Under the dome

Sarah Siese found herself feeling healthily insignificant standing at the foot of the towering granite peaks of the Torres del Paine in Patagonia.

Luxury comes in different styles and  sometimes luxury is about escaping from it all and just having the space and peace to kick back and be at one with nature… 

The name EcoCamp had me envisioning discomfort, cold, wet and misery. What I found was warmth, of both the physical and social nature, top-rate hospitality and guiding, delightful international company and a view that defines Patagonia itself – the great granite Torres – popping out above my pillow each morning. It was communal living at its best; camaraderie when you wanted it, space and privacy when you didn’t,

and at the end of four days I felt like I’d lived in the great outdoors 100 per cent and without a single sacrifice. In other words: luxury indeed.

Over recent years the growth in visitor numbers to Torres del Paine has placed huge stress on the infrastructure of hotels and services inside the park, creating some serious environmental problems and impacting the quality of tourist services. But in January 2000  a Chilean-based tour company opened EcoCamp, choosing this remote World Biosphere Reserve to open the first true eco hotel in Patagonia. 

This Patagonian glamping experience takes its inspiration from the ancient Kawesqar inhabitants who once travelled along the fragmented coast from Golfo de Penas to the Strait of Magellan looking for food and shelter. They were a people who lived in harmony with Mother Nature and built their huts out of wood, furs and leather, using only organic materials found at each site. The 21st century EcoCamp design was inspired by their traditional huts, implementing an easy form of engineering. A number of isosceles triangles form the semi-hemispherical structure of the domes, providing important uniform distribution of the stress of severe wind loads, which often exceed 160-180 kilometres per hour – a traditional, lightweight, flat-sided tent would be utterly vulnerable. The rounded sides minimise external surface contact with the cold winds thus lowering the impact on the warm interiors. Hey presto! It’s snug, strong and very airtight.

The camp itself comprises 25 of these super-cosy dormitory domes. At its heart are three giant domes that fulfil the purpose of resting area, dining room and kitchen. Meals are a delicious and communal affair with breakfast laid out like a fine buffet setting you up for the day: bacon and eggs, ham, cheeses, fruits, nuts and yoghurts. You make and pack your own lunch in re-usable sealed bags from a selection of fresh meats and salads, muesli bars and chocolate brownies. Dinner is a hearty three-course meal with warming soup and local lamb dishes followed by a traditional pudding. One thing’s for sure – you won’t go hungry.

EcoCamp wants travellers to embrace the blustery weather as an integral part of Patagonia and squalls of wind persistently flap the outer canvas reminding you that nature is knocking at your door. Having slept snuggly between fleece sheets, you generally wake up any time after 6am – by which time the dome is already flooded with daylight – to the sound of horses’ hooves or a woodpecker somewhere nearby...and that view. Few can resist the urge to grab a camera and catch the first light striking the mountains.

Patagonia is a geologically diverse region with striking mountain formations, smoking volcanoes, flat, barren pampas and expansive ice fields. It is crowded with glaciers, lakes, fjords, ancient forests and wildlife such as guanacos (a llama-like camelid), pink flamingos, giant condors and shy huemuls deer. It may be at the end of civilisation – next stop is Antarctica – but it offers some of South America’s most magnificent and challenging trekking and riding.

The Torres del Paine National Park is a World Heritage Site of the first order, which can offer a colossal choice of adventures, ranging from a soft stroll to hard-core rock climbing, expeditions to glaciers and opportunities to visit the remote Tierra del Fuego.

In this world of eroding wilderness, an eco trip to the remote region of Patagonia looks too good to be true but it’s every bit as wonderful as the photos. You can trek through virgin beech forests; gaze in wonder as colossal glacial icebergs carve into the freezing slate blue waters of Lago Grey; feel healthily insignificant at the foot of the towering granite peaks of the Torres del Paine; and when the stars come out, forget it all and just lie in total silence underneath the Southern Cross.

 


Interior of a suite dome

 

Recommended things to do

Go walking 

Most visitors come here to trek and the most famous walk of all is the aptly named W track that winds its way around the park’s best-known peaks. It can take anything from three days to a week to complete the trek depending on your level of fitness and the pace you choose.

Shear a sheep 

If you have never visited a sheep farm, you are in for quite a treat. While most of South America is cattle country, Patagonia is definitely sheep territory. Cerro Guido, half an hour from EcoCamp and just outside the national park, is a 100,000-hectare farm with 45,000 sheep. The old communities reflect times gone by with 100-year-old carts and machinery still in operation.

Enjoy a day in the saddle 

A horseback ride is a great option for walk-weary legs and a fantastic way to cover huge stretches of the park. Crossing wide streams, ascending vertiginous paths, cantering along the lakeside or just ambling past a group of guanacos is easy in the saddle. Hacks of various lengths can be arranged from EcoCamp.

 

It was communal living at its best; camaraderie when you wanted it, space and privacy when you didn’t, and at the end of four days I felt like I’d lived in the great outdoors 100 per cent and without a single sacrifice. 

 

Staying there

Four-night packages are priced from US$1,456 (about A$1,573) per person twin share for a standard dome and US$1,941 (about A$2,096) per person twin share for a suite dome. Rates include all meals and some activities. ecocamp.travel

 

When to go

The camp runs from October to April each year. Summer (mid-December to mid-March), with its mild temperatures and long days, is the most favourable season to visit Patagonia. Expect changeable weather and strong winds whenever you visit.

 

Getting there

LATAM flies from Sydney to Punta Arenas via Santiago daily. Return economy fares are priced from A$2,775 and business class fares from A$14,701. Flight time is from 23 hours including stopover. latam.com

Transfers run daily from Punta Arenas to the Torres del Paine National Park and can be organised through EcoCamp Patagonia.

 

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