Patagonia vs Atacama | Country & Town House
Country & Town House magazine | January 2011
The land of fire and ice
Laura Ivill ventures across Chile to discover the volcanic delights of the Atacama desert and the mesmerising wilderness of Patagonia
On the high desert plain of northern Chile my guide, Juan-Paulo, tells me that there has been no decent rain here for 14 years. It is reputedly the highest-driest place on earth – some areas had no significant rainfall from 1570 to 1971- and one of the most remarkable. With cloudless blue skies and picture-perfect volcanic mountains all along the horizon across the flat landscape, there is one colour that is the Atacama: pink. Shades of rich red pink as the sun sets, sandy pink as the hot desert sun is high in the sky, purpley pink, dusty pink, burnt pink, even a blueish pink where the earth and sky converge.
We learn a lot about volcanic rock from our guides on an early evening exploration from our luxury lodge at 2,500m close to the small oasis town of San Pedro. Explora Atacama, like its sister properties explora Patagonia and explora Rapa Nui (Easter Island), is all about getting you out to enjoy the landscape so you can experience it with all five senses – the smell of sulphur from hot springs, the sound of rock that chinks together like glass, the feel of sand beneath your horse's hooves, the sight of great desert canyons, the taste of salt from the ground.
Each evening we meet with the guides to decide where we want to explore the next day, and whether that's on foot (including climbing at over 5,000m), by mountain bike or on horseback. The guides, mostly from Santiago and fluent in English, have all had three months educational training by explora on their specific region, covering its flora and fauna, geology, history, native peoples and even, in Atacama, the night sky (the property has a powerful telescope in the grounds for stargazing in the clear air). Bright, enthusiastic and knowledgeable, the guides are also great company: "I get up in the morning and the sun shines all day,” says Victor, as he takes me cycling 18km along a wide, sandy, bumpy desert track from the hotel to Laguna de Piedra, a large salt lake fed from a spring in which we swim in. “I go out into the desert, maybe on my bike, I meet interesting people from all over the world and I get paid. It's a great life."
The constant hot, dry weather means the vibe is relaxed and unhurried and there is an open bar, so you can get drinks until late to take to the outdoor spa in the grounds or meet up for a cocktail before dinner. Although the focus is on ensuring you get the most from the extraordinary landscape, the lodge itself has the wow factor. Designed by architect José Cruz Ovalle, as are all three explora properties, it is expansive and low, with a sweeping dining terrace looking out onto the volcanoes. The rooms are set outside of the main building across a courtyard so that you always feel in touch with your surroundings – breathing in the cool night air as you retire after a gourmet dinner and seeing the canopy of stars overhead. A great life, indeed.
It is 5.50am, and I have kept my hotel blinds open all night in expectation. This morning something surprising happens. I suddenly awake to see the vertical cluster of jagged, snowy mountains, the towers of the Torres del Paine, across the pampas outside, illuminated by an otherworldly red glow. The sunrise has caught the crags and glaciers in its first light. But only for an instant. In a few seconds the coal-red has disappeared, and only the flat early light on these fractured, majestic peaks remains.
Patagonia - the romance of the word speaks of the end of the earth. No other land on the planet sits at this watery southern latitude. If the desert of the north is hot, dry and flat, with the outlines of pink volcanoes encircling the flat plains of misshapen rock, then its complement is surely this land of vast green pampas, soft under foot, ice-blue glaciers and soaring, impossible white peaks.
And it is into these wilds, part of the Torres del Paine National Park, that we venture with explora Patagonia: on foot across springy earth, up rock and through copses, past a crashing waterfall towards Grey Glacier and its magnificent blue cliffs of ice. Another day I am driven a few minutes away to the explora stables where 26 horses await my visit, many bred near Santiago by the owner especially for the desert and the pampas. These calm and confident animals are a mix of milla, Arab and the riding at both Patagonia and Atacama caters for all levels, whether you want to try a gentle hour's walk or go full out for miles across open country or, desert style, feel the soft spring of your ride across the sand dunes.
Walkers will find plenty of excursions to suit whatever the weather holds. And never was a truer word spoken than “Patagonia: four seasons in one day." Inside, the hotel's numerous fireplaces, sofas and coffee tables invite you to linger and browse the picture books, unless you prefer to relax in the spa after an excursion, with its lap pool and four large outdoor whirl baths. No hotel could claim a more luxurious moment than coming back from a full day's horseride with the gauchos across the pampas, returning to a glass of bubbly sipped in a hot Jacuzzi overlooking an ice blue lake, pounding waterfall and soft green vegetation. Go prepared for a great deal of comfort, yet with an open mind to explore and absorb this unique sense of place at the end of the earth.
Where to stay in Santiago
The Aubrey: This perfectly judged new boutique hotel sits in the heart of the artists' quarter of Bellavista, Santiago. The area is a bohemian hotspot that has all the kudos of unspoilt low-rise 1920s and 1930s shuttered buildings - now bars and restaurants that invite you to drink and dine with the locals. The Aubrey was originally a 1927 villa, now combined with the neighbouring property and stylishly and carefully renovated. Set in its own grounds with a verdant hillside behind, it has 15 well-proportioned, individually decorated rooms, making use of the owner’s eclectic antiques collection mixed with contemporary pieces. The reception staff are warm and attentive and its Italian restaurant Pasta e Vino has a reputation that extends well beyond Santiago. www.theaubrey.com
W Santiago: Since November 2009, the W Santiago has brought this US brand's urban cool to the smart district of Las Condes. With interior design by Tony Chi, the 196-room tower is exceptionally spacious. The triple-height reception floor with the W lounge, wi-fi library, restaurants and bars and even a destination nightclub, is high-design at its most globally appealing. Rooms are dark and moody with fabulous views of the mountains and service as you'd expect with five-star luxury. Make time for the spa and the rootop lap pool. www.starwoodhotels.com/whotels
Details: Exsus (www.exsus.com / 020-7337 9010) offers an 11-night itinerary from £5,300 per person based on two people travelling together and sharing a room. This includes: four nights at explora Atacama on a full-board basis inc excursions; four nights at explora Patagonia on a full-board basis inc excursions; two nights at The Aubrey hotel, Santiago, on a bed and breakfast basis; one night at the W Santiago on a bed and breakfast basis; all transfers, internal flights and international flights.