By Anja Mutić
Getting off the plane on a steamy morning in Santiago, our cold January day back in New York suddenly seemed eons ago. And it was going to get even hotter, as we were headed north, to explore Chile’s desert regions that stretch toward Peru. But we weren’t going to leave without at least a couple of days in Chile’s capital. As our kick-off base, we chose The Ritz-Carlton, Santiago. Located in the heart of a prestigious neighborhood known as El Golf, the five-star hotel gave us the full spectrum of perks, as befits its five stars. Staying in our Club Level room with city views felt like staying in a hotel within a hotel, with a separate lounge offering services of a dedicated concierge and complimentary treats throughout the day – from breakfast and hors d' oeuvres to sweets and drinks.
Leaving Santiago a few days later, we drove up north for our six-week road trip adventure that would take in Chile’s northern stretches. The first highlight was the lush Elqui Valley, known as the birthplace of the late Nobel Prize-winning poet Gabriela Mistral. Infused by poetry, this gorgeous valley is full of pretty villages, eco inns, hilltop observatories for taking in star-sprinkled night skies and artisanal distilleries of the potent pisco grape. A memory that stands out was our stay at Elqui Domos, an astro-lodge near the village of Pisco Elqui, where cozy domes come with canvas ceilings you can actually open up to the skies. We slept with nothing between us and the night skies.
Further up north awaited the verdant oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, a storied playground for adventure seekers. The choice of activities here, in the world’s driest desert, is as dizzying as the altitude – no less than 8038 feet: from laid-back hikes, horseback rides, strenuous treks, cycling jaunts, high-mountain climbs, stargazing sessions and sand-boarding. Lodging choices are wide and varied, so we decided to sample a pair of properties.
First off, there was our all-inclusive stay at Explora Atacama. In centuries past, the ancient inhabitants of San Pedro de Atacama, known as Atacameños, lived in small communities made up of extended families, known as ayllus. These communities built canals and shared the resources of the oasis. Explora’s Hotel de Larache is located on a lush plain that was once an ayllu, with 42 labyrinthine acres of ancient pathways and buildings. Hacienda-like rooms and suites showcase wooden ceilings, stone and tile floors and hydromassage baths. The four connected outdoor pools, alongside saunas, steam baths and an outdoor Jacuzzi, make a great place for unwinding after a day of excursions. Each evening, the guides at Explora meet with each guest and plan next day’s activities. Explora is the area’s only lodge with its own private stables, so horseback rides steal the show, whether you’re a novice or an experienced rider. I loved hopping on a horse for a trot through San Pedro’s mud streets and oases. We also did a thrilling trek from Guatin to Gatchi canyons, through a narrow creek filled with giant cacti and bizarre geological formations. For a full-day fun, we hit the lagoons of Miscanti and Miñiques, a pair of high-altitude lakes inside Los Flamencos National Reserve. Other options on Explora’s repertoire include catching sunrise at Tatio Geysers, the world’s highest geyser field and gazing at the stars. The Atacama Desert is one of the world’s best places to see night skies and home to the most powerful observatories. Rainfall is rare, altitudes high (7,900–14,000 feet) and light pollution minimal, which equals incredibly clear skies. At Explora’s observatory equipped with a Meade 16” telescope, visitors can gawk at galaxies that glitter thousands of light years away. Lest not forget the food at Explora, each meal an occasion to look forward to. Favorites included Japanese steak carpaccio, grilled sea bass with vegetables, a palette of lamb with quinoa and a ricotta cake with tangerine sauce, passion fruit and pineapple.
Our next stop, Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, lay some twenty minutes beyond San Pedro. This all-inclusive boutique hideaway has a series of stone-floored rooms showcasing a neo-minimalist look, outdoor showers and private terraces that sport dazzling vistas of Licancabur volcano lording over San Pedro. The decorators scoured local villages to find unique handmade textiles and crafts to add authentic pieces of the desert to each room. The hotel has lots of nooks and crannies great for unwinding – grab a seat by one of the terrace fire pits, a chaise lounge next to the pool or one of the outdoor shady decks. The alfresco spaces are lovely to get lost in. In fact, the grounds with ancient adobe walls, designed by a renowned Chilean landscape artist, preserve original algarrobo and chañar trees and enhance the old irrigation canals. I particularly loved the medicinal herb garden with lavender and rosemary and fields of alfalfa. After a day of hiking, biking, walking or four-wheel touring, it’s wonderful to have a treatment at Uma Spa, such as the Atacama hot stone massage or the Uma facial with a deep moisturizing honey mask. On the food front, Tierra Atacama’s gourmet restaurant serves up lots of local ingredients and dishes, like caldillo (traditional soup) with king clip, chañar flan, Chilean crab pie (pastel de jaiva) and Patagonian tooth fish with celery root puree.
After six weeks on the road, it was time to head back to Santiago, and then on to New York. As the base for our finale, we chose The Aubrey, the capital’s top boutique hideaway in artsy Bellavista neighborhood. Housed in a gorgeously restored 1927 mansion, it showcases 15 guestrooms and suites, each individually decorated – think dark wood, copper lamps, hardwood floors and feather beds. I loved spending time in the courtyard patio with a cascading waterfall but only wish I had more time to lounge by the heated outdoor pool with hydro-massage beds. We enjoyed a couple of meals in The Dining Room, and I loved the afternoon tea served in the chic Piano Bar.
We could have happily stayed shut at The Aubrey for the last couple of days in Santiago but we instead decided to explore the culinary offerings of the W Santiago. What a great decision. The evening started with appetizers at Osaka, the hotel’s fusion restaurant, where flavors of Asia and South America mix seamlessly. Think Thai scallops, teriyaki balsamic sirloin and Nippon confit duck, served in a chic Zen-infused environment. We then moved on to NoSo for mains, the W’s signature restaurant. Here, the classic traditions of Burgundy and the flair of Mediterranean cooking meet and fall in love, as we did with the food that came out. Patagonian lamb with eggplant couscous, anyone? We wrapped it up with a drink at Red2one, the W’s coveted rooftop bar where we enjoyed pisco cocktails to the sound of DJ-spun tunes, as Santiago’s cityscape blinked at our feet.
TIP: Ours was a road trip but by far the best way to explore Chile is by plane. LAN has daily flights to both La Serena, the gateway to the Elqui Valley and to Calama, the gateway for San Pedro de Atacama. It also has a direct flight from JFK to Santiago, and a really fabulous business class cabin.
IF YOU GO
The Ritz-Carlton Santiago: www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Santiago
Elqui Domos: www.elquidomos.cl
Explora Atacama: www.explora.com/explora-atacama
Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa: www.tierraatacama.com
The Aubrey: www.theaubrey.com
W Santiago: www.starwoodhotels.com