Now that BA has launched the only direct flight from London to Santiago in Chile, the South American country’s many charms are closer than you think, says Sarah Gilbert. Read all about her Andean adventure here…
The wall of still-smoking volcanoes turned from deep blues and purples to terracotta and ochre in quick succession, as the sun’s first rays dipped over their peaks. And, between the roar of the flames, only the whistling wind disturbed the silence. I held my breath as I watched the shadow of the balloon pursue us across the ground. Drifting towards Moon Valley, my bird’s-eye view gave its corrugated cliffs and undulating dunes a distinctly lunar-like quality.
Balloons Over Atacama began operating last year, floating over the world’s highest and driest desert, its otherworldly landscapes stretching for more than 40,000 square miles across northern Chile.
I clambered into the wicker basket as a shaft of sunlight appeared over Licancabur volcano’s perfect cone, before we gently soared into the rapidly lightening sky. Looking down, I could see unlikely patches of green among the barren landscape, a smattering of villages fed by underground rivers and melt water from the Andes.
After we landed, with barely a bump, champagne corks popped and we were invited to pay our own respects to the land as we poured drops of bubbly into the sand to honour Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
I was staying at explora Atacama, where the long, low buildings take their cue from the surroundings – whitewashed adobe, stone and wood, with blasts of colour from hand-woven blankets and picture windows to take in the stunning views. With the added luxury of a Hockney-blue pool set in a landscaped desert garden, a top-notch restaurant that turns local produce into gourmet fare and a well-stocked wine cellar.
Explora sits on the fringes of San Pedro de Atacama, where the atmospheric adobe streets throng with tourists, there to visit the excellent archaeological museum, pick up handicrafts, or just sit in the tree-lined plaza with its simple Andean church.
But less hotel, more luxe base camp, explora’s extensive menu of explorations is designed to reveal 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’ve acclimatised, that go where the tour buses don’t reach.
From the air, I’d caught a dazzlingly white flash of the Salar de Atacama, the world’s third largest salt flat, and later that afternoon, I set out with a guide to explore its vast expanse. Close up, the compacted salt crunched like ice underfoot as we followed a track to the shores of Laguna Chaxa, a startling sweep of luminous blue on the otherwise barren landscape.
As if on a cue, a flock of Andean flamingos flew overhead in strict formation. Others stalked through the shallows, foraging for microscopic but carotene-rich brine shrimps that gives them their distinctive rosy hue.
As the setting sun dipped behind Licanbur, the salt turned gold, and the volcano and its neighbours a fiery orange, until a sliver of moon appeared and a plethora of stars began to glitter in the darkening sky.
With its high altitude, clean air and lack of light pollution, Atacama is one of the finest places on the planet for stargazing, with the planets and stars of the southern sky visible for all to see, including ringed Saturn and multi-hued Jupiter. And I didn’t have to venture far; explora offers stargazing at its own private observatory using a 16-inch Meade telescope for astonishing clarity.
Time for a hike?
The following day’s hike saw me crisscrossing through a rocky but surprisingly verdant landscape dotted with hardy vegetation, that brought me to the Puritama Hot Springs and a chance to take a dip in explora’s own private, reed-fringed thermal pool.
Later, some guests chose two wheels to ride through the buff-coloured desert, taking in an ancient settlement of the Atacameños, a pre-Hispanic desert people. I chose four legs; explora’s on-site stable houses more than 20 horses, perfect for novices to expert riders.
I rode 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 was a distant plume of steam rising from a smouldering crater.
On my last evening, I stepped out into the darkness of explora’s cobbled courtyard and looked up to see a silvery band arc across the sky: the dazzling Milky Way, so close I could almost reach out and touch it.
A cultural jewel in the heart of Lastarria…
I’d begun my journey in Chile’s stylish, sophisticated capital, Santiago, a dynamic, modern city where Latin America meets Europe and tiled-roofed colonial mansions sit next to glass-walled skyscrapers.
My base was Luciano K, a 1920’s apartment building turned chic boutique hotel. A sensitive restoration has preserved its original features – lofty ceilings, ornate moldings, parquet flooring, Santiago’s first lift – and added just the right amount of contemporary comforts.
For a glimpse into Chilean history, I strolled around the stately Plaza de Armas. It’s been at the heart of the city since it was founded by a Spanish conquistador in 1541, and the area’s still home to imposing buildings flanked by towering palm trees, including the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, where I admired the displays of exquisite pottery from the country’s pre-Spanish cultures.
Then I squeezed along the narrow lanes of Le Vega, the city’s permanently bustling food market, where stalls were piled high with curious produce, such as the nutty tasting lúcuma; pepino, a cross between a melon and a cucumber, and chirimoya, a mix of banana, peach and pineapple.
I couldn’t leave Chile without sampling the country’s renowned wine. At the Matetic Vineyard, set in a fertile valley just over an hour’s drive west of Santiago, I sampled everything from their tropical, citrus-flavoured Sauvignon Blanc to their flagship spicy Syrah. It was the perfect spot to raise a toast to this long, thin country and its intoxicating mix of sophistication, wine and wilderness.
Cox & Kings (020 3642 0861, coxandkings.co.uk) offer a seven-night private tour to Chile priced from £4,195 per person, including direct flights from London Heathrow with British Airways, private transfers and excursions, domestic flights with LATAM, two nights at the Luciano K in Santiago, three nights at explora Atacama and two nights at Casa Higueras in Valparaiso.