Patagonia Made Easy

When one of my husband’s former business partners had a trip fall through, the two of them, along with a third partner, cooked up the idea of traveling together. Some of us had already had great experiences with the South American operator Explora, and Explora recently opened two new lodges in Patagonia, so next thing we knew we were booking flights to Buenos Aires.

Having been to Buenos Aires three times, and already seen many of the big sights, Adam and I spent our day and a half there walking around. Perhaps we’ve just timed our trips right, but the city’s trees always seem to be flowering.

I have three food recommendations: Roux, which is a very uptown (in the New York City sense) restaurant; Rapanui for excellent ice cream; and most of all, Anafe. Roux felt like it could’ve existed 30 years ago, but Anafe is of the moment in the best possible way. Highlights include the grilled halloumi (below) and the profiteroles, for which the menu offers the option to “add warm dark chocolate bath.” When would you not?

The town of El Calafate is a three-and-a-half hour flight southwest from Buenos Aires, and upgrading to premium economy is worth whatever the additional cost, because you get to skip the insane check-in line at the airport. Once you arrive in El Calafate, you’re in Explora’s hands. The drive to the lodge outside El Chaltén is four hours, with a stop for lunch and, in our case, too much Abba on the stereo. But mamma mia, what a payoff!

I have a long relationship with Explora. In the 1990s, I wrote about the company’s lodge in Chile’s Atacama Desert for Travel + Leisure magazine. More recently, Adam and I visited the Explora lodge at Torres del Paine, in Chilean Patagonia, and went on a “travesia”—small-group trips to more remote destinations—from Salta, Argentina, to the Atacama. (That trip is no longer offered, alas.) What I love about the company is that you get to see beautiful wilderness, with uniformly terrific guides, but without sacrificing comfort.

The industrial exterior of the new 20-room lodge outside El Chaltén belies what’s inside.

We started out in a standard room and then switched to a suite, pictured below. The extra space was welcome, but the standard room would’ve been just fine. As with any new hotel—this one opened in December—there were some issues. Rooms on the lower level were freezing, while upper-level ones were often warm, and the HVAC had a mind of its own.

The hotel is oriented toward an astounding view.

One of the delightful things about an active trip is that eating with abandon is easier to justify. At breakfast, that meant superb baked goods and, a real treat this time of year, nectarines and plums.

Our favorite meal at the lodge was lunch, where the buffet was rich with vegetables, grains, and legumes. That’s chard tempura in the second photo.

Dinner was hit-or-miss, mainly because the company is trying to reflect local customs in its menu—and this being Argentina, that meant a lot of grilled meat, prepared without much seasoning and served in slabs. (The vegetarian options were rarely appealing.) Worse, the hotel seems to think that guests need to visit the grilling pavilion before dinner to inspect the meat over a glass of wine. We went once and then demurred; eventually, they stopped urging us to go.

Unlike other Explora lodges, which might offer horseback riding, mountain biking, and other activities, this one is all about hiking, mainly in the nearby national park or the private preserve in which the lodge is located (where we only saw other hikers twice). Each evening, the guides chat with you in the lobby about what you’d like to do the next day. There are half-day and full-day options, varying in length and difficulty. (Our longest one was 12.6 miles, with a 3,250-foot elevation gain—much of which was in a brutal one-kilometer stretch.) The first few days, we were alone with a guide, which was fabulous. While the guides will stop and point out things of note, it’s hardly a tour with constant commentary. Then the hotel got busy with guests from Brazil, and we were bundled with others. For me, the joy of hiking is not having many people around, so I was less happy when I had to march single-file. On our last day, we asked if we could hike our own speed (i.e., fast) and meet up later—but when we never ran into our group again, we went town and got ice cream. To the staff’s credit, they rerouted a van to pick us up.

What makes hiking in Patagonia special, for me, is the variability of the geography. You might find yourself in a forest, then in a broad valley, then on moraine, then at the shore of an otherworldly glacial lake—all during a single hike. Here’s a greatest-hits montage….

On full-day hikes, you eat lunch on the trail. Explora being Explora, there’s always a tablecloth.

Despite my quibbles, I’m still a huge fan of Explora, and I wish the company would open lodges all around the world. Instead, its expansion plans are focused in Patagonia. It’s a magical place, but I’d be more inclined to explore other parts of the world before returning. And while our group very much enjoyed our time at the lodge, the consensus was that Explora’s lodge at Torres del Paine in Chile is a better place to start, but what may matter more is whether you’d rather travel through Santiago or Buenos Aires.

Our group also wanted to walk on Perito Moreno glacier, which is too far from Explora for a day trip. So after we checked out, Explora drove us back to El Calafate, where we were handed off to the next hotel, EOLO. Its square building, with a large courtyard, is a funny mix of Tudor-ish style and corrugated metal, and it’s truly in the middle of nowhere—so every window is a showcase.

We were at EOLO for all of two nights, arriving late enough that on our first day, we only had time for a hike around the property. If you’ve never hiked anywhere without a trail—the staff told us to walk wherever we wanted—I highly recommend it.

Plus, you might get to hop a fence.

EOLO arranged our tour of the Perito Moreno glacier, which started with admiring it from a series of boardwalks.

The glacier groans and cracks constantly—it really does seem like a living thing. We were lucky to twice see large chunks of ice calving off. There’s one mid-fall in the photo below.

We then took a rather scenic boat ride to the other side of the lake…

…where we joined a different outfitter for the glacier tour. The blue was so unnaturally vibrant that I kept expecting it to smell like Ty-D-Bol.

After being fitted with crampons, we were led onto the ice, which was spectacularly beautiful. We wished we had opted for the longer, less-crowded tour, because ours definitely had a forced-march aspect. Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

On our final morning, we awoke to one of the finest sunrises I have ever seen. Maybe I won’t cross a return off the list after all.

P.S. We pay our own way, and none of the operators knew I’d be writing about the trip.


Previous travel coverage:
••• A Quickie in L.A.
••• From Penthouse to Pavement in Mexico City
↓↓↓ Do Greek Islands Live Up to the Fantasy?
••• Splendid Isolation at Utah’s Lodge at Blue Sky
••• The Three Reasons to Visit Paso Robles Now
••• The Rebirth of the Cuyama Buckhorn, a Classic Roadside Motel


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