TORRES DEL PAINE, Chile -- Ah, wilderness! is what anyone will
say after a stay in Torres del Paine National Park, a 600,000-acre
tract of towering granite peaks, glacier fields and crystalline
The park lies in the heart of Patagonia: 93 miles from the
nearest town (Puerto Natales), 248 miles northwest from the closest
city (Punta Arenas), 1,500 miles south of Santiago and 1,585 miles
due north of the South Pole.
An official Unesco biopreserve, the park is the jewel in Chile's
southern Patagonian crown, and its singular deluxe hotel, Explora,
adds extraordinary comfort and hospitality to a visit here at the
bottom of the world. It was this combination of one of nature's
most majestic wildernesses with the region's first luxury lodge
that has put a stay in the Torres del Paine park at the top of
anyone's travel-to-Chile wish list and has made this corner of
Patagonia a top seller on U.S. tour operator programs to South
The gateway is Punta Arenas on the Straits of Magellan, a long
way from New York, where my journey began with a 11-hour, direct
flight on LanChile to Santiago, connecting to LAN's four-hour and
scenically splendid flight to Punta Arenas.
From there I transferred to the Explora's van for the six-hour
drive -- with a stop in Puerto Natales for a hearty lunch -- to the
Traveling overland from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine Park
along a gravel road provides a landscape study in big vistas and
small trees, few people and thousands of heads of sheep and cattle.
At the end of the line, small groups of rheas -- close cousins of
the ostrich -- begin to appear roadside and the dramatic towers of
Paine loom on the horizon.
Last year, some 34,000 people visited the park, a few to tackle
the mountaineering on the towers, the rest, like me, came simply to
enjoy its pristine and breathtaking beauty. Additionally, I wanted
to to see what all the fuss is about Explora.
The modernist-style hotel burrows into the side of a hill
overlooking the Pehoe Lake. With its architectural design and
interior decor, built-in comfort, informal atmosphere and outdoor
excursion program, Explora has gone right up there on my list of
favorite inns of the world.
Explora redefines the phrase "a room with a view": From the
public rooms -- dining room, lounges, hallways, guest rooms and
even bathrooms -- the snow-covered Torres del Paine massif and the
turquoise lake or the Salto Chico cascades, are framed everywhere
by panoramic windows.
Who would have thought, for instance, to equip such a wilderness
lodge with bed linen from Barcelona, china-ware from England,
wicker furniture from Chimbarongo? Well, Explora did.
Guests are accommodated in 30 rooms, the best of those with lake
views. All rooms are warmed by Berber carpets over radiant-heated
floors and fitted with lavish granite bathrooms in which guests can
sit in the tub and look through the bedroom windows and out to the
This is a place to set one's alarm for 6:30 a.m., in the month
of February anyway, when the 10,000-foot granite mountains glow
pink in the path of the rising sun. Downstairs, good and hearty
meals (fresh fruits and vegetables, Patagonian lamb, fish and
shellfish) and fine Chilean wines are served in a glass-walled
dining room overlooking Salto Chico waterfall.
After meals -- or anytime -- guests can read a book, drink a
pisco sour or contemplate nature from the common rooms that
overlook the landscape panorama.
Separate from the lodge and by the falls is a fully equipped spa
with heated lap pool, Eastern massage and meditation, exercise
machines and outdoor Jacuzzi.
Daily excursions, for half or full days, come in varying degrees
of difficulty, with vans leaving every morning to different
destinations in the park. Guests choose their outings the night
before, and all groups are accompanied by guides who know Torres
del Paine park well and seem to truly enjoy it.
One morning I went to Lake Gray to see the glorious blue
icebergs and hike through the lenga-tree forest. One afternoon we
set out for Lake Nordenskjold, following a trail through the fields
of wild flowers beneath the famous towers. Other excursions take
guests on half-day hikes to Indian caves to see petroglyphs drawn
by the Tehuelches tribes or for bird-watching by the shore of Lago
del Toro. A full-day outing includes a Patagonian lamb barbecue and
There are other hiking options for fit travelers as well as
trips by motorboat, mountain bike and serious horseback-riding
The wildlife you see in the park includes guanacos (tawny
relatives of the llama, with long necks and huge eyes), foxes,
parrots, ducks that mate for life, flamingos, black-necked swans
and condors with 12-foot wing spans.
Explora will open its second property in the northern Atacama
desert this summer, good news for visitors wishing to explore
another of Chile's fascinating wilderness regions.