Subarctic Oasis

3 minute read
Jack Epstein

As I arrived at the hotel at the end of the world in the middle of a rainstorm, a waitress was positioning a gleaming silver ice bucket to catch the drops from a leaky roof. I knew this place had class.

Such attention to detail is just what German del Sol had in mind when he designed the 30-room Explora hotel five years ago. “We wanted to create a place for tourists to spend a week without worrying about survival or unnecessary sacrifices,” he says of his $7 million retreat in the windswept Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, a six-hour drive from Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city. “We aim to soften the roughness of nature.”

Del Sol, 48, is the exuberant chief executive officer and president of the rapidly growing Explora hotel chain. He founded the venture in 1989 to bring five-star accommodations to Chile’s most isolated regions, ranging from rugged Patagonia to the arid Atacama desert in the north. His chain is geared to environment-conscious baby boomers who have limited time but substantial savings and boundless yearnings to revel in wilderness with all the comforts of home. “We belong to a culture of cities,” he told me. “We do not want Explora guests to face the wilds unprotected.”

Explora prices are not cheap. At the hotel in Torres del Paine, a double room for four nights can cost up to $1,624, though that includes meals and a choice of five daily guided outings–by car, foot, mountain bike, boat or horse. The park is a 600,000-acre, UNESCO-declared biosphere where flamingos, black swans, llamas and condors thrive amid emerald lakes, glaciers, fjords and floating icebergs. At day’s end guests can relax at the health spa with a Thai massage or a dip in the outdoor Jacuzzi. At mealtime they gaze out at the Salto Chico waterfall as white-jacketed waiters bring plates of fresh salmon or Patagonian lamb and bottles of fine Chilean wine.

At Del Sol’s insistence, the Explora blends in with its surroundings. Hotel waste is treated with a complex system of filters, ultraviolet light and two kinds of beneficial bacteria so the sewage is crystalline before it enters Lake Pehoe. The staff burns dead wood purchased outside the park, places generators in soundproof sheds to prevent noise pollution, and uses some solar power.

Del Sol hires a high percentage of local residents, mostly from the nearest town, Puerto Natales, but his bilingual guides come from Sweden, Britain and the U.S. Although construction costs were twice those in the city, Del Sol spared little expense: floors are made of Bolivian slate and interior walls of perfumed cypress; bed linens are imported from Barcelona, and towels hang on heated racks. With his clientele in mind, Del Sol devised a sophisticated communications system that includes fax machines and international direct dialing.

“In Patagonia you can hike, trek or horseback ride in almost any direction without finding fences,” Del Sol says. In 1997 his year-round average-occupancy rate went past 30%, and it continues to grow. The key to this success is the hotel’s attraction for tourists willing to come in months other than December to March, the South American summer, when the weather is moderate. The park’s erratic weather can dishearten even an experienced traveler, but Del Sol is prepared. When the hotel got snowed in a few years ago, the Chilean army sent three tanks to evacuate tourists. The guests got a raincheck for a return visit later in the year.

–By Jack Epstein

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