“You’re driving at the end of the world!” exclaimed my friend as I pulled our Jeep away from the Singular Hotel in Patagonia early one April morning. A quick look around confirmed that he had summed it up: The ice-topped fjords of Last Hope Sine stretched out on our right, while ahead, open road led the way from tiny Puerto Bories, Chile, to the famed Torres del Paine National Park. It was only Day One/Hour One of what was to be a five-day adventure and, already, civilization seemed a world away.
Spread out over the southern parts of Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is one of the most uninhabited and geologically unique regions in the world. Fjords, lakes, valleys, glaciers, pampas flatlands and dramatic sections of the Andes Mountains make up the area, which is also home to wildlife like the puma, condor, flamingo and the llama-esque guanaco. Given its remote setting and sometimes extreme conditions, Patagonia has typically attracted either adventurous travelers—hikers, bikers, kayakers and ice trekkers—or those who hop on daylong bus trips to the national park viewpoints. In recent years, new lodges have started catering to luxury travelers with spas, gourmet menus and private excursions, but you are still typically at the mercy of their timetables. Though there’s much to explore here, it’s been tough for visitors to do so on their own—until now.
Known for its luxury Galapagos cruises, Quasar Expeditions recently launched Wild Patagonia Jeep Adventures, which offer the freedom to get off the beaten path in your own 4x4, either with or without a guide/driver. The hotels and activities have been handpicked and the general framework is preset, but the pace—and intensity—is up to you; if you want to stop for a closer look at a flock of flamingos, or do a seven-hour hike to the base of the Towers or picnic glacier-side, no problem.
Though Patagonia had always been on my travel wish list, it was the opportunity to drive it that made me finally trek down south. My group of four opted for two Jeeps and the drive-with-a-guide option, so we were led by two Quasar experts, who briefed us upon our arrival at the Singular, an early 1900s cold-storage plant now transformed into a plush boutique hotel. The next morning, we got behind the wheels and set off for Torres del Paine National Park. This was our first taste of Patagonia in the daylight, and the grandiose beauty of the scenery—with the park’s iconic mountain towers looming ahead—was overwhelming. The Jeeps come equipped with audio systems, but that first day, my car kept things silent; as if by unspoken agreement amongst the group, no soundtrack seemed appropriate for all that splendor.
The next four days were spent exploring both the Chilean and Argentinean sides of Patagonia, which—though technically the same region—have very different feels. Highlights on the Chilean side included a hike across a rocky isthmus and up a hill for views of the vivid blue Grey Glacier, which floats in a lunar-looking lake, followed by warm rainfall showers and wine around the fireplace at Tierra Patagonia, an eco-chic hotel and spa on the black-sanded shores of Lake Sarmiento. A day and night at the secluded, lakeside Patagonia Camp, a collection of tented yurts (each with private bath and deck), afforded the opportunity to take a few breaths and really admire the surroundings. After a drive across the border (with passports stamped in two sleepy immigration shacks), it was on to the colorful town of El Calafate, Argentina, and the hilltop Relais & Châteaux Eolo hotel. There, homemade pastas, thick steaks and bottles of malbec shored us up for exploring the Perito Moreno glacier—an icy behemoth the size of Buenos Aires—whose dramatic peaks and valleys are a favorite with ice trekkers. You can take in the expanse of the glacier and learn about its history and geological makeup from a tiered viewpoint; or you can venture closer, and trek on the ice itself. Something about walking 90 minutes up (and worse, down) sharp, rain-slick ice—with nary a handrail in sight—seemed counterintuitive to the city girl in me, so after attempting a few baby steps, I opted out of the latter. Maybe after some refreshers on the ice rink, I’ll attempt the trek on a return trip to Patagonia—and thanks to Quasar’s driving experience, next time I’ll even know the way.
Quasar’s new Wild Patagonia Jeep Adventures include:
• The choice to drive with a private guide in the car, let the guide take the wheel or self-drive without accompaniment;
• Jeeps equipped with navigational systems, GPS multimedia devices, maps, snacks and walkie-talkies;
• An eight-day/seven-night itinerary, going from Puerto Natales, Chile, to Los Glaciares National Park in Argentina, then back to Torres del Paine National Park; and
• Daily activities, accommodations, most meals (some with alcohol), airport transfers and park fees. jeeppatagoniaexpeditions.com