This post is part of a 2-part series. See Part 1: Happiness Is … Explora! An Escape to Patagonia, Chile.
What are explorations?
Of the many, many things I loved about my time at Explora Patagonia, the daily explorations definitely took first place. The hotel’s unrivalled location means that you are perfectly positioned to explore the Torres del Paine National Park either on foot or by horse. Explora encourages you to get out as much as possible, offering a number of half- or full-day ‘explorations’.
There are some 40 explorations in total that cover all areas of the park. The most popular walks are the trails of the famous W-Trek such as the Glacier Grey, the Valle del Francés (Frenchman’s Valley) and the hike to the base of the three torres (towers). The horse rides explore the southern and eastern areas of the park and take visitors through pampas (grasslands), rivers and lenga forests.
All the explorations are given a Difficulty Rating – Easy, Moderate, Advanced or Expert. Upon arrival, guests are encouraged to start with an Easy or Moderate trek and/or ride so that guides can assess their levels before advising them further.
Planning your explorations
Every evening before dinner, the guides and guests gather in the bar area for a drink and to plan the next day’s explorations. To narrow down the options, you begin by telling the guide whether you want to walk or ride, do a full day or half day, and whether you want an easy or challenging exploration. The guides then advise you accordingly. Once you’ve decided what you want to do, you simply ask one of the guides to sign you up!
Group sizes are kept to a maximum of 8 people and are led by one of Explora’s excellent guides.
Explorations for Kids
As I visited Patagonia without my children, I am unable to share their experiences. However, a couple of families who were staying with their children kindly talked to me about visiting Explora with kids. I wrote about their experiences here. In short, they only had very positive things to say!
I know my children would also have loved Explora. Although the full-day explorations would have been too much for them there are a handful of Easy / Moderate explorations I’m certain they would have enjoyed. One day i hope!
During my 5-night stay (4 full days and 2 half days) at Explora I enjoyed the the following explorations:
Half-day: a 4km walk, 2.5 hrs. Moderate
On my first afternoon I hiked to the top of a hill not far from the hotel. The 360-degree view stretched across most of the park, from Lake Pehoé (where Explora sits) to the Paine Massif and Lake Sarmiento. Perched on a rock on the summit were two friendly Caracara birds. Determined not to give up their prime vantage point, they allowed us to get within a couple of metres of them. Together we marvelled at this magnificent landscape as the sun began its descent behind the massif.
Explora Patagonia Explorations: Glacier Grey at the far end of Lake Grey
Full-day: a 12km walk (can be extended to 18km), 5.5 hrs. Moderate.
Our guide, Denis was determined to extend the walk by a few kilometres (according to our phone apps, we walked 18km) so that he could show us his favourite lunch spot on the shores of the Lake Grey, the lake that Glacier Grey creeps into. As a result, I found the trek quite fast-paced. I barely had a moment to unzip my backpack and access my trail mix. At one point, I remember being very conscious of my heavy breathing and bright red face as I puffed my way up a rocky slope, jabbing both walking sticks trekking poles into the ground as though they were pick-axes my life depended on. But thank you Denis!! The extra kilometres to this icy and isolated mirador were worth every bead of sweat. As I surveyed the scene of floating chunks of blue ice and the solid wall of the glacier beyond, I remember thinking how perfect it would be to add a cup of coffee to the mix. As if on cue, Denis whipped out a thermos from his backpack and handed me one.
After lunch, we boarded a boat that took us up the lake and within metres of the glacier. Colossal tooth-like peaks towered over the boat and made our double-decker ferry feel like a child’s bath toy. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more spectacular, Denis handed me a Pisco Sour.
Puntilla del Toro
Half-day: a 6km horse ride,1.5hrs. Easy
Before signing up to a full day’s horse ride, all guests have to do a half-day first so that the guides and gauchos can assess their levels. This helps the guides better advise guests when planning their daily explorations. Although I longed to bolt across the Patagonian pampas, I also welcomed a gentle ride to check in with my confidence (it’s been a while since I did any proper riding).
We rode across the Serrano Plain, wading across creeks and corners of lakes. The group, comprising mostly of beginners, was great company and we had a lot of fun together.
In addition to getting back in the saddle, this half-day exploration allowed me to learn more about Patagonia’s gaucho culture. Alex, our guide, explained how these highly respected cowboys are deeply in tune with the horses they look after, so much so that they know immediately when a horse is depressed and how to make them better. There are a handful of gauchos working at Explora, all elegantly presented in their traditional dress including beautiful leather boots, a delicately embroidered belt that holds a knife at the back and a beret.
The horses at Explora are bred specifically for the hotel at a ranch in Colunquén – central Chile. They then go through several stages of training before being handed to guests. During my stay I rode three horses, all of which were beautifully behaved.
On returning to the stables we were offered a cup of Mate, a slightly bitter tasting tea that is integral to gaucho culture and must be experienced! The amusing part was watching everyone’s faces as they took a sip and politely passed it on. Let’s just say it has an acquired taste! I personally thought it smelled like a horse’s stable (although that could well be because I was drinking it in one), an aroma I find oddly comforting having spent half of my childhood happily mucking out stables.
Half-day: a 7km walk, 3 hrs, Moderate.
As we set out on this gentle amble across fields of Matabarrosa, our guide, Erica, told us that a number of pumas had been spotted on this walk in the past. I was longing to see one (in the distance!) and spent most of the afternoon scanning the plains for signs of the elusive cat. What I did see instead were lots of guanacos (the puma’s favourite snack). These characterful animals look very much like llamas and their quirkiness reminded me a lot of camels (I spent a lot of time with camels in my early 20s but that’s another story). Like most members of the camelid family, their antics are a lot of fun to watch.
I also noticed one guanaco trot purposely down a hillock to use the bathroom. Note the absence of inverted commas. For when I told Erica what I saw she explained that guanacos have communal latrines. Wildlife will never cease to astound me!
The walk took us up a hill to an overhanging cliff, the bottom of which contained some ancient cave paintings left by hunter gathers who inhabited this region some 4000 years ago.
As much as I enjoyed the walk (and the guanacos!), I was disappointed not to have spotted a puma. But as Explora reminds their guests, “Try to be open to the unpredictable, the unexpected and the accidental”. Sure enough, their philosophy rang true yet again. As we drove back to the hotel, one of the guests in the back of the van started yelling ‘There! There! I can see one! Stop! No wait, there are three!’. The van screeched to a halt and we all pressed our noses (and camera lenses) to the window. A puma and her two cubs were playing in the long, billowing grasses about 100m from the side of the road. There was a collective gasp as we all strained our eyes to make out the shapes before the mother casually strolled over the hill, her two cubs leaping and bounding after her. I could not believe our luck.
A 6km horse ride, 1.5 hrs. Moderate
This day could well have been a write-off for me. The night before I had signed up to the full day 20km trek to the base of the towers. One of the most gruelling treks and yet the classic ‘must-do’ trek of Torres del Paine. I was both nervous and excited in equal measures, so much so that I couldn’t sleep the night before! At 4am I reluctantly padded down to reception in my dressing gown to cancel my 6am wake up call and to leave a message for the guides. At breakfast the next morning I explained my situation to Rosario, Explora’s Guest Experience Manager. She told me not to worry and that she’d get Tim (the Head Guide) to sort my day out.
A couple of hours later I was in the saddle, cantering alongside rivers and over hills on a different side of the park, a gaucho leading the way. Big blue skies embraced us and my horse’s gait was so comfortable it was like riding an armchair. I could not have been happier and was so impressed by how quickly Explora had turned my day around.
I joined a number of other guests for lunch at Explora’s quincho (their barbeque area). After indulging (a little too much) on grilled meats and lemon pies, I opted for the easy ‘digestif’ stroll in the afternoon.
Half day: A 1km stroll, 45 mins. Easy
This gentle amble followed the shores of the Blue Lagoon, a wetland home to dozens of birds and a large herd of guanacos, to a mirador overlooking the three towers of the Paine. I knew that my friends (such is the nature of Explora that other guests quickly become friends) would have reached the base of the towers by now. I gave them a mental salute before hotfooting it back to Explora and jumping into the lake-side Jacuzzi, toasting the glorious day with a glass of bubbly!
Full day: A 25km horse ride, 5.5 hours. Expert
Although it is hard to pick a favourite exploration, my thoughts keep returning to this day in particular. Sandro (the gaucho) and Negra (the guide) led this spectacular day in the saddle. I was the only guest as no one else had expressed interest in this particular exploration that day. The three of us took off across the plains on what was the most picture-perfect day of the week so far. The skies were a startlingly blue and the air was so still that all you could hear was the rhythmic squeaks of our saddles and birdsong. That is to say, when Negra and I weren’t chatting away like two old women. All the guides, I should add, are top company!
Hares ran for cover as we cantered across the plains and condors sailed on thermals high overhead. I felt like I was flying too. We raced along the sandy shores of a remote lagoon with wide grins, and as my eyes started watering in the cold air I remember a rush of euphoria welling up inside of me. It was a moment of pure happiness I’ll never forget!
After traversing creeks, forests and plains we reached the top of a hill overlooking the Serrano River where we stopped for lunch – soup, sandwiches, wine and a cheese board – all miraculously intact after being thrown about in Sandro’s saddle bags. What I loved and cherished most however was the simplicity of it all. Sandro graciously threw down his poncho to use as a picnic rug and offered me his saddle bags to sit on. ‘The luxury of the essential’ as Explora puts it so well.
On the way back, we spotted giant salmon breaking the river’s surface. Sandro also pointed out fresh puma tracks on one of the sandy tracks. Although we didn’t see any pumas I couldn’t help but wonder if they were watching us!
Before reaching the stables, I was offered one more spectacular view of the Paine Massif from the top of the Donoso Lookout and one epic canter across the valley floor.
Half day: A 6km walk, 2.5 hrs. Easy
For my last trek I joined a group of ladies from Florida for an easy walk to Lake Nordenskjöld. Along the way, we passed a translucent waterfall, complete with rainbow. It was another stunning day and the water of the lake was so still that it acted as a mirror to the Paine. After a short while we heard a loud boom! A large chunk of snow avalanched down a distant peak. I shouldn’t have been surprised. My stay at Explora could only have ended with a bang!
You can find more details on Explora’s explorations on their website here.
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Disclaimer: I was offered a media rate for my stay. However as always, all opinions remain my own.