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Patagonia Inside Out

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Photo: Frédéric Lagrange

In the end, I would recommend Los Cerros for the excursions alone. It’s nice to have a menu of activities to choose from, all well conceived and guided by people who know what they’re doing, and to be sent out each day with a backpack stocked with just the right variety and amount of food to keep your energy up. The hiking around El Chaltén was the best I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. One full-day hike (excursion No. 6) took me through a thick forest of lenga trees growing from an ancient seabed, a flock of green parrots bursting into call as I passed, and on a steep climb up to the shore of Laguna de los Tres, a glacial lake in the shadow of Mount Fitz Roy, then along a red-rock ridge high above a broad valley cut by the twisting Río de Las Vueltas, as majestic as the Colorado. Suffice it to say, after hours on the trail, as I sank my tired feet into cool fine pebbles on the beach at Capri Lagoon, and watched the clouds moving above the mountain peaks in the distance, I was reminded that it was Los Cerros that afforded me the privilege of being there.

Remota, Puerto Natales, Chile

In Chile, it is impossible to think about Patagonia without thinking of Explora, the homegrown hotel-adventure company whose important innovations included the integration of design into the adventure-travel experience. Much of the company’s success, therefore, is credited to Germán del Sol, the great Chilean architect who designed Explora properties in Torres del Paine and the Atacama Desert. After a recent falling-out between del Sol and Pedro Ibañez, Explora’s owner, observers suspected it was only a matter of time before del Sol struck out on his own with a new project.

That project is Remota—which quietly opened last year just outside Puerto Natales—conceived and designed by del Sol and paid for by a wealthy Chilean family who also operate a corporate hotel in Santiago. Puerto Natales is another Patagonian boomtown, a once sleepy, still scruffy port that has become a launching pad for hikers headed to Torres del Paine, a two hours’ drive to the north. As Patagonian tourism takes off, Chileans see Puerto Natales eventually becoming the center of a tourist circuit that will move travelers from Torres del Paine south to Ushauia and even Antarctica, and on to El Calafate or El Chaltén in Argentina.

There is only one word to describe Remota’s design: dazzling. Whether or not you like the look of it from the outside—a severe, angular U-shaped building clad entirely in black asphalt and topped with a multitude of gigantic curved exhaust pipes—within, it is a study in del Sol’s brand of inventive modernism. The heart of the building is a soaring, sun-drenched, cathedral-like space facing a bay, Seno de Última Esperanza, with a series of intersecting ramps and staircases creating different spaces and levels for lounging and dining. Del Sol took his inspiration from Patagonian industrial buildings, and the materials throughout are willfully humble but used in highly stylized ways: the ceiling is a geometric tour-de-force of raw structural two-by-fours; enormous concrete columns punctuate the vertical space and have only a rough coat of white paint, their seams and ridges exposed; open fire pits in sitting areas are made from concrete and fieldstone, and vent into huge black metal ducts that descend from the ceiling. Juxtaposed with these consciously rusticated elements is furniture designed by del Sol’s firm—heavy, angular modular sofas and full-size platform beds for lounging—as well as museum-quality Chilean artifacts, including Indian ponchos and headdresses, stone tools, and pottery on display in vitrines.

The guest rooms are less dramatic—for one thing, they’re not oversize like everything else—but also more organic, with pizarra (slate) floors and lots of solid, untreated wood, used for a modular bench, table, and headboard, as well as decorative beams, each crafted from a single plank, a cross-section of tree, really, with the bark left on the edges. What the rooms lack in views (only public areas look onto the bay, which leads to the Reina Adelaida Archipelago and the Pacific), they make up for in comfort.

Like most hotels in the region, Remota offers a menu of excursions, and aside from the design, this is what the hotel is currently doing best. Max Salas, a former head guide at Explora, planned outings that allow guests not only to see Torres del Paine (though, frankly, if that is your main goal, you’re better off at Explora) but also to get a more complete picture of this part of Chilean Patagonia. I certainly did things Explora guests generally don’t: toured the impressive new Puerto Natales industrial museum and visited an organic vegetable farm; hiked up the nearby Cerro Benitez for an astonishing 360-degree view; and, in the remote Sierra Baguales, walked along a stream littered with fossils before having lunch with a cowboy who has lived entirely alone in this valley for 20 years.

Remota still needs time to get things right. Service is not as solicitous and helpful as it should be at these prices (when I complained about a lack of hot water, the answer I got was, "Wait longer"), and I’m concerned about how this staff would keep up if all 72 of the hotel’s rooms were occupied. Although I didn’t love the food at any of the hotels I visited in Patagonia, Remota’s fell well short of acceptable—canned mushrooms on a salad, powdered "orange juice." Happily, there are a couple of good restaurants in town (including the convivial pizza place Mesita Grande). And so for the moment, Remota is a hotel with great promise, one of the most originally designed properties I’ve seen in a long time and a real alternative to Explora—provided you’re not expecting perfection.

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