At the very tail end of the American continent – the very tail end of the world – the land simply runs out of ideas. Civilisation cedes to wilderness, to nature’s most dramatic spectaculars. Terra firma becomes a lot less firma, dispersing into fjords and archipelagos, glacier fields and lonely, wind-strafed penguin colonies. This is Chile, a country closer to Antarctica than New York. It embodies that feeling, too, as for all its increasing modernity, this narrow ribbon of land facing the Pacific is a place gloriously out of time. Mention it, and visions flood the mind of sun-sprinkled vineyards and Atacama’s starry skies, of gauchos tending sheep on vast, empty estancias, and Bruce Chatwin’s “farthest place” – the dreamscapes of Patagonia – all of which remain bewitchingly true to reality. Yet equally pervasive are thoughts of the Pinochet dictatorship that saw thousands of political opponents tortured and “disappeared”. It is recent history, and one that few speak of here – the wounds are perhaps too fresh, too recent. But there is another factor at work, a countering sense of a country in a state of self-definition, of a younger generation more eager to face the future.
This forward impulse is evident in Chile’s broadening tourist appeal – a distinct and characterful scene to rival the shoutier claims of neighbouring Argentina. Once the remit of backpackers, Chile’s south is opening up to luxury travellers. The new mode sees architecturally sophisticated hotels grafted onto the wildest landscapes, places that, by their geographic coordinates, emphasise adventure while offering all the comforts and services of the most impressive urban resorts.
In Chile’s Cachapoal wine country, two hours south of Santiago, I drive past a huaso (a northern gaucho) on his horse in the middle of the road. To either side stretch long green avenues of vines covered in fat, black grapes, interrupted by the occasional smallholding, a crowd of willows by a brown stream, a melon patch or a clump of cacti. Protected by hills and cooled by Andean and Pacific breezes, this land is remarkably fertile – a fact evidenced by the all-blossoming plant life, but also by the newly paved road that leads to Alexander Vik’s 10,000-acre vineyard in the Millahue Valley.
A Norwegian financier, Vik made his hotel debut in Uruguay with Playa Vik and Estancia Vik – art‑filled, architecturally dynamic places to stay. He’s set to make his mark on Chile with the building of a new hotel, due to open in early 2014, to add to the Viña Vik winery, completed this summer. The terroir, headed by winemaker Patrick Valette, is divided between sunny hillside and valley floor, the finished product a delicious mix of Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Carménère and Cabernet Franc: “We want to make the best wine in the world,” says Valette. For visitors, there’s a four-bedroom cabin with private chef. Black-panelled and tin-roofed, the pavilion teeters on the edge of a hill, the glass walls of its end bedroom offering a panoramic view of the lake and a bowl of wild pasture that recalls a Serengeti watering hole, evoking the rustic sophistication and high standards at play here.
Chile’s second-largest island, Chiloé, holds an almost mystical attraction, due in part to the number of resident shamans, but also to its untouched rainforest and national park; a coastline busy with penguins, dolphins and whales; fields verdant as a Constable painting; and the surrounding archipelago, each island a few hundred years further detached from the present. Chilean city-dwellers are drawn here by a collective nostalgia for the country as it once was, when life was simple and the air pure.
Chiloé’s new 12-room hotel, Refugia, is reached via a winding drive from the island’s main town of Castro, with its pretty, wood-shingled palafito houses, past fields of grass, apple orchards and trim cottage gardens of roses and marigolds. Rigorously contemporary, Refugia’s cantilevered design and wood-tiled exterior take their inspiration from Chiloé’s artisan architecture. “We wanted the building to be the star, so the inside is very understated,” says the owner, interior designer Ignacio Irarrázaval. Sheepskin-festooned chairs and lots of pale wood are a muted counterbalance to a wall of windows overlooking a bay of pewter water, a meadow and a small pontoon where Refugia’s fishing boat awaits for jaunts to surrounding islands. On a clear day, you can see the spine of the Andes across the water.
Refugia’s guide, Carolina, and I walk along the coast, visiting a church garlanded with flowers, its nave like the hull of a boat. We discuss Chiloé’s communal farming practices and, with the opening of the first airstrip, the need to protect the island’s fragile balance. “Chiloé is like stepping into a storybook,” she says.
That may be, yet there are few places as fabled as Patagonia. This is frontier land, a wilderness where ice fields form an ocean and glaciers rip through mountain peaks as sharp and foreboding as the towers of Mordor. The Torres del Paine National Park, where I am heading, is a place of chromatic extremes – the sky is bigger and bluer than any I have encountered, the mountains are a smoky, nightshade mauve, the icebergs glow with a nuclear opalescence and each lagoon is its own unique shade of lizard green. (Paine means blue in the language of the Tehuelche tribes that used to populate this land.)
“There’s a study that says that looking at a horizon is good for the brain,” says my guide, John Walbaum, from Quasar Expeditions. (He should know: this charming, 27-year-old Chilean with perfect English trained in psychology.) Quasar, known for its exceptional Galapagos cruises, has now launched a private, seven-night, Jeep-conducted and guide-led trip across Patagonia (from Chile to Argentina), staying at the best new lodgings and circumventing the group excursions standard to inclusive hotels here.
John is friendly, funny and furiously well informed. We meet at The Singular hotel, a converted century-old meat-processing plant near to Puerto Natales, on the windblown Cape of Last Hope. Positioned at the lip of a fjord with the cloud-webbed peaks of the Serrano Glacier to the north, The Singular is indeed singular, made more so by the machinery left intact inside its brick buildings, a museum to industry and pioneers past. The rooms are all minimalist concrete, wood and glass, with the comfort of antique desks and pillowy armchairs set before picture windows. There’s a sleek spa and pool as well as a warehouse-sized restaurant and bar, sectioned with mezzanine seating areas and bookcases, each window offering a slice of blue water and tumbling hills.
The benefits of a private guide become apparent the next day, when John and I hike the hills around Lake Sofia. Without footpaths or another human in sight, we summit a cliff, where the famous Patagonian winds (which can whip up to 100mph) rebuff any attempt to capture the scene on camera. We walk through ancient lenga-beech forests, to what John calls a cave (and I would describe as a cathedral) – a soaring cleft in the rock face where the bones of a mylodon, a 10,000-year-old giant sloth, were discovered in 1896. (A scrap of its skin inspired Bruce Chatwin’s travels here.) John plucks something from the ground: a perfectly preserved mylodon hair. We replace it with due reverence.
I’m staying at Tierra Patagonia, a spectacular new hotel embedded into the landscape by the edge of Lake Sarmiento. The work of Chilean architect Cazu Zegers, the hotel’s rippling-glass and lenga-wood exterior blends into the hills and grassy plains. Inside, an open-plan dining room gives onto views of the Paine Massif – the jagged mountain range depicted on every Patagonian postcard. Rooms feature bedside bathtubs and there is a fabulous spa with an outdoor hot tub, to which pumas reportedly make nocturnal visits on chilly nights.
There is something so fundamental about this landscape, unencumbered by humanity, its air so clear and oxygenated. A hike to nearby cliffs with Tierra guide Felipe reveals condors floating on thermals above a golden carpet of pampas, granite mountains soaring above. On the flat hills nearby, says Felipe, tribes once performed human sacrifices. (In a valley, I spy the more modern intrusion of the Awasi hotel, a luxury resort opening next season, offering 4x4s and private guides for each of its bungalows.) “You could fit Singapore into this estancia,” Felipe says. He is Patagonian born and bred and rather a poet. “There is no Argentina or Chile here, only Patagonia. We want our own republic.” (The government would never allow it, John informs me later – “too much strategic land, too many profitable mines”.)
That afternoon, Tierra guide Paola leads a small group of us on a hike through fields of guanacos (a sweet, llama-like beast) to a mirador where the cliff is daubed with tribal paintings and from which we spot a solitary cloud, wind-sculpted into a flying saucer. “The gauchos see real UFOs all the time here,” Paola says. “They call it la luz mala, the bad light.” On our way back to the hotel, the driver of the liveried minivan stops sharply and points to a ridge: three pumas, a mother and two cubs, basking in the afternoon light. It’s a magical moment.
Open since 1993 (and refurbished in 2011), Explora’s Hotel Salto Chico remains the only luxury lodging located inside the National Park itself. With its reputation for service, guides and accessible adventures, Explora is credited with putting Chilean Patagonia on the map. From the hotel’s white, wood-panelled building, the views are staggering: the Salto Chico waterfall cleaves the rocks beneath the restaurant, while the entire Paine Massif, framed by Lake Pehoé, creases the horizon.
A stay at the Salto Chico is defined by its excursions. It has the advantage of its own boat to ferry guests to the Grey Glacier or to trailheads in the French Valley. A minimum three-night stay means you can include – in clement weather – expeditions even farther from the madding crowd, into forests where the only traffic is a solitary gaucho on horseback. The crowd here is mostly 60-something retirees from the US, Canada and New Zealand. (Tierra’s crowd is younger and hipper.) Its enduring appeal is down to the simple, Cape Cod-inspired interiors, the sociability of evening drinks, the smiling service, the top-notch guides and the quality of the food – think pistachio-crusted duck terrine.
The next day, John and I steer the Jeep to the bay of Lake Grey, where 1,000-year-old icebergs, calved from the glacier 18km away, beach like huge Anish Kapoor sculptures; fragments, like pieces of Lalique glass, wash up on the shore. We trek the nearby Pingo Valley, following the river through dappled woods, as John tells me about the natural disasters that have befallen Chile, a biblical smorgasbord of fire, earthquakes and floods. There is evidence of a fire – started accidentally by a backpacker – that blazed through the park in 2012, leaving forests of blackened trees. Fortunately, it skipped much of the park, including the hills through which we trek the next day, up to the base of the Torres del Paine. It is an iconic hike, set to a soundtrack of regular cracks and booms of avalanches, and rewarded with an amphitheatre of peaks and lunch by an occluded ice-melt lagoon.
That night I sleep at Patagonia Camp, in a yurt with a glass ceiling dome, through which I watch shooting stars from my bed. The camp is a delightful eco-resort on Lake Del Toro, where guests can fly-fish for their dinner. It is a charmed spot. My afternoon is spent looking at the mountains we have just climbed, muscles aching, wondering at the renewal that peaks and sunshine work upon the brain. As the first star appears, the vastness of the massif slowly silhouettes against the dusk. Patagonia is a landscape that constantly tests the limits of the imagination – it’s bigger, wilder and more beautiful than one can conceive. You begin to miss it before you’ve even left, and it leaves an incurable hole in the heart, impelling you to return.