Now here is a good quiz question: Where in the world is closer to Sydney than London and yet only three hours behind GMT?
The answer is the Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonian region of southern Chile.
Patagonia is a geologically diverse region with striking mountain formations, smoking volcanoes and expansive ice fields. Crowded with glaciers, lakes, fjords, ancient forests and wildlife, it’s also home to Torres del Paine National Park, a world heritage site with a colossal choice of adventures, ranging from gentle to hard.
The name Eco Camp had me envisioning discomfort, cold, wet and misery. What I found was warmth, of both the physical and social nature, top rate hospitality excellent guides and a view that defines Patagonia itself - the great granite Torres - popping out above my pillow each morning. It was communal living at its best, camaraderie when you wanted it, space and privacy when you didn’t and at the end of four days I felt like I’d lived the great outdoors one hundred percent without a single sacrifice. Each night trekkers share their tales sitting on comfy sofas around the log burner and then sleep like logs in the snuggest fleece sheets and mega tog duvets you’ve ever felt.
The Eco Camp story started when a Chilean adventure company embarked on a study of alternatives hotels. They asked, ‘would it not be reasonable to ask people visiting these remote places, so pristine and delicate, to focus their energies on preserving what they saw for the future?’ Their answer came in the form of the Eco Camp: modern accommodation, which is comfortable, transportable and suitable for the rigours of the Patagonian climate, equipped with environmentally friendly systems for the disposal of sewage and rubbish and an efficient use of renewable energy. The result is arguably aesthetically stylish, definitely safe, eco-friendly and is situated in a quiet corner of the park.
The camp itself comprises fifteen dormitory domes. At its heart are two giant domes (30ft in diameter and 13.5ft tall) that fulfil the purpose of resting area, dining room and kitchen. Meals are a communal affair: breakfast is laid out like a fine buffet setting you up for the day. You make and pack your own lunch in re-usable sealed bags from a selection of fresh meats and salads, muesli bars and chocolate brownies. Dinner is a hearty three-course meal with warming soup, various local lamb dishes followed by a traditional pudding. One thing’s for sure - you won’t go hungry.
An additional bathroom dome, the same size as the dining dome, has showers with constant hot water, compost lavatories, three washbasins and mirrors. In a nutshell, it’s all you need - warmth, hot water and great food.
A more sensible template for eco-tourism is impossible to find. Guests find themselves exposed to nature, as in camping, but with the comfort of a hotel. The transient settlement interferes as little as possible with the environment - even building wooden boardwalks to keep the grassland pristine. In fact it’s barely visible from afar and reflects the nomadic ethos to be portable, leaving very few tracks of any existence when relocated every winter, allowing the terrain to recover fully. One of the most impressive aspects of the Eco Camp is that its energy comes from 100% natural and renewal sources including hydro, solar and turbine. Solar energy has been widely used in Patagonia especially during summer when the days can have seventeen hours of daylight. However wind energy is still at an experimental stage as the wind flows very irregularly with strong currents at certain hours and then not a breeze for days.
In this world of eroding wilderness, an eco trip to the remote region of Patagonia looks too good to be true but it’s every bit as wonderful as the photos. You can trek through virgin beech forests; gaze in wonder as colossal glacial icebergs calve into the freezing slate blue waters of Lago Grey; feel healthily insignificant at the foot of the towering granite peaks of the Torres del Paine; and when the stars come out, forget it all and just lie in total silence underneath the Southern Cross.