Last year, on RTW #7, a random twist of fate introduced me to the wonderful world of explora hotels in Chile. I was visiting Easter Island staying at a reasonably-priced, modest B&B when my friend Jill asked if I could perhaps hop over to explora Rapa Nui for a few nights to review it for her London-based site EcoLuxHotels. Never one to turn down an “upgrade,” I happily agreed.
After two nights at the incredibly magical explora Rapa Nui, I became a big believer in the explora culture of experiential, eco-friendly yet luxurious travel. At explora, the focus is always on “in-depth exploration of the surroundings and the luxury of the essential.” As a firm believer that luxury is almost always “of the essential,” I was dying to return someday to indulge in their other two Chilean properties – Patagonia and Atacama. Since my Antarctic adventure would already have me in the Patagonia Chile neighborhood, I figured there was no time like the present to check out explora Patagonia Hotel Salto Chico.
Turns out, it’s quite the adventure just to get to the hotel. Nestled in the heart of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and just an hour from the Argentinian border, the nearest airports are Punta Arenas, Chile (a 5 hour drive) or El Calafate, Argentina (only a 3 ½ hour drive but with a border crossing that can take another hour). Though explora provides complimentary transfers from Punta Arenas, I chose to fly into El Calafate because the flight schedules worked better, it was an easy direct flight from Ushuaia after my Antarctica cruise and it was much less expensive.
From Calafate, explora will meet you at the border to transfer you to the hotel but you have to arrange the transfer to the border. Since January is high season in Patagonia, explora has a minimum stay of 4 nights during this time to limit the number of lengthy transfers back and forth. For weeks I’d been contacting a couple of the tour companies my explora contact had recommended to provide my transfer to the border and I was becoming increasingly discouraged with the cost. Most wanted $300-$400 USD each way for a private transfer!
I didn’t need a private transfer, of course, I just needed to get there. I was just sure there had to be a bus or some other reasonable way to get there but I couldn’t find any good information online. So, I decided to take my chances and work it out when I arrived in Calafate. I had one night in town and figured there had to be a way to book a transfer for the next day. I mean backpackers do this sort of thing all the time, right?
Get Me to the Border
So after touching down in Calafate along with a dozen of my new best friends from the ship, we all headed in different directions to our hotels with plans to meet up later for dinner. After checking in, I bolted right for the main bus station to investigate my options. And they weren’t good. I needed to be at the border by noon to meet my explora transfer but none of the buses arrived until 1:00pm. I walked into a couple of the local tour company offices and most looked at me like I was crazy when I said I just needed a transfer to the border (I was starting to feel a bit like a fugitive, “Yes, that’s right, just need a lift to the border, thanks! Nothing to see here!”).
Finally, one of the tour companies directed me to the office of South Road, a company that does day trips into Torres del Paine National Park. It was a stroke of luck because they were amazing and arranged for me to have a seat on their day trip bus to the park the next day which would drop me at the border right on time where the explora van would meet me.
Since they had no buses coming back at the exact time I needed 4 days later, they had to arrange for a private transfer for the return. Just $300 total when all was said and done ($100 for the ride up and $200 for the private transfer back – half of what I feared I’d have to spend) and since they work with explora regularly, they contacted the hotel directly to coordinate my drop-off and pick-up times. It was genius, really. I cannot recommend this company highly enough for anyone trying to get to explora from Calafate or just looking to do a day trip to the park. They were excellent.
After sorting out my transportation to the Chilean border, I met up with the gang from the Sea Spirit. It was a subdued dinner compared to our nights on the ship. We were all tired and still a bit overwhelmed from the Antarctic experience. Many of us still had days or weeks of travel ahead and we talked of our plans and where we might run into each other again while in Argentina.
At the end of the night, we finally had to say our goodbyes and it was just as painful as the day before in Ushuaia. I honestly couldn’t see how the rest of my trip could possibly live up to what I’d just left behind.
And then I arrived at explora…
My transfer the next morning went very smoothly and I only had to wait a few minutes in the café on the other side of the Chilean border for the explora van to greet me. We arrived at the hotel around 1:00pm and though I’d seen spectacular photos of it on explora’s website, when we pulled up to the front door it looked markedly unassuming. Until I walked inside the lobby and was literally smacked in the face by the most gorgeous view I’ve ever, ever seen from a hotel.
It was a crystal clear day with a brilliant blue sky and the snow-capped mountain range and glass-like, turquoise lake that stared back at me from the window left me absolutely speechless.
Perhaps I will survive this bout of acute penguin withdrawal after all.
I was swiftly shown to my room to settle in after the long journey and was thrilled to see that it had a giant window with the exact same stunning view as every other window seemed to have. In fact, I would discover over the next few days that it was often tricky to walk around the hotel as you are impossibly-distracted by the view out the window and have a tendency to miss a step here and there.
After unpacking a bit, I headed straight to the dining room for lunch with visions dancing in my head of the delicious cuisine I’d been treated to by the explora chefs on Easter Island. And Patagonia did not disappoint. Explora is an all-inclusive experience so all meals, drinks and daily “explorations” (as they call them) are included in the price of your stay. One of the things I most enjoyed on my last explora stay was the food. Fresh, organic and locally-sourced ingredients blended to create a varied and flavorful menu at each and every meal.
Though I arrived in time to join one of the afternoon explorations after lunch, I elected to instead spend the afternoon at the hotel to walk the labyrinth of boardwalks cascading around the property along Lake Pehoe. The sun was shining and it was much warmer than I expected, easily mid to high 80’s. For some reason I expected at least some of my Antarctica attire to be useful here. It was not. I found myself quickly rummaging through my “Africa/Southeast Asia/Australia” suitcase in search of something appropriate to wear.
That evening, cocktails in hand, all of the guests who’d arrived that day attended a brief welcome presentation to introduce us to the Patagonia Chile region and the unique explora method of planned exploration. After the presentation, we broke into small groups with various guides who explained all of the explorations that would be available to us the next day.
Explora Patagonia offers an extensive variety of exploration options for all interests and fitness levels. On offer for tomorrow: nature walks, intense full-day hikes (like one to the base of the Paine Towers (10 miles and 8-9 hours), horseback riding, bird watching, hikes with glacial views and a variety of other enticing choices to really get to know Torres del Paine National Park on an intimate level. Explora always offers both full and half-day options so if you’re feeling adventurous, you can choose an advanced full-day hike or if you’re not, you can ease into your stay with two half-day options, a single half-day option/afternoon at the hotel or you can completely retreat to the comfort of the hotel and spend the day by the lake or the pool.
Still exhausted from Antarctica and not sleeping well with the 20+ hours of daylight I’d been subjected to the past two weeks, I chose to ease into my explora holiday with a half-day of horseback riding in the morning and an afternoon of work catch-up back at the hotel.
Earlier in the day I’d met a married couple from Melbourne, Australia, Alex and John, and Alex had also signed up for the morning horseback riding for the same reason I did, the guide who explained it to us said it was a pretty basic and straightforward ride and would be good for those who hadn’t ridden in a while. Well, that was definitely me…I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d been on a horse. At least 5 years, maybe 10. So yes, basic and straightforward was exactly what I was looking for in the horse department.
Getting to Know Patagonia Chile
The next morning I awoke at 4:30am to the pinky-orange swirls in the sky that are a preview of the coming sunrise attraction. I couldn’t believe the colors when I looked out at the mountains. Lake Pehoe was so perfectly still it provided a glass-like mirror image of the pink-hued mountain range. How on earth are you supposed to go back to sleep with that out your window? I realized with a yawn that there would be no sleeping in on this portion of the trip.
I at least managed to stay in bed to watch the sunrise show and strolled down for breakfast around 9:00am. Thankfully, our horseback riding adventure was scheduled for a very civilized 10:00am start. Explora limits each exploration to 8 guests so you never feel like you’re on a group tour, it’s a much more personalized guided experience. In our group this morning there were just 4, Alex and I and a mother and son from Brazil. Our guide, Sasha, was from Holland. We arrived at the stables and were quickly outfitted in chaps and a helmet by the resident gaucho (Patagonia’s answer to the American cowboy) before being carefully helped atop our horses.
It was a scenic and relaxing 2-hour ride through Torres del Paine and I realized that riding a horse comes back pretty quickly, almost like riding a bike. A really tall and occasionally obstinate bike. It was a fun morning and by 2:00pm Alex and I were back at the hotel for lunch. I spent a few hours catching up on work and enjoying wifi with no megabyte limits again before gathering with the group over cocktails to decide what to do the next day.
Day 3 – Gauchos & Guanacos
For my third day, I knew I needed to get out of the hotel and take advantage of the magnificently clear and warm weather. Especially since the hotel staff kept insisting that it was rarely like this – with the air so warm, the water so calm and the sky so clear. Again and again I heard that the mountains were often obscured by cloud cover. I couldn’t imagine it. I mean they were right there like part of the furniture.
There was also a big BBQ planned for today where all the groups would meet up for lunch. I had vivid memories of “picnicking” explora-style last year on Easter Island so I was on the lookout for the off-site scenic lunch opportunity here in Patagonia and this was it. So I decided on the 7.5km hike along the Aonikenk Trail where I’d get the chance to see lots of the adorable guanacos (a llama relative) up close and also get to hike up to a cave with panoramic views and ancient Indian cave paintings. After the hike we’d head to the BBQ, it sounded like a perfect plan.
The hike really was exceptional. Perfect weather, not too hot, and tons of guanacos to entertain us along the trail. It’s incredibly peaceful to hike in Torres del Paine. The air is so clean it’s like inhaling nature with every breath. We didn’t see any of the park’s famous puma residents, though. I didn’t expect to. At our welcome briefing, we’d been told exactly what to do if we encountered a puma while hiking, “Get your camera out and take a picture, because that’s the only way anyone’s going to believe you.” Apparently, puma are pretty adept at avoiding hikers. Probably for the best.
After wrapping up our hike, the explora van greeted us for the 45-minute trip over to the BBQ. When we arrived at the BBQ location, in true explora-fashion, champagne and pisco sours were being served against a backdrop of the three perfectly-formed towers that lend the park its name. Lamb was roasting on a spit and gauchos stood by with shotgun-sized knives ready to carve it up to order. It was a splendid afternoon and everyone really enjoyed it. After lunch, some headed out on other excursions while others (like me) headed back to the sanctuary of the hotel. That evening, when we gathered with the guides to discuss our plans for the next day, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.
Last Day of Tranquility
I realized this morning that there is no TV in my room. It took me three days to notice that. But who needs one with this view? And that’s exactly why I chose to spend my final day in Patagonia enjoying the Salto Chico area around the hotel. After all, I’d ventured out into the park twice now and still hadn’t managed to top the view from my room. I mean you can’t argue with perfection.
One of the guides offered to take Alex and I out on a mini-photo safari that afternoon, which we did, and then we took advantage of a boat ride across Lake Pehoe when the explora boat made the trip to retrieve a group of hikers at the end of the day. It was the perfect, relaxed way to end my stay.
The great thing about explora is you really can do as much or as little as you like. Though the experiential, eco-luxury aspect of their properties seems to draw adventurous, Type-A personalities by the dozen, there’s no judgement (at least by the staff) if you elect to bypass any and all activities and simply enjoy the tranquility of the hotel or a day at the spa. Each of the three destinations is so uniquely magnificent and diverse, you simply must get out and experience the landscape, but it’s important to do so at your own pace and remember that, at the end of the day, it’s your vacation.
The next day as I climbed back in to the van for my transfer back to the border, the weather had taken a turn. A light rain fell, the wind had picked up and a low cloud cover rendered the mountain range I’d come to love completely invisible. I realized just how lucky I had been to be blessed with such perfect weather during my stay.
It was truly another memorable explora adventure and I still have explora Atacama highlighted “someday” on my map. I know without a doubt I’ll get there, it’s just a matter of when. To me, the explora experience is one of the most unique ways to travel anywhere in the world and if there’s one thing I’ve learned…it’s always worth the effort to get there.
Next stop, the Canary Islands.
Disclosure: Accommodation provided by explora Patagonia.