Torres del Paine National Park – Patagonia, Chile
Wilderness and Civilization at the End of the Earth
This remote outpost in the heart of Chile’s Patagonia is one of nature’s last virtually untrammeled wildernesses. Located just north of Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world, it is a solitary region of overwhelming beauty that was not mapped until the 1930s. The 600,000-acre network of deep aquamarine lakes, rushing rivers, groaning glaciers, pampas, and fjords is best known for the Cuernos del Paine – spectacular 10,000-foot towers of rose-coloured granite that are part of the Cordillera Paine mountain range.
The 12-foot wingspan of the fabled Andean condor occasionally appears against the sky in this surreal landscape; it is one of more than 100 different species of native birds, from the ostrichlike rhea to wild flamingos and black-necked geese. The orange-and-white guanaco, a cousin of the llama, and the mountain puma, among others, also make their home here. Little wonder that Charles Darwin and Jules Verne were among those who fell under the spell of this region at the end of the world. Here the plenitude of air, light, time, and space crystallize the sense of disconnection from life as you know it.
Maximize the experience with a stay at the Hotel Salto Chico, located on the shores of the glacial Lake Pehoe in the Torres del Paine National Park. At first glance, the hotel is unremarkable: The plain white clapboard structure does not try to compete with nature. But indoors it is light, airy, outfitted with natural fibers and local woods – and everywhere are huge windows framing views of the park’s singularly beautiful granite towers. You may be 250 miles from the closest town, but the bed linens are from Barcelona, the china from England, the guests from every comer of the world. And while the good life is alluring and the outdoor Jacuzzi-with-a-view borders on the sublime, the real luxury is being in the heart of the park. Guests can choose from a menu of sixteen excursions at different ability levels covering more than 150 miles of trails and roads (at least five excursions are offered daily). Even the sedentary traveler can tour the area, from a four-wheel-drive jeep or motor launch. Other expeditions include hiking, trekking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Then it’s back to home base, to dine in jeans and flannel shirts on king crab and excellent Chilean wines.