With tourism taking a toll on the environment, more luxury tour operators than ever are now offering eco-friendly alternatives for travelers. This is especially true in the remote South American region of Patagonia.
Shared by Chile and Argentina, Patagonia runs along the southern range of the Andes Mountains. The area is famed for its four-seasons-in-a day-climate and pristine rivers, lakes, deserts, grasslands and glaciers.
Here are several notable companies making strides to protect Patagonia's wondrous flora and fauna for future generations.
Nestled in the heart of Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, EcoCamp Patagonia is billed as the world's first geodesic dome hotel. Guests stay in spherical structures that were inspired by the ancient shelters of the area's indigenous Kaweskar people.
Voted among Travel + Leisure's world's best hotels in 2017, accommodation ranges from standard domes to suite dome lofts. Luxury amenities include a dome bar, massages and free yoga classes along with a variety of all-inclusive programs that cover meals (like three-course dinners with wine and a daily cocktail) and guide-led trekking, horseback and kayaking excursions.
Step outside the dome and delight in Patagonia's unforgettable landscapes and wildlife — including the South Andean deer and pumas — by day, while gazing up at a canopy of stars at night.
EcoCamp's environmental philosophy is clear. Carbon neutral since 2008, the hotel runs on renewable energy — primarily solar and hydro, the latter from a nearby river. It also uses composting toilets, a biofiltration system and raised walkways to prevent erosion. The hotel sources local ingredients for meals and partners with nonprofit organizations to plant new trees and rebuild trails.
The EcoCamp experience "allows for a deep connection with nature, as well as with the individuals on your trip," says co-founder Yerkgo Ivelic. "It's a win-win for nature and for our clients."
After spending four nights there with his son, Californian Mike Villegas agrees.
"You (order) your dinner at breakfast, so the chefs would know exactly what to prepare to minimize food waste," Villegas said. "Staying with a small footprint made us feel good about visiting such a spectacular location."
Global Basecamps helps clients travel Patagonia sustainably by partnering with properties and tour operators that share that passion. Among its go-to destinations is Awasi Patagonia, a Relais & Chateaux property located in a private reserve overlooking Torres del Paine National Park.
This luxury boutique hotel minimizes its footprint by using renewable energy and constructing its 14 villas and a main lodge on stilts to avoid damaging the local habitat. It also keeps tourism dollars local with a foundation for wildlife conservation that includes a puma-tracking program to protect the endangered cat.
Rates are based on all-inclusive packages that cover everything from gourmet meals to privately-guided excursions. Each villa is assigned a private guide and a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Perched along the banks of Lake Pehoé with spectacular views of mountains beyond, Explora Patagonia is a 49-room luxury resort designed to blend into the surrounding nature.
Don't arrive expecting Wi-Fi or televisions in the rooms; neither are available so that guests can disconnect and enjoy the on-site spa, indoor heated pool, gastronomic offerings and a slew of half-day and full-day hikes and horseback rides.
The resort offers recycling, power and water efficiency and provides guests with an opportunity to help restore Torres del Paine's lost forest. After a devastating wildfire swept through the park in 2011, the company started the Lenga Forest Reforestation Program, in which travelers can sponsor one of 700 Lenga trees for replanting, in an effort to preserve the park's beauty.
The company is also launching a sister hotel, Explora Patagonia Argentina, in 2020.
Since 1996, BlueGreen Adventures has made conservation its core mission by investing in local communities, which in turn, invest in the environment. Aside from horseback rides with hired guides, as well as cooks and baqueanos (Chilean cowboys) to give visitors a taste of the gaucho life, BlueGreen has a leave-no-trace policy and uses horses, instead of vehicles, to move equipment and luggage.
American Victor Messier described a riding holiday to Patagonia with his wife as "the time of our lives." He credited BlueGreen's staff with its success, noting a native-born guide who "knew every cranny so we met very few hikers on the trail" and a chef who prepared appetizers and cold beverages "from water to pisco sours."
He also highlighted a hotel located on the slope of the Cerro Guido that was built by area pioneers in 1920.
"The classic luxury of Estancia Cerro Guido was the cherry on top with its old ranch ambiance and the beautifully preserved artifacts," Messier said.
The company also offers camping in the mountains, boat and kayak rides, fly fishing and stays with local families, as well as cooking classes and folklore music displays.
"We are constantly talking to local families and people looking to venture into sustainable tourism in the area," founder Lian Hayes said. "We help them take steps into tourism in a responsible way."