8 November 2017 by Rachel Mostyn
If you’ll pardon the obvious pun, Chile is hot at the moment. Having just returned from my second visit, I completely understand why Lonely Planet has named Chile the top destination to visit in 2018. It’s a country of huge diversity, immersive culture and a spectacular natural world that rivals more established long-haul favourites like Australia and New Zealand.
While all this won’t come as something new, what what has changed recently is the growth in luxury and boutique hotels – along with the launch of the first-ever non-stop flight from the UK. This combination really makes Chile a top choice for travellers looking for an experiential holiday that doesn’t compromise on comfort.
What’s more, the recently launched British Airways flight is operated by a brand-new 787 Dreamliner, with convenient departure and arrival times in both directions. It is hard to overstate the impact of this new service, which takes several hours off the previous travel time to Chile. And, with four cabins to choose from, there’s an option to suit all budgets.
Then, once arrived, Santiago’s hotel scene has changed beyond recognition in recent years, especially in the boutique sector. That said, it is arguably Chile's more remote, activity-inclusive lodges that are the real reason to plan a trip. There’s now a dozen or so upscale offerings to choose from, many of which operate on a fully inclusive basis, featuring a full range of daily excursions along with wining and dining that shows off Chile’s gastronomic renaissance.
While there are some great examples in Easter Island, Chiloe and the Lake District, the most notable examples are clustered in Patagonia and Atacama – the two regions that form the centrepiece of most Chile holidays and, indeed, mine. So, starting in the south and running northwards, here is an in-depth guide to the country’s top lodges.
It makes sense to start at the beginning. Since 1993, the Explora in Torres del Paine has set the standard for Chile’s adventure-inclusive lodges, with its dramatic national-park location serving up a huge range of included excursions. More recent entrants have in turn focused on upgrading the in-lodge experience, while still offering access to the park’s attractions – or providing a more personalised excursion service.
One such lodge is Tierra Patagonia, located in an equally splendid setting on the edge of Lake Sarmiento by the national park’s entrance. The hotel building is an attraction in its own right, an all-wooden, curved design that manages to be both dramatic and unobtrusive within its environment. It offers panoramic views of the Paine Massif, including the famous 'towers' after which the park is named. They’re sweeping views shared by the open-plan bar, restaurant and lounge areas – a layout that encourages interaction. It all creates a fantastic, early-evening buzz as guests share stories of the day’s adventures over a drink. As you would expect, along with a collection of less-active sightseeing options, there is a huge range of included activities from trekking to horse riding and kayaking. In between activities, there’s also the best spa and pool in the area, complete with a new yoga room and yet more panoramic views. The result? A winning combination of comfort and adventure.
Located slightly further to the north in a newly created private reserve, Awasi Patagonia – the only Relais and Châteaux property in Patagonia – excels at rustic luxury. While the property also offers great views of the Paine Massif, the focus here is on delivering a truly private and personalised experience, both within the hotel and without. Not only are the large villas generously spread out around the reserve, each with its own private hot tub, but each one comes with its own private guide and 4WD vehicle. It all facilitates a degree of flexibility that is simply not available elsewhere, allowing you to completely tailor your (included) activities on a daily basis – handy in a region that has notoriously changeable weather. It also offers some of the best opportunities for spotting the elusive puma as well as a number of walks that are unique to the property. Back at base, dining is a particular treat, as you would expect from Relais and Châteaux. During my recent visit the excellent sommelier was delighted to showcase a wide range superb and unexpected Chilean wines.
The Singular Patagonia
Heading to the countryside around the town of Puerto Natales, The Singular Patagonia is one of the quirkiest luxury hotels in the country. As a sister property to what is arguably the best boutique hotel in the capital – The Singular Santiago – it’s fast becoming an icon in its own right. Following a sensitive and imaginative restoration of a former meatpacking plant, the hotel offers supreme comfort, a superb restaurant and a full spread of excursions, from horseback riding to fly fishing. Highlights also include private-boat trips out to the nearby glaciers, departing from the hotel’s own jetty. There’s even a museum dedicated to its unique history. In all, it can be used as a base for a taste of Patagonia, or, better still, can be combined with a stay at one of the Torres del Paine lodges.
Swimming pool, The Singular Patagonia
A couple of hours’ flight north of Patagonia will then bring you to Chile's equally scenic Lake District, home to picture-perfect collection of national parks and snow-capped volcanoes. It’s a region – especially around Pucón and Puerto Varas – that’s long been popular with Chilean holidaymakers for its trekking, mountain biking and, of course, water-based activities. But, until recently, luxury adventure properties have been somewhat thin on the ground.
And, things are beginning to change, starting with the 2016 opening of Awa Hotel, positioned beautifully on the edge of Lake Llanquihue. This is a more traditional boutique hotel than adventure lodge but it is planning to introduce an inclusive package that will offer a range of activities in the area. Also located in Pucón is the well-established Hotel Antumalal. Although renowned for its restaurant, it also offers an optional activity-inclusive package. Here the focus in on trekking and horse-riding in the numerous national parks, along with activities as diverse as rafting, bird watching, snowshoeing and even husky-sled tours.
Northwest of Pucón is the wonderful Hacienda Hotel Vira Vira, located on the banks of the Liucura River and positioned next to its own dairy farm. This superb Relais and Châteaux hotel has raised the bar on what to expect in Chile’s Lake District, combining an extensive wine list and fine dining that’s a prime example of the ‘farm-to-table’ concept with a full complement of trekking, mountain biking, fishing and horse-riding. The hotel can even provide optional helicopter rides, offering a unique opportunity to see this stunning region from the air. It also features some of the finest rooms anywhere in Chile – the riverside Villa Suites are a particular highlight, managing to be both spacious and cosy at once.
Accommodation, Hotel Vira Vira
Not far from Puerto Varas, the island of Chiloé is one of the rising stars of Chilean tourism, with its colonial-era wooden churches, unique culture and stilted over-water buildings. It also features the latest of the Tierra properties, offering a wide range of walks, horse riding and water-based activities around the pretty archipelago.
Stilted houses, Chiloé Island
If you head further out into the Pacific – much further out – you’ll arrive at the famously remote Easter Island, or Rapa Nui. Here, a second Explora lodge tops the list of luxury lodge options, offering hikes, bike-rides, snorkelling and scuba diving in addition to visits to those iconic, carved-stone Moai that gaze enigmatically out to sea.
Stone Moai, Easter Island
The central region of Chile includes the capital Santiago and the main wine-producing areas, which hosts a number of excellent boutique hotels. The focus here is understandably on discovering Chile’s finest vintages, but a few hotels – including Viña Vik and Clos Apalta Residence (formerly Lapostolle Residence) – offer walking and horse-riding opportunities in addition to wine tasting and fine dining.
Vineyard and lodge, Clos Apalta Residence
And finally, in Chile’s arid north, there’s the Atacama Desert; along with Patagonia, it’s one of the country’s ‘must-see’ regions. Dramatic lunar landscapes, high-altitude Andean lakes, salt flats and geysers are the main attractions here, all of which can be visited year round due to the remarkably dry and temperate climate.
The luxury lodges here are clustered around the small, mud-brick town of San Pedro, each stylish offering built to reflect the region’s traditional architecture. Of course, there’s plenty of opportunity to experience the stark beauty of the Atacama.
For the best way to take in the region’s famous night’s sky, Milky Way and all, look to the Alto Atacama. Located three kilometres outside of San Pedro, it takes full advantage of the low-to-zero light pollution with its very own open-air observatory – the only one in the region. The hotel is also known for employing a high percentage of staff indigenous to the Atacama to offer a more authentic experience.
Lodge, Alto Atacama
At Awasi, again a Relais and Châteaux hotel, the emphasis is on enjoying the dining experience as much as the superb activities. All of which are offered, as in Patagonia, on a completely private basis. In addition to spacious individual cottages, stylish and comfortable outdoor areas allow you to make the most of the fresh air in the ultra-dry climate.
Swimming pool, Awasi Atacama
Lastly, Tierra Atacama serves up my own favourite recipe of contemporary accommodation, spa treatments, a huge range of excursions and some of the finest panoramic views of the majestic Licancabur Volcano – best enjoyed at sunset with a drink at one of the cosy fire pits. You can read my review of a previous visit here.
As a destination for travellers seeking adventure without sacrificing luxury, Chile is right up there with the best. While distances are vast, travel is relatively easy, with an excellent domestic flight and road network. If you’re familiar with the luxury lodges of Australia and New Zealand – the two countries that have redefined the luxury lodge concept – you’ll have a good idea of what is on offer in Chile. And, if you are thinking of going, my advice would be to go soon and, above all, book early. Most of these properties are small and demand is only going to increase, something that is not lost on the folk at Lonely Planet.
Inspired? Take a look at our collection of itineraries below or get in contact with one of our Chile specialists today.