In Patagonia, summer comes in January. As we arrived there in November, we naively assumed we would be experiencing Chile’s spring. We didn’t know however that Patagonia has a fifth season, which occurs between spring and summer: “The windy season”. With high winds up to 120 kilometers per hour (strong enough to overturn buses), Patagonia’s windy season is extreme. Luckily, the average wind speed during our time at Eco Camp was a modest 80 kilometers per hour.
It is in this wind that we begin our day one adventure, with a 5am wakeup call no less. This is the only day we’re able to shoot sunrise as fast-moving cloud cover provides overcast mornings the rest of the week. It’s a quick jaunt exploring the camp to grab a shot or two of the domes in all their morning glory. Opened in 2001, Eco Camp is the world’s first geodesic hotel. The large thin-shell domes provide an unique lodging experience. (If you’re like me, you’re probably wondering how the windy season doesn’t completely obliterate Eco Camp each year. In years past, the camp was completetely disassembled during the windy months in order to keep the domes from being damaged or destroyed. Then a few years ago, wooden platforms were built to elevate the domes, allowing the wind to travel under the domes and the camp to remain functional year-round.) Unlike a traditional hotel that must take root in the earth, the domes also leave little to no footprint on the area. They are a great compromise for someone that wants to rest in comfort while being environmentally responsible. Each dome comes equipped with a wood stove, a warm shower and a flushing compost toilet (it works just like a regular toilet, except they collect your poop and turn it into compost, don’t be weird about it). For more information on the technology behind these crazy efficient and comfy structures, check out Cascada Expeditions.
After a couple hours of shooting, we head to the community dome for breakfast. At breakfast there’s a huge table in the middle of the room with fresh, meats, chesses, vegetables, breads, nuts and other natural foods brought in from local farms around the area. From the spread, guests prepare brown bag lunches for themselves and load up on snacks for a long day in the National Park.
A small shuttle drives us to the Paine River, which we will bike alongside on our way to Lake Azul. The trip starts out beautifully with a sunny sky and winds around 40 kilometers and we bike to the Paine waterfall for some great pictures. The wind begins to pick up as we head to our second stop at Vega Nandu, a wide flat land of grass. Here we observe a large herd of Guanaco grazing in the open field. This is our first glimpse of a large number of these creatures together so we are excited and awed. By day three, however they might as well be the neighborhood cats. The guanaco are everywhere, and greatly interwoven into the region. While in Patagonia you will see many of these llama-looking creatures; you’ll also eat them, drink their milk, even sleep under blankets made of guanaco. The whole time, I am reminded of the relationship the American Indians had with buffalo; perhaps if we didn’t develop the Midwest, this is what it would look like today.
We continue on our bikes on the last leg to the Blue Lagoon. The wind picks up to 80 km/h, forcing us to hop back in the shuttle and drive through the steeper Macho Canyon. We hike around the lagoon up to Masle lookout to get a breathtaking view of the glacier-fed lake and its surrounding peaks. Darkened mountains, white peaks and blue water make for a beautiful contrasting landscape.
For our last stop of the day, we head to the entrance of the park. Laguna Amarga, or “The Bitter Lake” is one of the most recognizable views in Torres Del Paine, as evidenced by the large-scale Toyota commercial production taking place on the beach as we approach. You can watch the commercial on YouTube here. If you pause 3 seconds in you will notice the perfectly horizontal cloud that stretches across the sky. I posted a photo Chad took of the same cloud below if you want to verify for yourself. But I digress; we hike around Laguna Amarga for some more photo opportunities before finally heading back to Eco Camp.
Dinner is a choice of lamb (a Patagonia staple) or hake (a native fish of the region). There’s also a vegetarian option, which I skip over. When abroad, you have to choose the most exotic-sounding dish. I love lamb more than anyone I know, but you can eat that (and veggies) at home. (At least this is what I tell myself as I contemplate the menu before me). Trust me, you want to pull the trigger on that weird-sounding fish! After dinner, Chilean wine, and dessert, we head to the bar dome for some Patagonia beer. Cerveza Austral, a popular Chilean brewery has just released a Torres Del Paine edition beer. I am hooked from the first sip and only drink this beer the rest of the trip. Despite being known primarily for its wine, the region has a surprisingly vibrant beer culture; you can read more about it from Amy Turner who explored Chilean beer more in depth. Before bed, famous Chilean surfer Ramon Navarro gives a brief talk about his conservation efforts before showing his new film, A Fisherman’s Son. After an exhausting day of adventure, and an incredible evening of Eco Camp life, we finally nod off to sleep in our home sweet dome.