Cool Patagonia is a Hot Ticket

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EcoCamp Patagonia.
EcoCamp Patagonia.

Bruce Chatwin’s best-selling book, “In Patagonia,” may have triggered the stampede of travelers to this part of the world. More likely, however, the newfound popularity of Patagonia is just a credit to the discovery of its timeless landscapes of glacial lakes and towering peaks, its spectacular parklands and diverse flora and fauna. More timely is the arrival of luxury lodges in the middle of nowhere and paved and/or all-gravel roads to connect them, making the Patagonian wilderness experience comfortable as well as memorable. Patagonia is indeed a many-splendored place, one that can be customized to travelers’ expectations in many ways.

patagonia by chile
Scenically an excursion to rival any in South America is the trip to the southern tip of Chile’s Patagonia, a region of pristine forests, snowcapped mountains, glaciers, fjords and national parks. Overland, this frontier wonderland is linked south from Puerto Montt by the Carretera Austral, a 700-mile gravel and dirt road that ends at the ice fields. The major air gateway is Punta Arenas, located on the Strait of Magellan. It’s a windswept, red-roofed town that welcomes travelers in some lovely hotels and serves as a comfortable base for excursions to see colonies of Magellanic penguins. Visitors can either head south from town to Seno Otway or ferry out to Magdalena Island. Punta Arenas is both the jump-off point for inland travel to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park, as well as the Pacific port for luxury ships that cruise round the tip of the continent to Ushuaia in Argentina. Additionally, weekly air service from here connects Chile to the Falkland Islands.

Puerto Natales sits on the gorgeous shores of the Ultima Esperanza (Last Hope) fjord, 100 miles from Punta Arenas. This Patagonian outpost is a modern mecca for adventurers, who set out to ride the ranges of nearby ranches, hike in the mountains, cruise on the fjords, and take day trips to Torres del Paine National Park. Just outside town, there are now top-of-the-line lodgings, complete with heated pools, spas, good restaurants and a full menu of regional excursions.

By far the most stunning and dramatic site in the south is the Torres del Paine National Park, crowded with glaciers, lakes and gnarled Magellanic trees. While inhabited by few people, the park is full of wildlife, including guanacos, flamingos, rhea and condors.  The signature park feature is the “towers” of Paine, needle-like formations of gray granite, dusted with snow, enveloped in mists. They form the dramatic backdrop for beautiful Lake Sarmiento and Lake Grey, two of many glacier attractions. There’s a handful of excellent lodges and luxury tented camps in the park—explora Patagonia, Hotel Rio Serrano, Hotel Las Torres Patagonia, and Patagonia Camp for glamping—offering guided trekking and horseback tours, as well as 4×4 vehicle touring. For travelers driving from Punta Arenas, the trip, with a stop in Puerto Natales, is close to five hours.

TOUR SAMPLE: AdventureSmith Explorations focuses on Torres del Paine National Park in its 7-day Patagonia Wildlife Safari, starting in Punta Arenas and driving to EcoCamp Patagonia in the park. During the 5-night stay, there are daily excursions ranked either “easy,” “active,” or “mountain bike.”

“Easy” includes a full day on the Fauna Trail at Lake Sarmiento to Laguna Azul with BBQ lunch; “active” options include a Trek Towers Base; and “mountain bike” could mean cycling to Laguna Azul with a BBQ lunch, among an array of other options for all categories. Priced from $1,365 pp dbl with Standard dome tent.

patagonia by argentina
Patagonia occupies the southern third of Argentina, whose
major air gateway to Los Glaciares National Park is El Calafate, the town on the edge of 566-sq.-mile Lago Argentino, where black-necked swans and flamingos ply the icy waters. During the optimum travel season, between October and March, the most popular excursion indeed leads to Los Glaciares, a million-and-a-half acres of ice, water, mountains and virgin forests; declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, it is one of 18 national parklands in Argentina.

The park’s superstar natural attraction is Perito Moreno, a 100-sq.-mile glacier that spills out of the mountains into an arm of the lake. The ice actually moves at a glacial creep across the 200-yard-wide arm, its wall reaching nearly 90 yards above water. Visitors can view the glacier from a boat or walking along a series of passarelas (boardwalks) on shore. On the lake, strewn with brilliant blue icebergs, clients can also cruise up to the Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers and to Onelli Bay to hike inland through the forest and past cliffs that are habitats of the Andean condor.

In this corner of Patagonia, there are several lodging choices outside of town en-route to the national park (in addition to a good hotel infrastructure in El Calafate). Top choice is Hosteria Alta Vista, located on a working estancia and known for its gardens, gourmet food and wines.

TOUR SAMPLE: Wilderness Travel features an Argentina Private Journey, starting with a stay in Buenos Aires at the Melia Buenos Aires Hotel, then heading to Los Glaciares. Don Los Cerros Boutique Hotel & Spa in El Chalten is the 4-night home-away-from-home for hiking around the base of Mt. Fitzroy. Journey from here by boat beneath the 10-story headwall of the famous Perito Moreno Glacier into Lago Argentino. Travelers stay at the luxury Hosteria Alta Vista outside El Calafate for three nights, enjoying hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking or watching sheep shearing. Priced, with meals included, at $4,795 pp dbl with six-eight guests; at $5,895 pp dbl with two-three guests.

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international expeditions
For International Expeditions (IE), the Patagonian combination of Argentina and Chile is a top-seller, according to Bill Robison, director of program development for IE. “Patagonia’s a huge area, one in which we can do new things because it’s so very accessible by air, land and sea, and because it offers fine and varied choices in accommodations—from resort hotels and lodges to luxury tented camps. “Additionally, this is a corner of the world in which it’s easy to do simple things that appeal to the nature lover, the active traveler, the photography bug.”

Robison finds that Patagonia has developed into an iconic destination where you find natural beauty on a grand scale, with signature attractions such as glaciers, fjords, penguins and guanacos. “There are so many things to see and do in Patagonia, that we are able to offer many different travel options both for escorted luxury tours with scheduled departures and for the upscale FIT market that continues
to surge.”

Newest to the IE roster of travel programs is northern Patagonia by sea, in a 9-night Chiloe Island Itinerary, starting in Puerto Montt and ending on Chiloe Island. This is a good example, says Robison, of an improved access, “for this itinerary works in part because of the new air service between Chiloe and Santiago, as well as different cruising options and new lodgings in the most pristine, nature-intensive areas.” Priced from $5,998 pp dbl, departures are scheduled in 2016 for Jan. 14 and Feb. 11.