The Tip of the Earth

By Sandra Ramani / March 4, 2014
Travel to one of the most remote and unspoiled regions on the planet, and help to keep it that way.
Photo courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

Photo courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

For lovers of nature, wildlife and adventure, Patagonia has become something of a holy grail—a remote, relatively untouched region that remains one of the most uninhabited and geologically unique in the world. Spread out over southern Chile and Argentina, the area is home to dramatic natural splendors, along with wildlife like condor, flamingo, puma, and the llama-esque guanaco.

Because of its edge-of-the-world location, sometimes extreme conditions and wealth of outdoor adventures, Patagonia has long attracted active travelers. While today you can do group bus day trips to some of the area’s national parks, stopping at photo-ready viewpoints, the ideal way to experience the area is still through activities like hiking, trekking, horseback riding and kayaking.

We recently explored Patagonia on a new self-drive program that gives you access to the best outdoor experiences, while kicking things up from the typical backpacking-and-camping offerings. Even better, it supports the eco-initiatives crucial to protecting this UNESCO-approved natural treasure.

The Experience

MA14_Great Places-Tip of the Earth_01

Picnic at Laguna Azul. Photo courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

 

In 2013, Quasar Expeditions, the family-run company that has been taking travelers to the Galapagos Islands via upscale, small-ship cruises led by expert naturalists, expanded its nature-focused offerings with the launch of Wild Patagonia Jeep Adventures. The eight-day, seven-night program has guests navigate Patagonia in their own private 4×4 Wrangler, either with a guide/driver or with simply a pre-programmed GPS and audio guide for company. The adventure takes you through both the Chilean and Argentinean parts of Patagonia—which, though technically part of the same region, have very different topographies.

The journey starts in Puerto Bories, Chile. After a day of rest and a briefing by Quasar guides, you’ll set off for a scenic drive across the border to Argentina, bound for Los Glaciares National Park. From the intimate Estancia Helsingford hotel, enjoy a morning horseback ride to the Blue Lagoon glacier, followed by an afternoon walk to the Peninsula of the Winds.

The next day, it’s off to explore the famous Perito Moreno glacier, an electric-blue mass the size of Buenos Aires. Take a catamaran to view the glacier from sea level, or—if you’re feeling adventurous—sign up for an ice trek. In the latter option, you’ll take a beautiful hike through forests, across rocky beaches and up cliff paths to a small hut, where guides strap spiky crampons to your shoes before leading you on a 90-minute walk on the glacier itself. The sloping, handrail-free walk can be intense, but the brave are rewarded with a celebratory toast on one of the icy peaks.

Local sheep grazing. Photo courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

Local sheep grazing. Photo courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

After a morning spent exploring the charming resort town of El Calafate, it’s time to head back to Chile and the Torres del Paine National Park, via a drive lined with flamingos, sheep and spectacular Andes views. Following a night at the peaceful Patagonia Camp, you can choose your own adventure: Take a hike around Grey Glacier in the Southern Patagonia Ice Field; a longer one through the French Valley, surrounded by mountains and granite spires; or go for the famous seven-hour hike to the base of the iconic Towers, where you’ll enjoy unparalleled views, rigorous exercise and ultimate bragging rights.

The last full day in-country features more of the Park’s highlights, with drives to scenic viewpoints, short hikes to waterfalls and glaciers and a gourmet picnic on the rocky shores of the Blue Lagoon. Rest up with a fireside meal at Tierra Patagonia, before a morning walk around Lake Sarmiento and the drive back to the airport. jeeppatagoniaexpeditions.com

Eco-Commitment

Quasar Expeditions Jeep at Argentina crossing. Photo courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

Quasar Expeditions Jeep at Argentina crossing. Photo courtesy of Quasar Expeditions

Sustainable tourism is key, and while the effects of global climate change can already be seen on shrinking glaciers, it is heartening that many hotels and tour companies are employing eco-friendly practices. Dedicated to leaving the smallest footprint possible, Quasar works with Carbonfund.org to calculate, reduce and offset every single emission from their Jeep engines, making their 100 percent carbon-neutral project one of the area’s greenest travel offerings.

Over the past 100 years, over 7.5 million acres of Patagonian wilderness have been destroyed due to human intervention and forest fires. The most recent fire, in December 2011, took out 42,500 acres in the Torres del Paine National Park. Given this tragedy, Quasar has partnered with Reforest Patagonia to help with the goal of planting at least 1 million native trees in the area’s national parks and reserves.

Green Stays

View from The Singular. Photo courtesy of Singular Hotels

View from The Singular. Photo courtesy of Singular Hotels

Restaurant lounge at The Singular. Photo courtesy of Singular Hotels

Restaurant lounge at The Singular. Photo courtesy of Singular Hotels

The itinerary includes overnights at five small hotels, hand-picked for service, style and smart eco practices. Standout properties include:

The Singular Patagonia A former 19th-century cold-storage plant was restored into this sleek, 57-room, LEED-certified boutique hotel. Along with well-appointed spaces, killer views and a gourmet restaurant, enjoy a glimpse at the area’s history with a Heritage Tour of the former Victorian engine room, tannery and blacksmith shop. The spa offers an indoor-outdoor heated pool and treatments using marine extracts, mineral salt and Patagonian herbs. thesingular.com

Tierra Patagonia Natural woods, locally sourced textiles and framed views of Lake Sarmiento set the scene at this eco-chic haven, where guests relax around an open fireplace, glass of Chilean wine in hand, after a day of exploring Torres del Paine National Park. The Uma Spa has a hydromassage pool, steam and sauna, and a menu of therapeutic post-hike massages, essential oil-infused soaks and hydrating facials. tierrapatagonia.com

Patagonia Camp Set on the banks of Lake Toro, with views of the Paine Massif mountains, this forest hotel is made up of 18 cozy yurts, each with bathroom, heating, local handicrafts and private terraces, plus a skylight for stargazing. The accommodations, main lounge/restaurant and all walkways have been built on wooden stilts to help protect the native flora and birdlife; there’s also an organic Chef’s herb garden, and recycling, composting and water treatment programs. www.patagoniacamp.cl

Sandra Ramani

Sandra Ramani

Senior Contributing Editor at Organic Spa Magazine
In addition to serving as OSM’s Senior Contributing Editor, writer/editor Sandra Ramani covers travel, wellness, and lifestyle topics for such publications as Travel + Leisure, Robb Report, Premier Traveler, AFAR, Bridal Guide, Elite Traveler, and Every Day with Rachael Ray. She is also the author of “Day Trips from Dallas / Fort Worth,” now in its second edition. Recent assignments have found her sleeping in the Sahara, hopping helicopters in New Zealand, and making this new friend in Bali.
Sandra Ramani

Latest posts by Sandra Ramani (see all)