01 Emptiness: Estancia Rincón Chico, Península Valdés, Argentina
I can see for what looks like a hundred miles. The Ruta Nacional 3 is Argentina’s great coastal highway, running from Buenos Aires all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. Here, in Chubut Province, the asphalt cuts a dead straight line across the arid Patagonian steppe, bordered on each side by low scrub and soil that looks like grey sand and rubble.
I’m driving through an immense nothing, yet it’s enthralling. I recall the great Patagonian road movies: Bombón: El Perro, Mundo Grúa and Historias Mínimas. These films, from the late 1990s and early 2000s, did — quietly — for Patagonia what Easy Rider did for the American interior. The windscreen is a natural film-maker, enlivening the drabbest of landscapes. Everything is always changing: the static becomes dynamic, plain hues become a painterly blur. I drive on. A lone guanaco (a llama-like mammal) stands atop a mound, a roadside diner flashes by.
I feel as if I could go into a Zen state, just driving on and on. I avoid overtaking, alert to the waves of heat haze on the ruta(highway)and how they play tricks with speed and distance. I’ve come from Trelew, a town settled by the Welsh in the 19th century. To my right is Golfo Nuevo, where those pioneers made landfall after their long voyage from Liverpool. They walked all the way to the valley of the Río Chubut — hot, hungry, thirsty as hell.
At Puerto Madryn I bear right and take the Ruta 42 and soon I’m cruising across a long, skinny isthmus. I’m entering the Península Valdés, the great lung-shaped quasi-island that lies off northern Patagonia. Another low, barren landscape, it looks biblically dry and dead, but is fringed by life and natural wonders and the ever-shifting Atlantic Ocean.
A lone sheep dashes across the road as I penetrate the heart of the peninsula. I see more guanacos, and Patagonian hares scooting across the plains. The sky has cleared, the sun is high, the summer wind is up — and suddenly I’m ready to pull up, get out and stretch car-cramped legs.
Estancia Rincón Chico sits all alone in the southeast corner of the peninsula (the name means ‘little corner’, although the estate stretches 9.5 miles along the coast). There are only a few estancias (ranches) open to visitors on the peninsula and this one is the most luxurious. Surrounded by classic Patagonian steppe, it’s a plain-looking, single-storey rustic house, but the eight double bedrooms are cosy and brightly lit. The welcome from husband and wife owners Agustín Ayuso and María Olazàbal is warm and the atmosphere informal but informative — when it comes to planning excursions, both know the terrain intimately and can advise on the best spots for observing the peninsula’s varied wildlife.
We drive down to the beach in Agustín’s beloved Land Rover Defender. Inside the estate are colonies of South American sea lions and elephant seals. Hiking over a rocky headland I see an elegant-crested tinamou — its bright green eggs visible in a nest on the dun steppe — and a Patagonian grey fox threading through the cactus bushes. There are also guanacos, skunks,cavies (guinea pigs) and, a short drive away, a busy colony of Magellanic penguins.
As the sun begins to set, we spy a pod of orcas near to the coast. Valdés is renown for its southern right whales; from June to December this is the place to see them basking in the bay off Puerto Pirámides. But to see orcas, and lots of them, and so close, is a privilege.
On the veranda, in the evening, I watch the sun go down slowly over the peninsula. Rincón Chico is just what you need in Patagonia: a window on the great nothingness, on the big sky and open space. Most of us are so poorly prepared for slowness, calmness and emptiness that we need a bit of support. A glass of chilled Patagonian Sauvignon Blanc helps, but just having theestancia more or less to yourself is good therapy.
After dark, following a dinner of slow-barbecued Patagonian lamb I set off alone and find myself a rock from which I can watch a group of elephant seals bedding down for the night. A huge beachmaster sits at the centre of around 20 wives and children, occasionally grunting and burping to ward off any competition from the young guns. The stars come out — the Milky Way spreading across one of the most unpolluted skies in the world, with meteors raining down above Patagonia and the ocean. This is — already — one of my favourite places on the planet.
How to do it: Full-board from £245 per person per night. www.rinconchico.com.ar
Chris Moss is the author of Patagonia: A Cultural History. RRP £12.99 (Signal Books).
02 Café: Hacienda Venecia, near Manizales, Colombia
Colombia’s Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis) links the towns of Armenia, Pereira and Manizales. Close to the latter is the Hacienda Venecia, a beautiful mansion with lush gardens, built in 1910. Lying in a hammock by the pool and dipping into books from the multilingual library you feel like a character in a novel co-written by Gabriel García Márquez and Graham Greene. Nearby Manizales is full of lively tiendas (bar/clubs) if you fancy a dance. www.haciendavenecia.com
03 Vino: Viña Tarapacá, Isla de Maipo, Chile
Closed to passing tourists, Viña Tarapacá is one of the most luxurious and exclusive wine hotels in South America. If you go with a small group tour, you feel like a guest at a (very elegant) bacchanalia, what with the grape-bearing statues standing under the 300-year-old araucarias (evergreen trees), or the exotic palms and willows that spread out over manicured lawns and the long pool. The main property is a grand 1920s mansion whose grounds contain a golf course with barrel-shaped boxes for tees and an airstrip that runs between lines of Gewürztraminer and Cabernet grapes. There are horses to pull traps, and there’s even a little wine museum on site. www.tarapaca.cl. Book through www.winetours.co.uk
04 Incas: Hacienda San Agustín de Callo, Lasso, Ecuador
The family home of Mignon Plaza — the daughter of a bullfighter, granddaughter of one president and niece of another — this noble hacienda is unique in that it preserves Spanish colonial elements as well as 15th-century walls erected by the Incas. Like Sacsayhuamán in Peru’s Sacred Valley, these thick stone bulwarks are freestanding, not held together by mortar, and the doorways are trapezoidal. The rooms are, however, cosily European-colonial, each with log fires and lots of cushions, blankets, antiques and paintings. A luxurious refuge in the volcano-fringed highlands, where the temperature can dip sharply after dark, San Agustín is about as ancient as hotels come in the New World. www.incahacienda.com
05 History: Hacienda Uayamon, near Campeche, Yucatán, Mexico
Across the Yucatán Peninsula, miles from tacky Cancun and Playa del Carmen, is a string of haciendas dating from the colonial period. A handful have been turned into luxury hotels, and Uayamon, a former henequen (cactus) estate that can trace its origins to 1685, is one of the most beautiful. The 12 luxurious guest villas, formerly the homes of plantation employees, have stylish interiors created by Jaya Ibrahim, the Indonesian designer behind the Aman at Summer Palace Resort, Beijing. Guests dine on exquisite Campechean dishes (fish is brought in daily from the Caribbean coast) in the main house — a palatial affair with views over the lawns and the grand entrance. There’s a spa on site, and massages can be enjoyed al fresco. A chapel, workshops and storehouses have been invaded by lianas and tree-roots, while the Roman bath-style main swimming pool has been built around columns behind the former machine room.
Uayamon’s lush setting is a haven for birds. Guests can go on ornithology tours with guides at dawn and, after dark, armadillos can be spotted in the undergrowth. Within easy walking distance are the hacienda’s cemetery and a railway line and station that served Uayamon when it was a boom town in the late-19th century.
Photographers will enjoy wandering around the estate, among the ruins and finding secret corners that nature has reclaimed — often it feels like you’re soaking up history as well as indulging in the services of a luxury hotel.
Beyond the estate, winding roads lead to backcountry towns with old churches, and a short drive away are the impressive Mayan ruins of Edzná — there are always far fewer people here than in the tourist hubs of Chichen Itza or Tulum — and the pretty, walled colonial town of Campeche. Rooms from £274 a night, including breakfast.www.luxurycollection.com/haciendauayamon
06 Patagonia: Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, Aisén, Chile
The Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, might feel like a road to nowhere as it winds along the Río Baker and past the immense turquoise expanse of Lake General Carrera. But if you bear with it and turn left towards the Andes at the Valle Chacabuco you’ll soon come to this palatial lodge. The setting is the Parque Nacional Patagonia — the latest park to be created by US eco-philanthropists Kris Tompkins, former CEO of outdoor clothing firm Patagonia, and her husband Doug, founder of the North Face and Esprit chains.
Formerly an estancia that had been overgrazed by sheep and cattle, these 173,000 acres are now true wilderness — guanacosand rheas (ostrich-like birds) roam unfenced plains, while condors wheel above the mesas (tableland). Your home-from-home here is a lodge built out of local stone. Inside, the rooms have a grand feel and volunteer chefs (this is a charity as well as a hotel) cook delicious dishes from the organic orchards. www.conservacionpatagonica.org
07 Architecture/Design: Mashpi Lodge, near Quito, Ecuador
Cuboid, urban, modernist and minimalist, this 22-room luxury lodge is perched on a cliff overlooking a swathe of tropical jungle to the north west of Quito (the transfer time is two-three hours).
It opened in April 2012 after almost two years of environmentally sensitive design work by architect Alfredo Ribadeneira. Throughout, grey porcelain tiles and rust-coloured staircases create a neo-industrial mood. Huge panes of tempered glass mean light floods into the restaurant and guest rooms, affording visitors a window onto the cloud forest all around. Diego Arteta, the hotel’s interior designer, hasn’t skimped on comfort and style: all rooms have king-size beds, stylish wood furnishings and bamboo-and-glass decor, and feature Hansgrohe showers, a pillow menu and designer desks.
Chef David Barriga prepares Ecuadorean and Peruvian-style ceviches, seafood tapas and Ecuadorean dishes based on yucca, plantain and quinoa. The wine list includes bottles of good Ecuadorian Dos Hemisferios and Chaupi Estancia wines among an extensive range of New and Old World varieties.
Mashpi Lodge’s 2,600-acre site forms part of a biodiversity hotspot stretching from Panama to southern Ecuador. Activities include walks down to a beautiful waterfall and to the estate’s butterfly sanctuary. A Heath Robinson-style bike-on-a-zip-line contraption has been erected for those who want to cycle across the canopy and a cable car has just opened. The main challenge is mustering the desire to leave the building; the forest is magnificent, but this is a remarkable feat of construction and you could easily lose two days ogling the architecture and trying the cocktails. www.mashpilodge.com
08 Gaucho: La Bamba de Areco, San Antonio de Areco, Buenos Aires Province, Argentina
This wonderfully preserved estancia dates from 1830. Even before then it probably served as an inn on the Camino Real, the royal highway that, in colonial times, connected Buenos Aires with the silver mines of Alto Perú (now Bolivia). With elegant, and highly valuable, polo horses prancing around on the putting-green lawns and the staff using walkie-talkies to ensure guests are looked after as well as the ponies, things here run very smoothly indeed. But there’s still time and space for gaucho fun — riding, outdoor barbecues, watching the resident cowboys make their Criollo horses dance — and manager Guillermo is friendly and informal company. Bird-watching on the pampas is highly rewarding, and easy — you’ll see lapwings, egrets and ibises without leaving your hammock — and the estancia offers tennis, bowls, massages and riding lessons. The comfy settees in the former pulpería (grocery store) — the oldest building on the estate — offer you the chance to read books while sipping mate tea. www.labambadeareco.com
09 Amazon: Estancia Chillo, near Tingo, Chachapoyas, Peru
Beside the Río Utcubamba on the main — amazingly bumpy — road linking the magnificent Gocta Falls to Kuelap and Leymebamba (site of a celebrated mummy museum), this hacienda-style compound is decked out with ranch paraphernalia, wagon wheels and pet parrots. www.estanciaelchillo.com
10 Coast: Pousada Picinguaba, near Paraty, Costa Verde, Brazil
This charming guesthouse sits on a peaceful bay in a nature conservation area. There are just nine rooms, including a honeymoon suite with a whirlpool bath and large balcony overlooking the sea. The same company operates a traditional 1850sfazenda (ranch), Catuçaba, some way inland. www.picinguaba.com
Jungle lodges are no longer just about hammocks and keeping the fire lit so you don’t get eaten. Here’s a top 10 of cosy hotels where you can watch wildlife in the bush or on the beach
01 Caimans: Head for the stylish — and splendidly isolated — Rincón del Socorro in Iberá, Argentina, to see these huge reptiles in abundance. www.rincondelsocorro.com
02 Sloths: This slow-moving, serene loner should be your role model while lounging at the bungalows in Nicaragua’s Morgan’s Rock rainforest lodge. www.morgansrock.com
03 Jaguars: No one can ever guarantee a big cat sighting, but Cristalino Jungle Lodge, a 30,000-acre private reserve in Brazil’s Pantanal wetland, is a great place to start. www.cristalinolodge.com.br
04 Cock-of-the-rocks: Guyana’s Atta Rainforest Lodge is close to a lek (display ground) where the male birds, with their bright orange plumage, can be seen doing a dainty courtship dance. www.iwokramacanopywalkway.com
05 Condors: Combine birding with stargazing at Explora’s Hotel de Larache in the Atacama Desert. www.explora.com
06 Whale sharks: Use the lavish Turtle Inn at Coppola Resorts in Belize as your base for a scuba-diving holiday.www.coppolaresorts.com/turtleinn
07 Penguins: Historic Estancia Monte Dinero in Santa Cruz, Argentina, is a working ranch close to a huge colony of Magellanic penguins. www.montedinero.com.ar
08 Monkeys: Uakari Floating Jungle Lodge, near Tefé in the Brazilian Amazon, is one of very few places you can glimpse the rare, pink-faced uakari monkey. www.uakarilodge.com.br
09 Snakes: Costa Rica’s Hacienda Tayutic invites its guests to visit a nearby serpentarium, where venomous snakes can be seen, and safe ones even handled. www.tayutic.com
10 Rheas: See these ostrich-like birds on a ride across the pampas at Estancia Vik José Ignacio in Uruguay.www.estanciavikjoseignacio.com
Published in the National Geographic Traveller – Luxury 2013 special issue