With bases in seven remote South American locations, Lysanne Currie discovers experiential travel company Explora has pioneered a new planet-friendly, head-clearing way of interacting with the natural world while giving something back…
The night skywas raven black as our minibus finally drew up to the front of Explora’s Patagonia lodge and we emerged stretching and squinting at the enormous iceberg-like edifice and its warm, welcoming orange lights glinting like tigers’ eyes. It had been five hours since we left Puntas Arenas airport at the southernmost tip of Chile and an hour since we entered the Torres del Paine National Park, a unique and untouched landscape declared a biosphere reserve by Unesco. Our journey along the Ruta del Fin Del Mundo(End of the World Road) had begun during daylight and we’d driven over snow covered scrubland and along a vast, bleak landscape only stopping halfway to be fed and watered at Western-style Rio Rubens restaurant.
It was 9pm and our guides asked us to drop our bags in our rooms and return to the lobby to choose our next day’s explorations. That’s the spirit of an Explora trip – if your idea of a holiday is a sun lounger and a romcom, it’s not for you. If you want to explore the planet’s most untouched and striking landscapes, experience something incredible and learn a little more about yourself, an Explora adventure is a dream come true.
In 1989 a group of friends with a love of unconventional travel, had an idea to offer journeys in remotest South America. Their USP: interaction with the natural world and local communities. Four years later the dramatic Explora Patagonia lodge opened its doors on the banks of Lake Pehoe in the heart of the Torres del Paine National Park, with the Salt Chico waterfall as a neighbour and opposite the magnificent Paine Massif and the granite towers which give the park its name.
Today, there are four lodges and three travelesias [nomadic trips] in seven remote destinations, offering device-frazzled beings a chance to detach from everyday life, observe our existence from afar, solve persistent problems and lift mental clouds. And it works.
Our lodge companions – CEOs, politicians and tech entrepreneurs – concurred the experience brought clarity of vision as they reconnected with their families and their selves while trekking through some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet, not to mention returning fresher, fitter and clear-headed.
The four lodges [Patagonia, Atacama, Rapa Nui and the Valle Sagrado] have different personalities but their award-winning architecture maximises natural light and low-consumption lighting systems to minimise electric power in all hotel operations.
Lodges are luxurious – food and drink sublime, interiors exquisite – but the real treat is getting close to nature’s wonders in their original state. Our serene bedroom was large, with cool linens and sage green painted woodwork but it was only next morning that we saw its true gem – an enormous picture window framing Lake Pehoe.
Three days later, we travelled north to a ranch-like lodge in the Atacama Desert decorated in bright blues and yellows, with single storey suites built around a huge courtyard and picture windows gazing over the desert to a volcano studded backdrop.
Working with the community
Explora’s mission is “to actively respect the past, enjoy the present and contribute to a better future by either developing new or supporting already existing long-term conservation projections and working with local communities”. Travellers can get as involved as they like.
Our two-and-a-half hour soul-lifting trek from Explora Atacama took us through the hero conservation project – the Explora-owned 8,500 hectare Puritama Natural Reserve – descending valleys and clambering up hills, passing streams and ancient caves. Our guide pointed out rare flora and fauna that thrive despite the altitude, drought and extreme temperatures. It was this biodiversity that led Explora’s founder, Pedro Ibanez, to create a private conservation reserve within the desert that helps local communities learn from anthropological and scientific studies. Today, the reserve not only provides a safe haven for wildlife but is also home to the thermal pools of the Puritama River, our reward at the end of our hike where we joined locals to bathe and feast on a picnic.
Each conservation project is unique to the lodge. Explora Patagonia’s is a reforestation programme to help replace hundreds of thousands of trees lost in 2011 when a fire blazed through the Torres del Paine National Park, burning a staggering 17,000 hectares of forest. Explora worked with Chile’s government and NGOs to bring back native plant species lost in the fire. It also bought 700 lenga trees, which guests can sponsor at the lodge shop.
Ecology flows through Explora’s DNA, with the environment considered across the hotel’s operations. Twenty years ago, the founders drafted a Sustainability & Conservancy Programme before the first guests stepped over the threshold. Their environmental policy is continuously updated so all lodges reach certain standards and minimise their footprints.
Waste management is key – lodges separate, compact and stockpile each material to donate to local initiatives such as permaculture and recycling. State of the art water treatment and purification plants are installed at all lodges to reduce water consumption.
Guests are encouraged to reuse towels, sheets are changed every second day (unless requested) and the hotel provides a glass pitcher of their own freshly purified water, not bottled water. All lodges have purified water dispensing machines with guests given a reusable water bottle. Rooms have efficient lighting fixtures and complimentary slippers feature a certified biodegradable sole to avoid generating waste at the end of their life cycle – good to know when you edge tired hiking feet out of well-trodden boots and slip them on at the end of another phenomenal day.