Chile: The Two Extremes

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Chile is 1,500 miles long and only about 150 miles wide, a long geographical string of startlingly beautiful physical contrasts from one extreme to the other—all of which, despite their differences, share a commonality of stark natural beauty, along with pristine natural resources unencumbered by an overabundance of man-made artifices.

It is, after all, a country that combines one of the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful regions rich with a seemingly untouched collection of rivers, mountains, glaciers and fjords in Chile’s Patagonia, with the mesmerizing splendor of the world’s driest environments in the region of Atacama, rife with desert-like otherworldly moonscapes that overwhelm the senses—a place where you realize desolation can truly give birth to a unique sense of beauty and awe.

But it’s also a sophisticated country with a colorful indigenous population, a vibrant colonial past, important port cities and a sophisticated, lively capital—Santiago—whose charm is only exceeded by the genuine friendliness of its people, its culture, its history and its exciting array of restaurants, clubs and nightlife.

On a recent visit to this incredibly beautiful country with a number of officials and members of the U.S. Tour Operators Association, there was an opportunity to experience and savor the unique appeal of this truly magnificent place. First stop for most from the U.S. is Santiago itself flying in with LAN Airlines, for a 3.5-hour connecting flight to Balmaceda, home to Patagonia’s Aisen Region’s largest airport and also a bustling village of about 500 people—which is pretty telling about what kind of neighborhood you’re going to be in for the next couple of days. The region, in fact, is the least populous of the country’s 11 regions, a fact you’re not going to mind at all as you head even farther into this wondrous land.

No time for sightseeing here, though, a bus is waiting for the next leg of the trip—another 2.5-hour ride to Chacabuco situated along the fjordland coast, which is a small port where guests board the Patagonia Express Catamaran for still another high-speed passage to the Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa, an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous resort, literally just about in the middle of nowhere. But first, more about the luxury high-speed catamaran, which was built and owned, by the way, by the owners of the Puyuhuapi Lodge & Spa, a family business whose primary focus is on being one of the biggest ship builders in Latin America.

That expertise is reflected in this luxury catamaran with plush reclining seats in the downstairs seating area with large view windows on the side and up front. Upstairs, there’s a spacious lounge and dining area with a bar where complimentary drinks and meals are served. In this case, after boarding and en-route to the lodge, a full-course luncheon was served, preceded by cocktails along with an excellent assortment of Chilean wines. For the remainder of the trip, snacks and drinks were available on a full-board basis, as well. But it’s the ride itself that’s the experience—gliding full bore down through the beautiful Austral fjords, the wind and spray kissing your face as you stand outside and watch the wilderness rush by, an occasional porpoise taking up the chase alongside. It’s truly an unforgettable trip and it’s just the beginning.

When you finally glide into Dorita Bay in the evening and catch the first glimpse of the lodge, warm lights illuminate the wood and stone structure with its steep roofs and tall, rectangular towers—a virtual Camelot in the wilderness nestled in the most southern part of Chile. Once inside, everything is warm and inviting with beautiful wooden walls in the foyer, set off by open beams, while the lounge areas boast stone-like walls set off perfectly with rich wood trim. All the rooms in the lodge have been designed to face the sea and all the guestrooms have terraces that look out on this incredibly tranquil piece of paradise.

The rooms are all beautifully appointed with pretty much all the modern accoutrements except Internet and TV—a deliberate omission so as not to take away from the serene wilderness environment this lodge offers. And it works because the rooms are designed for rest and relaxation—a place to go in between the exceptional meal offerings and the myriad activities that include everything from trekking in the nearby national forest and kayaking in the bay, to bicycling and cooking classes—there’s even an art package for would-be Rembrandts. There are also spa facilities with thalassotherapy using fresh sea water and algae, as well as a variety of other sophisticated spa and massage programs.