My affection for Chile grows stronger with each return trip. The scenic splendor of this Andean nation is reason enough to recommend it. So is its geographic diversity, from the Atacama Desert to fertile wine valleys, snow-covered peaks, Pacific fjords and Patagonian trout streams. Equally alluring are the country’s political stability and economic prosperity. And when it comes to personal security, the comfort level is high.
On my recent trip, I opted to explore the Chilean Lake District, the northern border of which lies around 500 miles south of Santiago. There, dramatic snowcapped volcanoes are reflected in cobalt-blue lakes. For decades, this has been a popular vacation spot for Chileans. The plethora of water sports is an attraction, as is trekking in national parks that boast thick hardwood forests and dramatic waterfalls. But lately, the opening of several upscale hotels has helped to make it a destination for international travelers as well.
The most appealing of these new hotels is &Beyond Vira Vira, which is located outside the city of Pucón (population 22,000), on the Liucura River, in the shadow of the snowcapped Villarrica Volcano. (The property is reached after a 90-minute drive from Temuco Airport, which is an 80-minute flight from Santiago.) The original Hacienda Hotel Vira Vira debuted in 2014, but after an extensive refurbishment, it reopened as an &Beyond resort last September. This is the company’s first venture in South America, &Beyond having made its reputation with a stable of excellent African safari lodges, several of which are Hideaway Report-recommended.
Set on a 55-acre estate, Vira Vira is an intimate retreat that comprises just six suites, a dozen villas and a five-bedroom hacienda that may be rented only in its entirety. (The latter has its own chef and guide and would be ideal for a family.)
Our spacious Suite came with a pair of picture windows that afforded glorious views of the river and wooded mountains where clouds hung among the peaks. Decorated in earth tones, with expanses of pale indigenous woods, bespoke furniture and colorful weavings, it was both stylish and supremely comfortable. An ample bath was appointed with a soaking tub and a shower. Outside, I found a private deck, with a wooden table and chairs. (Villas come with woodburning fireplaces and hot tubs.)
Despite their contemporary design, the public areas of Vira Vira have a strong sense of place, thanks to indigenous Mapuche tapestries, or telars, that combine swaths of woven rugs with sticks and pieces of driftwood. The main lodge is constructed from lenga wood, and its enormous windows allow light to flood in. The dining room is also a sleek wooden space and overlooks a freshwater lagoon sprinkled with swans. There, we enjoyed outstanding locally sourced cuisine — the resort’s grounds contain a massive vegetable and herb garden, fruit trees and a small cheese factory — including warm duck salad with eggplant, confit onions and Mistral herbs; superb wild salmon; and a delicious loin of venison with sage roti and carrots. An adroitly assembled wine list is understandably dominated by Chilean labels. The homemade bread served at every meal along with daffodil-colored butter was virtually impossible to resist.
We could have spent several days simply indulging in spa treatments and soaking in one of the hot tubs, but Chile is a place where outdoor activities are almost mandatory. Each evening at Vira Vira, a member of the staff sits down with guests to make plans for the following day. For our first excursions, we opted for a trek through Villarrica National Park, followed by an afternoon float down the Liucura River to fish for trout.
The centerpiece of the national park is the spectacular and extremely active 9,340-foot Villarrica Volcano. Our guide led us on a two-hour hike to a mirador at nearly 5,000 feet. There, he pulled out a thermos of hot water and prepared espressos with a hand-held coffee maker. The brew was savory and strong, and as we sipped appreciatively, we gazed up at the snowcapped peak and down to the glistening lakes below. Eventually, very reluctantly, we headed back down the trail, stretches of which were covered in gray volcanic ash.
After lunch, we went fishing. Having handed me a 6-weight rod and tied a caddis nymph of his own creation to the tippet, the guide deftly held the boat above placid pools and at the head of rapids. I caught a nice trout on my third cast and over the next two hours landed nearly two dozen rainbows and a local brown called a fario. None was much bigger than 12 inches, but the relatively small size of the fish didn’t matter; being out on the water was sufficient pleasure in itself. It was past 5 o’clock when we returned to our suite at Vira Vira. There, staff had already drawn a bath and left a bottle of sparkling Chilean wine on ice.
The exceptionally comfortable and stylish accommodations; the delicious locally sourced cuisine; the exceedingly well-organized activities..
The temperature inside the main lodge often felt too warm.
Given the growing popularity of Chile as a travel destination, it is essential to make hotel and air reservations well in advance. In high season, December to March, the best places are often fully booked.
After a blissful stay at Vira Vira, we traveled to the city of Puerto Varas (population 41,000), also known in Chile as “La Ciudad de las Rosas,” or “the City of Roses,” which is located approximately 210 miles to the south, on 330-square-mile Lake Llanquihue. The setting is superbly scenic, with the perfect snow cone of Osorno Volcano and the snowcapped peaks of Calbuco and Tronador appearing to rise from the vast expanse of cobalt-blue water.
The lakefront Hotel AWA opened in November 2016 and has since received enthusiastic reviews in the travel press. Alas, it did not live up to expectations. Housed in a striking modern stone structure, the 15-room property has great potential. The floor-to-ceiling windows in our suite made me feel intimately connected to nature, and I enjoyed the designer’s imaginative use of wood, metal and concrete. But I encountered one problem after another. It took me four trips to the front desk to get a key that actually opened the door to our accommodations. At dinner, I needed to send back three individual glasses of wine from different bottles, because they had all turned. And when it was time to check out, the machine needed to run my credit card at the front desk did not work — and it took the receptionist half an hour to find another that functioned properly. With competent management, the Hotel AWA might merit a Hideaway Report endorsement, but at present, the property cannot be recommended.
The stunning vistas of the lake and Osorno Volcano.
A series of maddening technological malfunctions, which would be corrected by competent management.
The front desk can organize a range of activities, including rafting, fly-fishing, horseback riding and bird-watching.