Chile Adventure Guide: Three Adventures of a Lifetime
From kayaking among calving glaciers in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park to soaking in thermal hot springs in the Atacama Desert, a trip to Chile can provide a lifetime of adventures. Here are three of our favorites.
Stretching over 2,600 miles down the southwestern coast of South America, tucked between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes, Chile is a sliver of a country but one that is packed with contrasts and adventure. In the north, 20,000-foot-high snowcapped volcanoes give way to the flat, lunar landscape of the Atacama Desert, where visitors can mountain bike through crystallized salt formations and snowboard down sand dunes. Portillo, a ski resort in the country’s mountainous center, delivers some of the best skiing in the Southern Hemisphere and views of 22,841-foot-high Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas. At the southern tip of the continent, Patagonia covers about 490,000-square miles across Chile and Argentina and delivers a desolate landscape dotted with glacial valleys, fjords, and craggy peaks, perfect for multi-day treks, rock climbing, and kayaking.
Tucked into a glacial basin overlooking the aqua blue waters of Laguna del Inca and surrounded by 19,000-foot peaks, Portillo is ground zero for hungry powderhounds and the world’s best skiers, including Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn, who come to sample Portillo’s 1,235-acres of snow-sure slopes, easily accessed off-piste terrain, and a ski experience like no other.
Located two hours from Santiago, Portillo is comprised of a ski resort and a 450-person hotel. The season stretches from the third week in June to the first weekend in October, and averages about 320 inches of snow (compare that with Telluride, Colo., which averages 309 inches over a season that’s a month longer). The resort is relatively small, but serves up a good mix of groomers, open bowls, and chutes, like Garganta, which snakes below Tio Bobs, a mid-mountain restaurant at the top of the Plateau lift. Portillo gets hammered by strong storms that roll in from the Pacific and dump feet of snow on the resort, which sits about 100 miles from the ocean and is situated at 9,450 feet, the perfect recipe for extremely light and abundant powder—18-inch powder days are frequent in August and September.
Many skiers come to Portillo for its backcountry offerings, perhaps best in the Southern Hemisphere, which are easily accessed from the resort’s lifts. The Super C, which pro big-mountain skier Chris Davenport calls “one of the world’s most aesthetic couloirs,” requires a two-hour boot-pack from the top of the Roca Jack lift and delivers over 4,500 feet of 40- to 50-degree skiing and views of Aconcagua. Davenport along with Ingrid Backstrom and three other pros host the Ski with the Superstars camp every August, which guides skiers, who range in age from 14 to 69, to Portillo’s finest on and off-piste lines while fine-tuning steep skiing techniques. Portillo also has heliskiing, which visitors can book by the run, making it a great option for those who want to try heliskiing but can’t afford—or don’t want to pay for—a full day or week-long program.
What has elevated Portillo to mythic status among skiers worldwide is the unique all-around experience it offers. Portillo is both a ski resort and a hotel, which means that, for the most part, all of the skiers on the mountain are hotel guests, and the person you rode the lift up with in the morning (which might be Ted Ligety) might be sitting next to you in the hot tub come après ski. There are board games and puzzles in the living room, and a full roster of activities (for children and adults), including movies, yoga, and ping-pong tournaments. There are two dinner seatings (8 pm and 9:30 pm) in the stately dining room and a live band in the bar each night until midnight, followed by a D.J. in the basement nightclub until the early morning hours. All of this creates a friendly environment among the guests, that can be likened to summer camp for adults. You might come alone, but you’ll leave with friends, probably ones who ski better than you.
Torres del Paine, Patagonia
Situated at the southern tip of Chile, only 1,000 miles from Antarctica and 2,000 miles from Santiago, Torres del Paine National Park is truly the end of the earth. Despite it’s remote locale, the park, once a sheep estancia, or ranch, is one of the best national parks in South America. That’s not only due to its stunning topography—700-square miles of emerald lakes, craggy peaks, and forests—but also to its well-established infrastructure which includes two popular trekking routes, the W and full, or O, circuits, and a network of mountain refuges (refugios), that range from basic dormitory style accommodations to private cabins, making possible, if you choose, a trek where you don’t have to pitch a tent or cook a meal. The park is also home to world-class rock climbing and during the South American spring and summer, climbers from around the world flock to Torres del Paine to tackle its massive granite walls and towers.
The W trek can be done in four days and covers about 40 miles one-way, from Las Torres campground to Refugio Grey. Along the way, you’ll pass guanacos (small lamas indigenous to the region), Las Torres del Paine, three 8,000-foot granite spires overlooking a glacial lake, and Lake Grey, where you might see an iceberg from the adjacent glacier bobbing through the lake’s waters. The 70-mile or so full circuit trek loops around the entire Cordillera del Paine, requires seven to ten days and includes many of the same sights as the W trek, only it continues on to the northern, less frequented side of the Paine Massif, where, among other highlights, you’ll catch sweeping views of the Southern Patagonian Ice Cap from John Gardner pass. Camping is required on the full circuit, which weeds out many visitors, and depending on the time of year, you may not see another hiker for days.
Patagonia’s weather is notoriously bad. Be prepared for raging snowstorms, 80-mile-per-hour winds, and torrential rain, all in a day. Weather-wise, the best season to visit the park is December through February, though this is also the busiest time, and it’s necessary to book refugios far in advance. Traveling during the shoulder seasons, October, November and March, April, is a good alternative if you’re up for more capricious weather and hope to find yourself alone on the trails. No permits are necessary for hiking the circuits, just register at the park’s headquarters, but special permission from the Chilean embassy in your home country is required to rock climb in the park. Other highlights of the region include kayaking among icebergs in Lake Grey and horseback riding at Cerro Guido, the second largest sheep estancia in the region, where local gauchos, Chilean cowboys, will offer an inside look at life on the Patagonian steppe and sweeping views of one of the wildest and most desolate landscapes on the planet.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Located in Chile’s arid northern region, the Atacama Desert is a landscape like no other on the planet. Six hundred miles of sienna-hued desert roll out in every direction from San Pedro de Atacama, a 2,500-person outpost town first settled over 10,000 years ago and now the region’s tourist hub. Pink flamingoes laze in the desert’s massive salt flats, which give way to several 20,000-foot snowcapped volcanoes that line the eastern flank of the desert in the distance.
Sitting at an elevation of about 8,000 feet, the Atacama Desert is the highest and driest non-polar desert in the world, averaging roughly one millimeter of rain per year.
Though the landscape is stark, it teems with beauty and adventure. It’s almost overwhelming to try and navigate all of the region’s activities—hiking, mountain biking, climbing volcanoes—on your own, which makes staying at Tierra Atacama, a luxury eco lodge located about half a mile from San Pedro’s main strip, all the more appealing. Incoming guests meet with one of the hotel’s lead guides, who customizes an itinerary of activities for each visitor during their stay. Try mountain biking in Moon Valley, an 80-mile canyon made of sand and salt that the wind and water has shaped into a maze of caves, crystallized salt formations, and sand dunes, which you can also snowboard down. Or, hike three miles through the Guatin Puritama, a sliver of oasis that winds through the desert, past ancient settlements and 100-year-old human-sized cacti, and leads to the Puritama Gorge, where visitors can soak in geothermal hot springs, which have been used for centuries by Atacameños for their medicinal properties.
After exploring the region, recover in luxury at the 32-room Tierra Atacama, which sits within the original adobe walls of an old cattle corral built 150 years ago. Tierra Atacama’s design echoes the traditional Atacamenan design. Channels of water flow through the property are part of the traditional “water sharing” system that sustained the villages during many years and support an herb and vegetable garden. Kick back around the pool, admiring the Martian landscape from a chair. Or enjoy a unique facial or body wrap that uses mineral-rich volcanic mud, lithium-filled sand and herbs from the surrounding desert. Come night, gather around one of the hotel’s fire pits, and look up at the stars, one of the best places on the planet for stargazing (the world’s largest observatory, ALMA, opened nearby in 2011), and see the Milky Way as you’ve never seen it before—clearly defined and stretching luminously across the night sky.