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Paradise in Patagonia: How I made a dream South America trip happen in the age of omicron

Feb. 03, 2022
15 min read
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I live north of the equator — and always have.

Whenever I travel south of that imaginary line bisecting the globe, it feels like entering a different world. After all, the Southern Hemisphere is not only more remote, but it also has less landmass, more ocean and fewer people. Not to mention, there are fewer flights to the region.

As a child (and yes, even now), it fascinates me that there is somewhere on this planet where the seasons are the complete opposite.

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With this in mind, I was excited to finally fulfill my yearslong dream of exploring the vast beauty and rugged landscapes of South America — specifically, the Chilean fjords of Patagonia — for the first time.

I wrote about this vision to visit nearly two years ago. And here I was, manifesting it into reality. Let's dive in to see how I did it -- and you can, too.

The retreating Balmaceda Glacier in southern Chile. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

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Why Patagonia?

First, I want to say that traveling during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with the omicron variant still present, is not without risk.

However, Chile happens to be one of the most highly vaccinated countries in the world, with more than 90% of its population fully vaccinated as of January. Additionally, the country has strict entry protocols in place, including a series of steps intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, though they're admittedly a bit cumbersome.

Santiago is likely your first stop before arriving at Chilean Patagonia. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Related: Why I ‘broke’ quarantine in Chile — and what it’s like entering the country now

Patagonia is one of the many crown jewels of Chile, a country that has an incredible array of natural wonders, from the Atacama Desert in the north to the glaciers that serve as Antarctica's gateway in the south.

The decades-old clothing brand of the same name has elevated its prominence, but it's long been a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and, really, anyone eager to experience Earth's majesty.

And boy, is it majestic.

 

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Now I know why everyone who visits Patagonia raves about it.

The region is shaped by some of the world's greatest geographical (and geological) influences, including the soaring Andes Mountains, the fault line that lies beneath them and the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which converge at Cape Horn.

Plus, it encompasses an area that is incredibly vast. In fact, all of Patagonia spans more than 400,000 square miles, making it approximately twice the size of Italy. As such, the region is home to all kinds of breathtaking sights, ranging from glacier fields and ice caps to mountains, volcanoes and lakes.

Needless to say, it's impressive.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

With less than five full days in the area, I knew I'd have to make some tough choices about what to see and do during my visit.

Ultimately, I selected the area near Puerto Natales to be my home base for the entirety of my stay. With a direct flight from Santiago's Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport (SCL) and easy access to numerous attractions (including the famed Torres del Paine National Park and the jaw-dropping Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers), Puerto Natales just made a lot of sense.

How I got there

Getting to Puerto Natales from Santiago is no easy feat. That said, it is possible thanks to Teniente Julio Gallardo Airport (PNT).

There are small airports, and then there is Puerto Natales' airport.

The one-gate facility began domestic commercial operations in 2016 and only serves the region during the summer season. To get a sense of just how infrequent flights are, the three-hour journey to and from Chile's capital of Santiago doesn't even operate daily.

However, all is not lost if you are flying into the area and need more options. A larger option, Presidente Carlos Ibáñez del Campo International Airport (PUQ), is located about 140 miles southeast of Puerto Natales in Punta Arenas.

Taking the bus to Punta Arenas. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

While I arrived in Puerto Natales by flying nonstop on LATAM, I departed from Punta Arenas on Chile's low-cost carrier, JetSmart. Getting to Punta Arenas' airport was straightforward enough — all that was required was an approximately three-hour ride via Bus-Sur or Buses Fernandez, two local bus operators that offer Puerto Natales-Punta Arenas routes multiple times per day. The ride itself was pleasant enough, and tickets were affordable at $10 each way.

Hiking Torres del Paine National Park

Once I landed in Puerto Natales, I immediately set out to start my hiking adventure in Torres del Paine National Park.

Don't get me wrong: I love hiking. From climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park to completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing in New Zealand, I'm always up for an adventure.

However, I am not a fan of camping. The idea of pooping in the woods is terrifying to me. Please give me a toilet seat; it doesn't even have to be heated.

Torres del Paine has long been on my bucket list, as it offers some of the most iconic trekking in the world, so I knew I'd have to eventually find a way to deal with my reluctance to camp. Thankfully, Torres del Paine offers refugios (Patagonia’s version of hiking hostels) for those who'd rather not sleep in a tent while trekking through the area, so I decided to take advantage of these the two nights I stayed in the park.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Each day brought a variety of opportunities to hike. While I could've opted for one (or more) of the park's famous multiday hikes, which include the W trail (shaped like a letter "W") and the O trail (a loop around the park), I decided to stick to hiking for a day at a time. This led to me trying out a couple of impressive single-day treks, such as the challenging Mirador Las Torres hike.

The path to Torres del Paine's iconic granite towers isn't a simple stroll in the park. Lasting about eight hours, the strenuous out-and-back trek requires climbing over boulders at times, but its awe-inspiring views are some of the best I've ever encountered while hiking, making it more than worth the effort.

Glacier adventures, horseback riding and more

Although you can spend days in Torres del Paine and barely scratch the surface, the area near Puerto Natales isn't just about this park.

I allotted one of my days to visiting the Balmaceda and Serrano glaciers, which sit in the southern part of Bernardo O'Higgins National Park. As the largest national park in Chile, Bernardo O'Higgins is incredibly isolated, requiring a boat or helicopter to reach. I chose to arrive by boat.

The wind whipped ferociously during my daytrip, but I caught panoramic views of both glaciers.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

I also decided to take advantage of a day of clear skies and mild temperatures — which you'll most likely encounter in summer, though Patagonia's weather can be quite unpredictable — by opting for a horseback riding excursion at an estancia (or ranch).

It was my first time on a horse, and wow, was this the perfect place to try it out. The views in every direction were breathtaking.

An additional hike called Mirador Dorotea is available closer to town, too, should you find yourself craving another trek on foot. The short (but very windy and steep) trek takes no more than 15 minutes to reach by taxi from Puerto Natales. Keep in mind, though, that it sits on private land, so you'll need to pay the owner a small fee to access his land.

From the top, I enjoyed a panoramic vista of Puerto Natales and the fjords farther afield.

Staying at The Singular Patagonia

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

After my stay in Torres del Paine, I returned to Puerto Natales to bed down at a property about an hour away from the park's entrance: The Singular Patagonia.

This landmark hotel was my home base for two nights and is by far the most luxe property in town. It was the ideal place to unwind after days of hiking and outdoor activities.

Affiliated with IHG Hotels & Resorts through its partnership with Mr and Mrs Smith, The Singular Patagonia lets you theoretically use IHG points to book a stay. Unfortunately, there was no award night availability during my visit.

Instead of using points, I paid for my room with my Chase Sapphire Preferred Card to earn 5 points per dollar spent in the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

History of the property

The elevator-like funicular that takes you to check-in. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

The hotel certainly is unique, to say the least.

Housed in a converted cold storage plant from the early 20th century that was designated a Chilean national monument in 1996, the property honors its unique history while offering a comfortable place to sleep in Patagonia.

You'll instantly feel like you've traveled back in time upon arrival. Everything from old railroad tracks to an abandoned dock to enormous steam engines are on display throughout the property, making it a must-see for history buffs, even if you're not staying the night.

In fact, you can take a tour of the hotel to learn about its incredible history when you're not busy riding the funicular to and from the lobby.

The room

The entire property is a feast for the eyes, including the 54 guest rooms and suites.

On the way to the rooms, you'll notice an unconventional blend of stainless steel, slatted wood and exposed concrete that effortlessly draws inspiration from both the property's industrial past and its outdoorsy location.

Once inside, you'll discover traditional furnishings and decor that add to the charm of the space, though the love seat could use an update.

As an aviation geek, I appreciated the piece of art that hung beside the bed.

In the black-and-white print, German aviator and aerial explorer Gunther Plüschow — who is best known for being the first to take photos of Cape Horn and Torres del Paine, among other places in South America — is seen loading up his aircraft.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

The view is what steals the show, though. From my floor-to-ceiling window, I could see Last Hope Sound and the property's now-defunct dock, where goods were placed on ships heading to England a century ago.

Amenities

While the on-site amenities were, understandably, limited due to the property's remote location, they were all exceptional.

The ambiance of the small spa and pool — which offer sweeping views of Last Hope Sound — truly elevated the hotel to another level.

Loaner bikes are available to all guests, providing a convenient way to explore the immediate area. I thoroughly enjoyed my several-mile bike ride to and from town, which included a picturesque view of the water.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

A stunning bar and restaurant area completed the luxury experience, serving as the ideal place to spend an evening after a long day of hiking.

Every morning, guests have access to a vast breakfast selection. Highlights include freshly cured salmon and an array of cheeses and meats sourced from nearby farms.

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

I also sampled the dinner menu during my stay. Unsurprisingly, it more than exceeded my expectations. The Patagonian lamb carpaccio was exquisite, and the rich seafood stew was the perfect way to refuel after an active day outdoors.

Tips to remember when planning your trip

(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)

Before you book your trip to the Chilean part of Patagonia, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The weather is unpredictable, even in the summer season, causing tours to get canceled or rescheduled at times. You'll likely have to adjust your plans once you arrive, so make sure your itinerary is flexible.
  • There's a lot of space between attractions, meaning you'll want to focus on one area if you're planning a short visit. For a trip lasting a week or longer, also consider spending some time in Argentine Patagonia. While the land border was closed during my visit, it has reopened as of Jan. 1.
(Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)
  • Although it's best practice to book tours and hikes as far in advance as possible, there are many Puerto Natales outlets that let you simply walk in and book upon arrival. Avoid using third parties and instead try to book directly with an agency.
  • While you may not initially think of Puerto Natales as a destination offering nightlife, there are some spots worth checking out when you have an afternoon or evening free. I particularly enjoyed the Last Hope Distillery, a bar and distillery owned by a friendly Aussie that has an impressive selection of gins and whiskeys.

Bottom line

Travel isn't just about the sheer beauty of a destination or the eclectic energy of a metropolis and its people. It's also about this innate feeling of self-discovery, whatever that may mean for you.

I've always dreamed of visiting South America's Patagonia, as it felt like this mysterious underworld on the other side of the equator. I made that dream a reality, even amid the pandemic — and you can, too, with a little bit of luck and a lot of planning.

My flight home to New York. (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)
Featured image by (Photo by Chris Dong/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
3XEarn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
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    For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening

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  • Annual Fee

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Why We Chose It

The Citi Premier’s 3 points per dollar spent across a wide range of popular categories is one of the more lucrative offerings in the world of points and miles. The Citi Premier comes with a $95 annual fee and is currently offering a solid sign up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 on purchases within the first three months. It also has some valuable transfer partners to make the most of your rewards. Add in access to Citi Entertainment plus a $100 hotel credit for any single-stay hotel booking that exceeds $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through the Citi travel website, there are few reasons why the Citi Premier should not be in every traveler’s wallet.

Pros

  • Earns 3x points on restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, air travel and hotels.
  • $100 annual hotel savings benefit (on single hotel stay bookings of $500 or more, excluding taxes and fees, booked through thankyou.com)
  • Points transfer to 16 airline programs, from JetBlue to Virgin Atlantic.
  • World Elite Mastercard benefits, extended warranty, damage and theft protection.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • Lacks travel protections that other travel rewards cards come with
  • For a limited time, earn 80,000 bonus ThankYou® Points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets
  • Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Hotels
  • Earn 1 Point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Annual Hotel Savings Benefit
  • 80,000 Points are redeemable for $800 in gift cards when redeemed at thankyou.com
  • No expiration and no limit to the amount of points you can earn with this card
  • No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases