In the seminal travel memoir, In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin christened that stretch of our planet known for its sprawling fields, majestic peaks and frigid fjords that is Patagonia, “the far end of the world.” Eurocentric though the pronouncement may be, one can imagine then that Patagonia is not the easiest place for most of us to get to. There’s good news: the pilgrimage to one of the most ineffably breathtaking places on earth just got that much easier to make. On December 6, 2016, South America’s largest airline, LATAM, launched a seasonal direct flight that departs Chile’s capital Santiago to Puerto Natales, the small town at the mouth of Chilean Patagonia.
How did one get to Patagonia, say from New York, before the launch of the direct flight? LATAM operates a route from JFK to Santiago, one on which the culinary enthusiast can be assured of a delicious voyage in the airline’s premium business class cabin. (LATAM famously celebrates the richness of the Latin American region through the careful selection and preparation of local ingredients paired with wines from the southern cone curated by their master sommelier). Then, from Santiago the journey typically involved a three-hour flight to Punta Arenas followed by a three or so more hours driving up the poetically (and quite literally) named Ruta Del Fin Del Mundo (Road to The End of The World) to Puerto Natales. With LATAM offering four weekly direct flights (operated by Airbus A320) from Santiago to Puerto Natales during the peak summer months of January and February, at least 4 hours of trip time have been shaved off. All of this is to say, there truly is no excuse not to be awed by Patagonia while the skies are likely to to be storybook blue and the air is still crisp but a tad less hawkish.
Why must you experience Patagonia? Of course because it is home to Torres Del Paine National Park, the fifth most beautiful place on earth according to National Geographic, but the real question is how must you see Patagonia? I can think of no more singular way to bask in the splendor of the region than with, well, The Singular Hotel, Patagonia. What is is singular about Patagonia is the sense of a frozen time, almost primordial, that pervades the area. The Singular Hotel preserves this feeling in its century old structure, a partially renovated and completely rustic former cold storage plant set on the banks of the Fjord of Last Hope.
The hotel offers packages that include excursions and expeditions throughout the highlights of Chilean Patagonia: The Cueva del Milodón monument (Milodon Caves), where in 1985 the skin (and other parts) of the giant ground sloth which inspired Chatwin’s sojourn to the Magellan region were first found; horse-back riding against the backdrop of the Patagonian Andes and of course, a full guided immersion into Torres del Paine National Park. Oh, the park is impressive enough, but hiking its terroir with the hotel’s sartorially-daring guide, Chinchien, in his Basque hat, totting his ever-present cup of yerba mate, is the sort of detail that makes a trip like this indelible in one’s heart.
Torres del Paine’s vast terrain ranges from the sublime Paine Massif and Las Torres mountains to the black pebble shores of Lago Grey, a rolling lake in which two artic blue mounds of glacial ice insouciantly sit. How incredible it is to see this rushing body of water beating urgently against the stony shore, juxtaposed with the two masses of frozen water which will not be moved. And, speaking of glaciers, the hotel also organizes a boat navigation tour of the fjords to the Serrano and Balmaceda glaciers, complete with warming glasses of whiskey chilled by a shard of glacier ice for the ride: another activity not to be missed!
Yet, a well-planned trip to Patagonia should involve as much inactivity as it does activity: here again is where the Singular stands apart with its offerings. In each of its rooms, the beds face an endless view of the fjords afforded by a ceiling-to-floor window that breaks the fourth wall between the indoors and untamed nature. Without doubt, my favorite thing to “do” at The Singular Patagonia was to do nothing: to lie in bed and watch that magical interregnum between night and light as the day dawned. The hotel also boasts a petite spa which houses an inside-outside pool overlooking the dock and fjords. From the inside pool one can swim beneath the glass partition to the outside and listen to the wild geese call as they scuttle about in close proximity. Yes, the experience is every bit as stereotypically idyllic as it sounds.
And then there’s the food! In the hotel’s restaurant, from the talented hands of award-winning chef Laurent Pasqualetto, one can taste Patagonia’s treasures. Chile is the second largest salmon producing country in the world and the flavor and suppleness of the tranches of cured salmon served at The Singular come only second to those which I tasted in flight on LATAM. The restaurant’s menu is expansive with dishes ranging from bounty of the land like Patagonian hare, lamb, and guanaco—an indigenous mammal similar to the llama whose meat is thick and gamey— to fruits of the sea such South-American King crab and charred octopus. Wash all of this adventurous eating down with a glass of Carménère, the full-bodied Chilean red wine that flows copiously throughout the country, or a calafate or rhubarb sour— cocktails made from two typical fruits from the region—and your gourmandise vacation will go down as one of the best you’ve ever embarked upon.
Are you are dreaming of an escape from this hemisphere’s winter that carries a bit more gravitas than beach bumming? Somewhere at the far end of the world, there is flock of flamingos peacocking by some sliver of glimmering water, patiently awaiting your eyes to confirm that our planet truly is spectacular. The journey to Chilean Patagonia is worth each and every mile. LATAM airlines just made it easier for you to live this fantasy.