Explora Patagonia: The EDGE OF HEAVEN
The land of dinosaurs, volcanos and fantastical fauna has long attracted visitors to its haunting, enigmatic beauty. Lysanne Currie hiked through Patagonia on the adventure of a lifetime, finding some much-needed perspective courtesy of an exciting, eco-minded travel company
The night sky was as black as an eagle’s feather as our minibus drew up to the front of Explora’s Patagonia lodge, and we emerged stretching and squinting at the enormous iceberg-like edifice and its warm, welcoming orange lights glinting like tigers’ eyes. It had been five hours since we’d left Puntas Arenas airport at the southernmost tip of Chile and an hour since we entered the Torres del Paine National Park, a unique and untouched landscape declared a biosphere reserve by Unesco. Our journey along the Ruta def Fin Del Mondo (‘End of the World Road’) had begun during daylight and we’d driven over snow-covered scrubland and along a vast, bleak landscape, only stopping halfway to be fed and watered at the Western-style Rio Rubens restaurant.
It was 9pm and the friendly guides asked us to drop our bags in our rooms and come straight back down to the lobby to choose our explorations for the next day. This is the spirit of an Explora trip – if your idea of a holiday is a sun lounger and a romcom, then it’s not the travel company for you. However, if you want to explore the planet’s most untouched and striking landscapes, experience something incredible and learn a little more about yourself while you’re at it, then an Explora adventure is a dream come true.
Formed in 1989, with a USP to offer a unique interaction with the natural world and the local communities, Explora believes that being remote offers us tech-frenzied beings a chance to detach from everyday life, enabling us to observe our existence from afar, solving persistent problems and lifting mental clouds. And it works – we returned fresher, fitter and clear-headed even on the big stuff. Experiential travel has become increasingly popular, but living on the edge of the world, if only for a few days, brought a simple purity of vision. And our lodge companions – a mixture of CEOs, politicians and tech entrepreneurs – concurred, as they too reconnected with their families and their best selves while trekking through some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet.
The Patagonia lodge is situated on the banks of Lake Pehoe with the Salt Chico waterfall as neighbour, and opposite the magnificent Paine Massif and the granite towers which give the park its name. The environment is considered in every area of the hotel’s operations, and all travellers are encouraged to participate in Explora’s conservation and sustainability projects. There are no complimentary bottles of water in the rooms – instead the hotel provides a glass pitcher of their own freshly purified water, refilled daily, while guests are encouraged to reuse towels. Even the complimentary slippers feature a certified biodegradable sole to avoid generating waste at the end of their life cycle – good to know when you edge tired hiking feet out of well-trodden boots and slip them on at the end of another phenomenal day.
Our first morning’s excursion took us along the Aonikenk trail: a van dropped us off at the eastern part of the park to commence a comfortable four-mile hike – albeit with a bit of (not terribly steep) mountain climbing thrown in. The climbing was necessary to reach the caves, wherein lie 4000-year-old cave paintings. Our amazing guides – who have undertaken intensive training courses – paused along the way teach us about the geology and landscape. They also handed out flasks of coffee (with optional Baileys to put in it).
En route, we gaped at the incredible beauty of the vast landscapes, clear skies, swan-filled lagoons, and other local wildlife: the beautiful guanaco, a member of the alpaca family, and snow foxes – one of which walked parallel to us for a while like a friendly guide. If the puma were elusive, signs of their presence manifested in the guanaco carcasses dotted around. And after three hours, we were back at the hotel for a well-deserved and delicious lunch of our own.
Having satisfied our hunger, we set off again in the direction of the Pudeto station for some panoramic views of Paine Massif, with its hanging glaciers and rock formations, and the exquisite turquoise coloured Lake Nordenskjold. It was humbling to see the scorched remains of the trees as we walked up to the Massif – and indeed Explora’s reforestation programme is helping to replace the hundreds of thousands of trees lost in 2011 when a fire blazed through the Park, burning a staggering 17000 hectares of forest. Working hand-in-hand with the Chilean government and NGOs, Explora aims to bring back the native plant species lost in the fire, while hotel guests can sponsor and 700 lenga trees at the lodge shop.
The following day brought the mother of all hikes: an incredible Romancing the Stone-style adventure, complete with “challenging weather” (rain, blizzards). Hikers should be prepared for all weathers here: the Patagonian climate is so extreme you could well experience the whole range of seasons in the course of a single day.
After crossing Lake Pehoé by catamaran, we entered the Valle Francés, surrounded by dense forest. Filling our water bottles up from the stream, we crossed over a hanging bridge to reach the Italian camp, where we stopped for a picnic of soup and cold meats and hot chocolate, while gazing upon the Glacier del Frances and amphitheatre of granite peaks.
As I gratefully luxuriated in the hotel spa afterwards, I reflected on the psychological strength involved in hiking. Previously, I’d probably considered it akin to a long dog-walk; but that last exhausting hike – during which I half-longed for a puma to kill me and birds of prey to then fly me back to the hotel – changed something in me. Having become utterly fed-up during this monster of an excursion, I suddenly felt galvanized – and strode ahead, with renewed reserves of energy. It was a feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie that would follow us dozen hikers back to the boat, back to the hotel, and all the way back home. And perhaps that’s the real measure of a company like Explora – it doesn’t just work to help the immediate environment, it works on you too.
This feature was first published in Director magazine