Checking into Hotels Up and Down the Chilean Beanpole

Chile Hotels, Mixed Reviews

by Mark Zussman

Eager waiters in a mural at the Hacienda Los Lingues in San Fernando, Chile. Photos by Mark Zussman.
Eager waiters in a mural at the Hacienda Los Lingues in San Fernando, Chile. Photos by Mark Zussman.

We definitely do too much of our intercontinental air travel in the dead of night. Under ordinary circumstances, travelers from U.S. gateways to Santiago, Chile are just barely getting their eyes open as the aircraft touches down on the runway.

The Andes loom off to the east. A majestic sight, not to be knocked. My wife’s good fortune, and mine, was to come in, in broad daylight, over Argentina.

We could make out Mendoza, the commercial center for the Argentine wine industry, quite clearly under the port wing. Argentina hereabouts was as brown as dirt and as two-dimensional as a hash house grill.

But then all of a sudden there was a great wall ahead of us. It appeared to rise vertically. And then for — how long was it? ten minutes? 15 minutes? — there was the dazzling rippling whiteness of the great Andean peaks beneath us like another kind of ocean. And then, as abruptly as it started, the Andes were over and we were headed for the ground in Santiago.

This was the kind of thing that aerial tourism was invented for — so Chile, we felt, with a little help from Argentina, had already fulfilled its part of our little bargain, and more. After this, everything else was going to be sheer bonus — and we hadn’t even passed through immigration yet.

Puerto Varas Lodgings

To be sure, darkness actually worked in our favor when we at last checked into the 92-room Hotel Cumbres Patagónicas in the storybook town of Puerto Varas, some 620 miles south of Santiago, where many of the events of the travel industry event were to take place. We pulled aside the curtains of our room. Nothing. Zero. Pitch blackness. Tried the same in the morning, and the view out over splendid Lake Llanquihue (pronounce it Yan-KEE-way) gave new meaning and utility to the somewhat shabby concept of the picture window.

A way way lonely beach, Chilean Patagonia
A way way lonely beach, Chilean Patagonia

Darkness on this occasion worked for us the way darkness does in a theater when the house lights go down and then all of a sudden the curtain goes up to reveal a universe of pure magic.

In recent years, little Puerto Varas has been developing into an important tourism destination for a variety of reasons. One, it’s the ideal place for travelers to wind down for a couple of days after they complete the high-adrenalin Andes crossing, partly by bus, partly by motor launch across the high mountain waterways, from the Argentine ski resort of Bariloche.

Two, Puerto Varas, (population 25,000) works admirably as jumping-off point for mountaineering forays up the slopes of the nearby Osorno Volcano, fly-fishing expeditions to nearby lakes, rivers and streams, and visits to mystical Chiloé Island (about which more later), in fact for any number of brush-ups with pristine and awesome Chilean nature.

There’s a casino here now, there’s an automobile museum nearby with the world’s second largest collection of classic Studebakers, there’s a lot of good dining. Migration to this part of Chile was predominantly German, and that may go a long way to explaining why the area feels both South American and not South American at the same time. May also explain some of the seemingly finicky tidiness.

Same as a fjord, but in Chile it's a fiordo.
Same as a fjord, but in Chile it’s a fiordo.

Scenery of Switzerland

For people with money to burn, the still spanking new Cumbres Patagónicas (the name means Patagonian Peaks) is a great and luxurious place to stay. It’s as good as many a hotel with comparable scenery in Switzerland. I hasten only to add that Barbara and I were not lodged there at our own expense. (Remember, we were on our way to a travel industry event, as press. We were guests.) The quite grand Meliá also shines in the money-to-burn category. So does the Colonos del Sur across the street from the casino, and there are others.

One idle afternoon, Barbara and I looked in to a more modest lodging called the Weisserhaus. It was located behind the Colonos del Sur. It lacked an up-close view of the lake. But it was charming. So was another reasonably-priced establishment called the Terrazas del Lago. Lodgings in all price categories, or at least the vast majority of them, seemed to smell to one degree or another of pine resin, and it’s a rare hotel reception area or lounge that didn’t have a roaring fireplace to help travelers recover from the pervasive chill, if you’re not there in summer.

The Osorno Volcano at Lake Llanquihue -- Darwin himself watched this baby erupt in 1835.
The Osorno Volcano at Lake Llanquihue — Darwin himself watched this baby erupt in 1835.

Chile Rustic and Upscale

Lot of American money down in these parts, not incidentally. Silicon Valley money. Redmond, Washington money. Money from all over the place. Folks who’ve somehow or other made themselves a bundle come down to fly-fish, yacht, kayak, trek, or heli-ski. They fall in love with the nature, with the immensity, with the spirit of the place, with the people. And then they invest.

Douglas Tompkins, a founder of North Face clothing and then of Esprit clothing, bought a piece of land that runs from the Argentine border to the Pacific, metaphysically if not effectively dividing Chile into two parts. Tompkins is a conservationist. He operates his 1250 square miles as a nature preserve and a park — The Parque Pumalín that was declared a nature sanctuary in 2005.

Nothing a lot more dangerous there than cabins and campsites. Still, the magnitude of the intrusion is such as to have turned into something of a national security issue.

Barbara and I spent a night at an American-owned property called the Cliffs Preserve at Patagonia. The park here is 12.5 square miles of primordial forest and with a South Pacific ocean frontage of something like six miles, all at a distance of just over an hour’s drive due west from Puerto Montt, which is just ten-15 minutes to the south of Puerto Varas.

Valparaíso -- it's quaint, it's steep.
Valparaíso — it’s quaint, it’s steep.

“An eco-luxury retreat” is the way the place styles itself. There’s a lodge with a dining room and a spa. There are four or five villas, each with a huge living room, a huge kitchen, four extremely spacious bedroom suites. Given the way the place is set up, it’s ideal for large families. But ’tain’t cheap. The tariff, depending on season, is $900-1200 not per night but per person. The owner is South Carolina real estate developer Jim Anthony. (One more reminder: at none of these establishments were we ourselves paying.)

Another place Barbara and I spent a night is the Yan-Kee-Way Lodge, the name being an Anglicizing play on the name of Lake Llanquihue.

Follow the lake itself, counterclockwise, for a mere half hour or so out of Puerto Varas. There are 1400 square foot chalets and bungalows here. There are hotel-style rooms. The restaurant, Latitude 42º by name, has repeatedly been cited as best in Southern Chile, one of two best in all of Chile, stuff like that. (The kitchen was shipped whole, in a container, from the U.S.)

Yan-Kee-Way’s owner is Digital Systems’ former board chairman Michael Darland, who also owns an extremely rustic fly-fishing lodge, El Patagon, about 300 air miles farther to the south, in deep wilderness.

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