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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
February 2005
Architect Germán del Sol, creator of the Explora hotels :
A journey to the essence

He's the creator (and former CEO) of the prestigious Explora tourism company, which has hotels in San Pedro de Atacama and Torres del Paine. Germán del Sol believes in the useful value of patrimony, and opposes to the rigidity of conservation policies. Now retired from the company, he's working on a more affordable version of the Explora concept, in Puerto Natales.

By Rosario Mena

After studying four years of Architecture at the Universidad Catolica, German del Sol moved to Barcelona, where he practically did the whole career again. He came back to Chile and then went abroad again, this time to the United States. When he established himself in Chile, in 1987, he developed one of elite—tourism's most prestigious projects. The Explora, are hotels of great architectural value, where visitors can stay in permanent contact with Nature and the local cultural tradition. All these along with the best quality service, including gastronomy that rescues typical prodcuts and a general environment of sobriety and good taste. With the hotels in San Pedro de Atacama and Torres del Paine, Explora is, above all, the result of a personal journey:

—Were you always concerned about tradition, identity or patrimony?
—I've been late to everything, really. Now I know that, to be alive, patrimony has to be reinvented. My grandmother used to say that the tradition was not to use my grandfather's hat, but to buy another one in the same way that he did. If not, patrimony becomes a dead thing trying to be preserved. One has to go back to the origins but through what's modern. To be modern is to go back to the origins, but understanding the process and improving it, when possible. It's not necessarily a search for former shapes, but of what we truly are. What we learnt in Europe is that everything is already invented, that there's nothing new. That's why European Architecture has a continuity, even in cities that have been ceaselessly inhabitated for 2,000 years. Chile is different: it has been lived in and deserted in different periods. We don’t even know who lived in the Central Valley before the Mapuches. Here we find discontinuity.

—In Europe, the whole History is out there for all to see. Not here.
—Right, in here it is hidden. So to me it was really hard to discover which was our culture; what is that we have in common.

—What we usually call "cultural identity".
—Right, that present culture which contains all of our past. It was hard for me to understand what was I to do with a piece of ceamic from Alto Ramírez or San Miguel de Azapa. But when I saw what some old ladies in Cauquenes were doing, or a woman in Padres de las Casas, near Temuco; and I saw that those new ceramics where, esentially, the same northern ceramic that was 1,000 years old, then I understood something. You may think that to rescue patrimony one has to do the same ceramic, the same shape, the same mud. But there are others, like myself, that try to rescue their spirit. In San Pedro de Atacama, there where many who could not understand that I was not using adobe for the hotel. But that is not what matters. Saint Exupery has a story of two gardeners that work together, until one of them moves far away. After a long time, he sends his friend a letter, in which he writes: "Yesterday, I pruned my roses". That says that what unites us is the care for things, and not something in intself. The world'cultivation’ comes from'care’, and'culture’ has to do with cultivation. Even more: in the country, you’ll find that certain works are called "cultural", such as the plow.

—You have looked in different places for this sense of cultural identity. You talk about handcraft, agricultural work. How is that? Do you travel, talk to people, let curiosity guide you?
—The first thing is to be curious, and have real love for learning. Then, travel and let yourself be impressed. I travel a lot around Chile; I walk, I horseback ride. I talk to people, never looking for something specific. Most of all, I ask and listen. And I take notes, because there are a lot of times in which I don't understand everything the first time. I remember the time I was looking for a land in which to build the northern Explora, and I went to see a man that had a terrain for sale. So I asked him for a tape measure. And he looked at me as if I was nuts, and said: "But, hey, a meter is just too imprecise". I wrote that, but did not understand it. Until I realized that he was selling a property that was much more than just its measures. Because it had pears, a good orientation, views. Then I understood that we could not work on those lands as if they were just square meters, over which to pass a bull float. So we worked not on plain terrains, but over different land parcels. That's now a key identity element to the hotel, I think, how every plot is different. We are conscious of those differences, and we develop a kind of "geology of the caring". What's important is that we repeated a tradition, but with a profound sense to it. Because you cannnot repeat what you don't understand. The hotel is like an Atacameña village. To reach other rooms, you have to go though a patio, that is the square. You are always going outside, and that is how Atacama is. People live mainly outside, and that's why interiors are darker. There are no facades.

—By the way, what's your opinion on the restrictions there are for restoring buildings that have been declared monuments?
—We trust restrictions too much. We do not concentrate on promoting virtuous circles, but on avoiding what we consider negative. The problems is that what you are protecting has no value nor use. The challenge is to find new uses for it, and a daily sense for the community. You can not restore just for the sake of it. Patrimony has to be integrated to the community and belong to a group that takes care of it. Why should the State or a Minister? That’s completely artificial.

—And from an Architectural point of view, do you think it's posible to work on patrimonial goods using other materials? Shouldn't we be more flexible about that?
—Of course we should. Some people think that Architecture and Art are defined by the materials, but that is not so. The art of the San Francisco Church is not on the tile, but on its charm and History. What matters is the spirit. Besides, buildings do not have just one time. Buildings are part of a history, a process.

—How was the Explora project born?
—In 1987 we got the assignment of refurbishing the Ladeco offices all throughout Chile. My partner did not like flying, so I made all the trips to see how the work developed. Everytime I went to another city, I went out on journeys around it. I realized that there was great potential, and I proposed the Ladeco manager the building of a new tourism complex. So I worked on the Explora, first all written. In a way, I was combining my experiences in Europe, the United States and Chile, beacause I thought I knew what the people that travelled far away were looking for. And I wrote about it on a little book I called "art of travelling". The project included five destinations. It's a kind of exploration game, but not to find anything new, but to find yourself. To find oneself, one has to travel to what's strange. The journey makes you get interested on others and gain a new perspective. That's healing.

—Torres del Paine and San Pedro de Atacama are already built. What were the other destinatios?
—Each project had the name of a raegion, because you were going to a region, not a town. So, there was Patagonia and Atacama. The other thress were Chileoe', Easter Island and Central Valley.

—Would you still do the rest?
—Yes, but in other way.

—Less elitist?
—No. I have nothing to complain about Explora. A project as pioneering as this has to be elitist. It is expensive to maintain these hotels in such isolated places. You have to have your own water and energy sources. Hotels are small, and that is more expensive. San Pedro has a capacity of 50 passengers. Patagonia is now being expanded to reach the same capacity.

—Finally, you ended up not only building the project, but taking care of ti. You were the manager and the CEO.
—Yes, I was in charge of sales, of everything; and it was worth it. I got letters from visitors, and I realized that what they most valued was for free: silence, the freedom of going to an excursion and return back if they got tired, that nobody forces you to reach a certain place. With that free disposition of time, people do a lot of things. It was like an unlimited disposal of time and space. Some people believe that camping is the only way of being in contact with Nature, but that is not the case. Because when camping you are always worried about survival. In Explora, you don't. They take care of you, they feed you. In Explora, luxury is not given by imported faucets, but by the silence, and that noone vacuumes while there is somebody still sleeping.

—Tell us about your creative process. How do you pick what you consider to be essential.
—First, I looked not just to the Atacama and Patagonia cultures within their limits. We looked for Latin America as a whole. There are a lot of similarities between pre-Hispanic architecture in Mexico, Peru and Chile's North. You alse read, walk around, everything nourishes you. When creating, there's also the desire of something you do not know. Intuition can be very accurate.

—At the hotel in Torres del Paine, which was the key element in the rescuing of native culture?
—What we saw is that hunters-collectors of the Patagonia used to carry around their belongings. The same furs that covered them during the day, became tents at night. This is an idea that the hotel has applied. Elements are reduced to a minimum. Interior space is restricted. Outside there is very strong weather, cold and windy. So it was important to work on the concepto of the refuge.

—You are now working in another hotel.
—Yes, in Puerto Natales. And I've made it with the experience of having lived there. It is a project that points to all those people that understand that the relation with the surroundings, culture and experience goes along with the restriction of stimulus. So we keep just what's essential.

—Is food simpler?
—Yes. It has the same quality as in the Explora, but less expensive. Let's say it's a "pirate Explora". The same as at the Explora, rates include food and trips.

—What is it that mainly defines the project?
—The idea was to somehow re-create life at a ranch ("estancia"). But instead of choosing a patronal house, which would have had a very British aspect, we chose the bodega. It's just the project I was waiting for.

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