Following the flock Patagonia
9,000 miles from London and yet everything seemed to have been made in Britain. Katie Parsons, PR & Publications executive at Cox & Kings, recently visited Chilean Patagonia and found that links to 19th century European pioneers were everywhere.
With the introduction of 300 sheep from the Falkland Islands in 1877 and the subsequent arrival of European settlers to the Last Hope Province, a flourishing sheep farming industry developed, expanding rapidly throughout Patagonia. This led to the formation of the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego, which was established in 1893 with Briton Peter McLelland as its director.
My first encounter with the Brits was at the newly-opened Singular Hotel just outside Puerto Natales. The cold-storage plant at Puerto Bories was built by the Sociedad in 1906 and was fully functioning from 1915 until the 1970s. The workers, many among whom were British, needed somewhere to live and so founded the neighbouring town of Puerto Natales. Many of the town’s residents still have British-sounding surnames such as McClean and McLelland, or can trace their ancestry back to Britain. The post-Victorian industrial style plant was declared a National Historic Monument by the Government of Chile in 1996 and in 2011, the luxurious Singular Hotel opened after a sensitive restoration to preserve the building’s heritage and cultural legacy.
Guests first arrive in the former sheep holding sheds and then can choose between descending in an original funicular or taking some steps down into the pump and boiler rooms. A mezzanine floor has been created to preserve the original flooring but the Victorian pipes and brick walls are still very much a part of what is now the reception area. To the right of the reception is the former tannery and washing rooms; now the hotel’s communal area. The water drainage channels and original beams have been kept and the high ceilings are reminders of the building’s past.
The excellent restaurant ensures guests are well-fed in preparation for their day’s excursions in the surrounding areas and the bar’s inviting chesterfield sofas, cosy armchairs and under floor heating are greatly welcomed on their return. The larger-than-average luxury guest rooms have been built in the area where the freezers would have once stood and all have floor to ceiling windows offering magnificent views across the Last Hope Sound to the Rotundes and Felicita mountains.
What is really striking, particularly for British guests, is the machinery in the open museum next to the reception. Almost every item, from the boilers to the engines, has a ‘made in' Birmingham, Derby, Glasgow or London sign on it. To think that such a large quantity of heavy machinery was transported so far from its source at a time when people knew relatively little about that part of the world made me oddly proud to be British. I did wonder what other nationalities staying in the hotel must think…
Moving on from the Singular Hotel, I went to stay at Cerro Guido, a working sheep estancia which is closer to Torres del Paine National Park and has views to the famous torres (towers). The small community has a school for its three pupils, houses for the workforce, a canteen for the gauchos, and a large shearing shed where once again, all the machinery in the shed came from Manchester and Birmingham. Walking through the shearing shed felt like being in a museum of a farm from the 1940s and I can’t imagine anything’s changed since it was originally installed. Even the estancia’s guest accommodation, whilst perfectly comfortable, had a distinctly dated English country home feel but that just added to the owners’ hospitality and welcome.
Cerro Guido was part of the Sociedad Explotadora, which gave a sense of authenticity and completion to the trip: it became easier to visualise the life of the pioneers one hundred years earlier. Torres del Paine National Park is the same latitude south as London is north, yet I can’t imagine feeling as remote anywhere in England as I did at Cerro Guido. Set in the foothills of the Sierra Baguales, close to the Argentinean border and the entrance to the national park, the estancia has a vast expanse of private land, where guests can walk and horse ride with the gauchos without seeing anyone else around.
Tierra Patagonia opened in December 2011 on the shores of Lago Sarmiento, just outside of Torres del Paine National Park. It’s been built on land belonging to Cerro Guido, which means some of their excursions are on the estancia’s private land. Walking up to Las Condoreras, seeing no one but the occasional gaucho, some sheep and soaring condors, it’s easy to see the benefit of doing excursions outside of the park. Of course it’s essential to spend a full day in the national park and guests can and are encouraged to do short walks there as part of that, but the thrill of being out in the Patagonian wind with no one else around is something I’ll never forget.