Traversing the Incredible Climates and Landscapes of Chile
Iroshini Chua puts on her hiking boots and explores Chile, a narrow strip of a coastal country that runs 4,200km in length, soaking in an incredible variety of climates and landscapes in a single destination.
“Are we landing on Mars?” I thought out loud, as we descended along with the setting sun, upon a lunar-like landscape of pleated red mountains gleaming in a stretch of utter barrenness. It’s always the first impressions on a voyage that are immortalised in one’s memory, but Chile had me mesmerised even before I set a single hiking boot on this rivetingly beautiful land that begged to be explored.
Specialists from A2A Journeys (tel: 6442 7600), who have intimate knowledge of the luxury lodges and bespoke excursions offered, curated the journey across Chile to tantalise our travel palate. The Atacama Desert, which clearly belonged to another world, was the first stop on our two-week long itinerary that saw us hike, drive, ride horseback and fly (we booked our domestic flights through lan.com).
“Atacama is the driest desert in the world stretching over a 105,000sq km plateau west of the Andes and is quickly transforming into a hyper-desert,” our driver shared as he whisked us from Calama Airport to our lodge. It was dark when we arrived at Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, and as I curled up among the creature comforts of our suite, I wondered why people would make this harsh, arid, high-altitude desert home. The next morning revealed the reason as I discovered the ethereal beauty and uniqueness of the region, with its breathtaking landscapes, soothing colour palette, superlative flavours, intriguing culture and enchanting wildlife.
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa is the only lodge located outside of the sleepy village of San Pedro de Atacama and is surrounded by nature in splendid isolation. The low-slung, adobe-style property melds seamlessly into the terracotta-coloured ridge that makes up the striking Catarpe Valley walls. The lodge faces the lush San Pedro River offering sweeping views of the valley and Andes in the distance and boasts no less than six pools and a renowned spa.
Heading southwest, we traversed a landscape dotted with llamas, alpacas, vicunas and guanacos while Mount Licancabur, a mammoth volcano revered as sacred, hovered over us like a giant relentlessly watching its visitors. After passing the hamlet of Socaire, we ascended to 4,200m above sea level to reach the high Andes lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques. Here the Andes are in its full display of power with iridescent jewel-toned waters beckoning a picnic on its shores. By late afternoon, we were hiking the salt-encrusted ridges of Moon Valley and by sunset, we were sipping chirimoya (a custard apple cocktail) and drinking in the crimson blaze cast over Death Valley.
One of the inimitable spectacles in the Chilean desert is the Tatio Geysers — the highest and the third-largest geothermal field in the world. Juxtaposed against a clear blue sky, 40ft columns of steam rose from the boiling, hissing geysers before us, as the first rays of the sun pieced the horizon.
If I could rewind to an achingly beautiful sunset, it would be that over the Tebinquinche salt flat. The stillness of the powdery blue lagoon mirrored the candyfloss pink of the salt mountain range as the last rays of the sun dipped below the cloudless sky.
Rock of Ages
Mysterious, intriguing and known as the “navel of the world”, Rapa Nui or Easter Island is the very definition of remote. It is but an infinitesimal speck in the midst of the infinitely blue Pacific Ocean captivating the explorer since its discovery over 200 years ago. Spend any amount of time on its bleach-blond shores and its distinctively French Polynesian roots become palpable. In fact, Easter islanders will proudly delve into the details of their enigmatic ancestral culture, their dramatic isolation and vehemently proclaim their dislike for being identified as Chilean.
Explora Rapa Nui placed us in a tranquil area on the island with a spectacular view of the azure seas. Contemporary and airy, the LEED-certified green lodging was constructed out of wood and volcanic rock, ensuring its minimal impact on the ecosystems of Rapa Nui. In-depth exploration requires appropriate guidance and Explora is the trailblazer. Beno and his team of indigenous guides have a profound knowledge and respect for the land that enriched our understanding of the region, and their personal tatler_tatler_stories (a couple involved UFO sightings!) heightened our experience.
They guided us at Tongariki, a stone platform of 15 Moai facing inland as if watching over the villagers. Moai are large monolithic human figures carved out of rock featuring overly large heads, broad noses, strong chins and rectangle shaped ears. They are believed to be representations of ancient Polynesian ancestors and are a symbol of religious and political power. The tallest Moai erected is 10m in height and weighed 82 tonnes. Half of the 900 statues are still at the main Moai quarry at Rano Raraku and the production and transportation of them are considered a remarkable physical feat.
We then visited Orongo, a ceremonial centre for the annual birdman competition, located at the high south-westerly tip of the large volcanic caldera called Rano Kau. The Tangata Manu (bird-man) was the winner of the traditional competition, which involved collecting the first egg of the season from the islet of Motu Nui, swimming back to Rapa Nui and climbing the dangerous 300m sheer cliff-face and returning to Orongo. The village consists of a collection of low, round walled buildings and numerous petroglyphs, mainly of the birdmen, carved to commemorate some of the winners of the race.
Patagonia is widely celebrated as one of the most beautiful places in Latin America, a fiercely wild and unsullied region that is shared by Chile and Argentina. It is home to dramatic jagged ice-capped mountains, plains that stretch to infinity, lenga forests that grace the slopes and stunning glaciers that carve into icy lakes with a resounding roar.
Driving through a landscape dotted with flamingo-filled lagoons and red foxes that dashed into the bush, we watched the condors with their 3m wingspans soar and glide above us in search of carrion. We had opted to stay in two different properties, The Singular Patagonia and Tierra Patagonia to best experience all that Patagonia has to offer.
The Singular Patagonia is located on the shores of Puerto Natales and is one of the unique lodges on the planet. Descendants of the original pioneers resurrected the former cold storage plant as a sleek luxury hotel that remains true to its rugged roots. Past the utilitarian, industrial facade where several cars were neatly parked, our SUV pulled up beside a glass wall-clad warehouse hidden within. Entering the warehouse, we descended to the reception on a slow and utterly charming funicular ride. A brushed-cement ceiling, 200-year-old machinery and unheated walkways through expansive boiler and storage rooms promised a stay at a museum, while the mood in the spacious room was thoroughly modern with 6m-wide windows looking out to the craggy Patagonian fjords.
An excursion to the Torres del Paine National Park is undoubtedly the highlight of the region. The affable guides from The Singular drove us to Rio Serrano Lake and onwards to explore the national park. Camera at the ready, we walked the shores of Grey Lake capturing the vivid blue floating ice, gasped at the beauty of Lake Pehoé’s emerald waters flanked by twisted mountain peaks, marvelled at the majesty of the three towers of Paine Massif and clapped our eyes on the magnificence of the Salto Grande waterfall.
Lauded as one of National Geographic’s “Unique Lodges” and named a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, Tierra Patagonia sits on the shores of Lake Sarmiento at the doorstep of the national park. Completely covered with natural lenga wood, this mind-blowing architectural feat hides in plain sight, and only on close approach did I notice it. The interior is warm, welcoming and peppered with areas of unadulterated relaxation — we were cocooned in egg chairs suspended from the ceiling, sprawled on the oversized day beds reading at the library, and sipped Pisco Sours sitting on the cushioned ledges by the colossal windows that afforded a mesmerising view of the lake and the towers beyond.
Patagonia has one of the world’s greatest equestrian traditions. Thus, we completed our Patagonian adventure on horseback, riding with the gauchos from the nearby Estancia Lazo.
Wine & Dine
Santiago was our next stop, and The Aubrey was our stylish abode located in the chic Bellavista area. It is a restored 1920s mansion with impressive wood beam carvings and a terraced bell tower. Each of the 15 modern, beautifully appointed ensuite bedrooms has its own character. We were pleased to learn that The Aubrey was perfectly placed to experience the exciting culinary scene of Santiago.
Lunch at Casa Lastarria was a delightful alfresco affair sipping framboise and mingling over local favourites such as Pastel de Choclo and Tres Leches, while dinner at Boragó was a gastronomic highlight as well as a visually stimulating journey.
Boragó is celebrated as one of the top restaurants of all of South America. The innovative degustation menu featured a variety of ingredients foraged from the top to the bottom of Chile including puree of rock plants cooked on a rock with broth of roots of kolof (a rock plant derivative), veal in its milk from Parral and dessert of native mushrooms from the central coast.
La Casona at Matetic Vineyards is located in Rosario Valley between the coastal Casablanca Valley and San Antonio. The 100-year-old colonial country home was lovingly restored to incorporate seven stylish suites with terraces that overlooked the sculptured gardens. After settling into our suite, we meandered to a 10,000ha vineyard belonging to the Matetic family, which produces a variety of award-winning cool-climate wines using biodynamic and organic methods.
Our last day in Chile was spent in Valparaíso, a Unesco World Heritage Site and Chile’s most unusual city. We got lost within the colourful mess of graffiti-covered houses, gritty and dilapidated mansions and steep, chaotic walkways. Several hours later in a sugary-spell from one too many scoops of ice-cream from Emporio La Rosa, we succumbed to the funicular that brought us back to the heart of Cerro Alegre where Casa Higueras was located complete with a magnificent view of Valparaíso bay.
The aristocratic mansion was meticulously awakened to propose a perfect amalgamation of modern day comfort and its historic past. The cosy boutique hotel of 20 rooms of sophisticated interiors featured a pool and spa on tiered terraces that beckoned total relaxation at the garden level. As the sun set over Valparaíso, we adjourned to the rooftop to watch the slow light-up of the hills of the city and contemplated our journey that saw us traversing the ample length and narrow breath of Chile from deserts, glacier lakes, beaches, volcanoes to wineries.
After a healthy exposure to nature and active interaction with the gloriously untamed land, we knew that we would be left euphoric for days after.