Luxury eco-lodge offers all-inclusive adventure on the edge of the world
Published in Canadian Traveller Magazine
Standing at the base of the three glacier carved slate grey granite spires looming above me like solemn sentinels at the gateway to some impenetrable Valhalla, I feel like a pilgrim who has finally reached his journey’s end at the very edge of the world. These two thousand metre high towers from which Chile’s magnificent Torres del Paine National Park derives its name are among the most iconic images in South America, dominating the landscape of this 600,000 acre nature reserve internationally renowned for its incredible trekking and hiking that was designated a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve in 1978.
It has taken me ten years, several flights and a strenuous ten hour hike to finally reach Torres del Paine, justifiably famous for its jagged, horn-shaped peaks, turquoise glacial lakes, electric-blue icebergs, rolling pampas and signature wildlife, including condors, flamingos, llama-like guanacos and the elusive puma, I initially planned to reach the Towers while on a month-long solo backpacking trip through Patagonia in 2005. But a major fire, allegedly accidentally started by a Czech backpacker, broke out before I could reach it. Lasting for ten days, the conflagration destroyed over 150 square kilometres of grasslands and old growth forest. It also indefinitely postponed my journey to this pristine patch of the planet.
Now, I’m finally back. This time not as a hostel hopping backpacker, but as a guest of Explora Patagonia, Torres del Paine’s original all-inclusive luxe eco-lodge. First conceived as a unique way of travelling to remote areas of South America based on in-depth exploration of nature and the ‘luxury of the essential’, the lodge first opened in 1993 in the wild heart of the park, soon cementing its reputation as the go-to all-inclusive destination for more affluent travellers searching for the perfect blend of creature comforts and aspirational adventure in a truly magical setting. Needless to say, I’m eager to experience whatever challenges Explora Patagonia can throw at me.
More independent minded and adventurous travellers often tend to associate the term all-inclusive with over indulgence at cookie-cutter beach resorts and aboard cruises. At Explora Patagonia, the concept has been interpreted very differently right from conception. Here, as I soon delightfully discover, it’s all about disconnecting from civilization and reconnecting with nature through rugged, physically challenging adventures while still enjoying the creature comforts that come with staying at a high end lodge.
I arrive at Explora after a five-hour complimentary shuttle van ride from Punta Arenas airport, a three-hour flight south from Santiago and the gateway to Chilean Patagonia. Perched like a white yacht sailing on those notorious Patagonian winds that sweep down over a bluff that rises up alongside a waterfall, it commands a spectacular location facing the Cuernos del Paine from across glittering Lake Pehoé, the most famous of the park’s many glacial lakes.
Each of the lodge’s 49 furnished yet luxurious TV-free guest rooms and suites welcomes the weary traveller with a sleek, cheerful, eco-conscious design featuring native lenga wood details, blond wicker furniture and almond wood floors. Each room consists a small living area, hydro massage bath and incredibly comfortable beds, designed for a deep, relaxing sleep after a day's excursion. Best of all are the panoramic lake views, especially lovely since I’m here at beginning of the austral summer and my room is bathed in brilliant sunlight for nearly twenty hours per day.
I soon discover that Explora Patagonia’s tasteful simplicity also extends to its most popular amenity, Spa Ona, located in a large bathhouse located 100 meters away from the main building via a sloped wood path running down to the lake. Spa Ona features a heated lap pool, four open-air Jacuzzis and massage rooms. There’s also a dock where seriously intrepid (read: crazy) guests can take a cardiac inducing post hike or ride dip in the lake, the ice-cold water said to be an excellent tonic for sore muscles.
A la carte explorations
Explora offers over 50 different half and full day treks and horseback rides to choose, each led by well-qualified members of their on-sight team of bilingual guides. The maximum group size is 8 guests led by one or two guides. Over pre-dinner cocktails my first evening I gather with fellow lodge guests to listen as these guides explain the range of daily excursions available designed to suit every ability, fitness level and interest. Guests can cruise on the lodge’s private catamaran across the turquoise waters of postcard perfect Lake Pehoé towards the Grey Glacier or horseback ride to the Laguna Verde. The can stroll beside stunning Laguna Azul or take a seriously strenuous trek through the towering Cuernos del Paine deep into the magical Valle del Francés. Or explore the southern shore of Lago Sarmiento with its bizarre lime formations. And of course, make the famous pilgrimage to the base of those beloved Torres. There’s no shortage of options, each exploration an a la carte adventure.
The only lodge in the area with its own horses bred and trained especially for its guests, Explora Patagonia maintains a stable over 20 horses, all raised and trained in Colunquén, a ranch in Central Chile that belongs to the Ibáñez family, Explora’s owners. Led by a group of Chilean gauchos clad in traditional cowboy outfits, they are well prepared to safely transport riders of different levels of expertise on incredibly photogenic routes running high up onto the park’s plateaus or across its flat, grassy plains, sometimes even fording streams. As with the guided hikes, ride duration and difficulty is tailored to each guest’s preferences. On my first outing, a meandering two-hour ride up to a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the pampas, I quickly realize that experiencing Torres del Paine by horseback is an absolute highlight of the Explora experience, even if you’re a novice rider like me.
my five-day stay at Explora I seize the opportunity to partake in a wide range of explorations, both on foot and by horseback. The most challenging trek is a ten hour, twenty-five kilometre round trip marathon through the lenga forests of the French Valley to the British Camp, arguably the park’s most scenic location, set in a natural amphitheatre surrounded by panoramic views of Paine Grande on the west and spectacular Torres del Paine and Los Cuernos to the east. Enroute we stop at a breathtaking viewpoint to to watch avalanches tumbling down from the crevasses of the hanging French Glacier. The most relaxing excursion is a half-day ride across rivers, forests and pampas to reach the Laguna Negra lookout, an ideal location for spotting bird species such as southern lapwings and upland geese. And my most satisfying challenge is completing that long postponed eight-hour climb through the Ascencio Valley and up the final steep shale slope to the base of the fabled Torres del Paine themselves. As I arrive the clouds shrouding them are briefly driven apart by the famously fierce and incessant Patagonian winds to reveal their austere grandeur. Journey’s end, at last.
Arriving back at Explora each evening I head straight for the spa. The rumours are true, I discover, as I plunge into Lake Pehoé’s frigid waters before indulge in a well-deserved soak in one of the outdoor Jacuzzis: Dipping yourself into ice cold water does recuperative wonders, although taking a near polar plunge is by any definition tough bodily self love. I also enjoy rejuvenating massages followed by delicious and nutritious gourmet meals in the lodge’s elegant yet understated dining room, never tiring of the breathtaking views of Lake Pehoé and the Macizo del Paine peaks from its wall-to-wall windows.
Explora claims that its dishes have been designed to enable guests to perform various explorations and still feel light, agile, and healthy. With a choice of succulent dishes like Magellanic lamb, southern king crab and delicious fresh local fish and vegetables, always accompanied by a superb Chilean wines, my recovery is most definitely assured. So too is the promise of awakening each morning to another exhilarating day spent exploring this uniquely scenic wilderness. It may have taken a decade to finally reach South America’s – and arguably the world’s – most mesmerizing national parks – but the wait has been well worth it. Torres del Paine, we will meet again.
Air Canada offers daily non-stop flights from Toronto to Santiago. Flying time is approximately 11 hours. From Santiago, several daily flights on LAN or Sky Airline reach Punta Arenas. Explora arranges airport transport to the lodge, a drive of approximately 5 hours with a lunch break in picturesque Puerto Natales.
When to go
The weather in Torres del Paine can be unpredictable at any time of year (expect all seasons in a single day) but early austral summer (November) and late summer and autumn (March) are generally the best times to visit when the park is less crowded and the skies clear. In autumn the colours are especially stunning. Winter (June-Sept) can be an especially beautiful time to visit, although visitors should be prepared for variable weather conditions and limited hiking and riding opportunities due to snowy conditions at higher altitudes. From mid November to early March Explora operate set packages with fixed entry and departure dates. During the remainder of the year flexible arrival or departure dates are available.
For more, including how to best prepare for your adventure, visit Explora Patagonia’s website.