I return to certain countries with keen anticipation, and Chile is among them. The scenery varies wildly along its length, ranging from merely impressive to absolutely sensational. No matter where you are, neither the snowy peaks of the Andes nor the dramatic Pacific coastline is far away. Just as important for the traveler, Chile nowadays is a remarkably safe, stable and prosperous country, with none of the corruption and economic chaos plaguing some of its neighbors. Chile stands apart from the rest of the continent, separated both geographically and culturally. Much of Chile was never conquered by the Incas or the Spanish, and it retains an independent spirit to this day.
Past visits have taken me to the extreme north and south of the country, and I highly recommend stays in the otherworldly Atacama Desert and rugged Patagonia as time and energy permit. It took considerable willpower to eschew these regions on this trip, but the beauty of Chile’s wine country and the stupendous scenery of Chiloé Island provided ample compensation. Located 660 miles south of Santiago, Chiloé has a landscape of rolling sheep pastures punctuated by copses of eucalyptus and graceful lines of poplars. Between the island and the mainland — the inhabitants refer to themselves as Chilotes, not Chileans — the coastline fragments into picturesque archipelagos. Where it meets the Pacific Ocean, Chiloé terminates in a series of surf-pounded sea cliffs. The island offers innumerable cultural riches: Many towns have preserved their palafitos, colorful stilt houses built over the water, and 16 elegant wooden churches scattered around the Chiloé archipelago have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites. Markets contain tempting traditional handicrafts and stalls piled with fresh seafood and produce, including some of the hundreds of varieties of potatoes indigenous to the island.
Although some palafitos have been converted into guest lodgings, and a new hotel looms over the harbor of Castro, the island’s capital, these offer no competition to Tierra Chiloé, tucked away on the Rilán Peninsula. The hotel opened two years ago as Refugia, and its founder, Andrés Bravari Gambino, now works as the general manager. When the owner of Tierra, which has fine resorts in both the Atacama Desert and Patagonia, came for a visit, he was so taken with the place that he offered to buy it from Bravari on the spot. I can understand the impulse. Perched on a hillside overlooking pastureland and the sea, the sculptural main building has a prism-shaped second floor hovering over a glass-enclosed lounge and restaurant. The traditional wood shingles that clad the exterior, however, keep it firmly rooted in Chiloé. Appointed with comfortable seating groups upholstered in warm cream and biscuit tones, the panoramic lounge has unforgettable views sloping down to the bay. Each evening before dinner, we would relax by the fireplace with pisco sours and canapés, watching grazing chestnut horses gleam in the setting sun. An outdoor fireplace surrounded by sofas affords equally fine vistas. Dinners were invariably delicious. I particularly enjoyed the crab claws with mashed cauliflower and avocado cream, lamb chops over pumpkin purée, and gnocchi made with local purple potatoes in a tomato-beet sauce topped with a delicate hake fillet.