Lake Pehoé, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile
The only five-star accommodation located within Torres del Paine National Park was created for travelers who love exploration and adventure as much as they love luxury.
When explora founder Pedro Ibáñez arrived on a low, windy rise above the shore of Lake Pehoé and laid eyes on the sparkling glacial lake and the iconic snow-caped mountain peaks beyond, he knew he had to bring other people to that spot. It was there that the explora mission was born: find a gorgeous location with ample opportunities for outdoor exploration and create a luxury adventure basecamp that allows others to fall in love with the place too.
Ibáñez opened explora Patagonia in 1993 on that same low, windy rise above the shore of Lake Pehoé after securing the right to build on 7.5 acres inside Torres del Paine National Park. It was the first luxury option in the area and the first explora in the group which now includes properties in Chile, Peru, and (soon) Argentina.
Designed by Chilean architect Germán del Sola, the structure, like all hotels run by this company, was built for its environment. At explora Patagonia, that means four fireplaces in communal spaces (explora Patagonia stays open year-round, including during the winter months), muted natural colors, open spaces, and, of course, huge windows.
You will be tempted to simply sit on a couch and watch the scenery change with the light and the clouds and the wind and it pays to keep an eye on the outdoors. Guests have seen pumas from the dining room, Andean condors nest on a cliff face near the hotel and often swoop past the building, and a female huemul deer sometimes wanders the grounds.
The property opened with 30 rooms and 19 more were added in a new wing. Thirty six of those 49 rooms are Cordillera Paine Rooms with 300 square feet of space and windows facing the lake and the peaks. Seven Salto Chico Rooms of the same size face away from the view, but were built over a small waterfall (called Salto Chico) that cascades out of Lake Pehoé, so if you like to drift to sleep lulled by the sound of falling water, those rooms are for you.
If you want more space, including a sitting area and larger bathroom, go for one of the six Exploradores Suites, which are 50% larger. In general, rooms on the third floor have bigger windows and rooms in the original wing have the best angle on the peaks.
All rooms are stylish, simple, and plush. The bathroom amenities are luscious and there are plenty of drawers and closets for unpacking and settling in. Lovely Moulie chocolates are a highlight at turn down and your lovely in-room amenity is a collection of small hardcover books. One covers the natural features of Patagonia, one covers the cultural history of Patagonia, and the third is a blank travel journal. Nice touch. There are no TVs in any of the rooms at explora Patagonia. That would be an insult to the view.
Thoughtful reminders of the outdoor focus of the place abound. There's a boot brush and soft chamois cloth in your closet so you can keep your boots and shoes clean. The do not disturb sign simply says "resting" as if after an epic adventure (or in preparation for one). There's a curious small square window in your bathroom that provides a view from the tub and another one placed above the sink where the mirror should be so that when you look up and expect to see your face what you see, instead, is that view again. The explora Patagonia offers more than 40 different excursions from virtually no impact (like lake tours in the hotel's boats) to full-day physical challenges on some of the most iconic hiking trails in Patagonia. These include full-day hikes along the three trails that make up the park's famous W Circuit.
The explora catamaran and a second small boat are docked on the lake at the pier below the hotel. Private boats not only ensure an explora level of service, they also mean that lodge guests can be transferred to boat-in-only trailheads before the public catamaran service arrives. This helps ensure that explora guests are on the trail before the crowds, which are an increasing problem in this over-loved park in high season.
Because company founder Ibáñez is an equestrian and a horse lover, the horseback riding excursions at explora Patagonia are a priority, not an afterthought. Horses are bred and trained at a facility near Santiago to ensure that there's a horse for every level and type of rider. Guides are hand selected to lead horseback excursions and receive special training. And a wide variety of rides means guests can choose an easy excursion or a challenging one based on their level of experience.
Snacks are always available before excursions including nuts, dried fruits, homemade energy bars, and water for refilling bottles. Sunscreen is also available. All explora guides have Wilderness First Responder training and all guides and staff speak English. Also, the privileged location inside the national park means you spend far less time in vans than those travelers coming from lodges outside the park.
Another hallmark of explora properties is the well-stocked on-site Patagonia store. If you forget your rain pants or need a better sun hat (both of which you might need in the same day thanks to famously changeable Patagonian weather), you can stock up at the same price you'd pay in the US.
Not surprisingly, explora Patagonia embraces ecological measures. For example, the slippers in your room have biodegradable soles. There are no plastic water bottles (guests receive a metal water bottle to refill). All water is purified using UV light and filtration. And all wood used during construction came from naturally fallen trees.
The property is currently making further moves toward sustainability in order to become the first hotel in the area with certified B Corp status. This requires balancing social and environmental responsibility with explora's financial goals. Among other things, the lodge will be taking salmon off the menu because of concerns over fish farming. They are installing a new natural gas generator to replace the existing diesel generator and working with members of indigenous groups to begin displaying and selling their traditional crafts. The spa facility has a sauna, massage rooms (treatments are not included in rates), and a mini-fridge stocked with sodas, water, and sparkling wine (another nice touch). There's also a heated indoor lap pool and five Jacuzzis for relaxing and rehabbing tired muscles. Unfortunately, the water in the pool and the Jacuzzis was often murky and uninviting when I was there and four of the Jacuzzis are located outside in the full glare of the very strong sun.
Instead, I urge you to walk down the narrow dock that juts out from the spa and jump into the lake that forms below the Salto Chico waterfall. The glacier-fed lake is between 38 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit and after a hot, sweaty activity this plunge is a shock to the system in the best way.
Rates at all explora properties are super all-inclusive including accommodation, all food, all activities, beer, wine, and cocktails (a few top shelf offerings are excluded). All meals here in Patagonia take place during set hours. Breakfast is an ample buffet with a menu of additional to-order options including eggs and pancakes.
All other meals are ordered off a changing menu offering three entrée options, three main course options, and dessert options. During my stay, standout dishes included a salad of tender and mild king crab in a flavorful yogurt dressing topped with microgreens and lamb chops with mushroom risotto. Vegetarians and those with other dietary needs are also very well accommodated. Portions are not huge because explora is committed to reducing food waste. However, if you're still hungry there is no shame in ordering a second portion.
Around 7:00 each evening, small appetizers are passed around and the well-stocked bar becomes a focal point as guests and guides discuss the following day's adventures over a cocktail, Chilean craft beer, or glass of Chilean wine. In that way, one day slips into another at explora Patagonia with tales of adventures past, present, and future forged in a place that makes it all even more blissful.
Web Address: www.explora.com/patagonia-hotel
Total Number of Rooms: 49
Rates: $2,236 to $7,976 double occupancy 4-night all-inclusive package
Review by Karen Catchpole, photos by Eric Mohl.