Chile occupies a narrow strip along South America’s western coast, nearly 3,000 miles from the Peruvian and Bolivian borders in the north to Drake’s Passage (the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific) in the south.
Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Easter Island, the Atacama — the names alone quicken the heart of any adventurer. Mile-for-mile, there may well be more natural beauty in Chile than anywhere else on Earth.
Arturo M. Benitez International Airport (SCL) in Santiago, the capital, is one of South America’s larger hubs, with direct flights from all over the Americas and farther afield.
Though places like Patagonia and the Atacama are rightfully popular amongst serious outdoorsmen, there’s no reason for the rest of us to be put off by the rugged landscapes and middle-of-nowhere locales. One of the great pleasures of travel to the far corners of Chile is that its end-of-the-earth settings are also home to top-tier boutique hotels.
When Explora Patagonia opened in 1993, it must have felt like an impossible bastion of luxury at the limit of the inhabitable world — and though today its reputation precedes it, arriving at the hotel still feels like a discovery. Perched above a waterfall on the shores of a glacier-blue lake, with the massive, snow-flecked spires of the Paine Massif casting shadows from on high, Explora occupies one of the most spectacular settings of any hotel on the planet. It’s a 250-mile drive from Puerto Natales (not exactly a metropolis, itself), and from the edge of Torres del Paine National Park, some 124 miles into the journey, it’s pretty much all dirt roads. The ride is a bumpy one, but once you’re at the hotel, the roughing-it is over.
Two decades after Explora’s arrival in Paine, the region has become an unlikely gallery for some of South America’s most striking contemporary architecture. Fittingly, it was Germán del Sol, the Chilean architect behind the groundbreaking Explora, who initiated the new wave of hotels with his design for Remota, which opened in 2005 in Puerto Natales. Like del Sol’s earlier work, Remota is a long, low-slung structure. It’s almost as if the building were prostrating itself before the grandeur of its surroundings, and to underscore the point that the environment comes first, the grass that was removed to make way for the building now grows on the roof. It’s an exceedingly comfortable hotel, and one that makes a striking visual impression, but it’s not exactly a monument to ego. As for cultural and architectural influences on the hotel, del Sol cites the region’s sheep barns, whose utilitarian look he wanted to emulate in his design.
At the border of Paine National Park, general manager Matías de Cristóbal is overseeing construction of the new Awasi hotel. “No one would like to see a building like the Bilbao Guggenheim as a destination in Patagonia,” he says. “That’s why we build using only elements of the place and why we try for the architecture to mimic the surroundings.” To design the hotel, the owners selected Felipe Assadi and Francisca Pulido, whose charge, according to Cristóbal, was to “achieve an architectural humility.” The goal may be humility, but the task is nonetheless daunting. Before materials could even be brought in, the crew had to construct a 10-mile road just to reach the site.
Of all the hotels in the region, there may be none more subtle than Tierra Patagonia, which opened in 2012. From the proper angle, the hotel looks like little more than a fissure in the earth, a minor geological feature beneath the gasp-inducing major ones that serve as its backdrop. Cazú Zegers, the Chilean architect who designed the hotel along with two partners, had traveled around the region in the late ’70s and early ’80s. “I was always impressed by the open, the silence, the sky,” she says. “I’ve driven all over Chile on this small motorcycle, and I’ve fallen in love with the beauty of this country. Traveling like that, on a motorcycle, you perceive the landscape with your body.”
That immersion in the landscape served Zegers well when it came to designing the hotel, which is meant to resemble a snake or a dune. “The idea,” she says, “is that the building should come out of the ground and go back into it.” Plenty of designers talk about rooting a hotel in its place, but few are working in places as sublime as the wild southern reaches of Patagonia. And few have been so successful in doing their settings justice.
“The hotel is a very thin skin,” Zegers says. “It’s there just to protect you from the weather.” If this is mere shelter, we’ll take it.