At 2,500m, the Atacama Desert is both the driest and highest desert on earth. In this harsh, often eerie, yet starkly beautiful desert landscape there is a lot of sunshine, and although the temperature drops below zero at night, generally the year-round climate is pleasant and the transparency of light, unique. The mixture of volcanoes, salt flats and high altitude wetlands is unparalleled. With so much diversity in this small part of Chile, the excursions on offer are endless. We’ve whittled down our top five must-do excursions…
Chile: A land of extremes and contrasts
Chile is a land of extremes. A frayed ribbon down the west coast of South America, Chile is so diverse and breathtakingly beautiful it should be visited by everyone at least once. Below the Latin America team introduces you to two of its most extreme areas, going from the very bottom to the very top.
In comparison to other countries in South America, Chile is a country that still remains off the radar for many travellers. The country’s capital is bustling, sure, but it doesn’t have the same international pull as Buenos Aires or Rio. You’ll never hear Santiago referred to as the city that doesn’t sleep, it’s not the city of passion like Buenos Aires and it doesn’t offer world-famous parties like Rio. Don’t get me wrong, we love Santiago, but as a tourist destination, it perhaps doesn’t stand up to its noisier neighbours.
What Chile has to offer though is so much more than its capital; it pretty much offers us another world. The country extends like a frayed ribbon down the west coast of South America for over 4,200km (2,610 miles), with the world’s longest mountain chain along its eastern side and the world’s deepest ocean to its west. With the driest desert in the world in the north, the Atacama, and ice fields and glaciers in the south, Chile is a country of extremes – and the perfect destination for adventurers. Combine this with some of the best and most beautiful lodges on the continent and suddenly you’re wondering just why there isn’t more hype.
The ultimate trip to Chile should take in both the very north and the very south. At the very bottom of the country you have the stunning Torres Del Paine National Park, also referred to as South America’s finest and most beautiful national park. It’s earned its reputation mainly because of its dramatic topography; we’re talking rugged mountain terrains, emerald forests, rolling hills and glowing blue glaciers. It’s like another planet and will certainly take your breath away. There is an old saying in Patagonia, “If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute”, and it’s no huge exaggeration to say that you can experience all four seasons in one day (for those facing the daunting task of packing for their upcoming trip, layers are key).
One of our favourite places to stay has to be the perfectly secluded Awasi Patagonia. The thing that sets Awasi apart is that all its excursions are with a private guide, which is amazingly helpful when you are looking to get the most out of your Patagonian experience and really make each and every excursion your own. When you arrive at the lodge, you will be sat down with your guide to discuss the adventures that lie ahead and really focus on what you want to get out of the experience. Each and every individual villa is plush with the most un-paralleled views of the forest and Lake Sarmiento; imagine spending the evening with a glass of wine in hand, relaxing in your outdoor hot tub overlooking these spectacular views… pretty tempting right?
The beauty of staying at a luxurious lodge, rather than with the throng of backpackers at a refugio, is that your guide will plan your hikes and activities so that you stay off the well-trodden routes, away from the crowds. And believe us, in this remote area of the world, you really want to be able to take in the dazzling blue lakes, the awe-inspiring mountains and enjoy the silence. The park is the ultimate hiking destination on the continent and the classic hike that many people do in this region is known as the “W” trek, taking in the beautiful grey glacier, the French Valley and a hike up to the base of the famous Torres. Hiking aside, another one of our favourite excursions here is the horse-riding, suitable for all levels even if you’ve only ever enjoyed the odd pony trekking excursion. Galloping (or plodding) across the Patagonian wilderness with a local baqueno (cowboy) is an absolute must and one of the best ways to explore the landscape and get a bite of Patagonian culture.
Another stop people might like to make is to the port city of Puerto Natales, located on the shore of the Última Esperanza Sound. Often a stepping stone for those heading to Torres Del Paine, its home to an outstanding property called Singular Patagonia, which is an experience in itself. The hotel is based in a restored post-Victorian cold-storage plant built in 1915 and declared a national monument in 1996. En route to the world class spa or gourmet restaurant, you walk through corridors filled with century old machinery imported from England at the turn of the 20th Century. The combination of all the history, character and the gorgeous sunset views from the heated outdoor pool makes it worth a visit alone, and we would recommend staying her at least one night before or after your Torres Del Paine exploration.
From the very bottom of the country to the very top, you are greeted with the fascinating Atacama Desert, said to be one of the driest places in the world. An hour and a half drive from Calama airport, you’re greeted by an expanse of red sands and rock and it’s only at the very last minute, as you turn a corner, that you see the oasis that is San Pedro de Atacama below. Explora Atacama is our favourite place to stay as it was the first lodge of its ilk in the area, meaning it has an enviable reputation to live up to. We’d probably describe the lodge as being for the adventurous; people who were backpackers (and perhaps still are) but now look for a higher level of service and comfort. The whole lodge exudes understated quality and the 42 acres of land means you can really enjoy the scenery around you.
The Atacama Desert has often been compared to other planets because the scenery is simply out of this world. There are a whole host of excursions to choose… Eli, our Chile specialist, particularly loved spending one afternoon walking through the Kari Ravine, a small canyon formed by water erosion and bordered by enormous salt walls, offering the most specular and untouched views. To finish this day she enjoyed the other-worldly experience of watching the sun set over the Moon Valley in the Atacama Desert, which was just beautiful and so peaceful she puts it down as one of her best moments in Chile. Horse riding is a must at any of the Explora lodges, which are the only ones to own their own stables and pride themselves on their horsemanship. Spending the day riding through the dunes and canyons, you will feel like a cowboy in a Western. Another top thing to enjoy here is a hike from the Guatin settlement (home to only two residents!). This is a really beautiful walk, following the river through a gorge full of giant cacti and pampas grass (or foxes’ tails as it’s called in the region).
One of our Latin America experts’ Scarlett particularly loved the impressive Tatio Geysers. El Tatio is ringed by volcanoes and fed by gurgling geysers which is a phenomenal site. Be warned, the best time to enjoy them in full glory is at around 6am, so it’s an early start and toe-numbingly cold, so dress in layers! Following an exploration around these geothermic fields, you can take a visit to the small village of Machuca, before enjoying a soak in the Puritama thermal pools – bliss! The combination of an extremely dry climate, high altitude and the immense distance from any source of environmental pollution makes the Atacama Desert a perfect and clear window into the Universe. Nowhere on Earth is better for stargazing than here (it’s no coincidence that NASA has chosen it as the location for its new ALMA telescope). Getting lost in the dazzling mass of stars and seeing the distant galaxies is the perfect end to any Atacama experience and will leave you longing to return.
Anyone who has been to Chile will agree that some of the most remote places on earth also happen to be the most beautiful. If scenery and landscapes are your thing, then look no further than Chile – in just two weeks you can experience it all: radiant glaciers, towering mountains, azure lakes and desert.
To make the most of what Chile has to offer, we recommend the following itinerary:
Get in touch with the Latin America team for more ideas and to plan the perfect trip tailored to you. Give them a call on 020 7622 1116 or complete this enquiry form.