From Punta Arenas airport, Puerto Natales is about a three-hour and forty-five-minute drive along the two-lane Route 40 (Ruta 40), nicknamed “End of the World” because it goes to the most Southern tip of the continent and runs clear up to the Northern edge of Chile. The first ten miles or so out of Punta Arenas are along the Magellan Strait, which is a sight to behold.
Also along your drive you’ll likely encountered Nundu (emu family), Guanaco (llama family), a couple Flamenco (flamingo) flocks and a couple different Caracara (falcons) among the ranches of cattle, sheep and horses. The rustic, flat landscape stretches out with a few mountains popping up here and there through the mist and constantly changing weather.
In Puerto Natales, there are only a few options for luxury eco-lodges. The Singular, in particular, was once a slaughterhouse for cattle. The decor pays homage to that heritage and the rustic machinery throughout has long since been cleansed of its original duty.
A quirky and quaint alternative to the isolated ecolodges is Hotel Indigo, located downtown with views overlooking the Lago and Ultima Espiranza Fjord. Upon a cheery checkin, you will be presented with welcome drinks: Calafate Sours, made from Pisco Sour and blended calafate berries. The regional berry tastes like a mix between a cranberry and a blueberry. Hotel Indigo is in the heart of Puerto Natales’ shops and restaurants.
Similar to European culture, only a few restaurants in city are open on Sundays…the Lenga Restaurant (named after the most prominent native tree in Southern Chile) is one, if not THE, best in the region. Like all the restaurants in Patagonia, Lenga seats only five tables and fills up by 7:30 PM. WOW – this restaurant does not disappoint. The flavors are exquisite and the artistic presentation rivals any Michelin star restaurant. Shortly after being seated, the waiter will serve bite-sized fried pumpkin flour bread rolls with a roasted tomato spread, pre-ground sea salt, and seaweed flakes.
As an appetizer, try the scallop and hake ceviche, which was served with caviar and a flavored foam. It is divine!
For our main courses, order the lamb confit or guanaco (wild llama). While you may feel conflicted about eating an animal so adorable, trying the local meat at least once can enhance your overall appreciation for the culture. The guanaco is pretty gamey, but the lamb will melt-in-your-mouth in yummy goodness. Both are beautifully presented.
Another highly recommended restaurant is Santolla, which is another that will fill up fast if you don’t get there by opening. The restaurant, built inside shipping containers, has a rustic, yet hipster vibe to it that reminds me of Portland. All the crab dishes are surprisingly served sans shell despite how the description of “Crab Legs” may lead you to believe you’ll be doing your own cracking and extracting, and are incredibly flavorful and rich. Try the King Crab Legs in spicy tomato cream sauce or the white wine and cheese cream sauce – both are excellent and won’t disappoint.
While in Puerto Natales, the quickest and safest way to see the glaciers is by tour ship, where (depending on time of year) may find yourself jam-packed in with 100+ of friends you haven’t met yet from across the world. (I can’t imagine what high season is like because each and every seat on the boat was taken. And I’m fairly certain the seats were made for children because we were rubbing shoulders and hips with each other.)
The all-day tours stop at two destinations: A hike to Serrano Glacier and lunch served at a former cattle ranch turned tourist stop. It’s a long day on a boat, with lots of rocking. The hike itself is about twenty-minutes out to the glacier and the same back, depending on how many stops you make to take photos of the scenery. For those who aren’t up for hiking, there is a lookout point near the boat dock to enjoy the views.
Prepare yourself, the weather will be as unpredictable as life itself. One minute it may be sunshine and high winds, the next minute it could be raining sideways, and you’ll endure every weather pattern in between as you make your way along the river. It’s quite fascinating to observe and experience first hand! Dress in layers and make sure your jacket, beanie and gloves are windproof.
All in all, if you’re visiting Patagonia, this is a beautiful region to visit on your way to Las Torres del Paine or El Calafate. Recommend only two days, though, as there isn’t much to see outside of visiting the glaciers and local shops.
If you have restaurants or other activities to suggest travelers visit, please comment!