Looking for something different this winter? Head to Patagonia, where the Southern Hemisphere summer guarantees plenty of sunshine.
Patagonia, which comprises the southern portions of Chile and Argentina, offers a fantastic array of options for travelers with a taste for adventure. Gorgeous national parks, glaciers, penguin colonies, trekking, ferry trips through fjords--it's all there. And one of the best ways to experience the Patagonian wilds is a trip to Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile.
Torres del Paine is one of Chile's most famous natural wonders. Its stunning views and wide variety of trails make it popular with casual backpackers, experienced trekkers and upmarket travelers alike. While it's true that the park receives more tourists during the Southern Hemisphere summer months of December, January and February, now is the time to go if you want a better chance of good weather. During the fall (mid-March through May) the park's weather can become increasingly fickle. You might get several perfect days of blue skies and sunshine, or you might get snow, sleet, hail, rain and brutal winds. It's nearly impossible to know in advance, especially since the weather changes so quickly. Whatever time of year you go, make sure you have the appropriate gear.
There are several options for getting to the park. Major US airlines such as Continental, American and Delta fly to Santiago, Chile, which takes about nine and a half hours direct from Houston (direct flights may sometimes be hard to find). If you can quickly plan a trip and leave this month (say, on the 20th) and stay for a few weeks, Continental's lowest fare from Houston--with a stop in Panama--is around $1400. Prices increase by about $1200 in February and March. American Airlines flights for the same date in January stop in DFW or Miami on the way out and back, and cost about $1100 (including taxes). Flying with Delta (with a stop in Atlanta) will cost just about the same. Neither American nor Delta show a fare increase for flights leaving in early February, but Delta shows an increase of about $400 in March, and American's fares go up by about $250.
From Santiago, the airline LAN Chile flies to Punta Arenas, one of the southernmost cities in the world, right on the Straits of Magellan ("Estrechos de Magallanes" in Spanish). (As an aside, make sure to take a tour of the Austral brewery, one of the premier artisan "cervecerías" in Chile. Try the El Calafate brew when it comes time to sample).
From Punta Arenas, visitors take a bus a bit further north to Puerto Natales, the closest town to the park. The place abounds with hostels (and has at least one nice hotel), but in high season you should still definitely book in advance. One extremely popular option is Erratic Rock. The hostel is run by an American expat who's been living in Chile for years. He and his staff are friendly, knowledgeable and helpful, and even run an in-house supply center where you can rent gear for the park (there are plenty of other hostels and a few stores in town that rent gear if you're staying elsewhere). While you're in Puerto Natales, take a trip to the restaurant la Mesita Grande to meet other travelers and indulge in some fantastic pizza.
Your hostel will help you arrange bus tickets to Torres del Paine. During the high season, morning and afternoon buses run between the park and Puerto Natales (but only in the morning during the low season).
It's also possible to fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt on LAN Chile and then take a bus or the Navimag ferry to Puerto Natales (the ferry also goes north, from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, and takes four days). However, flying to Punta Arenas is the most direct route.
One you arrive at Torres del Paine, there are many different ways to explore the park. There are several different trekking circuits (read about them here) that take varying lengths of time to complete. You can camp at the campsites or stay at the "refugios" located at selected points along the trails. Camping is cheaper, but refugios offer food (sometimes for an extra charge) and sturdy shelter, which is quite nice when the weather is bad. Alternatively, visitors can stay at a number of hotels or hosterías around the park and take day walks or horseback rides. Several tour groups organize guided treks and visits. Check out the park website or a travel guide (I recommend the Rough Guide to Chile) for contact information.
If you've never traveled to Chile before, be aware that U.S. citizens flying into the country for the first time will have to pay a "reciprocity fee" of $131 in cash. A receipt will be stapled into your passport. The fee is a one-time fee and is valid until your passport expires. If you have any questions, contact the Chilean Consulate in Houston at 713-621-5853 or 713-963-9066.
Above all, do what works best for your level of physical fitness and the amount of time you have. Book in advance, but know that changing weather conditions in the park may mean that your plans need to be somewhat flexible once you get there. Happy travels!