Eco-Tourism in Patagonia
Published: May 2009
By John F. Stacks
Two luxury resorts—one in Argentina, the other in Chile—are luring ecotourists to the glacier-studded edges of Patagonia.
Get the Facts
"It was not dreary," Paul Theroux once wrote of Patagonia. "It was hardly anything. There was not enough substance in it for it to have a mood."
Poor Theroux. He had traveled thousands of miles, but he hadn't gone far enough. Another few hundred miles south and he would have come upon the other Patagonia: one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Today, he would also come across two of the best wilderness lodges anywhere. Located at the edges of the great South Andean ice field, no more than 38 miles apart, Patagonia's lushest retreats bear no resemblance to the lonely outback settlements of legend. Los Notros, deep in Glacier National Park on the Argentinean side of the border, takes the log-cabin-in-the-woods aesthetic to new heights; Explora is a minimalist's dream on a windswept lake in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park. That the resorts are so close to each other is no coincidence. The landscape here is not the barren expanse that covers much of the 311,000-square-mile region known as Patagonia, but a glorious collision of glaciers and lakes and snowcapped mountains dressed in towering pines. The lodges are built to take advantage of a raw, thrilling beauty unmatched in South America. The puma still hunts, the rivers are pristine, and only a satellite phone can reach the rest of the world.
Yet, despite the proximity of the properties, there is no easy passage from one to the other. Along the entire 3,230-mile border between the two countries, only two fully paved roads make the crossing. There's a long history of enmity here. In the 19th century, Chile and Argentina fought for ownership of Tierra del Fuego, eager to gain access to the navigable Strait of Magellan (they now share the island). In the late 1970's, a dispute over three islands in the Beagle Channel nearly led to armed conflict; that took seven years and the intervention of both Queen Elizabeth II and Pope John Paul II to settle. When Argentina's junta leaders went to war with Britain in 1982 over control of the Falkland Islands (which the Argentines call the Malvinas), the Chileans were more than happy to permit the British air force to operate from their territory. Ten years ago, Chile and Argentina signed a treaty settling 22 border disputes, but both countries still claim overlapping areas of Antarctica.
Now that Chile and Argentina have shed their military governments, the two nations worry more about their economies than their armies. At the moment, Argentina is struggling with a huge foreign debt, persistent recession, and high unemployment. If matters get worse, the whole region, Chile in particular, would be affected. Both countries need all the tourist revenue they can get, and this stunning part of Patagonia—wild and empty enough to attract the most well-heeled ecotourists—is a promising place to earn it.
Michel Biquard actually founded Los Notros as an attempt to exploit the hyperinflation that was pummeling the Argentinean peso 12 years ago. He believed that foreigners would come to Patagonia to take advantage of a bargain. That incentive no longer exists—Argentina now pegs the peso to the U.S. dollar—but people are coming anyway, about half of them Argentines, simply because the place is so irresistible. It's also easier to get to, with a new airport in El Calafate, 90 minutes from the resort, instead of a 41/2-hour drive from Ro Gallegos. The airport itself, an elegant steel and river-stone structure, is a recognition of the economic appeal of southern Patagonia.
Los Notros hugs the shore of Lago Argentino. As the resort van rounds a final bend in the rutted road that cuts through the national park, the driver asks us to shut our eyes. It seems silly, but my wife and I play along. When he tells us to open them again, it's to a view of the Perito Moreno Glacier sliding grandly out of the mountains and into the lake, where turquoise icebergs skate across the surface. Every room at Los Notros has that exact view.
The main building could be a 1970's hideaway in Big Sur: wind-sculpted driftwood and glacier-scoured rocks are carefully arranged on tables; huge windows, unbleached wood, and an open dining room make the structure seem integral to the landscape. In the 32 guest rooms, the colors are rich, the beds draped with the kinds of fabrics you'd find in a Tuscan farmhouse. But don't expect to fill the Jacuzzi tub in less than an hour: the water pressure depends on gravity alone. It wasn't until 1999 that Biquard was able to get a satellite telephone connection; there's no TV; and I can't find a short-wave band carrying anything in English. "This is a place to stay for four days," Biquard says. "If you can't unplug for four days, you're in trouble."
It isn't hard. On our first day, we set off by boat for the glacier. Dramatically cracking and creaking, pieces of ice the size of small apartment buildings crash into the water, the climax of the stately flow of ice down from the snowfield 12 miles away. Unlike the other glaciers in the area, which are shrinking because of climate change, Moreno is constantly replenished by the huge snowfield above it.
The boat comes ashore near the glacier, and everyone is outfitted with crampons for a hike on the ice. In groups of a dozen or so, we set off for a walk across the edge. All along the lake and to the sides of the glaciers, snowcapped mountains loom. With a note of sarcasm, our guide points out that they are named for generals, one even for a pope "who was never here." "That's all over," he says, referring to Argentina's two decades of military dictatorship. "Now we will give them good names."
The next day, we have lunch at the Estancia Cristina, a former sheep ranch that is now part of Glacier National Park. Homesteaders first came here from Europe in the 19th century to graze sheep on thousands of acres of empty land. Their dreams of wealth never materialized: the land was too fragile to sustain the sheep, and the loneliness proved too profound for many. By the time the park was established, in 1937, the Cristina was severely overgrazed. Now the park service is letting the land recover while giving a limited number of tourists a glimpse of that old way of life. Overnight guests will be welcomed starting later this year—evidence of the Argentinean government's dawning awareness that tourism is a better use of Patagonia's resources than ranching.
Los Notros is, as Biquard says, a four-day affair. The emphasis is on relaxation and comfort, and though the park has plenty of trekking opportunities, they're hardly rugged enough to build an appetite proportional to the size of the meals served at dinner. (The restaurant is excellent, however, as is the resort's selection of underappreciated Argentinean wines.) By contrast, the Explora in Chile is geared for action. "They are not really our competition," Biquard says. "Argentines do not like to hike."
True, hikes at the Explora can be strenuous. But the Explora is not for Argentines in other ways as well. Or so it would seem, given the 21/2-mile-wide no-man's land that lies between the Argentinean border crossing at Cancha Carrera and the Chilean checkpoint—as if closer proximity would invite renewed hostilities. Still, the officials at both ends are friendly and efficient. (Not that it's easy to get to the Explora from anywhere else; most guests arrive via a five-hour bus ride from Punta Arenas.)
Another 90 minutes' drive from the Chilean border station, the Torres del Paine mountains rise out of the plain like Manhattan from the Meadowlands, granite skyscrapers at a slightly crazy cant. Explora overlooks a spectacularly blue lake, with the mountain peaks front and center. Defying the resort's exercise ethic, a lazy person could sit happily in his room all day, watching the clouds hover on the peaks and sunlight paint the jagged cliffs shades of pink.
The 30-room hotel and its sister, in northern Chile's Atacama Desert, were built by Pedro Ibañez, a Santiago food magnate. The Patagonia property opened first, in 1993, and is the only one that is profitable. "Ibañez is fanatical about quality," says manager Dolores Figueroa. It's immediately obvious that no cost was spared. The exterior is stark; the interior, all blond wood and natural light—an elegant, modern simplicity that contrasts with Los Notros' plush rusticity. A window above the bathroom sink offers a view across the room and through the main picture window to the mountains beyond. The design is meant to embody Explora's "mission." To wit: "Explora is a form of withdrawal, with the immediate possibility of return. It is a way to retreat in freedom to change one's mind." Fair enough, but you still have to draw the shade to use the toilet.
If part of the Explora "concept" is to get guests outdoors, however, it succeeds brilliantly. There are leisurely van rides to see grazing herds of guanaco, a small, doe-eyed llama; climbs to the top of the mountain; and horseback excursions through valleys of granite.
On our first afternoon, we opt for the "easy" walk. It's easy until the end, when the guide heads straight up to a small peak called the Condor Watch. We are breathing hard, sweating, and wondering just how much farther we have to climb, but the trek is exhilarating. At the summit, the wind is blowing 50 miles an hour, and the clouds are scudding into the mountains across the valley. As if on cue, a pair of condors soars overhead.
A second day's walk, along a lakeshore lined with an icy train wreck of bergs, is more leisurely, like the stroll at Los Notros. But for the most part, the Explora is almost relentless about promoting activities that require breaking a sweat in the great Chilean outdoors. It attracts a hardier, more sophisticated clientele than its Argentinean counterpart—the type of active travelers who enjoy recounting their exploits each evening at cocktails while the staff signs up recruits for the next day's adventures. The emphasis on exploration doesn't mean neglecting creature comforts: the food is very good, the rooms luxuriously simple.
Indeed, by luring high-end tourists to Patagonia, long considered the realm of backpackers, the two hotels have become huge assets to the region. A little more cross-border coordination would benefit both, however. Dolores Figueroa points out that there is actually a road cut through Torres del Paine National Park that stops right at the Argentinean border. Both hotels have begged the local authorities to complete that link, but officials in Argentina fear that tourists will stay in Chile, where prices are lower, and use the road for day trips to Glacier National Park. But a better connection would also make it easier to arrange a three- or four-day stay at each property— the logical combination.
For now, the difficulty in reaching the southern tip of Patagonia severely limits the number of visitors. That may not be a good thing for the tourism industry, but it means that once you do get here, you'll have one of these ravishingly gorgeous places almost to yourself.
Reservations are critical in summer (December through February), when prices are highest; cooler, wetter weather arrives in March and April, along with smaller crowds. As of press time, the economic situation in Argentina was deteriorating further, with some reports of unrest. Please check this page for up-to-date information.
Los Notros Glacier National Park; 54-11/4814-3934, fax 54-11/4815-7645; www.losnotros.com; doubles with breakfast from $280; all-inclusive packages from $934 per person for three nights. Packages include meals, glacier walks and other excursions, trekking equipment, and transfers from either El Calafate or Río Gallegos airport.
Explora Torres del Paine National Park; 56-2/206-6060, fax 56-2/228-4655; www.explora.com; doubles from $2,080 for three nights. Rates include all activities (horseback rides, hikes, mountain biking), meals, drinks, and trekking equipment. The hotel will pick you up at Punta Arenas (a four-hour flight from Santiago) for the five-hour drive to the resort.
BEST VALUE There are lower-cost accommodations on both sides of the border. Hotel Posada Los Alamos in El Calafate, Argentina (54-2902/491-144, fax 54-2902/491-186; www.posadalosalamos.com; doubles from $188), is a reasonable alternative for visitors to Glacier National Park. In Chile, Hostería Las Torres (phone and fax 56-61/226-054; www.lastorres.com; doubles from $197) is a former estancia in Torres del Paine park.