Joanna Booth gets her rocks off in Patagonia
If your clients want to go to Patagonia, consider telling them to take a long walk off a short pier.
It sounds controversial, but bear with me. A running jump off a jetty turned out to be one of the many highlights of my trip.
After a nine-hour trek through the Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, I’d retreated to the lakeside Jacuzzi at Explora’s Hotel Salto Chico to soak my tired legs in the warm bubbles. Then it occurred to me – a dip in cold water might be just the thing to liven me up.
It was only after I’d sprinted down the pier and plunged into the lake that it hit me – quite literally – that water doesn’t come much colder than the run-off from a glacier. And that is what feeds the Salto Chico lake.
I understand; it doesn’t sound tremendously appealing. But after the initial shock – and a rather swift exit back on to the jetty – the rush was amazing.
Patagonia is full of these kinds of moments; natural highs that make your pulse race and your spine tingle. And – your saner clients may be pleased to know – most of them don’t involve heart-stoppingly freezing water.
In a week I packed in six treks, two horse rides, a boat trip, a ride on a funicular railway, two spa treatments and one gaucho barbecue. I saw views that left me starry-eyed; mountains shaped like horns, glaciers and lakes of an unearthly blue. I spotted strange creatures; llama-like guanaco and ostrich-like nandu, and even the fossilised bones of an extinct giant sloth from the ice age.
And this was just in one corner of Patagonia, the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Different areas offer different experiences, and you can tailor trips to suit clients’ activity levels. One thing is certain; if they love nature, they’ll love Patagonia.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
At four times the size of the UK, Patagonia covers the whole lower third of Chile and Argentina and can, on initial glance, seem so bewilderingly large it’s hard to know where to begin.
The jewel in Patagonia’s crown when it comes to scenery is the Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Chile. It’s wilderness on steroids, with vast mountain ranges calved by glaciers, emerald forests, turquoise lakes and a coastline of intricate fjords.
Over the border in Argentine Patagonia, clients will find wild, barren plains. Inland, the highlight is the enormous Perito Moreno Glacier (pictured below) in Los Glaciares national park, where clients can take a boat trip to the face of the glacier and even trek on the glacier itself.
On the coast, Peninsula Valdes is the spot for clients who love wildlife, with whales, sea lions, elephant seals and the world’s largest penguin colony.
At the southern tip of Patagonia is Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago of islands divided between Chile and Argentina and bounded by the Straits of Magellan to the north and the Beagle Channel to the south, where most visitors take boat trips to enjoy views of jagged peaks and lively sea lion and penguin colonies.
Northern Patagonia is known as the Lake District on both sides of the continent – in the area around Puerto Montt in Chile and Bariloche in Argentina. With temperate rainforest and volcanoes as well as those lakes, it’s beautiful, peaceful, and though less visited than southern Patagonia, more inhabited, with pretty mountain villages.
The Torres del Paine National Park is remote – a five-hour drive from the nearest airport in Punta Arenas – but the steady flow of tourists who flock there are testament to the fact it’s 100% worth the journey.
Vessela Baleva, Cox & Kings Latin America product manager, recommends breaking the journey in Puerto Natales, staying in the Singular Patagonia on the shores of Last Hope Sound. The property, a former sheep station, is architecturally stunning and has outstanding cuisine, using local ingredients such as king crab, conger eel and guanaco.
This area is a paradise for trekkers, with famous routes inside the national park including the ‘W’, so named because of the shape the trail follows on the map. Journey Latin America can organise stays for trekkers in dormitory-style refuges, or the more up-market EcoCamp.
I completed two legs of the W from the luxury of Explora’s Hotel Salto Chico, the only luxury lodge inside the national park. Reaching the base of the famous Towers – a rock formation visible from across the park – was worth every ounce of effort.
However, there are also much easier hikes lasting from a day right down to an hour or two for the less ambitious. Explora offers many of these, plus horse riding, which can be paired with an infamous quincho – a gaucho barbecue where whole lamb are roasted.
Alongside the Explora lodge, other luxury options include Tierra Patagonia, a gorgeous property on the shores of Lake Sarmiento just outside the park itself with an outstanding spa – and where a lucky few sometimes spot puma.
The newly-opened Awasi Patagonia has just 12 villas set within a private reserve, and raises the luxury bar still higher by offering all guests private excursions for the duration of their stay. Rainbow Tours offers stays as part of tailor-made trips, with three nights starting from £1,400 all-inclusive.
“We are often asked whether Patagonia has much to offer if you can’t or don’t want to trek,” says Mary Nelson, Journey Latin America travel consultant. “The answer, without a doubt, is yes. There is an exceptionally scenic road running right through the park and a number of hotels with incredible panoramic views. Non-trekkers will be relieved to find out that one of the best ways to tour is by boat.”
Our boat trip to Glacier Grey was a thrill – we got up close to the glowing blue and white face of the glacier, and gasped as a chunk calved off and splashed into the water – and with amazing views of the mountain range, it would help those less mobile feel they were in the heart of the park.
TAMING THE WILDERNESS
Booking clients a trip to Patagonia doesn’t have to be complex.
Group tours are on offer from the likes of Trafalgar and Travelsphere as well as specialists including Cox & Kings, Journey Latin America, Rainbow Tours and Veloso, and these Latin America experts are indispensable when it comes to tailoring a private trip.
Getting to Patagonia is undeniably time-consuming. British Airways flies direct to Buenos Aires, but for visitors coming in and out of Chile there’s no direct route. Alongside services via Madrid with LAN and Iberia, Air Europa is launching a new service next month via the Spanish capital to Santiago, also stopping in Salvador, Brazil. A great alternative to transiting through Europe is Air Canada’s service via Toronto.
Flights from Buenos Aires to Bariloche, Calafate and Ushuaia, and from Santiago to Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, are regular. Hopping across the Chilean/Argentine border is possible at each of the three main Patagonian hotspots, by either land or water or sometimes a combination of both.
Many operators recommend seeing both sides of Patagonia, and among other benefits this does give the option for clients to experience both Torres del Paine – the most unmissable spot in Patagonia – and Buenos Aires, one of the world’s great cities.
Veloso Tours sales executive Nick Goodchild suggests crossing between Calafate and Torres del Paine. “It’s only half a day’s drive over the vast open space of the Patagonian steppe. Alternatively, the best way to reach the more remote parts of Tierra del Fuego is on an Australis cruise. The three and four-night tours between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia sail around Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.”
Most travellers choose to visit in the mildest part of the year, between October and April, but it is possible to travel in British summer/Patagonian winter. Though very cold, it’s clear, the winds drop and trails are empty, however, daylight hours are much shorter.
Many operators recommend the shoulder seasons; from September to November, when spring flowers bloom in the valleys and when the autumn leaves turn orange and red between March and May.
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