The sun sets over the mountains and salt flats surrounding Tebinquinche Lagoon
Are we landing on Mars?” I exclaim as we descend with the setting sun onto a landscape of pleated red mountains starkly beautiful in their utter barrenness. The Atacama Desert has me mesmerised well before my boots make first contact for two weeks of hiking, driving, riding and flying around Chile, a narrow, rivetingly beautiful strip of paradise and wilderness that stretches 4,300 kilometres from Peru to the southernmost point of South America.
This otherworldly high-altitude Andean plateau of more than 100,000 square kilometres, already the driest non-polar place on earth, is rapidly becoming a “hyperdesert,” our driver tells us as we hurry from El Loa Airport, the gateway to the wonders of Chile’s far north, to our luxurious adobe lodge set in splendid isolation outside the sleepy village of San Pedro de Atacama. It’s just one extreme in a country of extremes, a stretch of the Pacific Ring of Fire that spans seven climatic zones, from the northern desert though the Mediterranean centre to the rich forests and grazing lands of the south, taking in snow-capped volcanoes, sapphire lakes, twisting peninsulas, a labyrinth of fjords, and a multitude of glaciers.
Wind-worn icebergs fallen from the face of Grey Glacier float in the Patagonian lake of the same name
As I fall asleep in the desert on that first night, close to where the borders of Chile, Bolivia and Argentina intersect, I wonder what would bring people to live in such a harsh environment. The following days reveal a plethora of reasons as we journey through breathtaking landscapes and soothing colour palettes experiencing fantastic flavours, intriguing cultures and enchanting wildlife. Our hotel, the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, melds seamlessly with the terracottacoloured walls of the Catarpe Valley in a crook of the San Pedro River, looking over a magnificent vista to the peaks of the Andes rising more than 6,000 metres in the distance.
We head southwest on our first foray into the wilderness, traversing a landscape liberally dotted with the cute wildlife of the region—llama, alpaca, vicuña and guanaco. Strikingly symmetrical Mount Licancabur, a snow-capped volcano revered as sacred, hovers above us like a giant surveying Lilliputian visitors to his realm. We pass through the hamlet of Socaire and climb to the lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques 4,200 metres above sea level. Shores lapped by iridescent, jewel-toned waters invite a picnic. By late afternoon we’re hiking the saltencrusted ridges of the Valley of the Moon; at sunset we’re sipping cherimoya cocktails and drinking in the crimson blaze over the Valley of Death. As the first rays of the sun pierce the horizon the next day, we’re treated to another eye-popping spectacle. Against an azure sky, voluminous clouds billow off 12-metre columns of steam and boiling, hissing water. The El Tatio geysers, some 80 of them, erupt from the highest and third-largest geothermal field in the world. Later, an achingly beautiful sunset at Tebinquinche Lagoon has us swooning, the powdery blue water mirroring the candyfloss pink of the surrounding salt mountains under a cloudless sky.
Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, is home to 900 of these mysterious monolithic sculptures known as moai
From the Atacama we fly some 3,000 kilometres south to explore a fiercely wild region carved by ice during the world’s last big freeze. Patagonia, which sprawls across Chile and Argentina, boasts jagged ice-capped mountains, pampa grasslands and plains that stretch to infinity, vast lenga forests, and more than 20,000 glaciers making their sinuous way into high-altitude lakes or right down to the sea. The region has an abundance of birds and animals; our first drive takes us through a landscape dotted with flamingo-filled lagoons and red foxes that dash into the bush as several of Chile’s national bird, the Andean condor, soar gracefully above on three-metre wingspans in search of their next meal.
Torres del Paine National Park is one of the highlights of the region. From our unique lodgings on the edge of the park—The Singular Patagonia, a former cold storage plant turned luxury hotel on the banks of Última Esperanza Sound—our guide takes us through a progression of landscapes each more dramatic than the last. We walk the shores of Grey Lake to view vivid blue blocks of floating glacial ice, gasp at the beauty of Lake Pehoé’s emerald waters flanked by spectacular crags, marvel at the majesty of the three ice-clad towers of the Paine Massif, gaze across Lake Del Toro to razor-sharp peaks, and tremble at the rush of the mighty Salto Grande waterfall. For a different taste of the park, we move to Tierra Patagonia on the shores of Sarmiento Lake, a Unesco biosphere reserve. Completely covered in lenga wood, it hides in plain sight—and is the perfect location to sip pisco sours at day’s end with the mesmerising vista of the lake and peaks framed by its huge picture windows.
Patagonia, with its vast treeless grassland plains, the pampas, is home to a thriving beef industry and one of the world’s great equestrian traditions—the gauchos, or cowboys, who work the cattle ranches. In their honour, we complete our Patagonian adventure with the gauchos of Estancia Lazo, a ranch on the banks of Lake Verde, riding horses while gazing at some of the best panoramas of the Paine Massif.
Gauchos check a fence on the pampas. Patagonia boasts vast areas of these treeless grasslands
Our next stop, Santiago, lies between the Atacama Desert and Patagonia in a rich agricultural region with a Mediterranean climate. Many of Chile’s great wines come from here; the Aconcagua, San Antonio, Maipo and Colchagua valleys are just a few of its renowned winemaking districts. So it’s no surprise that as well as its dramatic setting in the shadow of the Andes—home to ski resorts of international repute—and all the sightseeing and cultural offerings of a capital city, Santiago has an exciting culinary scene, especially the chic Centro and Bellavista areas. Lunch at Casa Lastarria is a delightful alfresco affair. We sip framboise, a raspberry brandy, and mingle over local favourites such as pastel de choclo (a shepherd’s pie of seasoned minced beef topped with a sweetcorn paste) and tres leches (milk cake). Later, dinner at Boragó, celebrated as one of the top restaurants in all of South America, is a visually stimulating gastronomic highlight. The innovative degustation menu features ingredients foraged from all over Chile, including a puree of rock plants cooked on a rock with a broth of roots, veal in milk, and a dessert of native mushrooms.
Less than 90 minutes’ drive from Santiago lies Chile’s most unusual city, Valparaíso, a port on a spectacular bay flanked by exceptional beaches both north and south. A steep amphitheatre of brightly coloured buildings and clifftop homes rises from the bay. Its historic core is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Wandering the vertiginous streets, we get lost in graffiti-covered houses, dilapidated mansions and steep, chaotic walkways and stairs. Several hours later, in a sugary spell from eating too much ice cream at Emporio La Rosa, we take a funicular ride back to the Cerro Alegre neighbourhood and Casa Higueras, once an aristocrat’s mansion, now a cosy boutique hotel with magnificent views. As the sun sets, we adjourn to the rooftop to watch the show and reflect on a journey that has us traversing the length and breadth of the nation.
(Text by Iroshini Chua, Photo by Kevin and Iroshini Chua)