The Best Way to Experience Patagonia, According to a Travel Expert
Patagonia is the place that bucket lists were made for. Stretching across the southern tip of both Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is rugged, sparsely populated, and astonishingly beautiful. Vast plains are crisscrossed by puma and guanaco trails, Andean condors’ with their 10-foot wingspans sometimes circle 40 feet above your head, there are ancient glaciers to sail to and old-growth forests to explore.
Getting there is hardly a walk in the park and the weather is notoriously unpredictable — pack layers and be ready to be flexible—but, having just returned from the End of the World, I can say this: It is not only worth the journey, it is on my list of places to visit again.
How to Get There
The long and short of it? The journey to the End of the World is long, not short. If you are coming from North America, there is one big perk: it is a red-eye flight both ways and it is the same time zone so you maximize your vacation time and you don’t have to deal with jetlag. You have to fly through Santiago if you are headed to Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales on the Chilean side. You fly through Buenos Aires in Argentina if you are going to Ushuaia or if you are en route to the South Pole or an Antarctica cruise. Also, if you’re planning to visit during high season (the Southern Hemisphere’s summer, October to early May), book farther in advance than you think you need to.
LATAM Airlines has incredible connectivity in the area with year-round daily flights between Santiago and Punta Arenas — as well as Puerto Natales which is closer to Torres del Paine when it is high season — but they do sell out. For the international flight, LATAM’s 787s are awesome — definitely treat yourself to one of their lie-flat beds.
Where to Stay and What to Do
There are a number of luxury lodges to choose from, but Tierra Patagonia is my top pick. It is perhaps the best example out there of a hotel blending into its surroundings — and with a backdrop like Patagonia, this is a stunning achievement.
Tierra is located outside of the official boundaries of Torres del Paine — so unlike the other hotels in the area, there are not as many restrictions on activities (horseback riding, for example, is much more regulated if you are inside the national park). It is worth noting that Tierra’s location outside of the park is by no means a step down in terms of scenery. It is Patagonia after all, and the views of incredible jagged mountains, glaciers, desolate plains and awesome lakes are hardly exclusive to the official park land.
Despite being in the middle of nowhere, the service and offerings are on par with any five-star resort worldwide. The dining options are versatile — gourmet, vegetarian, hearty, healthy and the servers know all the details on the menu. It is really amazing given how remote the property is. It’s also thoroughly delicious, which is key because if you partake in Tierra’s activities, you will be hungry.
The full-service spa is top-notch. It is not a Swiss Mountain spa destination, but it is incredible considering its location. To give an example of the level of service and their attention to detail and flexibility, we had scheduled post-hike massages, but mid-hike, we took a detour because we wanted to go farther into the park. The spa concierge radioed our guide and after a very efficient back and forth, we were seamlessly on our way, massages postponed to match our new ETA.
Tierra also encourages a feeling of community and camaraderie at the resort. With only 40 rooms, it is impressive that they have created a social, welcoming common space — this may be helped by the many open bottles of Chilean wine, cocktails, tea and snacks laid out for guests. The general manager, Nick Russ, is also around and he is more than generous with his time. Equally generous with their attention, the guides who lead the hotel’s excursions come and go throughout the day and they are very experienced, well educated and simply, fun to talk to.
The guides are more than just knowledgeable and friendly—the level of personalization they work at is unmatched. A lot of hotels send incoming guests a lot of information to pre-plan the itinerary, but Tierra waits until you arrive to have a one-on-one itinerary planning session. This makes sure that unforeseeable factors like the weather and how you are feeling post-flight are factored into the plan. This personalized attention to detail and thorough understanding of specific abilities and objectives is something very similar to having a great relationship with a travel agent.
Try a half-day hike around Lake Sarmiento, the hotel’s “backyard.” Expect to see eagles, condors, guanaco (which may be on the dinner menu), foxes and ñandú (a type of ostrich), fossilized thrombolites and incredible views of the Torres del Paine mountain range. Or, do a full-day hike culminating with an impressive view of Torres del Paine National Park’s three granite towers. It is an uphill climb—there are stops and viewpoints and the grade is not terribly steep, but it does require some sense of stamina. However, the view from the top is more than worth it. Do not wear new shoes and definitely bring layers.
Starting at the Cerro Guido ranch, you can don chaps and head off into the wilderness towards Sierra del Toro—the panoramic view of the Paine Massif is unforgettable.
Heading to Macizo Paine and sailing to Grey Glacier is the best option if you want to see as much of the park as possible in the shortest amount of time. Your guide brings you through the west side of Torres del Paine National Park with short stops to key photo-op spots. Once you get to Lake Grey, there is an option to board the Grey II and sail out to the famous Grey Glacier.
A half-day excursion that departs at dawn lets guests get a better look at (and better photos of) Torres del Paine National Park’s 120+ bird species: flamingos, caiquenes, ducks, ñandú (local type of ostrich), woodpeckers, caranchos, eagles and the highlight: the condor.
Instead of retracing our path and flying back to New York City via Santiago, we flew to Buenos Aires and stayed for a night in the city at Faena. I would recommend staying for at least two nights to see more of Argentina's capital — if you can make the logistics work, try to schedule your Buenos Aires stay to include a Sunday. There is a flea market every Sunday that showcases some of the best antiques and local food I’ve ever seen. And, of course, Faena’s Sunday brunch is a meat-lover’s dream.