Chile’s Pristine Patagonia

by Liz Caskey on January 27, 2012

Patagonia has been on our mind a lot as of late since the Torres del Paine park suffered a major forest fire in early January. Fortunately, the park is now open as is Explora hotel in the park. There’s so much talk of Patagonia that people think it’s just one place and it’s really this wide spread, ultra diverse territory where you can make multiple trips. It’s not a once and done deal, as if Alaska and it’s beauty ever got “old”. For me, Patagonia is mythical. Epic. Its fabled images live as much in my imagination as they do in reality. Patagonia feels like the last frontier. A windblown land in the far southern reaches of the Americas with its closest continental neighbor being Antarctica.

First, let’s get our bearings. Patagonia covers the lower (southern) part of Chile & Argentina, encompassing an area roughly the size of Texas between both countries. Chilean Patagonia is really divided into two types of territories: Patagonia Insular includes all the fjords and channels along the Pacific Ocean down to Tierra del Fuego, and Cordillera Patagónica, encompasses the valleys and glaciers towards the steep Andes where Argentinean Patagonia begins. On the Argentine side, the valleys are a type of cold desert called the Pampa Patagónica.

Chilean Patagonia is composed of two sub-regions: the northern Aisén and southern Magallanes provinces. Recently, the boundaries of what has classically been considered “Patagonia” seem to be extending north to encompass the area from Palena up to Puerto Montt and the Lake District. I won’t get into this heated debate but for the purposes of this piece, we’ll include it since it’s essentially the jumping off point to head south. I also will be recommending my short list of properties to experience the region to the max in total comfort, and where we have our guests stay. If you’re interested in traveling, we can include these properties in any itinerary and set up all the details for you. Contact us.

Lakes District to Palena

The port town of Puerto Montt is the central hub for travelers heading to the Lake District near Puerto Varas, taking the famed Carretera Austral down into virgin eastern forests. Shove off on a boat here to the archipelago of Chiloé, one of the most unique insular cultures in Chile with dozens upon dozens of indigenous shellfish. While there’s not much to see in Puerto Montt beyond the Angelmó fish market and the airport, not too far away, the landscape will turn into rolling green pastures with serrated mountain peaks reaching into the sky in the distance with the cones of distant volcanoes. Here, the German settlers turned the wild forest into cultivated, productive land. Head towards the rugged coast with cliffs, beaches, and cloud forests and you’ll be treated to artisan fishing villages with painted dinghies which haven’t changed in decades. In some islands, electricity just arrived a year ago. During the summer, Humboldt penguins flock here. Chileans often refer to this as the end of “continent”. From this point, Chile crumbles into thousands of islands only to be navigated by astute sailors within its network of channels, sounds, archipelagos, majestic fjords, sapphire lakes, and the snow-peaked Andes in the distance–always.

My Pick: The Cliffs Preserve Patagonia

Set on a stunning 8,000 acres of private property where the Chilean continent ends southwest of Los Muermos, The Cliffs can only be described as magical; for me, it was life changing. This eco-luxury retreat brings you back to your natural centered place through long walks on the beach; the rhythmic sound of crashing waves; uplifting excursions to see Penguins; horseback riding with gauchos; even visiting the local fishing villages. I never tired of contemplating the beautiful sunrise and sunset every day with a constant view of the sea. Hike the perfumed bush; feed your body with the organic homegrown produce. When its time to slumber, crawl into the private hot tub or retreat to your cushy villa to cuddle up by the fire and hear the wind whisper and waves crash.

Aisén

This is one of the least populated and most dramatic areas of Patagonia in Chile. This thousand-mile extension is mostly unexplored by man-and I would add, fairly off the radar for most folks. Here, the snow-capped mountains, volcanoes, and azure lakes so dramatic and isolated that few humans have ever set foot on them. The fjords are untrodden, perhaps only an occasional tiny port or a fishing village. Cruise ships or yachts pass infrequently en route to the San Rafael Glacier, or making their way to/from Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, 2-4 days at sea. Inland, the roads are gravel, in so-so condition, punctuated by a wildly fickle climate that changes on a dime. Much of the terrain is virgin and untouched, not unlike its geographic cousins the Alaska Panhandle, the Norwegian coast, and the Milford Sound in New Zealand. Apart from the mostly unpaved Careterra Austral, which rarely turns toward the coast, there are few roads in these latitudes. In fact, did you know that in this part of Patagonia over 70% is comprised of water? To get around, small planes, boats, and even helicopters are necessary. But those who persevere will be treated to the geography of their lives. You may catch glimpses of dolphins, whales, sea lions. You can catch the best trout of your life in the streams fed by snowmelt–and look up and see that glacier!  You can truly imagine how the earth was 10,000 years ago, and give thanks that these corners of earth still exist.

My Pick: Nomads of the Sea

This was by far one of the most mind-blowing, inspirational, and moving trips I have ever done (and it kicked off my obsession with helicopters). Given that I mentioned that Patagonia is primarily water and hard to penetrate, enter Nomads of the Sea. Nomad’s high-tech and intimate luxury ship sails deep into the virgin heart of Chile’s Patagonia. From there, take off in helicopter, jet boat, zodiacs , and other “toys” to explore the rain forest, mountains, and hundreds of pristine emerald lakes and rivers. Head out with resident marine biologists to meet with the dolphins; heli-ski down the side of a volcano; trek out to hot springs for a soak; or just be pampered by great chefs while overlooking millennium glaciers. While Nomads specializes in fly-fishing and nature-based adventures, on board there’s gourmet cuisine, fine wines, and creature comforts like the sauna and thalassotherapy baths. And yes, the novelty of the chopper never wore off, even though it felt like the family car to get around. So awesome.

Magallanes

The southernmost, largest and second least populated region of Chile, this province is a who’s who of geographical importance: Torres del Paine National Park, an UNESCO biosphere, Cape Horn, Tierra de Fuego Island, the Straigt of Magellan, and Chile’s Antarctica is included within this territory. This part of Chile touches the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland. It is isolated from the rest of Chile by fierce storms and impassable mountains so that Magallanes can be reached only by air, sea, or overland from Argentina.

While many people envision the typical postcard pictures of jagged mountains veiled in clouds, electric-blue glaciers, emerald-colored lakes, and icebergs, parts of this part of the Chilean Patagonian are also arid, windblown Prarie land called the estepa. Here, the trees grow sideways with the incessant wind, lamb graze peacefully munching on yellow-colored grasses called coirón, and baqueanos (Southern gauchos) tend to the their flocks.

In the early 1900s, there was an important immigration from Scotland, Germany, and Croatia who founded Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales, setting up the sheeping industry with huge estancias.  Here, fishermen set off for days in the deep sea fjords to hunt the prized Patagonian toothfish (Chilean seabass), centolla (king crab), sea urchin, and conger eel. You can feast on jams and Pisco sours infused with the calafate berry, a wild indigenous berry between a blueberry and cranberry. Savor the best grass-fed lamb of your life. Kayak, hike, ride, bike, and take a couple days to hang out or base yourself from the Foodie Frontier town of Puerto Natales with great restaurants like Afrigonia and the sleek Indigo hotel. Soak up this amazingly diverse area where the sunsets at 11pm in the summer and comes up at 4:30am.

My Pick: Explora Patagonia

This exquisite refuge is located in the heart of the breathtaking Torres del Paine national park, an UNESCO biosphere. While this hotel had to unfortunately shut down while the fires were controlled, it’s now open and in perfect condition. The sweeping views of the turquoise Lake Pehoé and vistas of the serrated peaks of the Cuernos del Paine are from every angle of the hotel (they even carved out a peek-a-boo window in the Paine bathrooms next to the WC). From this base, exploring the 450,000 acres of the park is literally at your doorstep on horseback, by foot, by boat or kayak. The superb guides will take you to the glaciers, Torres, Valle del Francés or to see the rolling grasslands teeming with foxes, pumas, and graceful condors. One thing is to remember to keep a sense of humor here. Mother Nature will shower you wind, sudden snow, maybe a little hail, rain, bright sunshine, and then repeat.) The weather changes on the drop of a dime, especially in the summer time when the moist, warmer winds from the ocean collide with the glaciers and cause mini-storms. No biggie, you get back to your refuge, slip into the jacuzzi and a glass of bubbly somehow always finds a way into your hand.

My Favorite New Hotel: The Singular Patagonia

Opened to the public since November 2011, this brand new chic lodge is situated in the historic Puerto Bories, outside the little town of Puerto Natales. The first landing place of the settlers in the region, the handsome brick building built in 1915 is now a historical monument that has been expertly “recycled” using environmentally friendly architecture to transform the old frigorífico, cold-storage space which originally exported mutton to Europe. With primo location on the on the shores of the Last Hope Fjord, the spacious rooms all sport beautiful vistas of the water and snow-covered mountains in the distance. Jump off into the Torres del Paine Park, only an hour away, head to the Sierra Baguales for off road trekking, load up on their boat from their private pier to go cruise to see the glaciers. Visit the hotel’s private collection, a museum about the origins of the region, indulge in a massage, or in the evening, participate in their olive oil and wine tastings before dinner. What I most love, love, love about this hotel (besides the great digs, guides, and food) is that it’s truly all-inclusive even including alcoholic beverages beyond wine. Hello Calafate Berry Sours. Details, details.

 

Interested in booking your dream trip to Patagonia? We can take care of all the details from flights, to bookings with preferential rates, culinary add-ons, and pair it with the Argentina Patagonia in El Calafate or an exploration in Chile’s Wine Country and beyond. Contact us at info@lizcaskey or 904 687 0340.

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Matt January 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm

I was in Patagonia in December shooting an article for Vanity Fair out in March. Spent 4 days at The Singular. Amazing hotel and I am going back again in March to do more photos. Those smoked choritos are great

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