You could use the term luxury camping to explain this operation, but portable four-star hotel more accurately describes EcoCamp Patagonia, the first eco-accommodations south of the Amazon. Located in Chile's Torres del Paine National Park near the monolithic Paine Towers, EcoCamp Patagonia can also lay claim to one of the most stunning panoramas of any lodging in the world.
EcoCamp was opened in 2001 by Chilean adventure tour operator Cascada Expediciones in an effort to provide its clients touring Torres del Paine with upscale lodging inside the park that also minimized impact on the fragile Patagonian ecosystem. Modeling their design on the huts made by the nomadic Kawesqar people, Patagonia's ancient inhabitants, planners devised a system of domed tents built to be portable but spacious, comfortable, and strong enough to withstand Patagonia's high winds.
The camp consists of 15 sleeping domes, plus two giant dining- and living-room domes connected by wooden walkways. It accommodates no more than 32 guests at a time. Each sleeping dome is fitted with wooden floors, two beds with fleece sheets and feather quilts, lighting powered by solar and wind energy, and round skylight windows. There are separate men's and women's bathrooms with composting toilets and hot water showers. All camp waste is removed from the park.
Stays at EcoCamp are included with Cascada Expediciones trips in Torres del Paine. These all-inclusive packages range from four-day sightseeing and wildlife-viewing trips ($1,059 per person) to challenging nine-day Torres del Paine Circuit treks ($2,129 per person) that begin and end with EcoCamp stays. Prices cover ground transportation, accommodations, all meals, park fees, and guides.
"The guides and staff members were professional, conscientious, genuinely friendly, and caring, striking the perfect balance between creating an intimate setting and meeting 'commercial' expectations," says New Yorker Suchitra Srinivasan, who stayed at EcoCamp last fall. What she witnessed on the trip—staff members helping needy travelers even though they weren't part of the group, and guides picking up trash on the trail left by others—affirmed, she says, "that they don't pay lip service to their values."
Trip planning:Tours depart weekly from October to April. Visit the EcoCamp website to read about the different tours available. Early-November fares from Miami to Punta Arenas, the start point for Torres del Paine trips, begin at $1,293, including taxes, from CheapTickets.
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Of the travelers I've spoken with about their experience visiting Mongolia, all have made essentially the same points: They mystified their friends by going, but they absolutely loved the country. "I fell in love with Mongolia when I first went in 2005 on a Nomadic Expeditions tour—there's an ancient, unifying energy between the land and the sky and the people," says Pennsylvania teacher Debra Eschbach. "I loved it so much I lived there for a year in 2006 and went back again for Christmas break."