By Laura King
Located at the southern tip of South America, and shared by Argentina and Chile, Patagonia is that sparse, otherworldly place you see on postcards and ads for activewear. It's bordered by the Andes mountains, the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Atlantic Ocean in the east. Most people who visit Patagonia spend weeks here, traversing its vast landscapes – mountains, beaches, deserts, fjords, and glaciers. Some even spend the $20K for a boat trip across to Antarctica. This is where the world ends, and those who come here want to take it all in.
Of course, that's not to say it's impossible to do Patagonia in two days. Crazy, yes. But not impossible.
The first thing you'll need to know is that Latam Airlines Chile has just announced it will be adding two extra flights per week between Santiago and Puerto Natales, during peak summer months. This is significant; Puerto Natales is only 112km from Torres del Paine National Park (where all those stunning photos of Patagonia you've seen are taken). To get there, normally you'd have to take a flight into Santiago, then another flight to Punta Arenas (around 3.5 hours) and then hire a car and drive to Puerto Natales (around 3 hours). Latam's new flight significantly reduces that travel time – currently, there are no other commercial flights to Puerto Natales. The new flights kick off December 6, and will run until February 25, 2017.
Puerto Natales sits in a protected bay against the backdrop of the Patagonian Andes. This is usually first stop for any Patagonian novice: there's the Paine Massif, the Las Torres towers, which reach 2,500m above sea level, and Torres del Paine's surrounding glaciers, lakes, rivers, and hiking trails.
Once you get there, The Singular Hotel is where you'll want to put up for the night (or nights). Set on 100 acres lining the Fjord of Last Hope, this stunning luxury hotel was once a thriving sheep farm, and has been restored by fourth generation family members of the original pioneers who settled the area. Half of it functions as a museum: there are long, dimly-lit hallways filled with century-old machinery and a functioning wood dock where guests can embark on cruises to see nearby glaciers.
Aside from The Singular's custom-made furniture, luxurious beds, on-site wellness spa, fully-stocked restaurant serving local produce – including Patagonian hare, lamb, and the spritely guanaco, a camelid native to South America – the best thing about staying here is the team of dedicated local guides who can take guests to places not easily accessed by other tour companies. There are horseback riding tours, cruises, kayaking trips, birdwatching tours. But really, if you're going to come all this way – and you only have two days, remember – then you're going to just take the standard Torres del Paine tour, a jam-packed, 14-hour driving tour that takes you to see the best of the best of the national park. And if you're thinking that you're going to be in the car the whole time, wrong – there's plenty of trekking through the mud, up mountains, near glaciers, and across the world's windiest beach.
The tour has a sharp 8am departure time. The Singular doesn't just have good guides – the hotel also keeps a pristine fleet of swift, comfortable minivans. Once inside, you'll head northward to the national park, passing through several lookouts with stunning views of the Paine Massif. Once in the park, you'll head to Grey Lake beach, where you'll embark on what is possibly the hardest stroll of your life. This beach is usually windy – there are three major waterways converging in this one spot – but if you're unlucky enough to stumble onto a patch of unfavorable weather (read: a thunderstorm) then this is going to be the hardest 40 minutes of your life. You'll barely have time to glance at the icebergs calving from the nearby glacier as you trudge into the hurricane winds, your body swerving unceremoniously against the forces of nature as you try to remain upright. Your face and body will be pelted by water, rock, salt, ice, and about halfway through this walk you'll wish you never came here. But at the end, when the winds calm, you'll make your way up a short peak to a lookout with one of the best views in the entire park. Then it's back across the same beach (this time you'll be a little more buoyed by the sense of adventure) before a quick drive to the best part of the day: lunch. The Singular guides pack their own food from the restaurant, and if the day is nice enough, you'll eat outside. If not, you'll stop at one of the park's charming rustic eateries, where the guides will prep a feast.
Next, you'll drive to see the Big Falls (Salto Grande), stopping at various lookouts on the way to see the Horns (Los Cuernos) as well as the Nordenskjold, Sarmiento, and Pehoé lakes. There are plenty of opportunities to spot local fauna, including Nandus – American ostriches – foxes and guanacos.
You'll probably end up back at The Singular around 9 or 10 am; if you're not too tired, you can eat dinner in the hotel's impressive, stylish restaurant (with its own fireplace) or, if your sense of adventure persists, head to the hotel's traditional Patagonian BBQ in its own separate restaurant. The asado including entrées, dessert, and drinks – but really it's all about the ten or so different types of meat. Try not to fall asleep on your lamb shoulder.
The next day, it's up again for an 8am departure on of the hotel's boat tours, which will set sail towards the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. On the way, you'll see the Balmaceda Glacier before landing at Port Toro, where you'll take a quick 45-minute hike (add an extra excruciating hour to this if it's still raining) to see the magnificent Serrano Glacier. Upon returning to the boat, the tour will head towards the La Peninsula Ranch, where you'll enjoy a typical Patagonian lunch while drying off and, when you're full, you'll be whisked outside for a jaw-dropping horseback ride around the surrounding countryside.
Et voila – Patagonia in two days. And they said it couldn't be done.