Exploring in Chile’s northern Patagonia

By Randy Keck
This item appears on page 87 of the March 2008 issue.
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The waterfront Termas de Puyuhuapi Hotel & Resort is nestled in splendid isolation.

In October 2007, a usage of bountiful AAdvantage miles (40,000) provided me the opportunity to visit, along with two friends, the northern Patagonia sector of Chile’s Region XI. The first three days of my journey, which was hosted by Chilean Special Journeys, involved visiting two of the area’s prime attractions, one constructed by innovate humans, the other a gift of nature.

Our morning flight from Santiago to Balmaceda via Puerto Montt arrived just before noon. The land transfer to Puerto Chacabuco, with a brief stop in the regional center of Coyhaique, revealed our first taste of the raw natural beauty of this sparsely populated region of Patagonia.

On arrival, we boarded a large Patagonia Connection catamaran for the 5-hour water transfer eastward out of Seno Aisén, then due north to our final destination, the isolated and understatedly luxurious Termas de Puyuhuapi Hotel & Resort.

En route we learned that the only other access to the resort is a rough, 6-hour 4-wheel-drive adventure through the Patagonian wilderness.

Termas de Puyuhuapi

The natural hot spring pools at Puyuhuapi are enticing 24/7. Photos: Keck

Upon our early-evening arrival, we were greeted on the dock by the enthusiastic resort staff and, after checking in, were provided with a brief tour of the resort’s amenities, including an impressive spa.

The rain did not deter my amigos and me from our declared destination, the three outdoor mineral hot spring pools located 150 meters from the main building and overlooking the tranquil bay. We languished in darkness in the solitude of the soothing springs, our long day’s journey justified beyond reproach.

The resort, with its striking buildings constructed of local hardwoods, blended well into the heavily forested landscape of the surrounding wilderness. The attractive rooms, excellent cuisine, the range of spa services and the hiking and other land- and water-based outdoor activity options allow all guests to be as active or leisurely as desired.

As a self-designated connoisseur or, perhaps stated more accurately, addict of the mineral hot springs experience, I was fascinated to learn, when advised by staff, that the Puyuhuapi hot springs are the only such pools at sea level on the planet.

Hot springs are universally found in mountainous or hilly areas at least some elevation above sea level. We enjoyed the outdoor pools on one afternoon and both evenings at the resort, preferring the natural setting to the indoor hot pool options at the spa.

Local exploring

The morning after our arrival, we took a tour by boat and bus to a small nearby village to visit a very small and basic but unique carpet factory.

Our catamaran Patagonia Express was both fast and comfortable.

All of the carpets were produced on old-fashioned hand looms, requiring much time and labor to complete. The styles were a bit rustic, for my tastes, but the quality was quite good, which was reflected by the pricing. Even in this remote southland outpost, the value of the U.S. dollar seems to have deteriorated beyond my most horrific imaginings.

Some folks went hiking, fishing or kayaking in the afternoon, but since the weather was still precarious and the visibility limited, we decided to continue luxuriating at the waterfront hot pools. We did not want to risk a hurry-up-and-relax situation later.

On to Laguna San Rafael

At this small carpet factory, all carpets are made on traditional looms.

I have visited numerous glaciers in Patagonia and beyond, but the glacier at Laguna San Rafael provided the most adventurous hands-on exposure by Zodiac that I have encountered to date.

On our final morning we departed Termas de Puyuhuapi at 0700, again on the large, comfortable Patagonia Connection Fast Cat. We would spend all day aboard, our trip including breakfast, lunch and dinner — all delicious.

We all took advantage of the boat’s spacious comfort, both in the upper deck lounging areas and the fully reclining, business-class-type seating on the lower deck.

On arrival at our southern destination, we were awed by the majesty of the magnificent Laguna San Rafael Glacier, which flows from the peaks of the high Andes westward toward the sea into the San Rafael Lagoon.

We soon suited up in cold-weather gear and boarded Zodiacs for an inspection of the glacier that, happily, I found much more up close and personal than anticipated.

The weather cooperated reasonably and we were able to spend well over an hour bumping our way along and through the floating ice block field that fronted the glacier. The shapes and hues were artistically awe-inspiring and the experience, as a whole, mesmerizing — a photographic Mecca.

Shrinking glaciers

While this glacier, like virtually all others on the planet, has shrunk considerably over the past several decades, the rate of annual reduction, fortunately, has slowed noticeably in recent years. It was, however, saddening to see a marker indicating the edge of the glacier in 1982 with which to compare its current declined level a mere quarter century later.

Exploring the Laguna San Rafael Glacier up close by Zodiac was an other-world type of experience.

The Laguna San Rafael Glacier experience is included in most of the Termas de Puyuhuapi packages, but it will also be part of a new one-week Patagonia tour on which I will report in my next column.

Termas de Puyuhuapi offers two 3-night and two 4-night packages and one 5-night package, all with different inclusions. The resort’s 3-night programs, all of which include transfers and meals, are priced from $1,000 to $1,620 per person, double occupancy, in low season and $1,120-$1,880, high season.

Santiago-based tour operator Chilean Special Journeys (phone 800/345-6077, e-mail info@chileanspecialjourneys or visit www.chileanspecialjourneys.com), an ITN advertiser, combines Puyuhuapi with other exciting Patagonia experiences and destinations throughout Chile, including Easter Island.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝ Behold the great walled frozen fortress
ennobled by fragile, deft defiance
of failed custodial trust
Endure this postulate
to age in timeless grandeur ❞
— Randy’s plea to the gods of nature and sanctity

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

The waterfront Termas de Puyuhuapi Hotel & Resort is nestled in splendid isolation.

In October 2007, a usage of bountiful AAdvantage miles (40,000) provided me the opportunity to visit, along with two friends, the northern Patagonia sector of Chile’s Region XI. The first three days of my journey, which was hosted by Chilean Special Journeys, involved visiting two of the area’s prime attractions, one constructed by innovate humans, the other a gift of nature.

Our morning flight from Santiago to Balmaceda via Puerto Montt arrived just before noon. The land transfer to Puerto Chacabuco, with a brief stop in the regional center of Coyhaique, revealed our first taste of the raw natural beauty of this sparsely populated region of Patagonia.

On arrival, we boarded a large Patagonia Connection catamaran for the 5-hour water transfer eastward out of Seno Aisén, then due north to our final destination, the isolated and understatedly luxurious Termas de Puyuhuapi Hotel & Resort.

En route we learned that the only other access to the resort is a rough, 6-hour 4-wheel-drive adventure through the Patagonian wilderness.

Termas de Puyuhuapi

The natural hot spring pools at Puyuhuapi are enticing 24/7. Photos: Keck

Upon our early-evening arrival, we were greeted on the dock by the enthusiastic resort staff and, after checking in, were provided with a brief tour of the resort’s amenities, including an impressive spa.

The rain did not deter my amigos and me from our declared destination, the three outdoor mineral hot spring pools located 150 meters from the main building and overlooking the tranquil bay. We languished in darkness in the solitude of the soothing springs, our long day’s journey justified beyond reproach.

The resort, with its striking buildings constructed of local hardwoods, blended well into the heavily forested landscape of the surrounding wilderness. The attractive rooms, excellent cuisine, the range of spa services and the hiking and other land- and water-based outdoor activity options allow all guests to be as active or leisurely as desired.

As a self-designated connoisseur or, perhaps stated more accurately, addict of the mineral hot springs experience, I was fascinated to learn, when advised by staff, that the Puyuhuapi hot springs are the only such pools at sea level on the planet.

Hot springs are universally found in mountainous or hilly areas at least some elevation above sea level. We enjoyed the outdoor pools on one afternoon and both evenings at the resort, preferring the natural setting to the indoor hot pool options at the spa.

Local exploring

The morning after our arrival, we took a tour by boat and bus to a small nearby village to visit a very small and basic but unique carpet factory.

Our catamaran Patagonia Express was both fast and comfortable.

All of the carpets were produced on old-fashioned hand looms, requiring much time and labor to complete. The styles were a bit rustic, for my tastes, but the quality was quite good, which was reflected by the pricing. Even in this remote southland outpost, the value of the U.S. dollar seems to have deteriorated beyond my most horrific imaginings.

Some folks went hiking, fishing or kayaking in the afternoon, but since the weather was still precarious and the visibility limited, we decided to continue luxuriating at the waterfront hot pools. We did not want to risk a hurry-up-and-relax situation later.

On to Laguna San Rafael

At this small carpet factory, all carpets are made on traditional looms.

I have visited numerous glaciers in Patagonia and beyond, but the glacier at Laguna San Rafael provided the most adventurous hands-on exposure by Zodiac that I have encountered to date.

On our final morning we departed Termas de Puyuhuapi at 0700, again on the large, comfortable Patagonia Connection Fast Cat. We would spend all day aboard, our trip including breakfast, lunch and dinner — all delicious.

We all took advantage of the boat’s spacious comfort, both in the upper deck lounging areas and the fully reclining, business-class-type seating on the lower deck.

On arrival at our southern destination, we were awed by the majesty of the magnificent Laguna San Rafael Glacier, which flows from the peaks of the high Andes westward toward the sea into the San Rafael Lagoon.

We soon suited up in cold-weather gear and boarded Zodiacs for an inspection of the glacier that, happily, I found much more up close and personal than anticipated.

The weather cooperated reasonably and we were able to spend well over an hour bumping our way along and through the floating ice block field that fronted the glacier. The shapes and hues were artistically awe-inspiring and the experience, as a whole, mesmerizing — a photographic Mecca.

Shrinking glaciers

While this glacier, like virtually all others on the planet, has shrunk considerably over the past several decades, the rate of annual reduction, fortunately, has slowed noticeably in recent years. It was, however, saddening to see a marker indicating the edge of the glacier in 1982 with which to compare its current declined level a mere quarter century later.

Exploring the Laguna San Rafael Glacier up close by Zodiac was an other-world type of experience.

The Laguna San Rafael Glacier experience is included in most of the Termas de Puyuhuapi packages, but it will also be part of a new one-week Patagonia tour on which I will report in my next column.

Termas de Puyuhuapi offers two 3-night and two 4-night packages and one 5-night package, all with different inclusions. The resort’s 3-night programs, all of which include transfers and meals, are priced from $1,000 to $1,620 per person, double occupancy, in low season and $1,120-$1,880, high season.

Santiago-based tour operator Chilean Special Journeys (phone 800/345-6077, e-mail info@chileanspecialjourneys or visit www.chileanspecialjourneys.com), an ITN advertiser, combines Puyuhuapi with other exciting Patagonia experiences and destinations throughout Chile, including Easter Island.

Keck's Beyond the Garden Wall

❝ Behold the great walled frozen fortress
ennobled by fragile, deft defiance
of failed custodial trust
Endure this postulate
to age in timeless grandeur ❞
— Randy’s plea to the gods of nature and sanctity