Just Back: Erin Ladd's Patagonia Adventure
An Outside Team Member and her Doctor Husband Experience Patagonia
Two intrepid travelers from New Mexico embark on the trip of a lifetime hiking and luxury glamping in Patagonia.
Years ago, when I lived in San Francisco, I found a classroom-wall-sized map of the world leaned up against a trash can. I couldn’t believe my luck—the hipster junk shops in the city would’ve retailed it for hundreds of dollars. Who would get rid of such a gem? Made of a brittle, cheap plastic, it rose and fell with the earth’s topography, and it adorably labeled countries that no longer existed. It was massive, and it was perfect, and I dragged it home and hung it above my bed. I use it (outdated geography and all) as a reference in my house more often than I’d like to admit.
So when my free-spirited sister-in-law called us to say she’d taken a seasonal gig in Chilean Patagonia, I checked the map: Cross over into the Southern Hemisphere. Pass over all the long bones of South America. Drag your finger all the way down to where the continent breaks apart, stacked like broken pillars into the far southern Pacific.
There. We’d go there.
I work at Outside Magazine, so of course I already knew the fundamentals about going to Patagonia. It would be wild—big mountains, high winds, glaciers dropping into the sea in spiky blue chunks. I knew the weather could be unpredictable and that I’d be out in it. And I knew I simply didn’t have much time to plan.
"[Patagonia] would be wild—big mountains, high winds, glaciers dropping into the sea in spiky blue chunks."
The trip formed itself into two halves: the first half, a long through-hike on a famous trail in Torres del Paine National Park; the second was to be an impromptu seven days elsewhere in Chile, and my husband and I were open to suggestion. Both halves would center around one of Chile’s most famous national parks, Torres del Paine—functionally working from the 20-thousand-person hamlet of Puerto Natales.
First, the trek. Because my sister-in-law spent the season working at Puerto Natales’ Erratic Rock—a hostel, pub, and outfitter servicing the greater Torres del Paine area—she knew the park like a local. The Torres del Paine mega-hike (and infinitely popular through-route) is called The W: named, not so surprisingly, for it’s W-shaped trail that spikes hikers up against the glaciers of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, back down and around the park’s snow-capped massifs, up to a high-alpine overlook and back down its valley, and around the corner for a shot at the park’s namesake, the Torres. Five days. Sixty miles. Seven members of my husband's family and me on foot, rain or blistering wind or shine.
"Five days. Sixty miles. Seven members of my husband's family and me on foot, rain or blistering wind or shine."
The all-knowing sister-in-law painstakingly booked all eight of us in the park’s spare but comfortable refugio system: a series of hostels on the trail that provided beds, linens, hot food, and cold Austral beer. And in between sleeps, we saw and experienced the full, delightful range of Patagonia: a morning in crampons on top of the glacier, the sight of avalanches tumbling down from their precarious holds, one-at-a-time rope bridges across rushing glacial melt, wind and rain so strong I thought it’d peel my skin off. It all culminated in our final push: We started at 2 a.m. to hike in headlamps straight uphill for four hours so that we could be in place in front of the Torres at sunrise. My hopes were low; the weather had been standoffish, and to get the postcard view of the rock towers, the weather had to cooperate with no cloud cover and a perfectly bright sunrise. We cuddled into sleeping bags in the freezing pre-dawn and sipped instant coffee, waiting for the pink sign of sunrise, and little by little—without any clouds interfering—the Torres lit up with light: first bruise-blue, then a hazy gray, then a light salmon, then resplendent, neon pink. Along with the other intrepid early-morning hikers, we hooted and cheered a sunrise we were never entitled to. Patagonia, at this point, was just showing off.
It would only be two nights later that my husband and I would remark on the exact same view—fuschia-colored, cloudless, absolutely mesmerizing—from the beautifully designed sitting room of the inimitable Awasi Patagonia. We’d left the second half of our trip to the flawless tastes of Outside GO—last-minute plans and all—and after bushwhacking through some of Chile’s wildest terrain, one thing was for certain: We ached for no-holds-barred comfort. On top of that, we wanted to experience the kind of Chilean food that couldn’t be packed into a backpack pocket or unwrapped from foil. If there’s one thing that Outside GO does a spectacular job of arranging, it’s the intersection of luxury and adventure, which is how we found ourselves enjoying the view from with a roaring fire at our backs, a Chilean wine in our hands curated by a smiling sommelier. Sandy, Chip, and co. put it all together for us in record time.
This is the other way—the Outside GO way—to experience Torres del Paine: Awasi pairs each traveler up with an adventure guide who’ll help them get the most out of their trip. This does, for many, involve day trips into Torres del Paine to hike portions of The W—and due to brand-new restrictions about overnight stays within the national park, the option to call Awasi home while experiencing as much of the park as possible should be all the more appealing. Not that anyone would need convincing that Awasi is the ultimate place from which to experience Patagonia once they’ve enjoyed a meal at the restaurant: local food, inventive presentation, and unparalleled service.
Because we were able-bodied, eager, and already finished with The W, our guide Raimundo chose to pick us up after breakfast and take us in his truck, outfitted with a snorkel for his engine “just in case,” to a private slice of the Baguales range: a privilege you can only get as a guest of Awasi. With him, we four-wheeled down dirt roads, unlocking the gates of private estancias along the way, and crossed rivers until he banked the car in a cow pasture. We set out on foot without a trail, hiking among the alpaca-like guanacos that ran wild through the river valley, until we reached a pond from which we spooked a flock of ducks. We sat on its shores and Raimundo pulled out a tantalizing lunch packed by the kitchen staff of Awasi for us; he pointed out the peaks in the distance of both Chile and Argentina, reminding us that if we could hike as the crow flies, we could be in Argentina by the end of the day. Instead, we took a roundabout route back to the truck, passing honest-to-god gauchos herding their heifers with a pack of mutt dogs’ assistance.
"We sat on its shores and Raimundo pulled out a tantalizing lunch made lunch packed by the Awasi kitchen staff for us; he pointed out the peaks in the distance of both Chile and Argentina, reminding us that if we could hike as the crow flies, we could be in Argentina by the end of the day."
Even with the stunning landscape all around, Awasi makes it nearly impossible for you to want to leave your room, as each traveler gets a mini-lodge for themselves, complete with a wood-fired outdoor hot tub that the guest has to request several hours in advance to be started and stoked. We’d asked that it be ready by the time we returned from Baguales, and not only was it steaming, but they’d left us a bottle of Chilean red and a cheese plate for us to enjoy. In the mornings, we could see the Torres from our bed, and as sheep quietly grazed around our villa, we figured we’d never find the gumption or the heart to leave.
But, the Lake District called, and we begrudgingly hopped out of Patagonia, traveled three hours south to Punta Arenas—a city, with its Antarctic departures, that feels like the very end of the world—and caught a flight north to Temuco, a slightly-south-of-center city that provides a jumping off point for the volcanoes and lakes of this part of South America. Outside GO whisked us off to Vira Vira, a gorgeous enclave of a resort outside the quaint Santiago-getaway town of Pucón. Our driver rolled us up at night, and much to our delight, we found that they’d kept the kitchen open for us so that we could have a late dinner. Much of what the chef on staff experiments with is what they grow and harvest on site: everything from edible flowers to cheese that they make from cows that are right on the property. In the daylight it was clear we were staying on a very upscale farm—the lodge, as well as every guest room, is meticulously designed and makes even a midday white wine (Chilean, of course) feel luxe.
Even with the comfort and design of Vira Vira, it is still an adventure lodge, and the day’s options for each guest are posted each morning: volcano hiking, river floating, and even private helicopter tours, if you’re willing to pay extra. Our first day we opted for a trip to a nearby hot springs (unsurprising to have geothermal activity in this highly volcanic area), so by our second morning, we itched for a hike to a volcano, so we opted for a guided hike to the craters near Villarrica. The weather, of course, didn’t cooperate, and we turned back before the famed craters due to lack of visibility. Luckier, though, was our hike through the Huerquehue National Park, a lakeside mountain hike that’ll deliver you straight to some impressive jungle waterfalls.
We sadly trundled our stuff out of Vira Vira on our way back to the U.S. with the full knowledge that experiencing South America in this way was truly once-in-a-lifetime. The hospitality was unparalleled, the food spectacular, and the landscape? Better than you can imagine looking at any map.
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Erin Ladd's Trip Report
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