How a 12-Room Hotel Turned a Remote Archipelago Into Chile’s Next Big Thing
As we sailed through the placid channels off Chile’s mid-Pacific coast, all was silent. Our wooden ship—painted yellow and blue and built in the style of a traditional fisherman’s boat—quietly cut through the sapphire waters between the small, low-lying islands of the Chiloé archipelago. On either side, gray, gravelly shores gave way to green hills beyond and nearly cloudless skies above. Here and there, livestock grazed around ramshackle, corrugated-tin farmhouses. Occasionally, a tuxedoed Magellanic penguin would softly swim by.
Then, suddenly, shouts of excitement erupted from the prow:
“Allí! Aca!” ("Over there! Right here!")
“Mira! Que cuatro, cinco! Que linda!” ("Look! Four of them, five! How beautiful!")
I raced forward and found a school of shiny, gray-and-white dolphins skirting the side of our ship. Slickly weaving in and out of our wake, they swam faster, then slower, and faster again, powerfully pounding their tails to propel themselves through the sea. Just as we thought we’d overtaken them, or they’d grown bored with us, we’d see them again, suddenly 10, 15 yards in front of the ship. With their twisting, full-body jumps out of the water, they almost seemed to be showing off, actively enjoying the attention.
My eight or so fellow passengers and I—all guests of Tierra Chiloé, a contemporary-cool, luxe-adventure lodge nearby—loved sharing their delight. Having nearly found ourselves lulled to sleep by the low hum of the ship’s motor and the glasses of Sauvignon Blanc, served with an onboard lunch of salmon and fresh local oysters, we immediately perked up, ready for whatever further Chiloean adventures the day might hold.
Chiloé is the most charming part of Chile you’ve probably never heard of. Less bucket-list flashy than Patagonia in the country’s south, or the Atacama Desert in the north, this temperate archipelago of over 30 islands holds more subtle pleasures. They’re myriad nonetheless, from these delight-filled waters dividing the islands from the mainland to the harsher climes and Jurassic landscapes of the Pacific coast. The archipelago feels like the coast of Maine, the Pacific Northwest, and Northern California—if any of those had been trapped in amber a century ago, rather than bling-ed out with the McMansions of the moneyed and Moncler-wearing. Increasingly, however, just like those sought-after American destinations, Chiloé, too, has started to get trendy.
But even as wealthy folks from Santiago and other South American capitals have begun taking notice and buying property, Chiloé has largely lacked anything approaching a posh place to stay. That’s where Tierra Chiloé comes in. In just its first year of operation under the Tierra flag, the hotel has redefined what travel to and on the islands can look like.
When the architecturally avant-garde property opened in 2012 as an independently owned hotel called Refugia, it almost immediately caught the eye of Miguel Purcell, the managing director of Tierra Hotels, which owns and operates similarly minded, design-conscious lodges in Patagonia and the Atacama that have come to define all-inclusive, luxe-adventure in Chile.
Upon his first stay here, he found himself smitten and offered to buy the hotel from its mastermind and general manager, Andrés Bravari Gambino, who amicably demurred. Gambino eventually came around, however, and agreed to stay on to run the place. Now the hotel is just wrapping up its first season as the newest jewel in the Tierra crown.
“In the last five or six years, you can see Range Rovers and Audis in Chiloé,” Gambino told me over a dinner of crab claws and pan-fried conger eel—a sign of the times as weekend home-hunters and real estate prospectors come sniffing around. A new airport cut what was a 7-hour plane-drive-ferry from Santiago into a three-hour direct flight; a controversial bridge, what will be Latin America's longest, is also planned to spur more investment. “Suddenly, it will be another place.”
The hotel is both a catalyst for and a sign of that change. It also strives to be a sensitive steward, a gentle protector and intelligent interpreter of its unspoiled landscapes and unique character. “Chiloé is a very natural destination,” Gambino said, “not natural just because of it animals and plants, but because it’s not for tourists. It’s not Disneyland.”
When I caught up with him a few weeks later, Tierra’s Purcell concurred: “Historically, Chiloé has always been a remote and isolated place, so, by its nature, it has attracted travelers in search of the unexplored: backpackers, those seeking a B&B-style stay.” As the archipelago’s first luxury accommodation, then, he sees the hotel’s vital role as helping “people looking for a more thorough and complete experience in their travels, encouraging guests to share the culture and customs of the locals, taking them to remote and beautiful spots around the islands that they couldn’t otherwise reach by themselves.”
The challenge through all this is to maintain the hotel’s—and by extension, the archipelago’s—authenticity. To make sure, as Gambino said, that it doesn’t become a Disneyland, even as it becomes an of-the-moment destination for high-flying travelers who like their outdoor adventuring to come wrapped in luxury.
Building a Destination
If anyone can strike that balance, it’s Gambino, a former construction executive with a soft voice, a calm, gentle demeanor, and a clear passion for his current project. He and his artist-designer wife first came to live in Chiloé in 2003, giving up hectic lives in Santiago to make the move. Looking around at the hospitality landscape, which consisted of little more than hostels and other backpacker havens, he saw an opportunity to create “a place where you don’t have to think about anything.”
To guests, that would mean all-inclusive daily menus not just of gourmet local cuisine, but of expert-guided excursions, too. There would be trips to craft markets, seafood empanada stalls, and tours of the islands’ dozens of neo-Gothic and Neoclassical wooden churches (16 of them UNESCO World Heritage Sites). Horseback rides would explore the hotel’s acreage and beyond, sea kayaks its shores. That private wooden fishing boat would, in Gambino's words, “become an extension of the hotel,” enabling guests to explore the waterways of Chiloé as well as they could walk its shores and hike its hills. This is how he would go about bringing luxury hospitality with heart to the pristine archipelago.
Gambino immediately began looking for land to build a lodge, eventually settling on nearly 20 bayside acres. At the time, the property served as farmland, with no paved road providing access. He remembers walking in mud for almost half a mile to get to the site, taking in its views of the water and distant Andes. “I came six or seven times,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Don’t be stupid.’ ” He came to realize that it was something special.
Gambino’s former boss in Santiago signed on as an investor, bringing in his son, Columbia University-trained Patricio Browne Salas, as architect. Simultaneously both traditional and highly contemporary, the two-story building he designed sits on a hill set back from the water, raised above the pastureland on huge poured-concrete piles, giving views from its entrance to the horse paddocks and the water behind. Andean-cypress shingles further refer to the architecture of Chiloé’s traditional palafitos—shingle-covered fishing houses perched above the water on stilts.
Salas enclosed half of the high-ceilinged ground level entirely in glass, forming a large trapezoid-shaped living and dining area where Shaker-style furniture, sisal rugs, and overstuffed couches piled with pillows await tired guests. Upstairs, 12 loft-like rooms feature similar furnishings, plus almost floor-to-ceiling window-walls that frame the views. Nearly every surface has been wrapped in local woods, giving the otherwise minimalist-mod place a cozy, atmosphere—like a Swedish sauna or Japanese ryokan—one further warmed by woven textiles, traditional crafts, and vintage farm tools displayed like pieces of abstract metal sculpture.
This combination of high-design aesthetic and high-touch experience won the hotel international attention, and best-of list acclaim. No wonder Purcell wanted in.
In just this first year operating as part of Tierra, Gambino—who employs a team of warm locals, most of them here from Day One—has seen the strength of Tierra’s name and reputation increase bookings in a major way. All-inclusive rates start at $825 per person per night. Private jet tours among the three properties allow even more bespoke, locally minded adventuring. And, now, with Purcell’s backing, Gambino plans to expand to meet demand: the 2016-17 season will bring 10 additional guest rooms and a larger spa, nestling both amid the landscape with minimal intervention. Before all this, though, the hotel will wrap up its current season on May 4, reopening Sept. 1 for the southern hemisphere’s warmer months.
As our post-sailing dinner wound down, and, with it, Gambino’s story, I asked him if it was hard to sell.
“I think of this hotel as one of my four sons: I have three and then this place,” he said philosophically, but with noticeable pride. “I was very happy with the business, with the amount of business. But the boy, he must continue to grow up.”