Words: Rhonda Bannister
Patagonia is a remote and beautiful land of pristine mountains, giant glaciers, icy blue lakes and unspoiled wilderness at the world’s end. It’s part of two countries – Chile and Argentina – but an area unique unto itself, and as Patagonians will tell you, “it’s a long way from Chile”! It’s a long way from everywhere, and therein lies its charm. If you’re looking for an epic honeymoon or adventure vacation, we hope this travel article and guide to this incredible part of the world will inspire you to put Chilean Patagonia on the top of your list!
Torres del Paine National Park
Over a quarter of a million people come here yearly to drink in the iconic views of the Paine Massif and its three distinctive towers – giant fingers of granite rising like snow-topped blades almost 3,000 metres out of the lush valleys and glacial lakes below. Most are here to tackle the 8o km W Trek that winds around the otherworldly landscape. Although I’m not a hiker, this destination has intrigued me since I read a travel article about Torres del Paine many years ago. I was besotted by an accompanying photo of a white building with clean architectural lines, sitting in isolated splendour beside a rushing waterfall on Lake Pehoé’s banks. I immediately put Hotel Salto Chico and Chilean Patagonia on my travel bucket list.
Where to Stay
There was only one choice for us: Hotel Salto Chico Explora – the hotel of my dreams and noted as one of Chile’s finest hotels. It was designed by internationally respected, award-winning architects, German Del Sol Guzman and José Cruz Ovalle and opened as the first Explora hotel in 1993. The hotel´s wooden construction is the same material, worked with the same techniques that local people use in their own Patagonian building projects.
Hotel Salto Chico is everything you would expect: comfortable, homely, elegant, welcoming and glamorous with the convenience of modern-day communication and an all-inclusive tariff so perfect for a honeymoon.
Just about every vantage point in the hotel – its guest rooms, dining room and public areas is focused on the spectacular, mesmerising view of the Massif, the lake, the waterfall and the surrounding hills and valleys. Natural interiors include timber, slate and copper with a muted natural colour scheme that is at home with the outdoor elements.
Serving up local cuisine that is mouth-wateringly delicious in the restaurant, and with a bar area stocked with divine Chilean wines and craft beer, this is where everyone gathers by one of the lodges four fireplaces to plan out their next day’s activities with their guide.
Related article: Exploring the wonder’s of Chile’s Atacama Desert
The hotel’s specialised explorations include around 30 half and full-day treks: some to the top of the icy mountains and others easy and not so easy walks through the beautiful countryside of lakes and rivers where the air is so pure, and the oxygen level so high, that some of the plants growing here are hard to find anywhere else.
Stand-out treks include a full day to Greys Glacier, where you get so close to it in a boat you can almost touch the ancient, vivid blue ice pack, and an arduous climb to the top of mountain peaks for those fit enough where, if you’re lucky, you’ll see a cougar or at least its footprints.
More gentle pursuits include photographic safaris to capture the images of the graceful guanaco, a relative of the llama, the crafty grey fox or the Andean condor that rules the Patagonian skies – whatever your level of fitness, there’s an activity to suit, including horseback riding. Explora has its own stables with horses to suit everyone, even me who had never been on a horse before, but I felt so comfortable and safe riding with the gauchos it was a real highlight.
After a day of trekking or horse-riding you’ll want to unwind with a massage and a swim, sauna or jacuzzi so make your way down the timber steps to the hotel’s recreation area sited by the river. We found ourselves here every afternoon, either having a massage or soaking in the steamy waters of an outdoor jacuzzi, glass of sparkling wine in hand while snowflakes swirled around our heads – very romantic!
Other accommodation options
The National Park offers a range of basic options from a cabin in a refugio to camping or the more comfortable glamping in an eco yurt. Hotels range from basic to mid-level with a couple of 5-star hotels here. Those looking for an authentic experience should investigate staying on an estancias working farm, where you can enjoy traditional Patagonian hospitality, horse-riding with the gauchos and guided wildlife trips. Most offer bed and breakfast and all the comforts of a hotel.
The Patagonian weather is as wild and changeable as its landscape and temperatures can change quickly and drastically within hours. You could start out in the morning under clear blue skies and be fighting a snow storm by lunch. It’s also famous for its ferocious, gravity-fed katabatic winds that can rage for days at speeds of up to 150 kilometres an hour. We felt the full impact of the crazy weather while trekking to Toro Vista Point when the weather changed from bright blue, sunny skies to grey clouds and sleet. The walk up and down the hills surrounding lovely Lake Toro was pretty easy to start with, but then a blinding wind came howling through the valley, ruffling the icy blue waters of the lake and hurtling a couple of birds backwards before swirling around our group of six, pushing us back on the path with such ferocity that we were bouncing off each other like bowling pins hit by a ball. I was the last pin and went down on my bum straight into a thorny bush, so make sure you dress for all contingencies and bring waterproof clothes.
Torres del Paine is around 2,800 km from Santiago so unless you’re doing a driving trip around Chile you’re best to take a LATAM flight from the city to either Puerto Natales or Punta Arenas which has more daily flights. Then it’s a road trip of several hours but most luxury accommodation includes transfers from and to the airport. Bus services run twice daily or you can hire a car to drive.
Best time to visit Patagonia
The high season of summer from December to February is the busiest so make sure you book everything early from flights to accommodation and tours.The weather is warmer during these months but the winds more fierce. Spring & autumn are also great times to visit when the weather is cooler but the crowds have gone. Campsites and refugios plus some trails are closed to independent hikers during the winter months of May to September – Explora Hotel Salto Chico is open year round.
Couples will love
Honeymooners and couples of all ages will love spending at least two weeks in this fascinating country to discover its amazing treasures such as the world’s highest, driest desert of Atacama, an incredible world of moonscapes unlike anything you’ve seen. It’s a two-hour flight north from Santiago.
Spend at least 3 days in Santiago drinking in the cultural highlights before embarking on a gastronomic getaway in the iconic wine region of Colchagua Valley, a lush green valley of farms and vineyards offering travellers to Chile a gourmet heaven.
If you have time and are ready for more magical adventure in this fascinating country, wing your way to Chile’s Easter Island for a unique insight into an ancient culture where megalithic monuments called moai stand like silent sentinels over this tiny island. LATAM has daily flights of five-hours duration from Santiago and Explora has the best accommodation, guides and tours at Hotel Posada de Mike Rapu.