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Patagonia Inside Out

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Patagonia is mythical, one of those places that live as much in the imagination as in reality, which makes a trip there feel momentous: in an age when your neighbor has penetrated the monasteries of Bhutan and your boss has paid court to the mountain gorillas of Uganda, Patagonia has somehow retained the mystique of the frontier. The name alone conjures images of a fabled landscape—spiky peaks veiled in clouds, glaciers that extend to the horizon tumbling into electric-blue lakes, endless steppes unpopulated for hundreds of miles save for a lone gaucho on horseback, herding sheep with a dog by his side. And it puts you in a mood that has been enshrined in classic travel literature, especially Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia: that of the exile, the outlaw, the wanderer, drawn to a place where one can as good as disappear into the sheer enormity of physical space.

Patagonia covers about 260,000 square miles in size—roughly the same as Texas—and spans a significant portion of lower South America. The region is no longer the uncharted territory it once was. Although hotels can be up to six hours away from the nearest airport, those airports link to Chile’s and Argentina’s metropolises. For years Patagonia has been on the map of international trekkers, who have found there some of the world’s best hiking and who have hardly minded the lack of infrastructure and creature comforts. Things began to change in 1993, however, when the Explora lodge opened in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park and gave those who demanded a dose of luxury with their adventure a reason to head to Patagonia.

Although Explora’s success did not immediately spur further development in the region, today a full-scale boom is under way. The number of visitors is growing. Airports are expanding. Roads are being widened and paved. Towns are doubling in size, almost overnight. And, most significant for the traveler, a clutch of stylish new hotels has begun to open up parts of the region that many visitors previously passed by. Even the best of them have some kinks to work out, but that’s largely not a problem: these properties aim less to be destinations in and of themselves than the means by which people can enter and experience this remote, and largely unspoiled, place.

It is possible to envision a time when tour buses roaring across four-lane highways and disgorging tourists at sprawling megaresorts will banish the incredible sense of peace here. But for now, with any of these hotels as your base, you can hike in silence for an entire day—through ancient forests and up to the top of wind-whipped moraines and along glistening rivers that cut through valleys so lush and perfect they could be motion-picture stand-ins for the Promised Land—all without seeing another human being. For now, at least, Patagonia still feels like your own discovery.

Eolo, El Calafate, Argentina

Alone among the hotels I visited in Patagonia, Eolo, 455 miles above the tip of the continent, was in its second season, and it shows; while many properties here are still ramping up, Eolo is already providing a complete and satisfying experience. And although it is not without flaws (overambitious and underexecuted food, most notably—a problem I found throughout the region), it is already the best hotel in southern Argentina.

Built in an austere style inspired by the utilitarian architecture of Patagonia’s estancias—gabled roofs, walls of corrugated sheet metal overlaid with half-timbering—Eolo is located about an hour west of the rapidly expanding town of El Calafate, near Estancia Anita, one of the largest, oldest, and most infamous ranches in Argentina. (Infamous because it was the site of what is known as la Patagonia trágica—a 1921 labor uprising that resulted in the ambush and massacre of close to 1,500 workers by the Argentine army.) The setting is about as convenient as you can get, but it is still entirely isolated. Within Eolo’s sight lines there is almost no human habitation, just the wild, otherworldly Patagonian steppe—monochromatic hills, blanketed in tall tufts of golden coirón grass, rolling all the way to red-rock mesas in the distance and the shore of the glittering, limpid blue Lago Argentina, the country’s largest lake. You could easily pass a fine day here just watching the changing light transform this serene landscape, while horses graze in the valley below, hares scamper before you, and caranchas circle overhead.

Inside, Eolo also takes its inspiration from the early estancias, whose owners brought antiques from their houses in the old country and mixed them with more rustic, locally built furniture. Comfy armchairs upholstered in corduroy, leather sofas, and chunky wooden tables topped with laja (sandstone) mingle with an English Empire table (displaying bird feathers collected on the hotel’s land) and 18th-century Spanish occasional chairs, heavily carved and studded with square nailheads. The overall effect is sophisticated yet homey—this is the kind of place where you don’t worry about kicking off your muddy boots and tossing your fleece beside you when you return from a hike. Guest rooms have a similar feel: beds are made with crisp white sheets and big fluffy duvets, wall-to-wall sisal carpet is topped with beautifully patterned woven-wool rugs, and plain white walls are hung with black-and-white photographs of local flora and fauna. (All 17 rooms are large and similarly decorated—Nos. 3 and 8, both on corners, have the widest views.)

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