With the recent launch of direct flights from London courtesy of British Airways, Chile is already well on its way to becoming one of the most popular destinations of 2017. On cue, we take to the skies to discover the country’s incredible landscape, from sandy deserts and vast salt flats to active volcanoes
I watch the shadow of the balloon track our path across the ground below. As we drift towards Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley), the still-smoking volcanoes and undulating dunes appear from above to have a planetary quality. Balloons over Atacama, part of Eastern Safaris, began operating last year, floating over the world’s highest and driest desert – its other-worldly landscapes stretch for more than 40,000 square miles across northern Chile.
I clamber rather clumsily into the wicker basket as a shaft of sunlight appears over Licancabur volcano, before we gently soar into the rapidly brightening sky. Looking down, I can see unlikely patches of green in the otherwise barren landscape – a smattering of oasis villages fed by underground rivers and melted snow from the Andes. Indeed, Atacama is reputed to be one of the driest places on Earth, receiving only 1-3mm of rain each year.
As soon as we touch down, with barely a bump, champagne corks pop in honour of our safe landing. I am staying at Explora Atacama, which reopened at the start of this year following a refurbishment. The long, low buildings take their cue from the natural surroundings, featuring muted, earthy tones of whitewashed adobe, stone and wood. Elsewhere, blasts of colour come courtesy of hand-woven blankets, and picture windows provide the stunning views. There’s also the added luxury of a swimming pool set in a landscaped desert garden, a spa and a top-notch restaurant turning local produce into gourmet fare.
Balloons over Atacama, part of Eastern Safaris, began operating last year, floating over the world’s highest and driest desert – its other-worldly landscapes stretch for more than 40,000 square miles across northern Chile
Opened in 1998, Explora is referenced for having started the wave of luxury hotels, bars and restaurants that have since flooded this resort town. It sits on the fringes of San Pedro de Atacama, where the atmospheric dusty streets throng with tourists, there for the handicrafts and cafés, the pretty tree-lined plaza complete with an Andean church and archaeological museum.
Less hotel, more luxe base camp, Explora’s extensive menu of explorations is designed to give visitors an exclusive look at some of Chile’s most spectacular scenery without the crowds. Half- and full-day hikes, journeys by bike and horseback, and high mountain ascents for those who have acclimatised that go where the tour buses don’t reach.
Opened in 1998, Explora is referenced for having started the wave of luxury hotels, bars and restaurants that have since flooded this resort town
From the air, I caught a glimpse of the Salar de Atacama, the world’s third largest salt flat and later in the afternoon, we set out with a guide to explore its vast expanse. At close quarters, the compacted salt crunches like ice underfoot as we follow a track to the shores of Laguna Chaxa, a startling sweep of vivid blue. As if on a cue, a flock of Andean flamingos fly overhead in strict formation. Others pace in the shallows, foraging for microscopic, but carotene-rich brine shrimps that give them their distinctive rosy hue.
With its high altitude, clean air and lack of light pollution, Atacama is one of the finest places on Earth for stargazing – the planets and stars of the southern sky visible for all to see, including ringed Saturn and multi-hued Jupiter. And I don’t have to venture far; Explora offers stargazing at its own private observatory using a 16-inch Meade telescope for near perfect clarity.
The following day’s hike sees me crisscrossing through rocky, but surprisingly verdant landscape, dotted with hardy pre-puna vegetation that brings me to the Puritama Hot Springs and a chance to take a dip in Explora’s private, reed-fringed thermal pool.
Some guests choose two wheels to ride through the scrubby, buff-coloured desert, taking in an ancient settlement of the atacameños, the indigenous desert people. I choose four legs; Explora’s on-site stable houses more than 20 horses, perfect for novices and expert riders.
I ride out of the village with my guide, leaving behind the rough-hewn adobe farmhouses for an expanse of stone-strewn desert flanked by striated rock formations, sculpted by wind and time. The only cloud in the cobalt-blue sky is a distant plume of steam rising from a smouldering crater. On my last evening, I step out into the darkness of Explora’s cobbled courtyard and look up to see a silvery band arc across the sky: the brilliance of the Milky Way appears so close I am tempted to reach out and touch it.
With its high altitude, clean air and lack of light pollution, Atacama is one of the finest places on Earth for stargazing – the planets and stars of the southern sky visible for all to see, including ringed Saturn and multi-hued Jupiter
I began my journey in Chile’s stylish capital, Santiago, a dynamic, modern city where Latin America meets Europe and colonial mansions sit next to skyscrapers. My base was Luciano K, a 1920s apartment building turned chic boutique hotel following a sensitive restoration, which ensured its original features – including lofty ceilings, ornate mouldings, parquet flooring and Santiago’s first lift – remained intact, and added just the right amount of modernity. Set in the cosmopolitan neighbourhood of Lastarria and tucked between two green spaces, the Parque Forestal and the Santa Lucía hill are home to an increasing number of cutting-edge galleries and trendy boutiques, with a rooftop restaurant and bar, perfect for trying the potent national cocktail, a pisco sour.
For a glimpse into Chilean history, I strolled around the Plaza de Armas, at the heart of the city since it was founded by a Spanish conquistador in 1541, and still home to imposing buildings flanked by towering palm trees, and admired the exquisite pottery from the country’s pre-Columbian cultures on display at the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. Then I squeezed along the narrow lanes of La Vega, the city’s permanently busy food market, where stalls were piled high with fresh and exotic produce, such as the nutty-flavoured lucuma.
I couldn’t leave without sampling Chile’s renowned wines. At the Matetic Vineyards, set in a fertile valley little more than an hour’s drive from Santiago towards the coast, I tasted everything from the tropical, citrus-scented sauvignon blanc to the flagship spicy syrah. It was the perfect spot to raise a toast to Chile and its intoxicating mix of sophistication, wine and wilderness.