I know instantly when a place has changed me: I feel an unexplained tinge of melancholy at the end of a journey. As I rode along the aptly named “Ruta del Fin del Mundo” (The Route to the End of the World) for the 5 hour drive back to the closest commercial airport in Punta Arenas, I contemplated this vast land that I felt so privileged to have been a part of the past several days.
Chile has always grabbed my imagination, solely for its unique long snake-like shape stretching 2,600 miles from North to South, snug between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. I had traveled on business to Santiago before and loved it, but this time I wanted to understand more. Granted the South of Chile is nearly a different country compared to the North, with the Chilean Patagonians finding more in common with their brothers in Argentine Patagonia than with their own country-men in the Northern desert lands, according to some. Patagonia, the name alone suggests to me immense, remote, solitary, and rugged lands, a description that might in some ways also define its people. Imagine a dramatic wilderness of emerald fjords, vast ice fields, rugged peaks, and wind-swept prairies. Then think of what geography and weather do to its inhabitants.
I enjoy experiential travel immensely and if I can see the land not as an observer, but as an active participant, this is a draw to me. However, for those that know me well, I am an intrepid traveler just as long as there is spectacular food, creature comforts, and a cozy bed at the end of each day. The Explora lodges of Patagonia, Atacama and Easter Island have been providing just this type of pioneering experience for 20 years in Chile.
My 13-year-old son and I landed at the “end of the earth” after a very long journey and I had a slight panic when I did not see a driver there to meet us. Knowing that Explora only sends down a driver every 4 days to collect travelers form Punta Arenas, I wondered if I had gotten the date wrong. Yes, I am a professional travel consultant, but planning other people’s journeys is my profession, my own travel often done with haste and on a whim. Yes, of course, the date was correct, and the driver was out front, but simply dragging your off -spring to the end of the earth lends one to stop breathing for a moment and wonder what you are doing here.
We boarded the vehicle with a Peruvian couple, a man from Arizona, and a couple from Canada for the 5-hour journey along some paved, and some dirt roads to Torres del Paine. There was no music to listen to and the scenery was uninhabited and remote, except for millions of sheep and their lamb, an occasional sign reminding us we were on the “Ruta del Fin del Mundo”, and small shelters for those waiting for a bus. I wonder where someone would be coming from or going to on this bus and how strange it would feel to be waiting in the middle of nowhere. We stopped at a mid-way outpost called Rubens for a hot meal and a glass of wine and then continued on to Torres del Paine, perhaps South America’s most famous national park. We finally arrived to the Explora lodge, a tiny long building with a privileged position in this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The park is named for the Paine Massif, a cluster of granite peaks and needles backed by the Southern Ice Field and the Andes Mountains. Paine means blue, and an unreal turquoise blue is awesomely shone in the form of glaciers, icebergs, lakes, and rivers.
At cocktail hour each night at the Explora Lodge, guests sit down with the guides to discuss the 6-8 options available for the following day explorations. The lodge does say that there are 40 explorations to chose from but the staff decides in advance which ones they will put forward after gaging the different guest interests and abilities. I think they do genuinely try to make each guest happy, but there are limitations and the more difficult “trophy” hike to the Torres was only offered on the last day of our stay and conflicted with the celebrated “must-do” barbecue held at the Estancia Guincho. Everyone knows where my priorities lie – food and drink, anyone?
We enjoyed two absolutely breathtaking full day hikes to Glacier Grey and the Valley of the French. Explora sends you out with exceptional and friendly guides, a lovely picnic lunch, and a sure-thing rewarding day. The advantage of being right in the park and with a boat that crossed Lake Pehoe, is that guests spend very little time getting to their daily explorations.
The horseback riding in Patagonia is some of the best and most scenic in the world and riding along side the solitary and serious Chilean gauchos on a ride is an experience in itself, the way they communicate and handle the massive animals. Rides are designed for riders with some experience, but those that are advanced riders will need to plan an introductory ride to insure the gauchos understand your capability in handling the horses who cross massive rivers, gallop on open land, often along side wild horses. It is beautiful and dramatic, and considering it is a 5 hours round trip helicopter lift to the nearest hospital, you can understand the insistence on experience before taking guests out on the pampas.
Post Trekking Hot Tub and Swim Time. Gilly tried the Polar Bear Plunge in the glacial waters of Lake Pehoe!!
The staff at Explora Lodge have 20 years of experience handling the entire guest experience and really do it in a expertly, crafted manner. The food and beverage is excellent with a great diversity in every meal, expertly prepared Pisco Sours and Caipirinas, and an excellent variety of Chilean wines served with compliments. The entire staff is very friendly and accommodating and seem to really try to make each guest experience unique. Everyone is relaxed and friendly and the lodge environment is more of a house party where you truly do get to know many of the guests well. Ironically I ran into an old friend of 10 years and his partner who were staying at Explora the same dates as we were. (Who runs into people you know in Patagonia!?). We made great friends with a large group, creating fun explorations and hilarious dinners each night. In fact, as I write this my son and I are now heading back to Santiago for a night at the Ritz-Carlton with two new friends in tow – a great lady, also from Atlanta whom I bet will end up being a life long friend and a terrific man from Arizona whom we met on the ride to the Lodge 4 days ago. We all plan to travel to Valparaiso and to some wineries in Casa Blanca tomorrow – so the journey continues and to be detailed at the end.
I did make the effort to spend my last night in Patagonia at another experiential hotel who opened 3 years ago and is also a wonderful option for my clients. Tierra Patagonia is a gorgeous, design hotel, located on an enormous sheep Estancia on the shores of Lake Sarmiento. While Tierra does not have the location of the Explora Lodge right in the park, the property does have gorgeous views of the snow-capped peaks of Torres del Paine as well as Lake Sarmiento. Some hikes can be done unaccompanied around the lake and there is a huge Condor look out just on the property, making for a superb nearby exploration. Other explorations will require a drive into the park – 30-90 minutes. The guides at Tierra, also meet with guests each cocktail hour and truly tailor the experience to each traveler need. They appear to be equipped to take any guests out to any exploration of their choosing any day. This property may not have the same guest conviviality that seemed to flow naturally at Explora, but simply because it is a larger property that feels a bit more like a hotel, than a based lodge. Couples or families might do their own explorations, rather than joining a small group. The design of the Tierra Hotel is simply gorgeous – unique, eco-friendly, sleek, and built as a compliment to the landscape around it.
After a brief but wonderful visit to Tierra, we made the 4 hour drive from there to the Punta Arenas airport and the nearly 5 hour flight to Santiago. Santiago is a great city to spend a couple of days. While it may not have the same pizzazz as other South American capitals, Santiago is very sophisticated, very organized and clean, fantastic for dining out, and an easy base for skiing, wine explorations in the Colchagua or Casablanca Valleys, or for a visit to charming Valparaiso!
A fantastic day trip to Valparaiso – before the Panama Canal was built, this was the most important port in the Americas. Cobbled stone streets, artsy stores, funiculars, and charming colorful architecture!
Chile’s wines are beyond exceptional and very affordable. We visited Casablanca Valley on the way to Valparaiso and enjoyed the morning at Casas del Bosque winery where we enjoyed a fabulous Sauvignon Blanc and a quintessential Carmenere
Good morning, Santiago!! After an overnight flight, nothing like starting the day with an incredible coffee for me and a hot chocolate for my son!
A fabulous cafe tucked in a little court yard is –
Some super local designer shops can be found if you look! I fell in love with – Hall Central
Discreetly hidden in the rear of a courtyard, this high-end women’s clothing store carries the creations of independent designers mainly from Chile. The owner, Piedad Aguilar Izquierdo, prides herself on finding the latest talent and is constantly adding to the eclectic selection of tasteful daytime dresses, pants, tops and jackets. Prices from 10,000 pesos to 210,000.
Merced 346; 56-2-664-0763; hallcentral.cl
However no visit to Santiago would not be complete with out visiting the massive Mercado Central, named number 5 food markets in the world by National Geographic. An incredible scene especially as lunch time as all of the seafood and produce from throughout Chile is on full display. Dozens of seafood restaurants beckon you to stop and enjoy a glass of wine and some amazing food!
There are many places to stay in Santiago from posh to bohemian. We tried both.As far as neighborhoods go and if you only have one night in Santiago to go out, I definitely suggest staying in or at least planning your evening out in Lastarria, a hip bohemian neighborhood with dozens of spectacular local restaurants and a lively bar scene.We had a fantastic meal at BocaNariz – http://bocanariz.cl/inicio.htmlI also suggest Peumayen -http://www.peumayenchile.cl/
If you prefer to have a posh and very comfortable stay to get you through your jet lag, then The Ritz-Carlton, Santiago in Las Condes neighborhood will fit the bill. A great rooftop pool with views of the city and work out room, plus a cozy club level to enjoy cocktails and breakfast, are a great way to ease into the trip. The neighborhood is beautiful but will feel more corporate and high end with international restaurants rather than local ones.
Chile is a spectacular country for adventure and exploration!! I cant wait for my next trip there, perhaps to the driest desert in the world – The Atacama – or to the uber-mysterious and remote Easter Island. A ski holiday or a chance to check out the soon to be opened Vik Retreat on what may be the finest winery in Chile is definitely on my list!
Hasta Entonces, Chile!! Y Gracias!! Laura
Places to stay in Santiago –
Boutique – http://www.lastarriahotel.com/
Luxury – http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Santiago/Default.htm
Guests of Resort to Laura Madrid always receive the following at The Ritz-Carlton, Santiago:
Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
Daily full breakfast, for up to two in room guests
$100 USD Food & Beverage credit, to be utilized during stay
- Early check-in/late check-out
Places to dine –
BocaNariz – http://bocanariz.cl/inicio.html
Valparaiso – Oda Pacifico – http://www.odapacifico.cl
Exceptional Experiences -Places to stay in Patagonia
Explora Lodge – http://www.explora.com/explora-patagonia/
Tierra – http://www.tierrapatagonia.com/