After toiling away on gravel roads for about four hours we pulled over to ask an elderly Mapuche man for directions. We were undertaking a bumpy off-road adventure through Chile's southern Andes in search of one of the country's more remarkable eco-destinations – the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve. Home to bizarrely-shaped hotels crafted from local timber and surrounded by dense Patagonian rainforest and crashing waterways, this magical getaway stands tall as a beacon of sustainable architecture in one of the world's most pristine environments.
In spite of a vague map and a poor sense of direction, we had landed pretty close to the mark. Though the trip thus far had been filled with views of glassy lakes and snow-topped volcanoes, we were about ready to take a break from Chile's rugged southern roadways. On we rolled through the 2,000-strong town of Neltume toward Puerto Fuy, where the peculiar infrastructure of Huilo Huilo started to emerge from the forest.
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First there appeared a three-story building that may well have been a castle of some sort, and after it came a huge stone bridge. Then, just as dusk was really setting in, through the trees we spotted the famed peak of what is perhaps Huilo Huilo's strangest offering – the Magic Mountain Lodge. This cone-shaped hotel spouts a continuous stream of water from its top that cascades down its shrubby exterior. While smaller than the many volcanoes simmering away nearby, and certainly less menacing, the picturesque Lodge is a quaint little tribute to these magma-spewing peaks.
The main entrance to the Magic Mountain Lodge is found in the towering Nothofagus Hotel, so named for the surrounding Nothofagus trees (also known as southern beech trees) that inspired its design. Across its seven stories, the building widens from bottom to top in an awe-inspiring imitation of treetop canopy formations. Not a moment after the door closed we were struck with the kind of genuine wide-eyed wonder you always long for in new travel experiences. It's Ewok village meets The Magic Faraway Tree.
A long corridor leads from the entrance to the lobby desk, which is flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows on one side offering views of the forest with the architectural marvel that is the Nothofagus Hotel in the foreground. The preoccupation with timber construction seeps into just about every corner of the complex. Aside from stone flooring, just about every surface presents tasteful wooden finishings. Rugged logs form the windowsills and railings, while their smaller siblings gathered from the forest floor are used as door handles and chandeliers. The walls take shape as rustic, roughly cut boards and are lined with glass cabinets showcasing Mapuche artefacts and other trinkets.
After a warm reception and an even warmer welcome drink (a piping hot, mysterious concoction of fruits, liquor and other Mapuche flavors), we take the spiraling walkway up through the heart of the Nothofagus Hotel to our room, where we promptly ditch our bags and set off to explore.
For the next couple of hours we get lost in winding corridors, bent stairways and luxurious lounges complete with open fireplaces and grand pianos. Huilo Huilo is sometimes rough around the edges with its bark-covered beams and doors that don't close quite so neatly, but this only adds to its unique charm. It features four different lodges. In addition to Nothofagus and Magic Mountain, there is the high-end Nawelpi Lodge that hosts luxury holiday-makers and overlooks the river snaking through the reserve and Hotel Reino Funghi, which translates to Mushroom Kingdom.
You can walk from lodge to lodge through internal walkways or, in the right season, treetop bridges. Some host spas and indoor swimming pools, but of all the interiors, the Nothofagus's grand atrium is undeniably the most impressive. A single Nothofagus tree stands next to a small waterfall on the ground level, stretching almost to the glass ceiling above. One continuous walkway begins on the first floor and circles the tree, sloping upwards and outwards until it reaches its widest circumference on the top level.
On-site is a classy restaurant where locals don crisp white shirts and serve icy pisco sours, a delicious cocktail of lemon juice, a little sugar and of course pisco, the South American grape liquor. Diners can pick from dishes of wild game hunted in the surrounding forests, such as boar and deer. The breakfast buffet is extensive and certainly caters to international tourists, with waffles, pancakes, eggs and bacon all part of the mix.
We'd say the awe-inspiring design of Huilo Huilo is enough of a drawcard in itself, but the environment is equally stunning and lends itself to all manner of outdoor adventures. The entire reserve covers 100,000 hectares (247,000 acres) and offers a natural playground for skiing, trekking, mountain biking, summer snowboarding, rafting, paintball and horseback riding, among other activities. Throughout the reserve, rivers, lagoons, waterfalls and lakes dot the landscape, while endemic woodpeckers, pumas, endangered frogs and wildcats populate the forest floors and treetops.
Short on time, your correspondents set off on a low-key saunter through the woods. Much of the circuit is on elevated wooden walkways that twist and turn through the trees, and only around 10 minutes from Nothofagus Hotel this brings us to the gushing Pillanleufu River. An easy walk along the riverside trail is dotted with viewing platforms of moderately sized, but still impressive waterfalls (is there any other kind?). Then as we turn to come to the final leg of our route, a sign stops us to ask that we wipe our feet on a rubber doormat before continuing.
The reason is to avoid corrupting the purity of the environment with bacteria clinging to our soles. And not long after we're rewarded with the reason for such diligence. Brightly colored mushrooms sprout out of the handrails lining the wooden walkways. They also appear on the ground and shooting out of rest benches. This wonderful sight seems a fitting conclusion to our time at Huilo Huilo, where the manmade blends in effortlessly and innocently with the natural surroundings.
Getting to the Huilo Huilo Biological Reserve doesn't have to involve getting lost on dirt roads somewhere near the Argentinean border (though we don't regret it). Flights are available from Santiago to Valdivia, the nearest major town. From there, a 165 km (102 mi) drive passing through the town of Panguipulli will have you arrive almost entirely by way of paved road. Rooms in the Nothofagus Hotel and Magic Mountain Lodge start at around US$250 for a double.
More information: Huilo Huilo Biological ReserveView gallery - 42 images