Patagonia Inside Out
Between treks into the fabled lonesome landscape of southern Chile and Argentina, Nathan Lump takes in four stylish new hotels.
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.)
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.
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.
Altiplánico Sur, Puerto Natales, Chile
A further testament to the pace of development in Puerto Natales is Altiplánico Sur, which is a two-minute walk from Remota and opened about the same time. Owners Maite Susaeta and Juan D’Étigny have made something of a habit of opening properties near Exploras; their first hotel was in the Atacama Desert, and their next project is on Easter Island, where Explora also has a new property under way. With 22 rooms, Altiplánico Sur is smaller and more pared-down than the Explora in nearby Torres del Paine, not to mention less expensive.
Altiplánico is a bunker hotel—a semicircle set into a hillside, its roof covered in grass blanketed with dandelions and its façade faced in "bricks" of turf. According to Susaeta, who designed the place, the goal was to make it largely disappear into the landscape, and for the most part that is the effect. Whether you enjoy the underground feeling when in residence is a matter of taste. The dominant decorative features inside are concrete (concrete walls patterned in two textures, concrete bed platforms and modular night tables) and metal (modern wrought-iron chairs, steel-and-glass tables), softened here and there by a sheepskin throw rug or a driftwood lamp. Some will find the smallish rooms, reached via long, dark, curving hallways, a lesson in Flintstones chic; others might call them a new-wave cellblock. Even those in the latter group will appreciate the large window facing the water in both the bedroom and bath (all rooms have good views, but those closest to the central hall of the property have slightly better ones).
Much less of a full-scale hotel than Remota, Altiplánico offers a set daily menu (the food is just okay, and few people avail themselves of it, given the better offerings in town), and you’re on your own for excursions. Most guests here are traveling as part of a group and therefore have their days planned for them; the minuscule but friendly staff can point you toward the many operators in Puerto Natales if you want guidance. This being Patagonia, you’ll be unlikely to go wrong.
Nathan Lump is the travel editor of the New York Times magazine T.
When to Go
Summer in Patagonia (North America’s winter) is the mildest and most popular time to visit, though temperatures rarely go much above 70 degrees and winds are strong.
There are daily flights from Buenos Aires to El Calafate and from Santiago to Puerto Natales. In high season, tickets go quickly, so book well in advance. Some visitors rent cars in Patagonia, but unpaved roads can be a challenge; many hotels provide transfers to and from the nearest airport. For travel overland between Argentina and Chile, there are three border crossings; my transfer, from El Calafate to Puerto Natales, was handled by South Road (54-290/249-2393; www.southroad.com.ar).
Planning a trip can weary even seasoned travelers, especially non-Spanish speakers, so work with a knowledgeable agent; I called on the fantastic Betty Jo Currie of Explorations (800/451-9630; firstname.lastname@example.org). For more agents, see travelandleisure.com/alist.
What to Pack
Breathable waterproof layers, a hat, sunglasses, sturdy hiking boots, and high-SPF sunblock: the hole in the ozone over the South Pole lets in very strong sun. Note: Cell phones do not work in most of the area; if you must stay in touch, rent a satellite phone to take with you.
Where to Stay
El Calafate, Argentina; 54-114/700-0075; www.eolo.com.ar; doubles from $1,568 for a three-night stay, all-inclusive.
El Chaltén, Argentina; 54-114/814-3934; www.loscerrosdelchalten.com; doubles from $1,668 for a three-night stay, all-inclusive.
Puerto Natales, Chile; 56-2/387-1500; www.remota.cl; doubles from $1,980 for a three-night stay, all-inclusive.
Puerto Natales, Chile; 56-61/412-525; www.altiplanico.cl; doubles from $170.
Where to eat
EL CHALTÉN, ARGENTINA
Asador-Parilla Mi Viejo
A good traditional Patagonian asador (barbecue restaurant).
dinner for two $30.
Estepa Resto & Bar
For soups, pastas, and pizza; in season, be sure to reserve.
54-290/249-3069; dinner for two $25.
PUERTO NATALES, CHILE
Great pizzas, pasta, and fresh salads (a rarity in Patagonia).
56-61/411-571; dinner for two $20.
Restaurant El Asador Patagónica
An asador for serious carnivores.
56-61/413-553; dinner for two $25.
WHAT TO READ
In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin (Penguin Classics, $15).
A classic not only of writing on the region but also of the travel genre—an eccentric, elliptical, entertaining wander.
Restaurant El Asador Patagónica
Estepa Resto & Bar
Asador-Parilla Mi Viejo
A further testament to the pace of development in the area is Altiplánico Sur—a bunker hotel set into a hillside, its roof covered in grass and dandelions, and its façade faced in bricks of turf. The 22 smallish rooms are heavy on concrete (walls, bed platforms, nightstands) and metal (wrought-iron chairs, steel-and-glass tables), softened here and there with a sheepskin rug or a driftwood lamp. All have good views, but those closest to the property’s central hall offer slightly better ones. If you don’t already have an agenda, the small but friendly staff can point you toward the many operators in nearby Puerto Natales for guidance. This being Patagonia, it’s unlikely you’ll go wrong.
One of the more stylish new bases in Patagonia for exploration is Remota, an upscale lodge designed by the great Chilean architect Germán del Sol (creator of the Explora hotel-adventure company). While the exterior is severe, angular, and clad in black asphalt, the interior is a study in del Sol’s brand of inventive modernism: consciously rusticated elements combined with pizarra (slate) floors, heavy modular furniture, and museum-quality Chilean artifacts. The hotel can arrange an array of trips into the Patagonian countryside, including a visit to an organic vegetable farm; a hike up the nearby Cerro Benitez for an astonishing 360-degree view; and a walk along a stream littered with fossils in the Sierra Baguales, followed by lunch with a cowboy who has lived alone in the valley for 20 years.
El Chaltén, a dusty speck of a town situated in an unusually beautiful spot beneath the granite spires of Cerro Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, has hardscrabble charm: until recently, there were few lodging options for those not willing to camp out or share a bathroom. Los Cerros opened in 2004, and what it lacks in luxury it makes up for in comfort: the 44 rooms are generally small and fairly basic, with nondescript functional furniture, cheerful striped duvets, geometric-print curtains, and a picture window with a stunning view of snowcapped mountains. Come for the outdoor activities, including some of the best hiking in the region.
Eolo, El Calafate
While Patagonia—the 304,000 square miles of electric-blue lakes, endless steppes, and spiky peaks that span lower South America—remains largely unspoiled, the region is undergoing a full-scale development boom. Built in an austere style inspired by gabled estancias, Eolo sits on the isolated Patagonian steppe, 552 miles above the tip of the continent. Inside, armchairs upholstered in corduroy mingle with an English Empire table and 18th-century Spanish chairs. The overall effect is sophisticated yet homey—the kind of place where you don’t worry about kicking off your muddy boots when you return from a hike. Guest rooms have a similarly relaxed feel: beds are made with crisp white sheets and big fluffy duvets, wall-to-wall sisal carpets are overlaid with vibrantly colored woven-wool rugs; cream-colored walls are hung with sepia photographs of local flora and fauna.