The day before we left the Lake District (in Northern Patagonia) to fly to Punta Arenas (Southern Patagonia) we realized that we should look into where we were going to stay. The main attraction on the Chilean side of Southern Patagonia is the enormous National Park, Torres del Paine. It is about 4-5 hours drive away from Punta Arenas and the roads, we had heard, are not that great. (travelers note: other than being mostly gravel and no gas stations for hours, the roads were fine… just lots and lots of flat nothing, like driving through Texas). We had also heard that unless you are camping/trekking, accommodations are tricky b/c you have to stay in Puerto Natales outside the park and then find a guide to take you the parts of the park you want to see. Not terribly complicated, but definitely a bit of a hassle. During our trip advisor hotel search, we came across a place that got the most amazing reviews I’ve ever seen; everyone said it was worth the cost because it was inside the park with spectacular views and offered guided hiking and horseback riding throughout the park, as well as all inclusive food and booze and 5 hour transfer. Although we were sold on the pictures and reviews, we were a bit dumbfounded when we checked out the website and saw the costs. We ruled it out as an option and continued looking for other options. In comparison though, nothing appealed to us, so we decided to take a chance and contact the hotel to see if they had availability and would offer a discount – we figured if they still had a room the day before, it wouldn’t hurt to ask (and this is NOT a location where someone is going to show up last minute – in fact, they don’t allow it). The hotel responded quickly and ended up giving us a fabulous deal that included an upgraded room, 6 nights when they only offer 4 or 8 night packages, and one free night – i must admit, we still paid more than we ever have before and never would have expected to do something like this on an extended trip that is more conducive to hostels and B&Bs, but after 3 weeks of jumping around, I jumped at the chance to unpack for 6 nights in an absolutely lovely place!
We didn’t have the most wonderful weather (although there really isn’t such a concept as great weather in Southern Patagonia), and the hotel sometimes reminded us of a cruise ship, but ultimately, it was totally worth it. The view from our room was unbelievable (see picture above) and sometimes made it hard to leave. The hotel was geared toward physical activities in the park and we wanted to take advantage. The hikes were either half day or full day and there were many options including a full day hike we did to Grey’s Glacier (see picture). We left before sunrise and took the hotel’s boat across the river to the valley. Then hiked along the Grey Lake toward the eastern tongue of the glacier. There were mostly mild hills with a few tough ones mixed in, and a mix of forests, streams, and very rocky terrain. Ultimately we were very lucky with the weather and only got rained on for about 15 long minutes of being pelted with what felt like sleet, but we had much less wind than is usual for the area and even saw sun temporarily with a lovely rainbow. We walked at a steady pace for about 12 km and it was a great time to get to know a few of the other travelers that had opted for this more challenging hike. When we reached the glacier, we were at once struck by two things – incredible wind, and the fascinating color of the ice. The wind was strong enough that we could lean into it without falling over! And the blue color is caused by less oxygen in the ice; essentially the older the glacier, the longer it is compacted and forces out the air, creating an optical illusion to the human eye. Instead of hiking back, we were picked up by a boat that took us even closer to the glacier (and served whisky and pisco sours with glacier ice, which freaked out Raj b/c who knows what is in 500+ year old ice!) and then took us back toward the hotel. It was definitely the best hike we did but the other couple of half day hikes were great for seeing other (less icy) parts of the park, including Sarmiento Lake with it’s brilliant blue water that reminded us of the color of the Mediterranean, and also Condor Lookout with offered a 360 degree view of the side of the park by our hotel.
The horseback riding was also half day or full day but we ended up opting for several half days rather than full days. The scenery we saw by horseback was very different than hiking and was fantastic too! They offered riding from two different locations – an estancia on the NE edge of the park (which has nicer weather for geographical reasons) and the hotel’s personal stables, which was the fanciest environment I could ever imagine for horses, complete with personalized saddles for each of the 30 or so beautifully groomed horses. The rides were not as strenuous as in Futaleufu and they had silly rules like no galloping and we had to stay behind the gaucho (both of which I got “in trouble” for not following on the first day :P) But, we also got to do a few things we hadn’t had the chance to do before, such as cross rivers where the water came up to our stirrups, and get up close to some wildlife (specifically guanacos).
At the estancia, where the horses were a bit less pampered, we also witnessed the most hilarious scene at the end of the day – as the gauchos took the saddles off each off the horses and set them free to pasture, each one of them immediately laid down in the mud and rolled around for a few minutes before running off! You have to watch the attached video – it is brilliant!
Although disappointed to leave such beautiful scenery and the available activities, our next adventure on a cruise to the southern most tip of South America, Cape Horn, and the opportunity to see penguins, seals, and other cold-loving animals awaited us.