24 April 2013 by Pete Mathers
Wexas reviews the best hotels in Chilean Patagonia's flagship park.
"Everyone who comes to Patagonia wants to see the Towers," said Jaime, my guide through what is arguably South America's most spectacualr national park.
And who can blame them?
Standing tall some 2,800m above the Patagonian steppe, las torres (the towers) are the heart of the Paine massif, an island of granite, separate from the Andes, that stands at the centre of Torres del Paine National Park.
These breathtaking spires, which can glow rose pink in the warming rays of sunrise, are flanked by the summit of Paine Grande (3,050m) and the sabre-like peaks of los cuernos (the horns). Together they form one of the most arresting mountain vistas on the planet.
This alone would be worth the three-hour flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas and the 400km journey across the steppe to reach the park, yet - just as Jaime was hinting at - Torres del Paine offers more than just the mountains.
There are emerald forests and isolated beaches, lapis-blue glaciers and aquamarine lakes, thundering rivers and slowly-drifting icebergs.
Orange guanacos (the wild cousins of the llama) graze in abundance on the open steppe. Ostrich-like rhea, South America's largest birds, are seen roaming the grasslands at the sides of the roads. And in the skies above, Andean condors stretch their record-breaking wingspans as they circle around las torres.
So the question is, having flown all this way to see nature's grand designs, where do you stay to make the most of the park?
Affordable and accessible:
It's official, ‘glamping' has reached Torres del Paine. EcoCamp Patagonia is the region's first fully sustainable accommodation, offering individual geodesic domes for guests to sleep in. Perched on a ridge just up the road from Hotel Las Torres (below), but with even better views of the majestic towers, this innovative camp offers three categories of dome accommodation. Standard domes, the smallest, offer double or twin beds, no heating and shared bathrooms. Two larger superior domes offer queen or twin beds, a propane heater and a private bathroom with composting toilet. Both categories are usually reserved for walking groups as the camp operates an excellent range of five- to nine-day treks in the park, including the popular ‘W' trek and the longer Paine circuit.
I'd recommend the suite domes, which boast king or twin beds, an open terrace, an enclosed porch to hang wet clothing, a low-emission wood stove, a fully equipped bathroom with propane heater and a state-of-the-art composting toilet. These are mainly used for the camp's various wildlife safari packages (where both easy and active excursions are on offer each day) but are also perfect for independent and tailor-made stays.
EcoCamp may not be for everyone but if you're looking to stay in the centre of the park and feel your days of roll mats and sleeping bags are behind you, it's a fun and attractive option. The list of excursions is as good as any and better than most. Guides are knowledgeable, reliable and environmentally conscious. The hosts are friendly and the communal dome areas are extremely sociable. Breakfasts are taken together, pack lunches you get to make yourself (which having sampled some of the others that hotels give you is a blessing I assure you) and evenings are spent enjoying cocktails on the terrace, three-course meals and wonderful views of the towers in the moonlight.
Hotel Rio Serrano
Located just south of the park boundary on the sinuous Serrano River, this mid-range hotel is one of the largest in the region and offers easy access to the park and wonderful views across tree-studded grassland to the Paine massif. While it lacks some of the intimacy and flair for design that the smaller hotels offer, it compensates with spacious rooms and inviting communal areas - all wood, stone and soft lighting, with deep-cushioned sofas in which to sink into after a weary day's walking. Buffet dinners - taken in a large, open-seating dining room with panoramic views of the Paine massif - provide a wide selection of meat, fish, vegetables, salads, pasta and deserts. All the usual excursions are of course on offer, and waking to see los cuernos blushing pink in the rising sun is never to be scoffed at.
Hotel Las Torres
Standing at the base of the park's famous granite towers, this former estancia (ranch) could hardly hold a more central position. Yet while this lends itself perfectly to exploring by foot and on horseback, it's almost too close to the enormous towers to view them properly within the wider context of the spectacular landscape. There are better views from the nearby EcoCamp (above).
That's not to say that Las Torres is without its merits. It's grown considerably in size since founder Antonio Kusanovic and his wife Amor Eliana built nine rooms and a small restaurant on their 8,000-acre ranch in the 1990s. Now offering ten standard rooms, 72 superior rooms and two suites, it's well suited to groups and large families, and boasts a bar and lounge, a well-received restaurant, an outdoor barbecue where lambs are roasted on man-size spits, a boutique spa, a working stables of 150 horses and its own organic farm.
Hotel Lago Grey
In the west of the park, Hotel Lago Grey is perfectly poised beside one of Torres del Paine's principal attractions, the Grey Lake and Glacier, and offers exclusive cruises aboard its ship Grey II to see the glacier at close quarters - 12,000 years old, 40 metres at the face and such a striking blue that you question the sense of whoever named it Grey.
The glacier itself can't be seen from the hotel (the cruise is about a three-hour round-trip). Nonetheless, arriving here from the steppe and massif can be quite a shock. I was certainly surprised to see a sweeping pebble beach, let alone one studded with electric blue icebergs, drifting slowly across the surface of the lake. Yet this is the view from the restaurant, bar and lounge, and from the newly refurbished superior rooms. These newer rooms are attractively decorated in earthy tones and splashes of bright colour, and offer rainforest showers and complimentary Wi-Fi.
Of all the hotels I saw, this was the only one where you couldn't immediately look onto the Paine massif. While the icebergs and glacier are well worth seeing, excursions here are readily available wherever you spend your nights. And as Jaime rightly says, if you're going to come here, you want to see the towers.
Taking inspiration from Africa's most luxurious safari camps, Patagonia Camp offers 18 luxury yurts (wooden domed tents) built on stilts and spread out along wooden walkways. Minimising environmental impact was clearly at the heart of the design brief, as the entire complex weaves sympathetically between the plants and beech trees that have grown in the area for hundreds of years.
Each of the yurts boasts fantastic views over Lago del Toro towards the Paine massif, a private terrace complete with deckchair and boot scraper, and a skylight in the roof so you can stargaze from bed. All either have a king or twin beds, central heating, woven fabrics, hand-crafted furniture and en suite facilities of a far higher standard than you'd expect from a yurt. Other facilities include a restaurant and lounge with equally jaw-dropping views, a quincho and gift shop.
All-inclusive stays are on a two- to five-night basis and include transfers, three meals a day (one being a packed lunch to take with you on excursions), house wines, beers and soft drinks, and a choice of daily excursions with bilingual guides.
I loved this place, which seemed at once romantic and to stir a sense of boyish adventure. Yet there are a few things that guests should be aware of. For one, the camp is about a 20-minute drive from the entrance to the park, a short distance off the road to Puerto Natales. So if you're looking to have las torres looming large in your bedroom window, you'd be better off moving to within the park's boundary. Secondly, the camp can only provide transfers on certain days of the week, restricting slightly when guests can begin their stay. This, however, may well change in the future, and should you choose to pay for private transfers or if you're hiring your own car then it makes little difference. Speak to a Wexas specialist about the options available.
explora was Patagonia's original design hotel - the vision of a ground-breaking hotelier with a passion for genuine hospitality, thought-provoking design and eye-catching architecture. The lodge is located right at the heart of the park, on the edge of Lago Pehoe and the Salto Chico waterfall, which is well worth a walk to. Its appeal is obvious. No other hotel has nearly as good a view of the black curving cuernos and las torres behind them. All 49 rooms face the massif itself and even the bathrooms offer peek-hole windows with views of the mountains.
Should the unimaginable happen and you tire of this view, the Bath House opposite offers a change of scenery, with an indoor pool, sauna and four open-air jacuzzis looking out at Lago Pehoe. The food, too, is worthy of the setting, towing the line well between gourmet cuisine and well-balanced fuel for trekking and riding (the lodge has its own stable five miles away and its own estancia a little further afield).
When explora opened in 1993, it stood head and shoulders above other hotels in the park (as did its price tag). But the opening of Tierra Patagonia (below) in 2011 changed all that. No longer do wealthy travellers in search of 5-star comfort and bragging rights at any Kensington dinner party make a beeline straight for its whitewashed exterior and streamlined woodwork. Now they have to make a choice, and it's far from an easy one.
Opened in late 2011, Tierra Patagonia was the last hotel allowed to be built in the park, it squats inconspicuously on the eastern perimeter, a fluid structure of local wood on the shore of Lake Sarmiento, rather like you'd imagine a James Bond villain might design a hotel.
From every window, the horns and towers of the Paine massif are perfectly framed. Nowhere more so than in the cavernous dining room, bar and excursion prep area, whose wall of glass I could have sat at for hours, watching the changing light as I sped through my camera's memory card.
The 40 rooms come in three styles. The three standard rooms are spacious enough, with a bathtub in the bedroom and a separate en suite bathroom. Superior rooms, ten of which can be connected to make family apartments, are larger still and keep bathing to the bathroom. The three suites have a two-storey loft design with a living space up top and a bedroom and bathroom below, with one giant window covering both floors.
General Manager, Cristobal Luna, greets each guest on arrival. "Everyone who comes to Patagonia wants to visit the lakes and mountains of the park," said Cristobal, echoing the credo of Jaime once again. "So of course we take them there. But our real aim is to concentrate on other equally beautiful areas around about, where other tourists cannot go."
Every evening, private planning consultants sit with guests in Excursion Corner to discuss activities for the following day. Options outside the park include condor spotting from rugged escarpments, off-the-beaten-track treks and the popular combination of fishing, walking, riding and fossil hunting.
And if all that exhausts you, there's always the Uma Spa, complete with indoor pool, treatment rooms, sauna, steam room and outdoor jacuzzi - all once again with those mesmerising views of Lake Sarmiento, the Paine massif and the occasional gormless guanaco.
To get the most out of Torres del Paine I recommend staying at least four or five nights (or longer if you plan on doing any multi-day treks). The park is renowned for its diverse landscapes so splitting your stay between two different properties allows you to see it from contrasting angles. If purse strings permit, start at Tierra Patagonia, making sure to spend time at the estancia while there. Then move inside the park itself, to Explora Patagonia or the EcoCamp, depending on your budget. If going gaucho is not on your agenda, or if you're heart's not set on staying within the park, Patagonia Camp would be my hotel of choice.
Activities & popular excursions
A huge range of activities is on offer within the park. Here are just a few of the most popular.
- The ‘W' - The most famous of the park's long-distance treks, which as its name suggests makes a W around the park's major peaks. Usually walked in four or five days, hikers can either camp along the trail or, if arranged through a hotel, can return each night to their park accommodation. EcoCamp, for example, will provide this service.
- The Circuit - basically the ‘W' plus the northern side of the Paine massif, creating a complete circuit walked in seven to nine days.
- Base of the Towers - a strenuous but rewarding full-day hike to the base of las torres, offered by most hotels as a guided excursion.
- French Valley - considered the most beautiful stretch of the ‘W', this full-day hike threads its way between the slopes of Paine Grande to the west and los cuernos to the east. Offered by most hotels.
- Lago Grey & Glacier Grey - most hotels offer a half- or full-day excursion to Lago Grey and the Grey Glacier, navigating through vivid blue icebergs to the face of the glacier or hiking around its edges to wonderful viewpoints.
Getting to the park
There are no direct flights from the UK to Santiago. The best option is to fly with Iberia to Madrid, connecting with LAN to Santiago or TAM to Sao Paulo. The chances are you'll need to spend a night in the capital before flying south to Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, about a three-hour flight with LAN or TAM Airlines. LAN and TAM Airlines offer heavily discounted airfares with the South America Airpass for travel within the country when flying internationally to Chile with either TAM via Sao Paulo or LAN via Madrid.
The South America Airpass can save visitors to Chile hundreds of pounds on domestic flights, even if you are only taking one flight: for example, at the time of writing, a one-way flight from Calama - the airport for visiting the Atacama desert in the North - to Santiago is more than £200 cheaper when using the airpass. This makes flying LAN or TAM to Chile an obvious choice.
Both companies are part of The LATAM Airlines Group and members of the oneworld alliance, meaning that frequent travellers with British Airways Executive Club membership cards can earn Avios and tier points when flying either LAN or TAM.
From Punta Arenas, you'll travel by road for 300km across the open steppe to Puerto Natales, then another 100km to the park itself. It's also possible to cross from nearby Argentina. Most hotels offer transfer services from Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales and, in some cases, from as far away as Calafate in Argentina. Hiring your own car is another alternative. Your Wexas specialist will be able to find the option that suits your needs best.