The activities that made our top adventure travel list in 2022 include lots of hiking on trails in the Lake District and the Patagonia region of Chile plus epic wildlife sightings (think pumas and condors), adventures on the water, adventures in the air, and much more as our Trans-Americas Journey continues through the Americas (more than 15 years on the road and counting). Welcome to part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2022 series–our round-up of the best adventures of the year. Part 2 is your guide to the Best Food and Beverages of the year and Part 3 reveals the year’s best hotels.
2022 Top Adventure Travel in Chile & ArgentinaBest puma sighting: We saw 22 individual pumas in 2022, all of them in the Torres del Paine area of southern Chile. We understand the perils of playing favorites, but we are willing to say that our most unexpected puma sighting was that of a lone dominant male named Oscuro (that’s him in the upper left corner of the composite image above) as he woke from a cat nap on a ledge in a rocky wall on the property of Estancia Laguna Amarga. In recent years, female pumas and their cubs (including the other pumas in the composite shot above) have become increasingly habituated to humans in the Torres del Paine region and, therefore, easier to see. Males, however, remain elusive and solitary by nature. We felt honored and thrilled (and, yes, intimidated) in the presence of the massive male.
Best easy hike: If you like scenic mountain lakes, you get a lot of bang for your buck on the long but relatively easy Andean Lakes (Lagunas Andinas) Trail in Villarrica National Park (Parque Nacional Villarrica, 7,400 pesos per person for foreigners) near Pucon in the Lake District of Chile. The area has four lakes: Laguna Escondido (a favorite with fishermen), Laguna El Plato (great for a secluded clear water swim), Laguna Huinfiuca (popular with families thanks to a wide beach and shady areas), and Laguna Verde under the steaming Lanin Volcano which straddles the border with Argentina. We covered 9.1 miles (14.6 km) round trip in about 4.5 hours on mostly clear undulating trails with just a few short steep or overgrown sections and visited the first three lakes. It’s an additional 2.3 miles (3.7 km) each way to continue on to Laguna Verde from Laguna Huinfiuca and back. Sadly, our late start meant that we did not have time to get there to see the green water that gives this lake its name. Next time.
Best hard hike: We’d already been exploring the Torres del Paine area for a few weeks when we checked into the Tierra Patagonia Lodge & Spa and challenged their head of excursions to suggest a day trip we hadn’t already done. He suggested a guided hike to the top of Cerro Obelisco. This 5,324-foot (1,623-meter) peak is on Estancia Cerro Guido which, as of this writing, only allows Tierra to bring guests onto its property. This exclusivity means that even though the Cerro Obelisco hike offers comparable physical challenge and natural beauty as the area’s famous (and packed) Base de Torres hike, you can have Cerro Obelisco to yourself. But it doesn’t come easy. For the first four hours, we huffed up 6 miles (9.6 km) without the aid of a recognizable trail, gaining more than 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) through Patagonian pampa, past eroded sandstone formations, and over sheets of shale. At the summit, we got a unique view of the Torres formation (that gives Torres del Paine National Park its name) from slightly above with gave us the chance to look down on the massif. Bonus: during this hike, we saw a large set of very fresh puma prints, six condors, two crested caracaras, and a huge black-fronted buzzard eagle, a skunk, lots of guanacos…and not another human.
Best even HARDER hike: We enjoyed our Cerro Obeliso challenge so much that we jumped at the chance to hike up Cerro Castillo when the general manager of Patagonia Camp said he could send us up with a guide. This ascent, which had been recommended to us by a number of guides, is shorter than Cerro Obelisco—our route was just 7 miles (11 km) round trip to an elevation of 3,444 feet (1,050 meters, just shy of the 1,190-meter peak). But, (if you can believe it), the Cerro Castillo hike is even steeper than Cerro Obelisco. We gained more than 3,400 feet (1,000 meters) during the nearly vertical 3.5 mile (5.6 km) trailless scramble up. Our reward was lunch on a flat roomy plateau as more than 50 Andean condors streamed overhead as if on some sort of invisible big bird highway. Coming down the severe incline was even harder. As we picked our way gingerly over scree, through clumps of grass, and around impenetrable low bushes it seemed amazing that we had ascended in the first place.
Best brush with an active volcano: While staying at andBeyond Vira Vira lodge near Pucón in the Lake District of Chile we tackled the full-day Cerro Espejo hike (4.5 miles/7 km each way, max elevation 5,905 feet/1,800 meters, allow about 6 hours roundtrip). This trail took us gently through a small forest of native trees, including coigues, lengas, and auracarias (aka monkey puzzle trees), through a gulley in which we could see centuries of ash and debris deposits from past eruptions of the very active Villarrica Volcano (including rock, pumice, and granite), then up a fairly gentle ascent to a rocky flank with the volcano as our very close backdrop. As we ate our gourmet lunch packed by the lodge (chicken and roasted eggplant sandwiches on homemade rolls, fruit, nuts, and elegant homemade cookies), we could hear the rush of melting water coming from the volcano’s glacier and see steam steadily rising from the volcano which erupted seriously in 2015 and is active and under watch again as we are writing this. Back at andBeyond Vira Vira lodge after the hike, we found four chocolate truffles on a plate in our room adorned with chocolate sauce lettering that read “Taste me!” along with a mini bottle of red wine. Now that’s how you end a leisurely day hike.
Best adventure on the water: If you’ve got adventure travel in Chile on your mind you probably know that driving the Carretera Austral through the Patagonia region of Southern Chile is one totally epic drive. But did you know that you can also travel through part of this region on a ferry for a completely different perspective on the region’s natural beauty? Well, you can. And you should. In 2021, Navimag, a company that moves cargo from north to south by ferry, debuted a new ferry that takes cargo (including passenger vehicles) and passengers. The Esperanza offers simple but clean and comfy cabins with bathrooms, a cafeteria serving simple but very delicious meals, and plenty of deck space from which to watch the lovely Patagonia scenery slowly slip by as the ferry moves through calm water in the fjords that make up the coastline. Humpback whales (and even the occasional blue whale–the largest creature on earth) can be seen along with sea lions and marine birds. It’s four days of pure relaxation and immersion in nature and it’s a lot easier on the suspension of your vehicle than driving over all the potholes and washboard sections of the Carretera Austral…
Best condor close-ups: It’s always a thrill to see Andean condors and we’ve seen plenty of them. At Estancia Olga Teresa, an 8,154 acre (3,300 hectare) 100-year-old ranch about an hour north of Punta Arenas in southern Chile, you really come face to face with the enormous threatened scavengers. More than 200 condors have been identified on the property, attracted by windy conditions, rocky ledges, and the presence of food (in the form of dead livestock). Since 2015, visitors like us have been able to enter the ranch and hunker down on a windy blufftop to watch the condors. As the birds rode the air currents, some paused to hang in the air for a moment and swivel their heads around to check us out with a beady eye. When the birds lined up parallel to the bluff, each on its own invisible slice of wind, it was like jets assembling for their final approach at a busy airport. Spectacular.
Best adventure vehicle (that’s not our truck): The top reason to book a multi-day Patagonia Untamed guided puma safari with Quasar Expeditions is the program’s laser focus on seeing pumas in the Torres del Paine region of southern Chile. An unexpected added bonus is the black Jeep Renegade you get to travel around in. This thing comes with traction control, insulated coffee mugs, Quasar steel water bottles with sippy tops (so they’re easy to use even while bouncing over grasslands), a Handpresso coffee press, a picnic set for four, maps, all necessary vehicle paperwork and insurance, sunscreen, a Garmin GPS device with Spot emergency alert, a satellite phone, snacks including nuts and chocolate bars, a cooler, two thermoses, binoculars, and Kleenex not to mention the specialized puma guide and a puma tracker that lead every trip to help you see as many pumas as we did. Learn more about the Patagonia Untamed puma safari from Quasar Expeditions in our day-by-day account of the adventure for Luxury Latin America, including details about many of the puma sightings we told you about at the start of this post.
Best adventure in the air: It should come as no surprise that the best new hotel in Argentina—SB Winemaker’s House & Spa Suites in Mendoza, Argentina—also offers a unique-in-the-region adventure. In partnership with Vision Air VIP, guests of the hotel (and non-guests too) can book flightseeing trips over the famous vineyards and wineries around Mendoza before landing on a lake and, later, enjoying a leisurely gourmet lunch in the remote, welcoming, and stylish home of Patrick Schmidlin, the gregarious pilot/owner, before enjoying the flight back over scenic canyons.
Best camping: Some refer to the Cochamó Valley as the “Yosemite of Chile,” and they’re not wrong. To really experience the scenic granite domes, lush Valdivian rainforest, clear rivers, and challenging day hikes, it’s best to camp for a few days. We were delighted with the digs at La Junta Campground which we reached after a four-hour, 8-mile (12 km) undulating hike up into the valley from a starting point not far from Cochamó town. The La Junta Campground (8,000 pesos per person per night) is one of a handful of camping areas owned and run by locals through a cooperative and has maybe 50 tent sites plus clean and functioning dry toilets, clean covered sinks for washing dishes to clothes, two clean and roomy cold water shower stalls, two covered areas with fire pits, a few picnic tables scattered about, and potable water. Flat tent sites are spread out–some shaded some sunny–and there are plenty of trees for hangin’ hammocks. The only bummer is the infestation of horseflies that plagues this area from mid-December to mid-February.
Best scenic soak: Termas del Sol (32,000 CLP/about US$37 to 40,000 CLP/about US$47 per person depending on the time of day you enter), located on the outskirts of the town of Puelo in southern Chile, is a super chic natural hot springs complex with 10 pools (some designed to be infinity edge) ranging from a cold plunge that’s 79 Fahrenheit (26 celsius) up to 113 Fahrenheit (45 celsius). Staff members monitor and adjust temperatures constantly and the clear water, heated naturally by nearby volcanoes, has no sulfur smell. Walkways, built using ultra-durable synthetic “wood” and lit with LED light strips at night, connect the slate-lined pools which are all perfectly clean. Many pools have attached patios with lounge chairs and huge umbrellas for shade that are anchored by cut blocks of local granite (the pools are often in full sun so bring a hat). The locker room and dressing rooms are spotless and roomy with “chic barn” touches like brass fixtures. A café serves juice, pizza, desserts, coffee, and more to enjoy inside around a fireplace or at outdoor tables. It’s all built on a strip of land against a granite wall with views over a sprawling wetland/inlet and the green hills beyond. The experience felt extra sweet right after our days of camping and strenuous hiking in the Cochamó Valley. BYO towel and enjoy.
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Here’s more about travel in Argentina
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