The land of glaciers, peaks and fantastic fauna lures visitors with its rugged beauty. Director explored Patagonia in search of adventure and found some much-needed perspective
The night sky was as black as an eagle’s feather as our minibus drew up to the front of Explora’s Patagonia lodge. We emerged, stretching and squinting at the enormous iceberg-like edifice. Its warm, welcoming orange lights glinted like pumas’ eyes.
It had been five hours since we’d left Punta Arenas airportat the southernmost tip of Chile and an hour since we’d entered the Torres del Paine National Park, a vast untouched tract of Unesco biosphere reserve. Our journey on the Ruta del Fin del Mondo (End of the World Road) had begun in daylight. We’d driven over snow-covered scrubland and through a vast bleak landscape, stopping halfway to eat at the Western-style Rio Rubens restaurant.
It was 9pm when we arrived at the lodge. The friendly guides asked us to drop our bags in our rooms and come straight back out to choose our explorations for the next day. This is the spirit of an Explora trip. If your idea of a holiday is a sun lounger and a romcom, this is not the travel company for you. If you want to explore the planet’s most striking landscapes and learn a little more about yourself, then this will be a dream come true.
Formed in 1989 with a mission to offer interaction with the natural world and local communities, Explora believes that remoteness offers us tech-frenzied beings a chance to detach, enabling us to observe our existence from afar and lift our mental clouds. And it works: we returned fresher, fitter and clearer-headed, even about the really serious stuff.
Living on the edge of the world, if only briefly, promotes purity of vision. Our lodge companions – chief executives, politicians, tech entrepreneurs – concurred with this thought, as they too reconnected with their families and their best selves while trekking through some of the most breathtaking terrain on the planet.
The lodge is situated by Lake Pehoé, neighbouring the Salto Chico waterfall and the magnificent Paine Massif, whose granite towers give the park its name. The environment is considered in every aspect of the hotel’s operations. Visitors are encouraged to participate in its sustainability initiatives. There are no complimentary bottles of water in the bedrooms. Instead, the hotel provides pitchers of its own freshly purified water, refilled daily. To reduce unnecessary laundering, it also asks guests to reuse their towels. Even the slippers have biodegradeable soles to avoid generating waste at the end of their lives.
The first morning’s excursion took us along the Aonikenk trail: a comfortable four-mile hike, albeit with a bit of light mountaineering thrown in. The ascent was necessary to reach the caves containing 4,000-year-old paintings. Our knowledgeable guides paused on the way to teach us about the geology and hand out flasks of coffee (with optional Baileys).
En route, we gaped at the incredible beauty of the huge landscapes, clear skies, swan-filled lagoons and other local wildlife: the beautiful guanacos (members of the alpaca family) and snow foxes, one of which walked parallel to us like a friendly guide. If the puma were elusive, their presence was visible in the guanaco carcasses dotted around. After three hours we were back at the hotel for a delicious and well-deserved lunch of our own.
Sated, we set off again in the direction of the Pudeto station for some panoramic views of Paine Massif, with its spectacular glaciers and rock formations, and the exquisite turquoise Nordenskjöld Lake. It was humbling to see the scorched remains of a forest as we walked up to the massif. Indeed, Explora’s reforestation programme is helping to replace the hundreds of thousands of trees lost in the 2011 fire that blazed through the park, burning down 17,000ha of woodland. Working hand in hand with the Chilean government and NGOs, Explora aims to bring back the plant species lost in the fire, while guests can sponsor conservation projects at the lodge shop.
The following day brought the mother of all hikes: an incredible Romancing the Stone-style adventure, complete with “challenging weather” (a blizzard). Hikers should be prepared for all eventualities here – the Patagonian climate is so volatile that you could well experience all four seasons in the course of one day.
After crossing Lake Pehoé by catamaran, we entered the Valle del Francés, surrounded by dense forest. We filled our water bottles from the stream and crossed a hanging bridge to reach the Italian camp, where we stopped for a picnic of soup, cold meat and hot chocolate while gazing upon the Glacier del Francés and its surrounding amphitheatre of granite peaks.
As I luxuriated gratefully in the hotel spa afterwards, I reflected on the psychological strength involved in hiking. Previously, I’d probably considered it akin to something like a long dog walk, but that last exhausting trek – during which I’d half-longed to be magically transported back to the hotel – changed something in me. Having become decidedly weary during this monster of an excursion, I suddenly felt galvanised, striding ahead with renewed reserves of energy. It was a feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie that would follow us dozen hikers back to the boat, back to the hotel and all the way back home.
And perhaps that’s the real measure of a company such as Explora. It doesn’t just work to help preserve and replenish the immediate environment. It works on you too.