Puerto Natales, Chile
The last outpost of civilization before wild Patagonia
By Elaine Glusac
One year after a wildfire blazed through 42,000 acres at remote Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia—where trees are stunted by the wind, glaciers creep down precipitous crevasses, and herds of wild guanacos roam—tourism is not only back but booming. Two new lodges (plus a few renovated ones) near Puerto Natales, the gateway to the national park and almost 2,000 miles south of Santiago, have expanded the appeal of the region to upscale travelers.
Even though January is the peak of South American summer, with daytime highs around 64 degrees, hiking in the park means exposure to wind, rain, and unblocked sunshine, sometimes all at once. The wilderness is changeable and punishing enough that an expert escort is, like layered clothing, not just a good idea but virtually mandatory. Most lodges offer guided outings. But to do the ultimate Torres del Paine hiking circuit, the W—named for the shape of the route—sign up with BlueGreen Adventures (56-61-410009, bluegreenadventures.com; from $1,335). Its four-day guided trip comes complete with packhorses for your gear and the option to camp out or take refuge indoors at a lodge.
There’s water everywhere, but legendary Patagonian gales can make it tricky to navigate. Paddle the mountain-ringed Eberhard Fjord, an arm of the Last Hope Sound, with a guide and kayak supplied by Sendero Aventura (56-61-713080, senderoaventura.com; $114 per person) to spot black-necked swans and condors. European immigrants who originally colonized this part of South America introduced trout as well as sheep to the landscape. Catch and release a rainbow or brown with Puerto Natales Fly Fishing (puertonatalesflyfishing.com; $495 for two).
What to Do After Trekking
1. DINING Since opening last year, the restaurant at the Singular Patagonia (thesingular.com) has become a favorite for special occasions. Chef Laurent Pasqualetto’s locavore menu includes fillet of guanaco (a wild relative of the llama) and hare loin. A daily prix fixe Chilean meal features native dishes such as pumpkin and bean stew and, because Puerto Natales is a crabbing town, king crab chowder.
2. DRINKING Whether just off a ten-day backpacking trip or an afternoon hike, trekkers yack about it over pints of locally brewed negra (dark) or rubia (pale) ale at Baguales Brewery & Restaurant (Bories 430, 56-61-411920). The no-nonsense pub also offers a menu featuring American burgers. Brewery tours are available by request.
3. STROLLING Walk around town, especially near the harbor filled with banged-up crabbing ships, to get a sense of a community huddled together against the elements. Then snuggle into the bookracks and sweaters at Ñandú Artesania (Artur Prat 200, 56-61-414382). Tired and hungry? Go for excellent African-Chilean mash-up dishes at Afrigonia (Eberhard 323, 56-61-412877).
Where to Stay
Built of local lenga wood, with a view of the Torres (Towers) across Lake Sarmiento, the 42-room Tierra Patagonia (800-829-5325, tierrapatagonia.com; from $700 a person, including meals, alcohol, and excursions) is a luxe place to land after your adventures. Near Puerto Natales, about an hour’s drive from the park entrance, the 57-room Singular Patagonia (56-61-722030, thesingular.com; from $550) occupies 100 fjord-fronting acres. More affordable accommodations are closer to the park at Cerro Guido ranch (56-61-360305, cerroguido.cl; from $260), plus horseback rides with sheepherding baqueanos.
Travel time from 41 degrees north to 53 degrees south is at least 20 hours with layovers. LAN Chile offers smooth connections through Santiago to Punta Arenas, a three-hour drive from Puerto Natales; roundtrip fares start at about $2,500. Most lodges include airport and excursion transit, saving you the expense of renting a car.