Chile Hotels, Mixed Reviews
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 a 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 conference we were attending 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.
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 a 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.
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. website
It’s as good as 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 into 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.
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 nature, with the immensity, with the spirit of the place, with the people. And then they invest.
The late 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 was a conservationist. His family 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.
The Cliffs Preserve
Barbara and I spent a night at an American-owned property called the Hotel Mari Mari 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.
“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 the season, is $900-1200 not per night but per person. Hotel review on Luxury Latin America
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. website
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.
I am not sure I am able to explain how our visit to Chile turned into such a crazy high luxe extravaganza.
After the Lakes Region, there was more luxe to come in central Chile.
Early one morning a group of about a dozen of us checked out of the Cumbres Patagónicas and headed down the PanAmerican Highway from lakeside Puerto Varas to seaside Puerto Montt and then down through an ever less populous countryside to a ferry crossing over a river and then on to the frontier village of Hornopirén.
Boating through the Channels
One day we rode a 39-foot Bayliner through channels and fjords that could almost as easily have been Scandinavia or New Zealand. Gorgeous. Unspeakably gorgeous. The kind of landscape out of which sadists make dispiriting 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles.
In a place called Maullín, schoolchildren did some folkloric dances for us wearing the brilliant colors of the region and using kerchiefs as flags.
A Curanto on Chiloé
On mystical, mythic Chiloé Island, we ate a lunch called a curanto, which is something like a New England clam bake but this one with mussels as big as a sumo wrestler’s thumb, and this one is cooked in a hole in the ground.
This feast took place at the Dimter Maldonado household. The Dimter Maldonados have been leaders in the currently booming homestay tourism industry on Chiloé Island.
They’ll put you up for $30-40 a night, they’ll feed you all the food you can eat, and Hardy Dimter, of French-German descent and with a richly lined face and piercing blue eyes, will even let you work the back 40 with him.
Quaint, Not Rich
Along the way, we passed the quaintest little houses, not rich by any means but nothing like poor either, sometimes with wood shingle siding, sometimes with colorfully painted aluminum siding and with the daintiest lace curtains in the windows and often a porcelain cat or an heirloom pitcher or some other decorative bric-a-brac on display on the window sills.
We passed Catholic churches as plain and unadorned as Calvinist churches. We passed endless fields of yellow gorse. We bathed in thermal springs.
The Hosteria Catalina, where we spent a night in Hornopirén, was unpretentious but clean, comfortable, well-heated. Felt completely right to sleep and breakfast in the luxurious Cumbres Patagónicas one night, sleep — and, before that, dine — in the frontier-town Hosteria Catalina the next.
Chile, as we discovered, lends itself readily to seamless casual-luxury tourism. It can also be organized on a $100-a-day basis, or for even less.
Lacking iconic tourist attractions on the order of Sugarloaf, Corcovado, the Colón Opera House, or the Obelisk where Nueve de Julio crosses Corrientes, lacking even a signature soundtrack like Brazilian samba or Argentine tango, Santiago, the Chilean capital, has lagged behind Rio and Buenos Aires as a South American tourist magnet.
With or without iconic tourist attractions, Santiago, in any event, would surely begin to get more of the visitors it so richly merits if people stopped defining it so narrowly.
Just over an hour in one direction is the Isla Negra retreat of Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning culture-hero poet Pablo Neruda. This is an eccentric house in a glorious location overlooking the sea and, despite its name, it is not an island at all but a piece of the continent, a part of the main. (But that’s some other poet, not Neruda.)
A stretch up the coast from Isla Negra but also a mere hour from downtown Santiago along another spoke of the wheel (out from the downtown hub) is glorious, picturesque Valparaíso.
Valpo is Chile’s leading seaport. There is a waterfront here of docks and warehouses. There is a lower city of stolid old bank buildings, a stock exchange, commercial offices.
Beyond that, it’s up by motor vehicle or by foot or on one of the funky old hillside funiculars, a rickety cabin on a steeply inclined track, into the residential neighborhoods, of which at least two, the Cerro Alegre and the Cerro Concepción, have in recent years become quite charmingly artsy and touristy. (Touristy in the best way.)
In Valpo, we enjoyed two nights of quietly understated luxury and elegance at the Casa Higueras Boutique Hotel, with its fine dining room, cozy sitting rooms, to-die-for views, and two nights would, I suspect, be just the right interval for other foreign visitors. website
For two days you can wander the streets, ride the elevators, and keep yourself under the spell that is cast by good-looking people, fine cafes and restaurants, lovely art galleries, and an artistic spirit that spills over into the streets. In Chile, walls have a purpose nobler than merely to protect interiors. They are canvases for murals.
They are blank slates on which to inscribe poetry. More than two days and, I fear, visitors might begin to discover a Valpo that is less artsy and less enchanting. But that was not our fate.
We drove north. Valpo blends into the resort town of Viña del Mar, where there is a Sheraton as well as numerous other high-end hotels.
Valpo has a certain grittiness. Viña has developed as an antidote to grittiness. Viña then blends into Concón, which has both a luxury side and a funky side.
Here we had an amazing lunch of scallops and clams in great baths of garlic in a joint by the sea where there were pelicans on the roof, and from there we drove on the short distance to Zapallar, in whose environs there are four golf courses, of which one is a 27-holer.
Georgian Country House
At the 42-room Gran Hotel Zapallar Isla Seca, where everything is as symmetrical as a Georgian country house in Britain, we found a wall paneled with photos of Margaret Thatcher, who had come by many years ago to sign some treaty or other. website
Jose Carril, the manager, in a sweater that looked like Scotland, told of an American couple who had arrived in Valpo on a cruise ship. Somehow they had found their way up to Zapallar. They liked it. On the spur of the moment, they decided to abandon the cruise ship with a large part of the cruise still to go, and for a week they holed up right there in the Isla Seca.
But let’s go back to the downtown Santiago hub of this wheel. Go east along yet another spoke and in less than an hour you are at the Valle Nevado ski resort, up in the mountains obviously. Travel two hours and you’re at the Portillo ski resort.
We were in the Santiago area during one of the last ski weekends of the South American season. A friend of ours was going off to Portillo. Not us. We instead drove an hour south to the Hacienda Los Lingues in the Colchagua wine valley.
Luxury again. Extraordinary luxury. We lodged in a suite that might have served King Edward (Edward VII, the one who lent his name to the Edwardian Era) or even his mother Queen Victoria as receiving chambers.
Horses everywhere. A regal dining room. Regal salon. And there was always some member of the Claro Lyon family, the owners, stopping by our table to tell stories and chat. I’ve seen ice cream parlors that boast “established 1987.” Los Lingues’ claim? “Desde 1545.”
The Great Roads of Chile
Roads in Chile, by the way, are on a level with European roads, North American roads. Driving is courteous, disciplined. No reason North American visitors can’t rent a car and get from place to place on their own, same as they’d do in Britain or in France.
Leave Santiago in any direction, moreover, and you’ll pass vineyards and wineries and you’ll see signs for winery tours.
Los Lingues does not itself produce any wines, but Los Lingues buys something like five percent of Rothschild-Lafite’s Chilean output, and they serve it, under their own private label, kind of as if it were common table wine (which, needless to say, it isn’t).
Santiago itself. OK, there are no must-see great monuments. But it’s booming economically, it’s as civilized as Europe is. You know how they say about a fine wine that it has overtones, say, of blackberries or of peach?
Sometimes in Santiago, you drive across the narrow little Rio Mapocho and you get little memory backbites of Charles River crossings in Boston or Potomac crossings in Washington. Civilized.
We stayed for two nights at the brand new Santiago W hotel — the first W in South America. website
The colors, the fabrics, the textures — all fabulous. You don’t like the disco-y get-up-and-dance soundtrack? That means you’re not hip enough to stay here.
You don’t like the way, in your bathroom shower, there’s only one faucet — so that you can regulate water pressure but not water temperature? Forget it. Go somewhere else.
You’re not hip enough to stay here. You don’t like the window wall between shower and bedroom? That’s right. You’re not hip enough. (And maybe you’re not.) Go somewhere else. This place is for fashionistas.
Fortunately, there’s a huge Ritz-Carlton right around the corner. As traditional (and again the first of its brand in South America) as the W is untraditional.
We didn’t stay there. But we looked in. We did, in this manic moving of ours, manage to spend one night, nevertheless, in the downtown Plaza San Francisco Hotel. Another fine traditional five-star property. Didn’t give us just one 4 a.m. wake up call for a 7 a.m. flight. Gave us two. website
The Plaza San Francisco, on the eve of our departure, also, as it happens, sponsored an impressive tasting of Chilean wines. Fifty different vineyards, hundreds of labels, and hundreds and hundreds of beautiful people, many of them there not to get drunk but serious enough about wines actually to make use of the spit buckets. Get to know this remarkable country.
Mark Zussman was an associate editor at Esquire back when that meant something and editor-in-chief at Playboy Enterprises’ Oui Magazine back when that, too, meant something. For the past eight years, he has lived in Búzios, State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The title of his next book: The Brazilians Are Better Than We Are.