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In Chile, Patagonia remains pristine

In Chile, Patagonia remains pristine

Posted by PanamericanWorld on May 18, 2015

With its monumental peaks, ancient glaciers and picture-perfect lakes and rivers, Patagonia is hardly a tough sell.

The region spans a small portion of the southern tip of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. But the majority of travelers continue to visit only the Argentine side, leaving the Chilean sections relatively pristine and untapped. 

Chile's Patagonian Magallanes region is its southernmost and least populated, made up of four provinces that include some of its heaviest hitters, like Tierra del Fuego and the Strait of Magellan. But the region is also home to Torres del Paine National Park, which, though one of the most popular parks in Chile, remains relatively undisturbed.

The main draw of the park is its Three Towers, which jut out in the distance like a crown over the park's celestially blue glacial lakes and rivers. Hikers can opt for a day trip to the towers or walk the popular "W" route, which takes about five days.

To access the 935-square-mile park, travelers must fly from Santiago into Punta Arenas and take a three-hour drive to the lakeside city of Puerto Natales, population of less than 19,000. This, combined with limited accommodations, ensures that only an average of 150,000 visitors come to Torres del Paine National Park each year. Machu Picchu in Peru receives 400,000 visitors each year. That said, the Chilean government is looking to increase visitors to Puerto Natales and the park by making the destination more accessible.

A king guestroom at the Singular Patagonia. The property was built in the converted Frigorifico Puerto Bories facility.

Currently, Puerto Natales' airfield is only equipped to handle small aircraft during the summer months. But next year work will begin on a new airport and passenger terminal, which will allow aircraft landings year-round.

"It will allow a different travel alternative and will make it possible to fly on the weekends to Magallanes," said Teobaldo Ruiz, president of the Puerto Natales Chamber of Tourism. "Travelers will arrive to Puerto Natales and in less time they will be in Torres del Paine, avoiding the distances that they have to travel when they fly to Punta Arenas now." 

By 2025, Torres del Paine is expected to have 300,000 visitors annually, Ruiz said. This will drastically shift the landscape of Puerto Natales, which today exists as the sleepy capital of the Ultima Esperanza province. 

Puerto Natales has a wide array of camping sites, hostels and bed-and-breakfasts, many of which exist inside the national park. Well-heeled adventurers can opt for the Singular Patagonia, converted from a cold-storage plant built in 1915 to process and export meat to Europe. 

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