I made my afternoon flight back to Chile and Punto Arenas. My last three days were spent in a remarkable all-inclusive hotel near Puerto Natales and the impressive Torres del Paine National Park. Remota Hotel was indeed remote – about 3 hours from Punta Arenas – but worth the extra drive. Depending on the season 4 or 7 professional guides are on staff for daily excursions which are included in the package. There is plenty of hiking, of course, but also horseback riding, driving tours of the area or the port town nearby, sailing, kayaking (generally best in winter due to calmer waters) and climbing excursions as well. The landscape is a lesson in geology with ancient sedimentary rock, metamorphic outcrops and the horns of the Torres inside the park. There is a certain violence to the look of the land with evidence of colliding rock strata, granite thrusts called laccoliths which have pushed up through sedimentary rock and are exposed by erosion, and the carving of the last glaciers (a few small ones are still there). Gauchos still ride, and sheep and cattle still graze along the pampas.
I was picked up from the cruise in Ushuaia, Argentina by Horacio a guide from Borello Travel & Tours. We spent the morning in Tierra del Fuego National Park, hiking a bit and getting to see some of the birds of the area as well as a red fox which snuck up on a group of geese, but with no success. Beavers, introduced by people with the bright idea of starting a fur trade, have made a significant mark on the land and we saw several dams and homes. The park was moody, showing sun one minute, rain the next, cool wind thereafter, and back to sun. Getting a tour with Borello ahead of time is a good idea for anyone spending the day waiting for a flight or choosing to hang around a while in Ushuaia. The park is impressive with mountains, rivers and forest right up against the sea. Much of the land is actually closed to the general public, but even that portion that is open is more than enough.
I was surprised by wild herds of guanacos, the Patagonian equivalent of a llama and even more by the abundance of rheas, a species of flightless bird native to the continent and resembling a smaller ostrich.
After an 8-mile hike in the park that ended at a stunning scenic overlook of the Torres and the glacial runoff waters, it was nice to have a laid back place to stay with sauna and outdoor hot tubs (with champagne served at the wave of a hand!) The hotel opened in 2006 and its design seeks to incorporate elements of Patagonia. The rooftops are grassy like the plains, random boulders from the glaciers remain scattered in the courtyard, rough two-by-fours create a slatted pattern on the ceilings recalling the light patterns of the barns where leather or wool was dried. The long hall between the two wings of rooms is designed to appear as the corridor for guiding sheep to the fleecing sheers.
At night leg of lamb is typically available at dinner as is local king crab and Chilean wines. The sun sets behind the mountains across the fjord to the west, and the sunset of my first night there had even the staff pausing to gasp as the colors licked the peaks like flames, graced the lower reaches of the clouds above, and reflected in the sea. Quite a remarkable end to a remarkable day. Two days later was the long journey home (32 hours from door to door) where I had 3 days to repack and prepare for two and half months in Asia…