Exploring Chile with Exploraby Joy Pecknold
There’s going to Chile, and then there’s going to Chile and staying at an Explora property. Metaphorically, the former is a good glass of wine and the latter is a great one. Once you get a sip of the latter you’ll forever compare it to everything else. Herein, a taste of my two weeks taking in Patagonia and Atacama.
First stop: Patagonia. Well, technically, there were a few other stops on the way there from Vancouver (Dallas, Santiago, Punta Arenas), but I’ll leave that out, because the long haul was forgiven as soon as I crossed into Torres del Paine National Park. Even socked in, its natural splendour is stupefying. Explora Patagonia, the brand’s first property opened in 1993, lives within, anchored alongside the turquoise-tinged Lake Pehoe. When those clouds do part, even ever so slightly, a hefty piece of the Paine mountain range ups the backdrop ante.
All-inclusiveness is also elevated. Along with meals, daily activities are included in the room rate, and not the half-hearted “we have kayaks to borrow” sort. These are bona fide adventures. Designated easy, moderate, advanced or expert, and either half or full day-long, the Patagonia property offers hikes and horseback rides. Led by well-trained guides, the groups are kept small to maximize enjoyment. One morning I ambled along Grey Lake to see the icebergs cast off by the Grey Glacier, and in the afternoon I galloped across the pampa and through a riverbed with a gaucho.
While my equestrian skills are amateur at best, I’m a frequent hiker and had my sights set on the 18-kilometer slog to the base of the iconic Paine towers. It started with spotting a puma and her two cubs and ended with another puma sighting and a cold beer. In between, a fellow hiker captured the money shot.
That challenge met, I was on the road again, headed for Explora Atacama, and its desert landscape (Ed. Note: the property is under renovation and reopens October 2016). There are horses here too, and I was lucky enough to have a room that overlooked the paddock where a team grazed in the evening. Hard to beat a view with horses, a volcano and a pink sunset.
The small resort town of San Pedro de Atacama sits 2,400 meters above sea level, and in order to conquer any of the surrounding volcanoes, guests need a few days to acclimatize, gradually going higher to see how well the body adapts. To warm up, I started with one to 3,500 meters that ended with hot springs. The perk of Explora is they have their own private pool.
A visit to Chaxa lagoon to watch flamingos feast, frolic and snooze while the sun sets is a popular tourist activity in the evening, and with good reason.
The next day, I went a little higher and a little further to 4,100 meters, and the morning after that up to 4,300 meters trekking from the El Tatio geyser to Blanco Geyser. I was warned to watch my footing near the geysers—what looks like solid ground is sometimes not—and they weren’t kidding. One step too far and my right leg sunk knee-deep into warm, gooey mud.
Sand is the only thing I get in my shoes at the Valley of the Moon. An apt name for an otherworldly place where a Mars rover was once tested because of the perceived similarities in terrain. Whether humankind ever walks on the Red Planet or not, skipping down a sand bank on earth never gets old.
Then comes the big day. If I thought the trek to the base of the Patagonia’s towers was hard, it’s because I had yet to meet Mt. Toco, a stratovolcano with a 5,600 meter peak. It’s only three or four kilometers, but it’s straight up, and the thinner air at high altitude makes breathing harder to do. Plus, it was blustery and bloody cold. But I locked into a steady pace and determination set in. I felt a tinge queasy at the top (did I mention it was freezing?), so we stayed just long enough to take a few gulps of hot pumpkin soup and snap the requisite photo for bragging rights. I’ll likely never climb Everest or K2, so this’ll do—particularly since I had a hot bath and multi-course meal to return to that evening.
Adventure by day, indulgence by night. I couldn’t have planned it better myself.