Taking the Smooth with the Rough
When I told friends I was off to Torres del Paine - one of the world’s great national parks, in the far south of Chile - they asked, "Are you going to hike the ‘W’ or do the ‘Circuit’?"
The country’s two most famous trails give you the most iconic sight in all Patagonia: those mighty granite towers jutting like fingers into the sky, flanked by the corkscrewed peaks of the Cuernos de Paine. But, for five and seven days respectively, you’ll be carrying a tent, bedding, all your food and a stove. And an ice axe. Ten hours a day. My answer was "No, I’m not hiking the W. And no, I don’t feel too bad". I did want to hike all day, but I also liked the sound of a hot bath, a pisco sour and a good bed at the end of it.
Until recently, the only comfortable alternative to camping or refugios was the explora - a sleek, modern hotel set right in the heart of the park, which pioneered a revolutionary concept when it opened a decade ago - combining wilderness adventure trips with considerable luxury. Expensive, but worth it, for those with sufficient means. But while my budget remained small, "Torres del Paine in style" stayed on my wish list.
Then, last year, a new road into the park changed everything, cutting the journey time from Puerto Natales, the nearest town, from three hours to just one. I’d heard that a whole slew of enterprising new hotels had sprung up outside the park, offering all kinds of adventures inside it, and now within my budget. I set off to try a couple out.
Puerto Natales is a pretty scruffy little town, despite its dramatic setting on Last Hope Sound. Houses of faded painted tin, a wide windy plaza with neatly topiaried yew trees, and youth hostels jostling for attention. But it has one splendid feature: the view from the bar - and most bedrooms - at the Hotel Indigo. Gazing out over deep blue waters towards snow-capped mountains, Indigo certainly whets the appetite for adventure, and is ideally placed for exploring the Sound, by kayak or by boat to the spectacular Balmaceda glacier. But we were here to explore Torres del Paine. We wanted wilderness.
Set roughly two miles from town, the hotel Remota isn’t actually that remote, but certainly feels it. A visionary design by architect German del Sol, the outside resembles (quite intentionally) long, low, rather inauspicious black sheds snaking madly across the land. But inside, there are huge light-filled spaces, circular fireplaces, and immense windows bringing in views of water and mountain.
After Remota’s superb breakfast, just seven of us gathered for one of the park’s most stunning hikes: into the French Valley. As the minibus trundled over a hilly track, the towers appeared and disappeared as though in tracking shots from some unbelievable film - serene and snowless, flanked by lesser, whiter peaks and rising from the striated treeless moraine like miracles. The day was uncharacteristically cloudless and hot, and we shed layers as our guide, Andrés, led us up a winding track above the lake and into a lenga forest. We emerged from the tunnel of green to find ourselves on the shore of a wide rushing river: the only means of crossing, a rickety bridge of wire and wood. So intent was I on not falling through, that I was half way across before I looked up. And saw a heart-stopping view: the mighty, snow-capped, glacier hung jutting black peaks of Cerro Paine Grande. Andrés found a perfect spot for lunch, and then produced pisco sours from his backpack. We ate looking out over the icy torrents of glacial water towards Paine Grande: incomparably beautiful, magnificently complex. It was a real privilege to be this close, and to have time to absorb such beauty.
As we walked back down, we passed an international procession of hikers. There are a limited number of trails in Torres del Paine, and most visitors seem to charge around, squeezing as many as possible into their short 'holiday’. Why don’t more of them just sit still? I wondered. Travel has become an extension of our time-poor urban lives, I reflected. We seem to pile the same achievement-oriented expectations into our five days of freedom as into our working lives. Our relaxed lunch was a rare treat.
Remota offers excellent adventures inside the park, but is most revolutionary in offering lots outside the park too, with no travel involved. As our minibus travelled back to Remota, and the talk was of lounging in the hot tub with a view of the stars, and sipping sauvignon blanc with ceviche, I felt I’d be more than happy to spend the next day recuperating in Remota’s massive playroom on the top floor - solely designed for reading and gazing out at mountains.
I love to imagine I’m a hardy explorer, but like it or not, travel for most of us is a consumer experience. We’re going a long way, and we want the "trip of a lifetime" each time. And increasingly, we’d rather like home comforts with that wilderness experience. Yet, given how keen we are to splash out on our big trip, it’s surprising that more hotels can’t seem to fulfil our desires. Exceptions, therefore, seem doubly miraculous.
Having hiked to my heart’s content in Patagonia, I wanted more wilderness - but this time, with heat. I’d always heard how amazing the Atacama desert was, and the opening of some new hotels tempted me to try. However, when I arrived at the scruffy-looking tourist town of San Pedro, would-be hippy 20-somethings thronged in dusty streets, piling into internet dives, gringo cafes and tour agencies. It was hardly an inspiring introduction to one of the most beautifully remote places on earth.
But when our car pulled up at Awasi, another of Chile’s new breed of "boutique adventure hotels" - the woven reed gates opened, and we were in another world: wine-coloured adobe, bright weavings, soft lighting. The bedrooms were tasteful little havens of comfort, our bathroom was huge and circular, with a rainhead shower and a sunken bath. A private deck, the thatched roof above our heads, every little detail conducive to resting and relaxing. Oh, and the meals were exquisite too, with excellent Chilean wines included. But we were here to discover the wildest reaches of the Atacama: and this is where Awasi (and explora Atacama) definitely excel.
The Atacama desert is a place of stunning remoteness. At the El Tatio geysers, where towers of steam spiralled high above us, we wandered among the fumaroles, and gasped at piping hot rivers filled with silky scarlet algae, while our guide Marcelo was organising breakfast. We sat at the edge of a gently steaming turquoise blue lake, sipping earl grey tea at our beautifully set little table. Decadent - maybe? Memorable - certainly! The following day, Marcelo took us walking in the late afternoon, deep into the most rugged region of the desert, known as the Valley of the Moon.
While the tour coaches converged at the roadside, disgorging visitors to climb up the nearest slope to watch the sunset, Marcelo took us off-road - walking into a strange, otherworldly valley of red cliffs and ruckled white plains, watched over by the perfect cone of Licancabur volcano, turning steadily purpler as the sun sank.
This was the purest experience of the Atacama I could imagine. Far from the crowds, the desert now seemed positively uplifting in its emptiness. I could almost imagine myself an explorer.
Christabelle Dilks, Writer for Footprint Guide.