October 25, 2011

An escape to Patagonia: How this incredibly beautiful, remote place cured my soul.

An escape to Patagonia:  How this incredibly beautiful, remote place cured my soul.

~Nicole Melancon (an original post series on thirdeyemom)

The lore of Patagonia

Hidden at the far southern tip of Chile is Punta Arenas, a dramatic, windswept Patagonian town that has managed to survive centuries despite its fierce climate. In the heart of the town lays the Plaza de Armas, which holds the glorious bronze statue of Ferdinand Magellan, the great explorer who discovered the Strait of Magellan in 1520. When looking at the statue, your eyes are drawn to the feet where the toes are rather polished instead of worn. Local legend says that anyone who rubs these toes will return to Puenta Arenas someday.

Bronze statue of Ferdinand Magellan, October 2003.

I had always dreamed of going to Patagonia. After many earlier travels focusing on Europe, I had longed for something different and off the beaten path. Furthermore, the concept of going to the end of the earth intrigued me immensely. I was not alone.

Patagonia has captivated and inspired the imagination of explorers and travelers for centuries. Geographically, Patagonia is one of the most remote places on earth. Located on the Southern tip of Chile and Argentina, and only 621 miles from Antarctica, Patagonia feels like it is at the end of the world. Patagonia’s remote and utter isolation combined with its spectacular scenery has added to its mystique. It is truly a magical place that is relatively untouched by man.

Like other adventurers who visited Patagonia, I had desperately wanted an escape from the hectic pace of modern-day life. My husband Paul and I longed to go to a faraway place where we could find peace and only have our minds, our bodies and our souls as our guide. Patagonia seemed like the perfect refuge.

After extensive research, Paul and I found the perfect destination for our Patagonian trip: The world-renowned Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Known as Chile’s prize jewel, Torres del Paine is located about 216 miles northwest of Punta Arenas and is one of the most beautiful national parks in the world. Many people consider the park to be in a league of its own; few parks are as magnificent as Torres del Paine. We had found our refuge. Next we had to figure out what we were going to do.

There are many ways to see the park depending on your level of fitness, adventure and budget. For us, it was an easy choice. We wanted to see the park on foot. Doing a multi-day trek had been a goal of ours for years and we had found the ideal place. The dramatic scenery of the park—snow-capped mountains, emerald lakes and rivers, awe-inspiring glaciers and Patagonian rainforest—set the perfect location for a weeklong trek. All we had to do before booking our trip was find our guide.

Finding the perfect adventure travel outfitter for a trek in another country can be a daunting task, especially if you have language barriers and budget concerns. Luckily for us, we knew exactly what we wanted: A local company and guide. When we travel, we like to go with the locals as we both find the experience much more meaningful. It also is so much more cultural and definitely beats being with a bunch of Americans (no offense but we can find plenty of them at home!).

On the internet, we found a Chilean tour company called Cascada Expedicionnnes that looked very promising. After reviewing their website, I was hooked. The guides were almost all from Patagonia, the trek was exactly what we were looking for, and the price was right. Best of all, the daily hikes looked absolutely breathtaking. We signed up for the last week in October 2003, which would be the fourth week of the park’s opening for the season, and then we were off.

We left Minneapolis after working a half-day (exhausting in itself, yet we Americans don’t seem to get enough vacation days!) and caught a four o’clock out on American Airlines to Dallas-Forth Worth Airport where we then caught a 10 pm flight to Santiago, Chile. We didn’t arrive at our hotel in Santiago until 11 am the next morning, tired and stiff from being crammed like a sardine for ten hours straight. Yet the nice thing is that flying south has no jet lag (unlike going east or west to Europe or Asia) so we were able to adjust quite soon.

We had a light breakfast and then were off on a half-day tour of Santiago with our hired tour guide Alejandro, who ended up being quite a character. I had read in our Frommer’s guidebook that Santiago is certainly a hodge-podge of different types of architecture. In some parts of town, you are immersed in modernity and surrounded by skyscrapers while a few streets down you find yourself surrounded by old, historical mansions. There is definitely a lot of French influence in the architecture of the city and less Spanish influence than I would have imagined.

Our first stop of the tour was to the lovely Metropolitan park where we took a gondola up to the peak and saw the grand, bird’s-eye view of Santiago and unfortunately its smog:


Photo above of my husband Paul on top of the peak overlooking Santiago.

We walked down the nice path back to town, marveling at all the Chilean joggers running up and down the hill for a workout, and then we did a three-hour city tour of the main points of interest in Santiago. I must have been quite tired (or else just not that impressed) because I only have two photos of our city tour of Santiago.


Photo of Paul and I “somewhere” in Santiago. I did like Santiago much more than Lima but it paled in comparison to the sensational Buenos Aires which I would visit a few years later


Photo above of the Metropolitan Cathedral located in the main square, Plaza de Armas.

After our tour, we were completely wiped out. I was surprised we had even lasted that long on so little sleep yet somehow or another we managed to catch a second wind and explore the city for hours. We relaxed at our peaceful boutique hotel, called The Orly Hotel, over a bottle of Chilean Sauvingon Blanc and then proceeded to be the first arrivals at dinner at 7 pm (apparently Chileans eat late like the Europeans thus 9 or 10 pm is considered normal).

It was lights out early because we had another long day ahead of us. Two flights all the way south to the small town of Puenta Arenas, at the tip of Southern Patagonia. We couldn’t wait!

Stay tuned…next post will document the start of our Patagonian adventure and I promise to not disappoint…there will be loads more pictures of this magical place!

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