Do you ever find yourself in need of an escape? Are you sitting in the office watching rain droplets roll down the window thinking there must be somewhere better you could be? Are you looking for the opportunity to switch off? Let me see if I can persuade you to take a trip…
It was with much glee (and much envy from friends and colleagues) that I had the chance to dodge the gloomy weather in London and embark on an adventure close to the end of the earth: Patagonia.
These days we spend so much time working, commuting, looking after the everyday needs of a family perhaps, and any down-time we get is too often spent on our phones or watching TV. I’m a firm believer that we all need balance in life, and too much of anything can upset one’s inner equilibrium. We all need down-time to disconnect, and I can’t think of a better place to go offline than Patagonia, the southernmost region of the South American continent. Straddling Chile to the west and Argentina to the east, it is so remote, you really get a deep sense that you are at the end of the earth, and there is zero mobile phone reception – a blessing in disguise! The landscape here is so vast and so awe-inspiring you can’t help but forget the stresses of home and begin to ponder your place in the universe as you gaze sky-ward to see the night sky lit up in all its glory. It’s as if the universe is somehow closer to you here. And then there are the sunsets! I’ve never seen so many colors! I was lucky enough to spend a few nights in the Torres Del Paine National Park in the Chilean part of Patagonia.
It is such a land of contrasts, the flat pampas with the long whispy grass, home to the horse-mounted Gauchos; the dramatic mountains that burst abruptly from the ground as if they grew there overnight, the lakes so blue and still, like a perfect reflection of the sky. I got to appreciate these spaces from three different perspectives, at three different parts of the park.
My first stop was the Tierra Patagonia. Built in such a way as to not be incongruous with the surrounding landscape, all you will see arriving by night is a tiny row of warm beckoning lights. The hotel is completely built from locally sourced wood, found in the Torres del Paine Park, and the architecture is sure to leave a lasting impression, with huge sweeping arches of wood, it’s like stepping aboard an ark. It had the most impressive spa including an outdoor Jacuzzi overlooking the mountains, the perfect place sit and watch the sun go down while you reflect on the incredible day you have just had.
Not only did I receive the warmest welcome, the greatest service, the most comfortable bed, and the best food; we also had a fantastic guide Nacho, who knew every minutiae about the park, and took great pleasure in explaining it all to us: the flora and fauna and the ancient back-story, but also its fragility. The need to protect the ecosystems here is great; in 2011 a red ember from a camp fire sparked off a fire that destroyed thousands of hectares of pristine park land, some irreparably.
One crisp morning I embarked on what some say is the most challenging hike in the park, the ‘Base of the Towers’ trek. Not for the faint-of heart, this is a 22km round trip hike, with some steep uphill and scrambling over rocks, often with sheer drops below. Our expert guide Nacho, kept the pace for us and we felt 100% safe. I was rewarded with a wonderful picnic lunch perched atop a boulder in the shadow of the majestic towers. There was not a soul in sight, it was just perfect. Of course you don’t need to do the hardest hike to appreciate the Torres Del Paine, there are trails to suit all abilities on all sides of the park, and the guides have the insight of the best vantage point to see the Cuernos (horns) and the Paine Massif.
Next we moved on to something a little different, staying at a luxury yurt camp located on the shores of the beautiful Lago Toro overlooking the Paine Massif from the south. Patagonia Camp is totally unique; there is no other experience that can compare in this part of the world. It is a camp made up exclusively of luxury-yurts in the most beautiful setting, and the best place to get closer to nature, whilst not compromising on the accommodation. The yurts are comfortable and stylish, and you can literally sense nature all around you; you can feel the wind ripple through the camp and hear the birds, you can even see the stars through the domed window in the ceiling. The camp has its own kayaks so you can go off and explore the lake with its hidden coves and little beaches. The staff here make it their only goal to help you relax and leave your cares behind you, serving up wonderfully fresh innovative dishes, and delicious Chilean wines. They were even cooking up fresh Patagonian lamb in their Quincho, or open fire grill, on the day we arrived, which was mouth-wateringly good. The friendly guides gave us an ‘orientation’ on arrival to show us the excursion options and give you a feel for what activities they can offer in the park. This season sees the inauguration of their new Premium Yurts, double the size of the originals, which I will have to go back and try for myself!
Lastly, we ventured up to Explora, blessed with the most exclusive location within the park itself, overlooking the imposing Massif. My room looked out across the lake and was hands down the best view from a hotel room I have ever seen! The hotel even has a boat which can take guests up to the Grey Glacier wall on the northern edge of the lake, and is the only lodge with its own stables. We decided to try out the ‘Gaucho experience’ and embark on a horse riding trail through the pampas. We spent a gorgeous afternoon crossing streams and trotting through the long grass, with the most stunning mountain backdrop, finishing with a traditional cup of Mate in the gaucho’s kitchen. Evenings at Explora comprised a specialist talk from one of the guides, I learned all about the life-cycle of a glacier which was fascinating, made better by the passion and expert knowledge of the guides.
I left Patagonia reluctantly, but with a clear head, a relaxed and refreshed body and a new found respect for nature. Staying there a few days somehow makes you think more clearly and put everything in life into perspective. I would absolutely go back in a heartbeat.