Our Chilean adventure continues…
5. Gallop across the Patagonia Steppe
Billowing, untamed clouds race across the sky as you gallop amid waves of grass in a savannah of hills and verdant vales dotted with yellow wildflowers. No visit to an estancia is complete without saddling-up at the stables and chatting with the wranglers. A lambs-wool cushion on top the leather saddle softens your ride. On horseback you’ll get to know the wranglers and the gauchos (cowboys) who are manly, tough, gallant and humble. When Pato, a wrangler at Estancia Cerro Guido, was asked, “how’s it going?” he replied, “pura pax” (pure peace and tranquility). After an exhilarating gallop across the Patagonia pampas, you’ll probably feel the same way.
6. Pleasures of Patagonia
Patagonia’s wild peaks and blue glaciers have long been the ultimate adventure frontier for trekkers. They flock to Chile’s best known and perhaps most dramatic landscapes in the Torres del Paine National Park Created in 1959, it achieved World Biosphere Reserve status from Unesco in 1978. The park’s defining features are the spectacular granite towers and horns that form part of the Paine Massif.
An extensive trail system is suitable for day hikes or extended backpacking trips. Thirty-two bunk-style refugios (backcountry shelters) offer sleeping areas, dining, showers and sanitary facilities.
An eleven-mile hike to the base of the towers is one of the most popular day hikes in the park. The trail climbs 2,200’ in five miles and passes through forests, up steep ravines and over suspension bridges to the magnificent moraine lake at the base of the piercing towers. The trail is crowded for a reason. The scenery is awe-inspiring. If you’re in shape, it’s one of the park’s great attractions and should not be missed.
On day trips around the park you’ll see the unique camel-like guanaco, whose population has increased in recent decades. They are used to visitors and you can get close for pictures. It is possible, in one day, to see pink flamingos, condors, black-necked swans, and the flightless rhea or nandu – infamous because the male incubates the females’ eggs and raises the chicks.
After a day of hiking, one of the most remarkable places to rest your head on a down pillow is in a luxurious yurt. The eco-friendly Patagonia Camp is built on wooden stilts and platforms on a steep hillside overlooking a turquoise lake with amazing views of the towers. Every well-appointed yurt has a hand-crafted writing desk beneath a huge window, individual thermostats, polished, hard wood floors, soft sheep’s-wool rugs, a private bathroom, porch and a sky window in the domed roof for star-viewing. After a warm bath or shower, wander up to the bar on the wooden platform sidewalks — constructed above ground and around the trees to have minimal impact on the land and to protect the song birds. The organic cuisine combines regional products such as lamb or fish with locally grown vegetables and is paired with Chilean red wines. Expect the unexpected; lemon meringue pie and soft cheeses for breakfast and scrumptious tiramisu for tea time. The staff is friendly, helpful and they make you feel that nothing is too much trouble.
Cape Horn has been immortalized as the End of the Earth and if you wish to explore the wild seas of Southern Patagonia without leaving comfort behind, a luxury cruise aboard the Via Australis or the Mare Australis offers the best option. Sail in these turbulent waters and amid the straits and channels chocked with waterfalls and hanging glaciers while indulging in comfortable beds, four-course dinners, open bar, and hot showers. These two small cruise ships take guests on a 600 nautical-mile journey through the formidable territory of the Magellan Straits and Beagle Channel with guided stops, including Cape Horn if weather permits. Although you have all the comforts of home, and then some, your voyage feels like an adventure because of the small capacity of the ship (130 guests), and the absence of large cruise ship amenities such as slot machines.
Daily excursions in small rubber “zodiac,” boats take passengers out on the ocean and to small islands to hike, to view Magellanic penguin colonies, elephant seals, calving glaciers, icebergs and dozens of waterfalls. The enthusiastic and knowledgeable guides are committed to conservation and enrich every ship-board lecture and excursion with information ranging from the birds to the science of the glaciers.
The well-stocked bar is open during the day and the two lounges offer a meeting place for fellow passengers, most of whom are South Americans. When you reach the end of your remote journey at sea, feel you’ve been gone much longer than four days. Begin the cruise from the Chilean port of Punta Arenas or from the Argentinean port of Ushuaia. While cruising by glaciers, an American passenger described the scenery as “Alaska, the Tetons and the Rockies on steroids”.
The newest, trendiest 5-star hotel is the “W”, part of the Starwood family. Located in the upscale and safe Las Condes neighborhood, you can shop or sightsee by day and dance in the swankiest clubs at night. The staff dresses in black, the lobby beats to techno music and bedrooms are state-of-the-art with all the right gadgets from flat screen TV to WiFi. Many rooms have city views with a backdrop of the snow-covered Andes. Count your Starwood Points and maybe you can bag a free night.
If you prefer a smaller, boutique hotel, the Aubrey Hotel is nestled at the foot of Santiago’s Metropolitan Park with access to nature trails and bike baths. Located in the colorful Bellavista neighborhood, it is within walking distance to the Pablo Neruda Museum, the Metro, shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
For expert guidance and assistance in your planning and for something that is not a conventional package, contact Santiago Adventures, owned by an American expat, Brian and his wife, who deliver superb service.