15 June 2018
Home to some of the greatest wildernesses in the world, Chile is a paradise for adventurers. From the rusty red expanses of the Atacama to the mighty peaks of Patagonia, it is home to a boundless offering of extraordinary landscapes, unforgettable experiences and exclusive hotels. Luxury travel specialist, Jules, uncovers the very best of this vast and varied country.
Now that there is a direct flight into Santiago from London, the door to exploring the amazing sights of Chile has been flung wide open. Whether you chose to simply visit the highlights of this wonderful country or travel over the border to the south to Argentina is a question of how much time you have. I managed to fit in the glorious lake region of Argentina at the end of my Chilean adventure and it was the grand finale to a sensational trip.
The history of Chile is fascinating as it is so intrinsically linked to our own heritage. Travelling through Patagonia on both the Chilean and Argentinian side was an eye opener as everyone we met had a story about their descendants and the harsh but beautiful landscapes which clearly still retains that magical and magnetic pull from across the ocean of all those years ago.
But I am jumping ahead of my tale. We started in the Maipo Valley, a short drive from Santiago, home to the charming, colonial hacienda of Hotel Casa Real set in the impressive vineyards of Santa Rita. After meeting Diego, our host, at the gracious, elegant hotel, we were introduced to the history of this wonderful former home. Small, with very Spanish style rooms and suites overlooking a lovely courtyard and glorious parklands, it is a perfect place to stop and catch your breath at either the beginning or end of a holiday. There is a wonderful chapel and stone terraces drop down into a park below with its incredible gardens and trees which resemble those of a colonial Italian or French villa estate more than a traditional estancia. The food at the hotel itself was excellent or you can indulge in tours, wine tastings or a delicious lunch at the Santa Rita winery, before a dip in the pool back at Hotel Casa Real.
Sadly, we had to move on the next morning to catch a plane up to Calama, the gateway to the iconic Atacama Desert. I had dreamed of these landscapes for many years and staying at the famous Explora Atacama Desert Lodge was the perfect spot to enjoy the amazing activities and scenery the Atacama is so famous for. Choose to ride the horses from their stables, take the four wheel drives up to the Altiplanico, discover the mystery of the geysers or enjoy the shimmering salt flats at sunset burning hues of orange, pink, red and gold. Fuelled by delicious but fresh and simple food from the Explora kitchen, served with views over the Andean mountains and volcanoes or in front of their fire at night, we set off each day with a new plan beautifully formulated by Nicholas and his team of guides.
The very name ‘Explora’ and the very name describes their ethos and guiding experience. I learnt so much about geology, glaciology, plants, stars and the night sky from their observatory, along with the formation of the volcanos, geysers and salt flats, the movements of the ocean and about tectonic plates. If I took one photo of the friendly herds of guanacos, vicunas, llamas, goats and flocks of beautiful birds, I must have taken 100, and was so relieved to hear the vicunas are fiercely protected by law. With Explora, the experience is all about being at one with the landscape. Its whole objective is to make you appreciate the incredible scenery surrounding the hotel. And this is what you feel in both this hotel and at its sister property in the Torres del Paine National Park. Great guides, simple but well-appointed rooms and a huge footprint with four pools framed by feathery pampas grass and stables, means you lack for nothing during your stay here.
Sadly, time again was not a luxury we could afford, so another flight back through Santiago for the night and then onto Punta Arenas and the wild magic of Patagonia. It is a three-hour flight from Santiago and you really feel as if you are travelling towards the end of the world when you consider the capital is almost in the middle of Chile. I could talk for hours about the original immigrants who came to settle this land in the late 1800s; from the discovery of the Strait of Magellan in 1520, providing the Spanish and Magellan with a much sought after short cut to the Pacific, to the Drake Passage in the 1580s and the Beagle Channel much later. It was in the late 1800s when the first immigrants arrived from Scotland, Russia, Britain and Croatia to create something out of the harsh, windswept yet beautiful land.
We were lucky enough to stay at the fabulous Singular Patagonia which is not only architecturally one of the world’s most fascinating hotels but is lucky enough to boast a wonderful location on the shores of the spectacular Señoret Channel. Plush, minimalistic yet superbly comfortable rooms with floor to ceiling windows boast wonderful views over the sea and mountains and the chic dining areas and hip bar are all built into the hotel’s original warehouse structure. Not to mention their fantastic spa where I had one of the best massages of my life. The old meat packing and refrigeration warehouse is worthy of the two-hour historical tour that Sebastian gave us – a real must if you stay there. The history of the place is astonishing, and the steam driven mechanical machinery left behind makes one proud to be British and part of yet again, the legacy of the Victorian industrial revolution which spanned the world at this time. Truly fascinating.
The food here was wonderful, sitting in front of huge roaring fires mesmerising and, for the record, one of the best pisco sours I have ever tasted! You can explore so many places from here including full day fjord experiences on their boat and trips into the Torres del Paine National Park as well as Puerto Natales.
Armed with a new (if not rudimentary) understanding of geology, the story of the glaciers, how the first settlers got here and just what those extraordinary pioneers had carved out of this hostile land, it was with huge excitement that we finally made tracks into the world-famous Torres del Paine National Park. I had seen photos in many National Geographic and Condé Nast magazines, pored over it in eclectic coffee table books and heard so many stories about the Torres del Paine massif. I had seen programmes on the famous climbs to the top of those lofty peaks and tried to make mental comparisons with the dramatic topography of the Dolomites or areas of New Zealand that I have visited. However, they deserve no comparison. They are unique and to have the park to ourselves felt like a gift from the gods. Explora Patagonia Hotel Salto Chico, yet again with its wooden clad rooms, long Scandi-style reception rooms overlooking the lake and glass windows face look over the peaks. The sunsets and spectacular sunrises were simply extraordinary in colour, texture and splendour. Watching the sun come up, bathing the snowy white peaks in a fiery red before the sky turned to a bright, cobalt blue is something I will never forget.
Their stables are particularly unique as they breed their own horses for the terrain and riding out with my guide and gaucho into such a stunning landscape was a revelation. Cantering through the pampas, water flying up as we rode through rivers, looking at salmon resting in the shallows then walking sedately home as the sky changed colour at dusk is another experience I will never forget. Sipping on mate with the gauchos in the sweet-smelling stables with only the sound of contented horses munching on sweet hay or stamping their hooves was an end to a perfect day. And yet , this is only one of the wonderful array of things you can do at Explora.
There are hundreds of glaciers on both the Chile and Argentinian sides of Patagonia – all with a story to tell. Possibly the two most visited are the Grey Glacier in the Torres del Paine National Park and once over the border and staying at Eolo, the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. The Grey Glacier is split into three faces and you can do a 12km hike followed by a boat trip up to the glacier itself whereas with Perito Moreno, you would take a transfer into the park and then stroll along the walkways overlooking the face of the glacier. What is extraordinary about the Perito Moreno Glacier is that, apart from witnessing calving (pieces of ice breaking off and falling into the water) take place in front of your eyes, it seems to talk to you. It creaks and groans as chunks calve and splash into the water. This is the most spectacular part of this particular glacier. The sounds. Both however were a great day out and a must do if you can fit them both in!
Explora and Gabriel, the manager, bade us farewell on our final day with one of the most spectacular sunrises over the Torres del Paine massif I have ever seen. The sunrise painted the peaks in pink, bathing them in oranges and reds and turning the night sky from purple to indigo to pink – it was simply incredible and hard to even capture on film.
From here, we were Awasi Patagonia bound for a completely different experience in the national park. From the moment we were picked up by our private guide, Eduardo, it was all about us. At Awasi, everything is tailor-made to you, when you want it and how you want it. Feeling tired? Sleep in late. Weather forecast a bit dubious? Then come home early to relax and read a book in front of the fire with a glass of wine. It offers all the same experiences as the other lodges, but the difference is the more luxurious approach and with only 15 individual villas, each complete with a huge bedroom, a sitting room with a fire, a lovely bathroom, a hot tub outside and wall to ceiling windows looking out over the superb vistas.
The food was fantastic, the wine list comprehensive and hotel manager, Pavel, and his team, make sure your every wish is their smiling command. A unique product and perfect if you prefer to spend more time in your own company rather than with other travellers. Peaceful and welcoming, it was a luxury at every turn. Eduardo was fantastic and full of every fact under the sun, all delivered with a beaming smile! I listened with great intent at the story of the 84-year-old English couple who had come to Awasi, determined to climb to the infamous base camp of the Torres del Paine, and it was there that they celebrated their anniversary in style. In short, nothing is impossible here!
I wish we could mention by name all the marvellous people we had met on this journey. That was the real secret of this trip; the fantastic stories, tales and kindness so many people shared with us and the friends we made. Chile is full of people who are so proud of their heritage, food, wine, landscapes and history and a refreshing want to share it all with us. I honestly cannot remember ever seeing so many smiles and welcoming touches on a journey.
Time waits for no man though and we had to soon say a sad farewell to Pavel and Eduardo at the border of Chile and Argentina to begin our long journey through the steppe to El Calafate and Eolo. It is a long 5-hour transfer but comfortable and well organised and thanks to the early start you can sleep and soon find yourself at Eolo surveying the mighty expanse of the steppe through to the Andes and, on a clear day, the tiny outline of Torres del Paine to the east and the turquoise waters of Lago Argentina to the west.
Arriving at lunchtime to another huge smile, this time from the manager Valentin, before we knew it, we found ourselves sitting overlooking the lake having a wonderful lunch in their lovely dining room. Eolo was only built in 2006 but feels as it if has been there forever. Delightfully English in feel, it is on the land of the old Alice estancia and has a deliciously colonial feel to the comfortable drawing room where they serve tea every afternoon and where you can sit and just contemplate the never-ending views or watch the antics of a friendly, resident armadillo as I did one afternoon. They specialise in gourmet food and wine and their tea collection has to be seen to be believed. It was a perfect spot to take a day trip to the Perito Moreno Glacier with our lovely guide Nadia and driver Manuel. The picnic and wine was so beautifully packed up in Eolo rucksacks (which I have proudly brought home with me)! Such a nice touch and like everything they do – they do it with style.
I now know why everyone who stays here loves it so much – it is the friendliness of the staff and the unique location that make it so special. So, whether you take out their horses, walk through the miles of wonderful scenery, relax in their wellness area or just enjoy the space and endless skies, it is the location that takes centre stage. The only problem is the food is so exceptional that walking becomes a necessity rather than a possibility…
On our last night we sat admiring the beautiful sunset over the rim of a pisco sour before settling down to their amazing Patagonian lamb cordero which they cook for hours in their smokehouse. Whether it is the combination of the fragrant herbs and grasses the lambs graze on or the wild flowers and herbs they throw onto the fires that make it taste so succulent, who knows. But what I do know is that it was delicious, and a well-known speciality of the Patagonian region so do not miss a chance to try it or an authentic asado during your stay.
Only too soon, it was time to leave for the airport as dawn broke over the lake and another explosion of colour greeted in the new day. From here you have the choice to carry onto Bariloche and the amazing Lake District or if time is short, return to Buenos Aires for a last tango before flying home to end an unforgettable trip, discovering the end of the world.