...Just back from
Chile stretches nearly 3,000 miles from north to south, from the lunar landscapes of the Atacama Desert to the sculpted peaks of windswept Patagonia. Our Product Manager Pete Mathers recounts his recent visit to this land of extremes.
Into the Desert
Arrive in Santiago during our northern hemisphere winter and you’ll find a delightful southern summer. An hour west of this cosmopolitan city is the Pacific Ocean, an hour south are the winelands, while east takes you quickly to the Andes for summer surf breaks and winter skiing.
On this occasion, however, I forsook the pleasures of Santiago and headed north instead on a two-hour flight to the Atacama Desert, one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on earth. A short drive from the airport is the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama and my chosen hotel, Awasi Atacama, a construction of adobe, wood, stone and thatch that’s typical of local architecture.
Immediately on arrival the stunning interior details and the warmth of the welcome are striking. Each room is assigned a private guide and vehicle and the menu of tours included makes it tempting to stay for at least four or five days. Within an hour I’m exploring ‘downtown’ San Pedro with my guide. The Archaeological Museum here contains the eerie remains of lost civilisations including ancient mummies that have been preserved in the dry desert air. The museum is impressive and a good starting point for exploring the surrounding desert, supposedly the world’s most arid region and renowned for its profound beauty – and this is where the guides of Awasi truly excel.
“Over the years I’ve visited Chile throughout the seasons, travelling through most of its 39 degrees of latitude, and the country never fails to charm and amaze me with its many scenic wonders, enhanced by the generosity and warmth of the Chilean people.”
The Awasi Team
Rising early at 4am when it’s close to freezing is not a pleasant prospect in most parts of the world, but encouraged by my excellent guide Juanjo, the morning feels full of promise. I’ve travelled with dozens of guides over the years but Juanjo and his colleagues have a love for the Atacama that’s as contagious as it is inspiring.
We leave town in the dark, driving through valleys and mountain passes to reach a geyser field for sunrise. The altiplano, or high plain, is bare of trees. Myriad colours of iron ore and rust contrast in the glorious sunshine with the blues and greens of the springs and the brilliant white of the nearby salt flats. This is also home to the flocks of pink flamingos that made their ‘ballet’ performance so hilariously on the BBC’s Planet Earth series.
Back at Awasi a Pisco Sour awaits – probably my favourite cocktail to be had outside of Cuba. The exquisite food that follows is creatively prepared to feature flavours of the desert such as carob and the chanar fruit. Most importantly, the Awasi team are among the very best hosts anywhere in the Americas and this wonderland is hard to leave.
Travelling south to Chilean Patagonia takes two flights but the views of the Andes and of Chile’s lakes and rugged coastline give a tantalising preview of what’s to come in Patagonia. The south of Chile remains one of the world’s great remaining wildernesses and has always been a highlight for me. Torres del Paine National Park is a five-hour drive from Punta Arenas but the stunning mountainscapes and frontier-territory feel make it seem like I’m driving through a timeless film set.
My destination is the exclusive Explora Patagonia, the only luxury hotel within the boundaries of the park. Perched amid rushing waterfalls and the imperious Andes, the location has always been special, but now that national park rules have banned other hotels from being built within the park, a stay here feels more like a privilege than ever.
Trekking & Riding
I’m welcomed by one of the local guides who sits me down with maps and books and helps me plan my activities over the days to come. I start the next morning with a full-day guided trek into this frontier wonderland, keeping my eyes peeled for the condors and grey eagles, pumas and guanacos that live within the park. I barely see another soul.
Early the next morning we ride out on horseback, just as early explorers did centuries before. This is followed by kayaking on a calm, azure lake beside creaking glaciers that glint in the sunshine. For my final adventure, I take a jeep with a guide across the border to El Chaltén in Argentina for some breathtaking views of Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre, two of the most arresting peaks in Los Glaciares National Park. Sadly, there’s no time to hike their trails on this occasion, so as is always the case with Chile, I’m left wanting more and busy planning my return.
When to Go
Due to its long coastline, Chile’s weather is diverse and unpredictable, with summer running from December to February and winter from June to August. Santiago and the Chilean wine valleys are a year-round destination with a mild to warm climate. Temperatures vary between 10˚C and 30˚C in summer and from 4˚C to 17˚C in winter.
The Atacama can also be visited year-round, with temperatures varying from 16˚C to 32˚C in summer and from -2˚C to 22˚C in winter. However, despite being the driest desert in the world, heavy rains are possible in January and February, particularly in the highlands, and have become more frequent in recent years.
In Patagonia you can have all four seasons in a day, so be prepared. The summer months from December to March tend to be the best for trekking and other outdoor activities, with less chance of rain or high winds. The shoulder months of November and March offer fewer crowds but less dependable weather. Late autumn and winter (May to September) are best avoided as many trails close due to bad weather and high winds, and waterways ice over.
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