Travel

Patagonia Is Home to the Biggest Chain of National Parks in the World-And They’re Incredible

Chile's Route connects 17 national parks full of glaciers, fjords, mountains, and lakes.

Photo by Piriya Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Photo by Piriya Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Photo by Piriya Photography/Moment/Getty Images

To call the Chilean wilderness bucket list-worthy for adventurers is the epitome of an understatement. The piercing mountain peaks, azure glaciers, and glowing lakes of Patagonia might look like nothing you’ve seen before, but they aren’t nearly as out-of-reach as you might think. In fact, they’re more accessible than ever.

Chile debuted the epic Route of Parks in 2018, which is an unprecedented amount of connected national parks. Stretching 1,700 miles from Northern Patagonia down to remote Cape Horn, it’s a network of paved and gravel roads, trails, and gorgeous ferry crossings that can be explored by car, horse, kayak, foot, or bike. All told, the route packs 17 national parks into a landmass twice the size of Utah. Keep in mind that’s two times the US state but without any cities in the way-just miles of mountains and lakes.

The route is largely thanks to a collaboration between the Chilean government and the Tompkins Conservation, formed by the late Douglas Tompkins of North Face and his wife Kristine McDivitt Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia, Inc. outdoor store), who privately bought massive amounts of land in Patagonia with the intent of preservation. After Doug died, the foundation, led by Kristine, donated more than a million acres in a historic agreement with the Chilean government to create five new national parks and expand three others already in existence. The government, in turn, contributed nearly 2.5 million acres and reclassified 5.4 million acres of reserves as national parks.

While exploring each of the 17 parks along the route would take, at minimum, a six-month commitment, we’ve identified just a few of the must-see sights along the way, listed here from north to south.

Mauricio Arriagada/Flickr
Mauricio Arriagada/Flickr
Mauricio Arriagada/Flickr

Alerce Andino National Park

The northernmost park on the route and just an hour from the city of Puerto Montt, this easily accessed 97,000-acre playground is made up of verdant forests, mountains, and more than 50 lakes (such as the serene Laguna Sargazo), making it an ideal place to start your journey. In fact, this part of Chile is known as the lakes region, covered in beautiful greenery and water.

Alerce Andino National Park is named after the alerce tree, a relative of the redwood that’s among the oldest trees on the planet. In addition to walking among 3,000-year-old specimens of these endangered conifers on the Alerce Milenario trail, guests can hike, kayak, canoe, and keep an eye out for the pudú, the world’s tiniest deer.
Most visitors opt to drive an hour back to Puerto Montt for the night, where the adorable fishing port of Angelmo is a must-visit. Though it’s worth considering heading an hour extra north to the Reloncavi estuary to rest in the rustic cabins at Ralun Patagonia.

Photo by VGranta/Shutterstock
Photo by VGranta/Shutterstock
Photo by VGranta/Shutterstock

Cerro Castillo National Park

Forty miles from Aysen’s regional capital of Coyhaique, Cerro Castillo National Park offers one of Chile’s best multi-day treks. The highlight is a stunning view of mountains of snow, ice, and rock, with the vibrantly turquoise Laguna Castillo at its base. If you can, go in the autumn when the blood-red leaves of the Lena trees contrast with that turquoise. Huemul (South Andean deer) are often spotted by the Ibáñez park entrance, and in November the endemic wild orchids start to come out. It’s not uncommon to see massive condors soaring overhead with their giant wingspan. While some choose to take on the four- to five-day trek, others explore parts of the park on horseback and rock climbers play around on little-known ascents.

If you’re not taking on the backcountry trek, return to Coyhaique at night to crash at the equestrian-themed Nomades Boutique Hotel or the Coyhaique River Lodge for a bit of pampering and a good night’s sleep.

Photo by Rosario Nieto Chadwick/500px/Getty Images
Photo by Rosario Nieto Chadwick/500px/Getty Images
Photo by Rosario Nieto Chadwick/500px/Getty Images

Patagonia National Park

In Patagonia National Park adventurers can explore Chacabuco Valley by foot, mountain, bike, or boat. This is pure Patagonian steppe-picture rivers with footbridges (the Baker and the Chacabuco converge here), mountains, jewel-toned lakes, southern beech-tree forests, and volcanic rock formations. The valley used to be made up of overgrazed cattle ranches, but it has since regenerated and now has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the Aysén region, including native wildlife like guanaco (a type of llama), pumas, huemul, Andean condors, and Darwin’s rhea (a relative to ostriches).

First purchased in 2004 by Douglas and Kris Tompkins and then combined with the preexisting Jeinimeni and Tamango National Reserves as part of the history-making million-acre land donation in 2019, this is the poster child for Patagonian conservation efforts. Patagonia National Park has some of the best infrastructure of the Route, with campsites, bathrooms, and an information centre. The park has 20 trails to choose from-recommended is the Mirador Lago Jeinimeni trail, which overlooks Jeinimeni Lake.
If you aren’t planning on camping, the park’s Lodge at Valle Chacabuco offers a comfy place to crash. For something a bit more modern and private, reserve a cabin at BordeBaker Lodge in nearby Cochrane.

Photo by Jorge León Cabello/Moment/Getty
Photo by Jorge León Cabello/Moment/Getty
Photo by Jorge León Cabello/Moment/Getty

Laguna San Rafael National Park

Declared a Biosphere Reserve, this is the third-largest national park in Chile. It’s filled with fjords, channels, islands, inlets, and glaciers, like the impressive namesake San Rafael Glacier. Visitors can get to the icy, 230-foot-tall monolith by boat or kayak through spectacular iceberg-dotted fjords and channels. Laguna San Rafael National Park also happens to encompass an entire 1,600-square-mile icefield.

Visitors also come to trot through the forested valley of Los Leones on horseback and ice-hike the Exploradores glacier near Monte San Valentine, Patagonia’s highest peak at 12,830 feet. And for a big finale, end your trip here on General Carrera Lake, the site of the fabulously photographable Marble Caves.

Photo by Michele Falzone/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Photo by Michele Falzone/Stockbyte/Getty Images
Photo by Michele Falzone/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Torres del Paine National Park

Said to be the Eighth Wonder of the World and declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the (admittedly sometimes crowded) Torres del Paine National Park is home to some of the most recognizable mountain treks on Earth. The park’s O Circuit (58 miles of hiking over eight days) and W Trek (47 miles of hiking over five days) are challenging bucket-list hikes that take you by glacial lakes; through old-growth forests; and into grasslands that are home to the puma, huemul, ñandú, and guanaco. On mild weather days you can photograph the Torres reflected in the water, but don’t come with any expectations: Weather shifts rapidly here, and after a day of sunny blue skies you could end up at the Torres only to be met by heavy fog, snow, or winds so harsh you just want to start heading back down the trail. Consider it all part of the adventure.

If you are through-hiking you will need to reserve your spot at the park’s mountain refuges well in advance (a year ahead of time would be ideal). If your budget allows, this park would be the place to spend some cash to pamper yourself. It doesn’t get any more luxurious than the Relais & Chateaux Awasi Patagonia, but Tierra Patagonia and EcoCamp are also great options to look into.

Photo by Alejandra Javiera Gallo/ Wikimedia
Photo by Alejandra Javiera Gallo/ Wikimedia
Photo by Alejandra Javiera Gallo/ Wikimedia

Kawesqar National Park

Reminiscing over 25 years of philanthropic work, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins has said her proudest achievement was the creation of Kawésqar National Park. After giving it to the Chilean government, it became the second-largest national park in Chile (after the 8-million-acre Bernardo O’Higgins). About 26,000 square kilometres of surrounding water is also protected.

Named after the local Kawesqar tribe, this remote national park has fjords, islands, glacier-riddled cordilleras, Magellanic subpolar forests, and coastal archipelagos, making it primarily boat-accessible. Although not the southernmost park on the Route, Kawesqar is the easiest option to explore this region. Some of the more southern parks are logistically difficult to reach.

Entering the park with an expert guide is obligatory (book one through the Patagonian Fjords boating expedition company). Trips conveniently start from Puerto Natales (the gateway town to Torres del Paine), and Patagonian Fjords offers trips for as short as two nights and for as long as a month. Camping on your own is not allowed, and there is no hotel or cabin infrastructure within the park.

Photo by Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Photo by Posnov/Moment/Getty Images
Photo by Posnov/Moment/Getty Images

Cape Horn National Park

There is remote and then there is remote. Cabo de Hornos National Park is a 12-hour boat voyage from Puerto Williams, on Isla Navarino off the coast of Ushuaia. The archipelago has two authorized ports (Puerto Maxwell in the Hermite Islands and Caleta Martial on Isla Herschel), and only certain types of boats are permitted to dock. The surrounding sea is the sole place in the world where the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans converge.

The park is home to a large diversity of marine birds like the Albatross and the weirdly cool Southern Giant Petrel. Here, you will see short and squat sub-Antarctic forests that have adapted to the gale-force winds that often reach close to 100 miles an hour, with plants growing at a sideways angle to the ground. There are also over 400 species of Moss and 300 species of Liverworts. This plant world in miniature means you should bring a macro lens or microscope to be able to delve into its hidden beauty.

Comfortable cruises are also available from Punta Arenas in a round-trip visit that lasts five days, during which you’ll visit part of the park. Book with Australis—they’ve been navigating these waters safely for years.

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Cathy Brown splits her time between travelling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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