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Remota
Destination of the Month for April 2011

Remota… The name alone hints at a wild and distant country, far from the frenetic life in the cities where most of us live.

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Our journey begins with a flight to Punta Arenas that passes over some of the most remote parts of the Andes; the ease of travel belies the amazing terrain below. With luck, it is quite clear, and we see some of the most impressive mountains in the world – the spire of Mount Fitz Roy, the Torres del Paine, and the vast glaciers of Chile and Argentina’s southern ice fields. The impressive formations below hint at what we will visit in the coming days.

The transfer for Remota is waiting right on time for us in Punta Arenas (at that time of the year there were no flights to Puerto Natales, the small town near Remota). The three-hour drive passes swiftly, through terrain both subtle and vast. For a short while we travel the northern shore of the Straight of Magellan before the road turns inland through the pampas of southern Patagonia, towards the mountains beyond.

We enjoy the windy landscape of the Patagonia, with its sinuous and flowing hills, its many sheep, and its scattered “Estancias” with their thousands of hectares. They stand as a working legacy of a former age, extending farther than the eye can see. The clouds in the sky, the blue hues of the pristine sky, and the fauna and the vegetation of Patagonia all seem to unite in welcoming harmony.

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Just beyond Puerto Natales appears Remota, seemingly from the ground, somewhat like the erratic boulders in the country around Puerto Natales and Remota. “Erratics“ are huge and isolated boulders left behind by the glaciers that once covered this landscape, clues to the forces that shaped Patagonia.

The architecture of Remota consciously evokes the sheep ranches or “Estancias” of Patagonia with its dark exterior textures and with its interior corridors and ramps. At the same time the interior is filled with light, and views everywhere of the constantly changing Patagonia. Remota’s designer, Germán del Sol, was awarded a National Architecture Prize for his striking design; the common areas of the hotel feature walls of glass that open to vistas of the fjord Seno Ultima Esperanza and the Andes beyond while the grass fields on the hotel grounds and the grasses of the roof pay homage to the pampas.

Remota has earned international acclaim as one of the best hotels in the world, recognition of both its unique and fascinating design and the high standards of service provided. The staff takes pride in the hotel, and in the care they offer their guests.

Our room on the second floor is large and spacious, with high ceilings and panels of native woods characteristic in the region. The bathroom has a big rain shower, dark tiles, and a diagonal mirror and glass that overlook the room. It is difficult to convey in words the feeling of unity that comes from the design of Remota; rooms, hallways, and common areas feature many artifacts of the region, its peoples and history, and life.

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After freshening up, we stroll through the hotel, finally stopping to see the maps and excursions offered by Remota. The hotel prides itself on offering a great variety of excursions to suit all tastes and abilities, from short nearby trips aimed at fun and relaxation to all day journeys visiting the mountains, lakes, glaciers, estancias, and forests that surround Remota. Guided half-day or all day tours, day treks into remote sections of Torres del Paine, horseback riding, cycling, birding, and fly fishing(advance arrangements needed) are just some of the options that guests at Remota will be able to choose from. With rueful smiles we realize that our 3-night visit is far too short to experience all that Remota offers!

Fortunately, our guide is quite experienced, and helps us narrow down our plans to best meet our interests in the time we have available. We will finalize our plans that evening after dinner. Being a bit tired from traveling we do not want that much action the afternoon we arrive. At the reception desk Remota personnel suggest an easy bike ride or walk to town, perfect for the late afternoon before dinner. A 20-minute walk brings us to the statue of the Milodon, which welcomes tourists at the entrance of town. Remains of the now extinct Milodon (giant sloth) were found in the vicinity of Puerto Natales in the Cueva del Milodon. We continue walking down the costanera on the shore of the Última Esperanza sound (“Last Hope”), where we observe a number of hotels and restaurants on our left, and, on our right, some maps explaining the landscape view we witness across from the channel. Many birds inhabit the shoreline; they shyly retreat when we approach. After our stroll, we return by taxi to the hotel, for we are starting to feel a bit weary… this has been a long day and we have to digest all we’ve seen and experienced.Dinner at Remota is served between 7:30 and 10:00 pm. The menu features local foods, and despite the extreme latitude we are served a fresh salad, and excellent choices for the main course. After this delicious and welcoming meal, we sit down with our guide who greets us with “Hola Alejandra! Hola Richard!” We start planning our next day adventure (in English!) right away.

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The following morning we have a leisurely breakfast (where we discover the amazing French toast the hotel offers!) then we meet a small group in the lobby and off we go in one of the Remota’s vans. We are 8 (4 couples) plus the driver and our guide. Based on the expected/hoped for weather, we will visit the Torres del Paine National Park.

The trip to the park sounds long at first, around 2 hours, but we encounter an astounding variety of wildlife along the way and the trip is completely fascinating. The Remota’s drivers are very experienced, and have a keen eye in spotting the wildlife along the road. We stop many times before we get to Torres del Paine Park to see and photograph the many animals and birds on the pampas. Among the diverse birds and animals along the way we see several varieties of cara-caras (hawks), eagles, flamingoes, ñandues (smaller ostrich-like birds), vultures, upland geese, red-eyed oystercatchers, and many Andean condors. Both our guide and our driver are ready to answer all the questions we have about this fauna. We also spot a chingue or zorrino (skunk) who is hurt on the side of the road, probably hit by a passing car. One of the guests briefly spies a red fox as well; and in some areas we all see many guanacos (a kind of llama) that inhabit the landscape, as well as the sheep and cows of the estancias.

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Traveling across Patagonia, one is reminded of the African savannah – but instead of elephants and water buffalo there are cows and sheep; instead of lions and jackals there are pumas and foxes; guanacos and huemules (the Chilean deer which adorns our coat of arms) take the place of antelope. We see a flock of condors in the distance feeding on a fallen sheep while smaller scavengers wait their turn at the banquet; hawks nervously eye the feast. Despite the cold and windy climate, the richness of Patagonian animal life is everywhere evident.

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Once in the park, all 10 pairs of eyes are alert for the sight of other animals, such as foxes, huemules, pumas, swans, or sheep. Alas, we did not see any pumas, huemules or foxes. On the other hand, we have the fortune to observe hundreds of guanacos, some swans, numerous flamingoes, and of course countless sheep. Especially beautiful were the oystercatchers, Magellanic parrots and a bright blue and yellow bird with the most beautiful song.

Our luck with the weather continued, and the peaks of the Torres, the South, Central and North towers were showing their entire splendor rising up to the blue sky, that day. It was a long sought dream coming true! The postcard view often seen in the many books and tourist guides from Chile is right in front of us! Hard to believe… but better get a good grasp of the moment! Next to the towers is the massive granite wall known as Nido de Condores, or Condor’s nest. We easily see why, seeing condors soaring amongst the spires that day.

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The colors and textures of the park are striking; during our visit it was early spring, and several types of shrubs were in brilliant bloom. Our van stops often, and we find it is difficult to keep moving or on any kind of schedule, for the landscape pulls all of us so strongly.

We continue on to Salto Grande, literally “big waterfall”. Its waters are colored a brilliant Caribbean blue-green by glacial runoff and flow into cascades and a waterfall over 20 meters high. The high volume and strong current create a deafening sound, and the midday sunlight creates a brilliant rainbow at the foot of the fall. The lagoon formed after the waterfall is the same color, but as water advances to a larger lake beyond the colors shift to a deep sapphire blue.

We have a picnic lunch at a perfect spot in the park. Our guide and driver wisely choose a shelter with a long table and a barbeque place inside a picnic area. While all gather around the table, our guide serves pisco sour, wine or beer, soft drinks and cheese and appetizers. In the meantime, our driver has magically transformed into our cook and makes a magnificent chicken and beef stew (deliciously spicy). Abundant rice and salads are the side dishes. We even get dessert; a selection of delicious pastries that go well with coffee or tea. The view of the Torres del Paine from the nearby lakeshore is justifiably considered one of the grandest natural views in the world, and we count ourselves fortunate to be there. It is difficult to tear us away.

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After our late lunch, we begin heading back to Remota. A couple of hours still await us with even more surprises, for we return a different way than we came into the park. On the way to visit Lago Grey we surprise a feeding condor, who leaps into the air right in front of us as we round a corner. Lago Grey is where icebergs that have calved from the Southern Ice Field drift, pushed by strong winds. The saturated deep blue colors of the icebergs are in strong contrast to the hills and mountains beyond the lake. A piece of ice has washed ashore, and we have the chance to chip out ice that formed many thousands of years ago. In a ritual for glacier visitors in Chile, we cool a bit of Pisco Sour with ice that formed before the dawn of human civilization.

As we complete our journey back to Remota, we pause by Lago Sarmiento around sunset, with a last view of the Torres to the north, and the deep blue sky scattered with pastel hued clouds.

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That evening we arrange a guided tour for the next day to visit to the 3 caves of the Cueva del Milodon Natural Monument. Frankly, my expectations were somewhat low for what we might see at the 3 caves. Well, our guide and the tour of the 3 caves easily proved me wrong!

There was a short uphill walk to the first cave. A steep stairway leads to the entrance of the first and smallest of the three caves. Some French-speaking archeologists were working there. Our guide provided us with helmets and lanterns, so we could enter to admire the work of nature. It was humid and a few degrees cooler than the conditions outside. The low ceiling forced us to walk squatting part of the way.

Leaving the first cave, we walked through the Magellanic woodland to the “middle cave” (middle in both size and location), with beautiful views of the Patagonian wilderness along the way. The second cave is a much bigger vault where we can stand tall. We can observe evidence of archeological excavations of times past. Very impressive!

We then head towards the largest and most famous of the three caves: Milodon Cave, where Herman Eberhard found some well preserved skin, hair and bones from the extinct Milodon in 1885. At the entrance of the cave is a life-sized replica of this huge sloth-related mammal. The cave itself is a gigantic vault, extending 250 meters inwards from the entrance and 80 meters wide, and many meters to the ceiling of the vault. Above use are some stalactites; on the ground, you can also observe a few stalagmites, as well as evidence of past archeological and paleontological digging. Even today, visitors might find hairs in the cave from the extinct Milodon, thousands of years old. Our expectations were far exceeded on this half-day tour, and it should not be missed. After the 3 plus hours for the circuit, we finish at a small but very well documented museum in the park.

We wish we could have spent more days at Remota, so as to be able to enjoy more of the experience this destination offers. However, the next morning, after a delicious breakfast, we are off to the airport in Punta Arenas. The ride with the friendly driver from our first day goes by swiftly. Our driver stops several times at our request, allowing us to capture a few last pictures of this superb experience, even a small lamb no more than a few hours old!

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