Almost at the end of the world stands a huge array of cylinders, pistons, iron castings and piping adorned by a proud brass plate that proclaims: “Haslam Engineers of Derby 1913”. Beside this masterpiece of the engine-builder’s craft is a monster wood-fired furnace proclaiming itself the work of Babcock and Wilcox, 1915.
There is more: a refrigeration plant made by Udec, Abbey Works, Park Royal, London NW10; forges by Pooley of Birmingham; Ruston diesel generators; lathes by Selson Engineering of London EC; generators from Belliss & Morcom of Birmingham. None of this machinery is less than 70 years old, and most left its makers’ works more than a century ago.
All of it stands in the midst of a remarkable hotel, on the edge of the south Chilean archipelago. The Singular at Puerto Bories opened in 2011 as the brainchild of Patagonian architect Pedro Kovacic. He has transformed a complex of old buildings that once housed a British-owned meat-processing plant. Between enjoying the modern comforts, visiting glaciers and riding in the mountains, guests can reflect upon the era when Great Britain was the workshop of the world.
The first glimpse of the place seemed unpromising. Our four-strong party had driven across the mountains from Argentina. From a distance, the Singular looked what it once was – an aged seaside industrial complex. We drove into the former slaughterhouse, then descended by a little funicular railcar to the hotel proper, where we checked in alongside the glittering array of machinery described above, restored so that one seems to have taken up residence in the Energy Hall of London’s Science Museum.
The bedrooms, all with sea and mountain views, are in a minimalist new building whose corridors recall a maximum-security prison. But the facilities are impeccable, the food delicious – crab and hare were especially memorable. The hotel is such a riot of originality and high design that we agreed we had never stayed anywhere that so challenged our imaginations.
Let me tell you the history of the place. A doughty Scot named John MacLean, born in 1860, arrived in Patagonia in 1883 and became begetter of the Puerto Bories plant, under the auspices of the superbly named Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego. Aided by a handful of fellow expatriates and 500 local labourers, he created a business that processed 3,600 sheep a day during the three-month slaughtering season.
Up to 180,000 carcases a year were frozen for shipment to Europe in steamers, which brought back British wares for sale to the workers. Those Chileans, indeed, were paid for their killing, skinning, tanning and heavy lifting with tokens that could only be used to buy goods in the plant’s cavernous market, which is today the Singular’s restaurant. Let us be frank: the workers were not far off slaves. The business collapsed when, in the 1960s, they demanded cash wages. In the Allende Marxist era, Puerto Bories became an unsuccessful commune, finally closing to sheep in 1985.
We wandered through echoing, derelict spaces of the old plant, not yet incorporated into the hotel. We opened cupboards full of rusting parts, then climbed aboard a beautifully restored German tank-engine that once pulled trucks loaded with frozen sheep carcases along the pier.
The designers of the Singular have included some inspired touches. Above the restaurant is a huge ballroom. In one of its windows, alone and gazing out to sea, stands a dummy of a woman clad in Edwardian finery, parasol in hand, old leather luggage heaped beside her. The little tableau perfectly captures the melancholy of the place, which must have gnawed at the souls of the British expats who laboured there for decades.
The Singular has established itself in competition with Explora’s Hotel Salto Chico, further north in the Torres del Paine national park. People we met who had stayed at both preferred Explora’s location for roaming the wilderness, but in other respects found the Singular had more to offer, including, for example, two launches moored below the pier, in which guests can explore countless miles of waterways.
We spent a happy afternoon climbing a nearby mountain, guided by a delightful girl named Coté, to gaze at condors, those wonders of the Andes. We climbed within 50 yards of a nest and saw a dozen others wheeling above, their vast wings almost motionless. In our late sixties, we found the hike no joke, but were delighted to have done it and revelled in the views from the summit and the profusion of local wild flowers, notable among them the spiky “mother-in-law’s cushion”.
Next morning we set off riding, led by Carlos, an enchanting gaucho who was straight out of Central Casting. With his beret and badge of office – a long knife stuck into the back of his belt – he talked ceaselessly, in excellent English. His father is chief ranger of the national park, his brother a helicopter pilot. All he ever wanted to do was to work with horses.
I felt a surge of sympathy for whoever has the Gillette concession for the country. Carlos, like every self-respecting local male, nurtures his designer stubble like a firstborn. We were out with him for five hours, had a splendid picnic and saw some wonderful country.
In both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, everybody says the same about the weather as in Scotland: if you don’t like it, stick around five minutes and you will get something different. In February we met sunshine and winds, heavy rain showers and even dustings of snow. Everybody said it was unseasonably cold – climate change and all that. But nobody who fancies themselves in a bikini should choose this as a holiday destination: hot sunshine is not what southern Patagonia is about.
We stayed three nights at the Singular, which seemed about right. From Puerto Bories, with its historic sense of both endeavour and suffering, we drove back over the mountains into Argentina, a five-hour trip including half an hour at the two frontier posts. The remotest places on earth are bound to take some getting to unless one charters a plane, as do a few high-enders.
Near El Calafate, beside Lake Argentino, we stayed at Eolo, a comfortable lodge with Relais & Châteaux credentials. From there, we set off for a day on the glacier at the end of the lake, a trip I would recommend to anybody. A minibus took us to the edge of the ice where we ate a picnic lunch. Then it was a quick boat trip to a hut where we donned crampons and set off in a column behind a guide to walk on the ice.
It is an extraordinary sensation, to trudge up the extravagantly moulded blue hills and valleys, formed of frozen water hundreds of years old. The guides are wonderfully jolly – on three visits to Argentina I have never encountered the slightest hostility towards the British, about the Malvinas or anything else.
Next day, we took a trip on a smart boat run by Marpatag Cruises, to explore the national park and Spegazzini and Upsala glaciers. There were only a dozen other passengers along with our group. The speciality of the trip is a gourmet lunch served on board, which lived up to its billing. We stood on deck, wine glass in hand, watching cliff faces of ice collapsing into the sea with thunderous roars.
We landed for an hour-long walk below the wooded hills at Puesto de las Vacas, marvelling at the emptiness of the landscape as one so often does in Argentina. Where are its 41m people? Nowhere much visible, outside Buenos Aires.
The southern regions of South America are increasingly being recognised as peerless holiday destinations. I would agree, and would add only a few cautions. Neither Argentina nor Chile are cheap – we found prices for travel, food and accommodation broadly comparably with those in the UK. The weather can be wonderful, but is unreliable.
Do not underrate the scale of the place. I suggest that three destinations on any one trip will be enough for most people. But the landscapes are incomparable, and even duffers like me can manage the horses. If you take in Buenos Aires, estancia riding, a visit to see the glaciers and the Chilean Singular, I shall be amazed if you do not come home as happy as we did.
Max Hastings is a Financial Times contributing editor
Double rooms at the Singular (www.thesingular.com) cost from $350 including breakfast; full board packages including drinks, guided excursions and transfers cost $620 per person per night. Eolo (www.eolo.com.ar) has doubles from $820, including full board, transfers and excursions. Full day cruises with MarPatag cost $288 (www.crucerosmarpatag.com)