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Patagonia Inside Out

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

Most people come to El Calafate to see ice: the town borders the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the third largest in the world, after Antarctica and Greenland (although from 1995 to 2000, the ice melted at twice the rate it did from 1975 to 2000), and Eolo can arrange excursions to the nearby Perito Moreno and Upsala glaciers. The hotel is also beginning to hold special photography, yoga, and athletic-training workshops. But to my mind some of the best things to do are simple and on the property, like a long, lazy horseback ride through the Anita Valley or a hike up Cerro Frijas, the broad hill behind the hotel, with one of the house dogs tagging along, to get a 360-degree view of the area (on a clear day you’ll see all the way to Torres del Paine, in Chile). One of the chief pleasures of these activities is that you’ll be guided by members of Eolo’s staff, exceptionally friendly and professional young people who can just as neatly take you up a mountain in the morning as deliver champagne on ice to your room at cocktail hour.

Los Cerros, El Chaltén, Argentina

Several hours to the north of El Calafate is El Chaltén, a dusty speck of a town with unpaved roads and tiny cinder-block houses that the government founded in 1985, to stake a definitive claim after a border dispute with Chile and the awarding of the land to Argentina by an international tribunal. Chaltén, situated in an unusually beautiful spot beneath the granite spires of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, is as remote as it gets—Calafate is the nearest town of any size, cell-phone service is nonexistent, and even a gust of wind (not infrequent) can knock out the satellite service that allows residents access to the Internet. Nonetheless, the town quickly became a fixture on the international backpacking circuit; today, it is cheek by jowl with delis, cheap restaurants, hotels, and sporting goods shops. Although Chaltén has existed for more than 20 years, everything here looks as if it went up yesterday, and indeed much of it did—as in Calafate, the sights and sounds of construction are constant reminders that this is a frontier outpost on the rise. Although far from aesthetically appealing, Chaltén has hardscrabble charm, and it is the major gateway to some of the most dramatic topography in Patagonia; until recently, it offered few, if any, lodgings for those not willing to camp out or share a bathroom with strangers.

Los Cerros opened here in 2005, billing itself as the "first international hostelry" in town, and it is by far the most comfortable place to stay. It was built and operated by the team behind several other Patagonian properties (including Los Notros to the south, at the doorstep of the Perito Moreno glacier in Los Glaciares National Park), and developed with FitzRoy Expediciones, one of the biggest local tour companies. Los Cerros has many positive points, including some of the very best hiking excursions in the region. Then there are the negatives. The hotel sits on a hillside overlooking the town: a hulking form of peaked roofs and flat façade clad in wood and stone, it is not exactly the most sensitive piece of architecture, and it dwarfs everything nearby. ("It’s like a castle, up on its hill with the town around it" is how one resident described it.) Inside, I couldn’t help noting the missed opportunities. The main public area, a combination sitting room, bar, and dining room with a vaulted ceiling, is plenty comfortable, but the arrangement of its plush furniture—abundant sofas and chairs in leather and pinwale corduroy—actually minimizes the mountain views from the oversize windows. A skylit upstairs sitting room is flooded with sunlight, but its soaring ceiling and enormous size make it feel cavernous rather than inviting. And placing all 44 guest rooms on one side of the building necessitated long corridors with low ceilings and ranks of facing doors, an arrangement that suggests an institution.

Those rooms are, for the most part, small and fairly basic (the four Premiums are bigger and more comfortable), with nondescript functional furniture, cheerful striped duvets and geometric-print curtains, a few framed bird prints on the walls, and a picture window with a beautiful view of snowcapped mountains. An open closet on the way to the bathroom, with pegs and shelves and a rail, will remind you of your college dorm room. And yet there are the trappings of a more ambitious hotel: turndown service with branded chocolates on your pillow, a mini-bar (almost unheard-of in Patagonia), and a complete range of bath amenities (including those little folded tissue paper blotters and a loofah).

What I came to realize after a few days is that Los Cerros is more luxury hostel than luxury hotel, in keeping with the spirit of El Chaltén. After all, people come here to hike, not to linger in their oversize bathtub or spend all evening over a gourmet dinner (although on this front the hotel does try to deliver, and the food is fine, if occasionally overreaching, as in a dried fruit "ravioli" with roasted venison and sweet potatoes). Guest accommodations really are souped-up economy-size rooms with en suite baths; that cavernous dining room really is more of a prettified mess hall. The relatively inexperienced staff will grant most requests when put to the test, and they contribute a youthful energy—from lounge music on the sound system to the cocktail of the day cleverly served in a shot glass with your amuse-bouche—that feels right.

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