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Even as the world has gotten smaller and more familiar, dramatic Patagonia retains a feeling of being truly far away. Hikers in Torres del Paine, with the three granite peaks that give the park its name in the distance. Internet Explorer 9 or earlier. Go to the home page to see the latest top stories. AFTER four hours of strenuous hiking, we had only just reached the bottom of the Torres del Paine.
We sat down, panting, and looked across a glassy, marble-green lake at the summits, reaching more than 9,000 feet into the sky. Despite their size, being so near to them felt strangely intimate. Patagonia, the roughly 490,000-square-mile area at the southern end of South America shared between Chile and Argentina, had been on my wish list for more than 20 years. Encompassing the southern reach of the Andes and stretching toward the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, it contains windswept countryside, spectacular glacial lakes and mountain ranges. Then recently, the news that Chile was trying to put together one of the most impressive and far-reaching networks of private and public parks in the world made it even more appealing. And last year two luxury resorts opened on the Chilean side of Patagonia, something that hadn’t happened in a decade. I knew the time had come.
A hiker walks among the remains of a forest that burned a year ago in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia. Patagonia is at the end of the earth, and it feels like it — especially with a 2-year-old in tow. First, we took an overnight flight from Houston to Santiago. Torres del Paine National Park until you get to the start of the trails.
But the length of the journey actually felt romantic. Along the flat, straight road from Punta Arenas we would go an hour without seeing anything but sheep up to their bellies in yellow grass, or maybe a lone farmhouse or a single gaucho followed by a pack of dogs. Since Bruce Chatwin’s days, the world has gotten much smaller and more familiar, and yet Patagonia retains an anachronistic feeling of being truly far away. Of course, development has crept in, and the impact of more visitors than ever before is evident, especially on the more popular trails. It was in this park, just over a year ago, that a hiker started a devastating wildfire that burned at least 27,000 acres of parkland.
When we got there in early February, the park had reopened, albeit with miles and miles of blackened scars. A waterfall in Torres del Paine National Park. We didn’t go immediately to the park. Our first stop was the Singular Patagonia hotel, about an hour from the park’s entrance, in a former meatpacking plant dating from 1915.
The building sits next to the town of Puerto Natales, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out onto the Fjord of Last Hope. A 10-year restoration project brought free-standing tubs and king-size beds to a building that still feels somewhat stark, with long corridors that wind past massive iron relics of the industrial age. Adding to the feeling of end-of-the-worldness, a near-constant wind seems to whistle through the rooms as waves crash along a wooden dock. The pioneer settlers who came here with their flocks in the late 19th century faced winters that would cut them off from the rest of the world for months at a time, and even now, despite heated floors and excellent food, the weather still rules. So we chose a horseback ride, a bracing and exhilarating expedition along the hills next to Lake Sofia, where the clouds seemed to chase the sun across the sky.