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Inside: How to experience the beauty of Patagonia in eco-friendly luxury at the stunning explora Patagonia Hotel Torres del Paine (no camping required!).
When I set out on my 8th annual Round-the-World trip two weeks ago, I mentioned that this will be my longest RTW trip yet at 7 weeks. It’s also the first to cover all 7 continents in one trip.
The journey began at the end. Of the world, that is, in Ushuaia, Argentina. From there, I set sail for 12 truly incredible days exploring Antarctica.
And today we reach stop number #3 on this epic adventure…Patagonia.
Where is Patagonia?
Located in the southernmost part of South America, the vast territory of Patagonia spans more than 260,000 square miles across Chile and Argentina. The remarkable geography of Patagonia is defined by abundant glaciers, dramatic mountain peaks, lakes, rivers, and unique wildlife.
Patagonia’s natural beauty is so spectacular it’s been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
It’s an enormous area to explore. But the two most popular destinations for visitors to Patagonia are El Chalten on the Argentinian side and Torres del Paine National Park on the Chilean side.
My destination? The heart of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park.
How do you get to Patagonia?
There are two main gateways to reach Patagonia:
1. Buenos Aires Ezeiza International Airport (EZE), then a hopper flight to your desired Patagonian city.
2. Punta Arenas Airport (PUQ), Chilean Patagonia’s main airport.
What’s the best way to explore Patagonia?
Patagonia is famed for hiking and trekking and that’s the most popular way to explore the scenic region.
On the Chilean side (where I’m headed), Torres del Paine National Park’s “W circuit” is the most popular way to explore. The circuit takes 3-5 days to complete with several overnight camping spots along the way.
I love hiking. I really do.
But I freely admit I’m not much of a camper. Indoor plumbing is kind of my jam.
Embracing my camping aversion, I went in search of another option.
Enter, explora Patagonia
I found that option on the shores of beautiful Lake Pehoe. The uber-fabulous, eco-friendly explora Patagonia Torres del Paine.
But first, a little back story…
Last year, on RTW #7, a random twist of fate introduced me to the wonderful world of explora hotels in South America.
I was visiting Easter Island, staying at a reasonably-priced, modest B&B when my friend Jill asked if I could perhaps pop over to explora Rapa Nui for a few nights to review it for her London-based travel website.
Never one to turn down an obvious “upgrade,” I happily agreed.
Read More: The Mystery of Easter Island
After two nights at the incredibly magical Explora Rapa Nui, I became an enthusiastic convert to 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 – explora Patagonia and explora Atacama. (2021 Update: explora now also has a few new fabulous properties: explora Machu Picchu & Sacred Valley Peru, explora Atacama-Uyuni, and explora El Chalten Patagonia – opening in 2021).
My Antarctica plans meant I would already be in the Patagonia, Chile neighborhood. So I figured there was no better time to check out explora Patagonia Hotel Torres del Paine.
How to get to explora Patagonia
Nestled in the heart of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, explora Patagonia is just an hour from the Argentinian border. The nearest airports are Punta Arenas, Chile (a 5-hour drive) and El Calafate, Argentina (only a 3 ½ hour drive but with a border crossing that can add another hour).
Though explora provides complimentary transfers from Punta Arenas, I chose to fly into El Calafate. Mainly because it was a cheap and easy direct flight from Ushuaia after my Antarctica cruise.
From Calafate, the explora folks will meet you at the border to transfer you to the hotel. But I still needed to arrange the transfer to the border.
For weeks I contacted tour companies recommended by explora to provide my transfer to the border. But most wanted $300-$400 USD each way for a private transfer!
I was just sure there had to be a bus or some other reasonable way to get there, but good information online was sparse. So, I rolled the dice and decided to work it out when I arrived in Calafate.
I have one night in town to find a transfer to the border the next day. I mean backpackers do this sort of thing all the time, right? How hard could it be?
Get Me to the Border
I touched down in Calafate along with a dozen of my new best friends from the Antarctica ship. We disperse in different directions to our hotels with plans to meet up later for dinner.
After checking in, I bolt straight for the main bus station to investigate my options. And they aren’t good. I need to be at the border by noon to meet my explora transfer, but none of the buses arrive until 1:00pm. Strike one.
I walk into a couple of the local tour company offices and most look at me like I’m crazy when I explain that I just need a transfer to the border. I’m 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, I discover South Road, a company that does day trips into Torres del Paine National Park. It’s a stroke of luck because they arrange for me to have a seat on their day trip bus to the park tomorrow. For $100, it will drop me at the border right on time where the explora van will be waiting.
Unfortunately, they have no buses coming back at the exact time I need 4 days from now for my return. So I bite the bullet and spring for a $200 private transfer back. Just $300 total when all is said and done, half what I feared the transfer would cost.
One last dinner with the Antarctica gang
Later, I meet up with my Antarctica pals for one last dinner together. It’s a subdued affair compared to our exhilarating nights on the ship. We are all exhausted and still a bit overwhelmed from the 24/7 excitement of the Antarctic experience.
At the end of the night, we say our final goodbyes with promises to meet again on future travels. I honestly can’t see how the rest of this trip can possibly live up to what I’ve experienced over the past two weeks.
And then I arrived at explora Patagonia…
My transfer goes smoothly and I wait just a few minutes in the café on the other side of the Chilean border for the explora van to greet me.
We arrive at the hotel around 1:00pm and as we pull up to the front door it looks markedly unassuming. And then I walk inside the lobby and am literally smacked in the face by the most gorgeous view I’ve ever, ever seen from a hotel.
It is a crystal clear day with a brilliant blue sky and the snow-capped mountain range and glass-like, turquoise lake that stare back at me from the window leave me absolutely speechless.
Perhaps I will survive this bout of acute penguin withdrawal after all.
I am swiftly shown to my room to settle in after the long journey and am thrilled to see that it had a giant window with the exact same stunning view as every other window seems to have here.
In fact, I discover over the next few days that it is often tricky to walk around the hotel as you are impossibly-distracted by the view out the window. There’s a definite tendency to bump into things.
Dining at explora Patagonia
I unpack quickly then head straight to the dining room for lunch. Visions dance in my head of the delicious cuisine created by the explora chefs on Easter Island. And Patagonia’s chefs do not disappoint.
Explora is an all-inclusive experience. 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, instead I elect to spend the afternoon at the hotel to walk the labyrinth of boardwalks cascading around the property along Lake Pehoe.
The sun is shining and it’s much warmer than I expected, easily in the mid to high 80’s.
For some reason, I thought at least some of my Antarctica attire would be useful here. Turns out, it will not.
I quickly rummage through my “Africa/Southeast Asia/Australia” suitcase in search of something appropriate to wear.
That evening, with cocktails in hand, all guests who arrived today attend a brief welcome presentation to introduce us to the Patagonia region and the unique explora method of planned exploration.
After the presentation, we break into small groups with various guides who explain all of the explorations available tomorrow.
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, 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. If you’re not, you can ease into your stay with two half-day options, a single half-day option with an 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 with 20+ hours of daylight over the past two weeks, I choose to ease into my explora Patagonia holiday. I opt for a half-day of horseback riding in the morning and an afternoon of relaxation back at the hotel.
Earlier in the day, I met a married couple from Melbourne, Australia, Alex and John. Alex also signed up for the morning horseback ride for the same reason I did, the guide said it was a pretty basic and straightforward ride and would be good for those who hadn’t ridden in a while.
Well, that’s definitely me. I can’t even remember the last time I was on a horse. At least 5 years, maybe 10. So yes, basic and straightforward is exactly my speed in the horse department.
Day 2 – Getting to Know Patagonia Chile
The next morning I awake at 4:30am to pinky-orange swirls in the sky. A preview of the coming sunrise attraction.
When I look out at the mountains, I can’t believe the brilliant colors. Lake Pehoe is so perfectly still it provides 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 realize with a yawn that there will be no sleeping in on this portion of the trip either.
I manage to stay in bed to watch the sunrise show and stroll down for breakfast around 9:00am. Thankfully, our horseback riding adventure is 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 are just 4 of us. Me, Alex, and a mother and son from Brazil. Our guide, Sasha, is from Holland.
We arrive at the stables and are quickly outfitted in chaps and a helmet by the resident gaucho (Patagonia’s answer to the American cowboy). Then we’re carefully helped atop our horses.
It’s a scenic and relaxing 2-hour ride through Torres del Paine and I realize that riding a horse comes back pretty quickly, almost like riding a bike. A really tall and occasionally obstinate bike. It’s a fun morning and by 2:00pm Alex and I are back at the hotel for lunch.
After lunch, I spend a few hours catching up on work before gathering with the group over cocktails to decide what to do tomorrow.
Day 3 – Gauchos & Guanacos
By my third day, I’m determined to get out of the hotel and take full advantage of the magnificently clear and warm weather.
Especially since the hotel staff keeps insisting it’s rarely like this – with the air so warm, the water so calm and the sky so clear. Again and again, I hear that the mountains are often obscured by cloud cover.
I can’t imagine it. I mean they are right there like part of the furniture.
There is also a big BBQ planned for today where all the groups will meet up for lunch. I had vivid memories of “picnicking” explora-style last year on Easter Island. So I’ve been anxiously waiting for the off-site scenic lunch opportunity here in Patagonia and this is it!
I decided on a 7.5km hike along the Aonikenk Trail where I’ll get the chance to see lots of the adorable guanacos (a llama relative) up close. We’ll also hike up to a cave with panoramic views and ancient Indian cave paintings. After the hike we’ll head to the BBQ.
It sounded like a perfect plan.
Hiking Torres del Paine National Park
The hike is truly 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, but 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. Which is probably for the best.
After the hike, the explora van greets us for the 45-minute trip over to the BBQ location. When we arrive at the BBQ, champagne and pisco sours are flowing in true explora-fashion. The backdrop? The three perfectly-formed “towers of pain” that lend this stunning national park its name.
Lamb is roasting on a spit and gauchos are standing by with shotgun-sized knives ready to carve it up to order.
It is a splendid and delicious afternoon enjoyed by all. After lunch, some head out on other excursions while others (like me) head back to the sanctuary of the hotel.
That evening, when as gather with the guides to discuss our plans for tomorrow, I know exactly what I want to do.
Last Day of Tranquility at explora Patagonia
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’ve ventured out into the park twice now and still haven’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 me out on a mini-photo safari that morning. Later, we took advantage of a boat ride across Lake Pehoe when the explora boat made the trip to retrieve a group of hikers.
It was the perfect, relaxed way to end my stay.
The beauty of explora properties
The best thing about explora is you really can do as much or as little as you like.
Yes, the experiential, eco-luxury aspect of their properties seems to draw adventurous, Type-A personalities by the dozen. But there’s no judgment (at least by the staff) if you elect to bypass any and all activities and simply enjoy the tranquility of the hotel. Or spend a day at the pool or spa.
Each of explora’s 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 climb back into the van for my transfer back to the border, the weather has taken a turn.
A light rain falls, the wind has picked up and a low cloud cover renders the mountain range I’ve come to love completely invisible. I suddenly realize just how lucky I was 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.