Located at the bottom of South America, Chile extends 2,650 miles from southern Peru to the icy waters of Cape Horn and its diverse landscapes vary from the world’s driest desert, the Atacama, to the granite towers of Patagonia. Join Richard Laker, South America specialist, as he recounts his most recent trip to this land of extremes.
Chile requires the longest direct flight in British Airways’ schedule but the 14 hours are well worth it. 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.
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 the winelands, and east takes you quickly to the Andes for summer resorts or winter skiing.
Forsaking the pleasures of Santiago on this trip I headed north with a two hour flight straight to the Atacama Desert, one of the most unique and varied regions on the continent. Just a short drive from the airport is the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama where Awasi Atacama stands out from other hotels for its native architecture; a construction of adobe, wood and stone with thatched roofs. 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 a four or five day stay essential. Within an hour I was 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.
The Awasi Team
Rising early at 4am when it’s close to freezing is not a pleasant prospect in most parts of the world, however, encouraged by my excellent guide Juanjo, the morning felt full of promise. I’ve travelled with dozens of guides over the years but Juanjo and his colleagues have a love for the Atacama which is as contagious as it is inspiring. We drove out of town through valleys and passes in the dark to be rewarded with the view of geysers bursting from the frozen earth at sunrise. The altiplano, or high plain, is bare of trees and 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 debut ‘ballet’ performance so hilariously on Planet Earth.
Returning home to Awasi a Pisco Sour awaits – probably my favourite cocktail to be had outside 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 on the reliable Lan Chile. The aerial views flying over the Andes, the lakes and rugged coastline, give an impressive preview of what is 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 genuine frontier territory make the drive feel like a timeless film set.
My destination is the exclusive Explora Patagonia. Perched amid rushing waterfalls and the imperious Andes, the location was visionary from the outset and the national park rules have since excluded any other development within the park, making a stay here feel like a privilege.
Trekking and Riding in Torres del Paine
I was welcomed by one of the local guides who tailor fantastic itineraries and activities including hiking, mountain biking kayaking and horse riding. We started the next morning with a full day trek into this frontier wonderland. Condor and flamingo, Grey eagle, puma and guanaco are just some of the wildlife that lives in the formidable landscapes of Torres del Paine. Part of the magic of the place however, is how few other humans you will see. Early the next morning we rode out to take in the vast, dramatic landscapes just as explorers would have done centuries before, followed by kayaking on a flat azure lake alongside creaking glaciers. This is a truly incredible part of Chile and the closest you can get to Antarctica without travelling the three days further south across the Drake Passage.
For my final adventure in Patagonia, I took a Jeep with a driver guide across the border to the Los Glaciars National Park and El Chaltén in Argentina. This is great trekking territory; the Fitz Roy Mountains, the thick forests, glacial parks and lakes just beg to be explored. I may just have to return to these extraordinary lands and spend a week traversing their wonders in my own Jeep Chevrolet – it seems to me yet another very good reason to return to Chile.