CHILE is a land of contrasts – and not least for the euphoria of the miners’ rescue last year, preceded by the coastal earthquake. But it is this land – volcanic and alive, and rich in minerals – that entices me to travel half way around the world to explore its natural wonders, the northern desert versus the southern pampas, on foot, by mountain bike and on horseback.
From London (51 degrees north), I arrive precisely 51 degrees south, in the wilds of Chile’s grassland, glaciers, lakes and mountains. On the other side of the world, there is isolation – and plenty of weather (as they say, “four seasons in one day”).
Yet I am not without considerable comfort. The Explora Patagonia lodge is the only luxury accommodation here in the Torres del Paine National Park. All three Explora lodges – Patagonia, Atacama and Rapa Nui (or Easter Island, the outpost, in the Pacific) – have been designed by the Chilean architect José Cruz Ovalle, and guests can expect spacious rooms, spectacular views, gourmet dining, an open bar, fine wines, a full spa, and an atmosphere that is laid-back and outdoorsy-friendly (walking boots at the bar? – absolutely).
From Explora Patagonia, my first excursion is by motor boat across Lake Pehoe to the start of the hike to Grey Glacier. It’s early in the season, October, and the walk-in is something akin to a good stroll in North Wales in March. In the first hour alone we experience 40 different kinds of frozen rain, grouped broadly into “sleet” (various lump sizes), “snow” (building up to a blizzard), and “hail” (some as large as small stones). From the shelter of the beech trees of the forest, we emerge into fierce winds roaring across an exposed rocky outcrop for a first glimpse of Grey Glacier. The melting wall of ice is startlingly blue, and great hulking slabs crack away so that the lake is dotted with these icebergs. Down on the foreshore, Jose, our guide, produces a flask and pours a capful of Baileys for each guest. Glacier ice is added, ice that is tens of thousands of years old. It’s a very fine Baileys.
After lunch we board a small cruise ship that sails close to the glacier wall and its imposing ice sheet. We see how the earth’s crust has buckled and twisted millions of years ago, contorted by seismic shifts that also created the iconic horns of the granite Torres del Paine. On board I’m surprised to be greeted by a large group of French tourists, a group I had met only days before, 4,170km north, in the heat and dust of the Atacama desert. They, too, had been staying at Explora Atacama, the lodge on the edge of the small oasis town of San Pedro.
At 2,500m above sea level, Atacama is the driest place on earth at this altitude. With no light pollution and zero humidity, it has some of the clearest skies anywhere in the world and is a Mecca for stargazers (Explora has its own walk-in observatory). In the Valley of the Moon my guides tell me this place has had no significant rain for 14 years. It is an extraordinarily beautiful, tranquil, vast landscape of azure sky above rock the colour of sandy-pink, rose-pink, pink-purple, sandy-purple and ocre, rimmed by volcanoes rising above 4,500m. Sometimes they appear as pink as the flamingos that fly above the salt flats. If you enjoy a cloudless, hot summer’s day all year round, Atacama will oblige.
Our Explora guide, Victor, takes me and five of the French group mountain biking. The guides are chosen for their enthusiasm and bonhomie. They spend three months being schooled by Explora on all aspects of flora and fauna, geography, geology, local peoples and astronomy. They genuinely love what they do and want you to have a good time (‘I get up, the sun shines all day,’ says Victor, ‘I go out into the desert, I meet interesting people and I get paid. It’s a great life’).
The stony track is wide and sandy and, thankfully, totally flat. It’s not the hardest trail you can do here as there are plenty of hilly explorations for bikers, but it was 18km to the Laguna Piedra for a dip. I opt to make the return by bike: one hour and nine minutes in the midday sun. Note to self: take the opportunity to pee before you set out 18km across the desert – there are no trees.
If the bike-riding was great fun, the horse riding was truly exceptional. The pristine stables on site at Atacama have upwards of 20 horses, and the owner of Explora, Pedro Ibáñez, breeds them especially for his two mainland properties. This is a superb place to have a go whatever your level, and there are lessons if you’re a total beginner or would just like a bit more confidence. I’m lucky to have ridden many different horses in many different countries and I can honestly say my three-hour desert exploration was one of the best ever. My horse, Rucia, was polite and responsive and we galloped together high up amid the red dunes of the Cordillera de la Sal with panoramic views over the dusty, other-worldly landscape.
And I remember the intense desert heat as I relax in one of the four outdoor Jacuzzis in Patagonia, with a glass of sparkling wine, gazing across the green, green earth to the icy lake and the mountains beyond.
And that’s Explora – looking outwards to the landscape, the possibilities of what nature has to offer. From barren volcanoes to majestic mountains, pink desert rock to blue meltwater falls, dry salt flats to wide, open grassland. Two magnificent destinations, one vast
Exsus 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 and four at Explora Patagonia on a full-board basis including excursions, two nights at The Aubrey hotel, Santiago, with breakfast; one night at the W Santiago with breakfast; all transfers, internal flights and international flights (www.exsus.com/020 7337 9010).
Where to stay in Santiago
Santiago is the transport hub, making air connections to Calama airport in the north for Atacama, and Punta Arenas in the south for Patagonia. These two hotels offer different experiences in different neighbourhoods, and both have a cool design aesthetic, an outdoor pool and patio and great eats.
The Aubrey: This perfectly judged boutique hotel – a first for Santiago – sits in the heart of the artists' quarter of Bellavista, within walking distance of the capital’s downtown. The area is a bohemian hotspot with 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 that has been stylishly and carefully renovated. Set in its own grounds with a verdant hillside behind, it has 15 individually decorated rooms, making use of the owner’s eclectic antiques collection mixed with contemporary pieces.
The 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