Journey to the End of the Earth Adventures in a Patagonian Eco-Camp

Patagonia is full of winds, mountains and piercing blue water; Domed tents are warmed by the sun. © Photos: Mary Bergin

The wind arrives rudely, in the middle of the night, thrashing and tugging at the sides of my tent. The only logical option is to sink deeper into a nest of fleece sheets and heavy blankets of wool. The howling seems unending, but the tent stays steady and the gusts eventually disappear as abruptly as they hit. How fierce is the wind? My guide will shrug away the question during breakfast. This was a summer breeze compared to the 130 mph squalls that have been documented here.

“Nature is outside, knocking at the door,” is how he explains it.

I am in Patagonia, Chile, the southernmost part of South America, and the surprises have only begun. I expect the wind but not its multiple moods. Clothing is layered but I wish for more zippers to react quickly—and repeatedly—to sudden changes in wind velocity and precipitation. During this early October visit, skies are often sunny and temperatures reach the 70s (dropping to the 40s at night). The sound of thunder can be misleading; it accompanies ice avalanches as well as rain.

My base is EcoCamp Patagonia, inside the 450,000-acre Torres del Paine National Park, which since 1978 has been a UNESCO world biosphere reserve. It is lush with waterfalls, glaciers, lakes and mountainous terrain.

Some people say it’s one of the planet’s purest places.

Cozy Confines

Eco-camp accommodations are far from rustic, and this is another surprise. When thinking “eco-camp” and “Patagonia,” you aren’t likely to envision meals of salmon with capers or slow-roasted lamb served on white linens, matched with goblets of fine Chilean wines.

A potbellied stove nicely toasts the interior of a domed tent that is 30 feet in diameter and 13.5 feet tall, used for meals and socializing. Within a cushion of synthetic insulation is a large window of heavy plastic that reveals Paine Towers, the park’s signature mountain peaks. A 12-mile trek to “The Towers,” with a nasty rock scramble to reach the trail’s summit, is the park’s most common hike and an all-day adventure. The reward, when back at the eco-camp, is pisco sours (a sweet liqueur mixed with egg whites and lime juice).

Although the business—in operation since 2001—is described as having the comfort and sophistication of a four-star hotel, don’t expect InterContinental amenities. Eco-sensitivity matters more than visitor pampering. That means I am completely unplugged from the rest of the world: no phones, television, radio or Internet connections. And electricity that is generated is not wasted on hair dryers.

There is room for 56 travelers and single-occupancy accommodations are rare. Inside each tent are two thick but narrow mattresses and an animal-skin rug that sit atop a slightly elevated wooden floor. Sunrays, through rooftop windows of plastic and opened flaps, naturally heat these cozy domes during daytime.

It’s a short shuffle to the composting toilet and showers, via raised wooden platforms. Hydroelectricity and solar power generate energy for light, heat and water in showers. Another surprise: Wind energy has been problematic because of the noise of turbines and the inconsistent, unpredictable wind levels.

In on the Secret

The eco-camp guides I met are torn between wanting to share what they love and knowing that a proliferation of tourists could destroy their paradise. When I visited in 2006, eco-camp capacity was 30 travelers; now it is 56 because of the addition of suite domes that have private bathrooms.

During my more recent three-day visit, it was still rare to encounter other people and vehicles. I saw far more herds of wild guanaco (a type of llama) and strutting rheas (an ostrich-like bird) than tourists or gauchos on horseback. Before leaving, I met John Garner, the namesake of John Garner Pass—elevation 4,100 feet—from which mountains, ice fields and glaciers can be seen. The longtime mountain explorer and ice cap climber helped create the road and hiking routes at Torres del Paine.

He keeps heading back toward this end of the earth because he hopes to yet see another part of this world in unspoiled, untroubled beauty. “It is the anticipation that often makes the journey,” he observes.

Making the Trek

Torres del Paine is open all year, but most visit from October to April, which is the southern hemisphere’s spring to summer. Eco-camp tents come down in April, but they’re not the park’s only lodging. Hosterias—simple, clean accommodations—also exist. Costs depend on length of stay, time of year and type of itinerary.

The trek to this part of Patagonia begins with an overnight in Santiago, Chile, then a four-hour flight south to Punta Arenas, on the Strait of Magellan. From there, it is a three-hour drive southwest to Puerto Natales (population 17,000) and another 2.5 hours on the road to Torres del Paine National Park’s Laguna Amarga entrance. Eco-camp costs include transportation from Punta Arenas.