We didn’t make it far as the winds were epic and I was feeling ill.

I sent Alan off in the afternoon to try out the horseback riding while I took a nap and read my book in bed. I wound up having my dinner brought to me in the room and ate it in bed, in my robe, after which Alan went out to enjoy dinner and lots of cocktails of the day with our newfound Tierra friends. While it’s never fun to be sick while traveling, I most certainly enjoyed the five star indulgences to get me through it. I also really loved how sweet everyone was (staff and guests!). Everyone asked about me, how I was feeling, whether they could get anything for me.

Still not feeling 100% the next day we opted to stick with the full day driving tour that had been cancelled the day before. I would highly recommend this tour. While it’s not super active, you really do get to see so much of the park and from various angles. Well worth it.

The views were great this day, but it was still super windy. We had seen much of the eastern part of the park before, and this tour offered us some stellar sightseeing of the other side. We got incredible vantage points of the Admiral Nieto Mountain, the Cuernos, and Salto Grande (the second of three waterfalls in the park). We ate our feast of a picnic lunch at a restaurant in Rio Serrano (they feed you well at Tierra, that is for sure). Our bellies full, we drove to Mirador Lago Grey where we did a short hike out to the viewpoint to look at the massive grey glacier and the icebergs. Josy treated us to a toast of calafate sours (pisco with calafate (like a blueberry) juice). Legend has it if you eat the calafete you will return to the land, so it looks like we’ll be coming back to Patagonia. I wouldn’t complain.

We opted out of the “navigation” that leads to Grey Glacier as it didn’t seem like the views changed all that much and it costs an additional $110 a person. Thus, in no rush on the way home we stopped at Explora, Tierra Patagonia’s competition. We had looked at both when booking, and I feel we made the right decision. While Explora has one of the best views of any hotel I’ve ever seen, we thought Tierra seemed superior in design (based solely on seeing Explora’s exterior, as we didn’t go inside), wildlife nearby, and opportunity to see more of the park that you might not venture out to if you stayed at Explora. Also, the pool and hot tub at Explora are way down in the back where the views are far less impressive. Not to mention I would not want to make that long walk back with cold wet hair in the brutal winds here. We also walked over to the waterfall on the property, which was of course beautiful but the least impressive of the three in the park.

Back at the hotel we face-timed with family to hear how their Thanksgiving dinners were back home. There was no turkey for us this year, but it’s hard to complain when you’re being served a three course dinner while looking out at this:

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::view from the dining room::
::thanksgiving 2013 at tierra patagonia::
::thanksgiving 2013 at tierra patagonia::

Our last day we did the French Valley, which is essentially the center prong of the “W” trek. I made a pretty epic spot of a group of baby foxes on the side of the road. Also known as a pile of cuteness that is almost too much to handle. I’m adopting a fox as soon as we get back to America. I simply must.

In order to get to the start of the French Valley trail you must take a navigation (read: boat. Kinda weird to me that they call it a navigation), that takes about a half an hour. The hike is beautiful. You walk through a relatively easy stretch that is about 7.5km of up and down hills through a forest (much of it burned in a 2011 fire) to arrive at a camp. After that the trail becomes more steep and you get spectacular views of the French Glacier. I think we hiked about 18-20 km all in, though less elevation that the base of the towers. Sitting on a rock overlooking the glacier we ate our packed lunches and Josy also pulled out some hot soup, vegetable skewers and hard-boiled eggs for us to munch on. Again, we were not left hungry at any time. Back at the base as we waited for the navigation we had some cervezas and sodas.

Alan stepped up his animal sightings and found us an armadillo on the drive back. We were ever on the hunt for a puma but to no avail. We did remember watching a Planet Earth or something like that which showed a puma chasing a guanaco in Patagonia.

The sun sets so late here, it’s deceiving. In fact we had to be reminded to sit down for dinner at last call at 9:30 our last night.

We debated trying to get up to Punta Arenas early our last day to see the town or view the penguins, but opted instead to not rush, and just enjoy our last few moments at this luxurious hotel before heading off on our 36-hour journey home.

Quick reading update: I finished Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. It was of course good, but not her best. Also read a good chunk of it while I was out of it on cold medicine so maybe not the best judge. I did start reading A Piece of Cake and I can’t put it down. It’s incomprehensible what she was put through. Really eye-opening and gives you an insight into some of the injustices happening in our country.

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