Hello blog friends. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve written about a trip. Sorry about the silence, but we had to stay close to home for a while. We were back in the air last month visiting Chile, which is one of our favorite countries. Chile has some of the best wines, food, scenery, and star gazing in the western hemisphere.
Chile is a long, narrow country on the Pacific coast of South America. It is nearly all mountains, plateaus and valleys. The Atacama Desert is in the northern part of Chile near Peru and Bolivia. The central part of the country is valleys and mountains with some spectacular views and is the home of the country’s wine region. The south of Chile contains the Torres del Paine national park, encompassing mountains, glaciers, lakes and rivers in a subarctic ecosystem. On our recent visit to Chile, we traveled to the Atacama Desert and to the wine region.
The Atacama Desert is a plateau surrounded by the coastal range to the west and the peaks of the Andes to the east. The coastal range of mountains receives nearly all the rain coming from the Pacific Ocean, making the Atacama one of the driest places on earth. There are parts of the Atacama that have never received measurable rainfall. Having been to the Judean desert in Israel and the desert of Egypt, we were surprised at the amount of vegetation we saw in parts of the desert.
The desert has several glacier melt rivers flowing down from the Andes that provide some water to the region. You could be driving through land cover in scrub bushes and then suddenly the landscape will be dry, barren rocks, and sand. The deserts of the middle east are much more barren. The only plants you will see here are at a desert oasis.
We flew from Santiago to Calama, a center of the mining industry of Chile. We then drove about an hour to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town with some amazing five-star resorts, primarily a tourist town.
The village of San Padro is walkable from many resorts in the town, although most resorts have a shuttle that can take you to the center square of the village. There is shopping in the town as well as places to get your money exchanged for Chilean Pesos. There are restaurants, bars, and places to rent bicycles or ATVS for desert rides.
There are tour companies if you haven’t set up tours through your resort or travel agent. You will find art galleries offering the works of local artists for sale, as well as artists from Santiago; painting, sculpture and jewelry are shown in these galleries. Most of the shops and galleries had employees that spoke enough English that Virgil didn’t have to resort to his limited Spanish, although attempting to speak at least some Spanish is appreciated.
We stayed at the Tierra Atacama, one of the Tierra group of resorts. These resorts are 5-star locations with a level of service second to none. The hotel is about a mile (or 1.5 kilometers) from the center of the village, so you can walk if you want to (or need some exercise). The resort also offers a shuttle to a drop off two or three blocks from the center square. You can tell the driver a time that you would like to return, and he will be there at the specified time. We decided to walk back a bit early, and he picked us up enroute.
The resort offers many daily excursions; most involve at least some physical activity, hiking or biking. When you first arrive at Tiera Atacama, the resort recommends limiting your physical activity due to the altitude of the area. So, we chose to visit the salt flats and view the Sal de Atacama Lake, famous for the hundreds of Chilean Flamingos that call this area home. These beautiful birds feed constantly on the tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in the lake. The tour involved a short walk through to salt flats to get to the lake and it was guided by an experienced local guide. This is physically a very easy excursion but does involve some leisurely walking. Wear a hat, long sleeves, sunglasses, and sunscreen for protection.
On our first night there we went on a star gazing excursion, which we at Condor Tours & Travel believe is a primary reason to visit this remote destination. The Atacama is very dry, the humidity is almost zero, the altitude of San Pedro is over 10,000 feet and the area is very dark with no light pollution from nearby urban areas. These three conditions provide amazing star gazing opportunities. We were driven about 20 minutes outside of town to a local with a small compound with two small telescopes (the biggest one I had ever seen up close though) and a larger observatory with a much larger telescope.
All three telescopes were computer controlled so the guide could point them where he wished. We saw nebula (star clouds very far away), red giants (older stars nearing the end of their lives), blue stars (even older stars formed by two red stars merging into one larger star), and some named stars that are closer to earth. We looked at planets (Mars and Jupiter) and with our eyes could see our very own Milky Way. Those of us that live in the city can’t really see the Milky Way due to the light pollution in an urban area. With no light pollution, humidity, and altitude you can see our entire galaxy, which from our vantage point here on earth, looks like a
ribbon of stars stretching across the sky. This excursion is a highlight of all our travel, truly a marvel to see.
The next morning, we took an excursion to the Rainbow Valley. The Rainbow Valley gets its name from the multicolored rock formations in this valley. The rocks are red, green, blue, and, of course, different shades of brown. The valley is protected by the local indigenous people and the walk through the valley is an easy one. Next, as part of this excursion, we visited the site of some ancient petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are cave paintings, or in this case, carvings from the earliest humans to occupy this part of the world, over 6000 years ago.
The Tiera Atacama is a full-service resort, with an outdoor pool, hot tub, and a warm indoor pool. The resort spa is full service, and I took time for a massage and reported that I would go back if we were there longer. The spa also has two semiprivate areas with a hot tub and reclining chairs for a romantic semiprivate experience. The bar is full service with great bartenders and a drink of the day with some local ingredients.
Breakfast at Tiera Atacama is served buffet style with American and European standard breakfast offerings. Lunch and dinners are served from a menu and prepared with local ingredients when possible. There are also some standard off-menu items like a chicken sandwich, a steak sandwich and a hamburger available if the menu isn’t to your taste. The resort is near a small river which irrigates the resort’s gardens, fresh fruit and vegetables and beautiful flowers.
Our next, and last stop in Chile was the Vik winery and hotel. This hotel, perched at the top of a hill overlooking the property’s vineyards, is a breathtaking sight from the valley floor. The hotel has a seemingly floating roof of titanium and bronze that shimmers in the sunlight. The main area of the hotel is an open courtyard with a gathering place in front for afternoon tea or a relaxing game of pool, and at the back of the building is the restaurant. The space is relaxing, casual and elegant.
This central area is surrounded by 22 themed rooms (ours was themed Hollywood) and seven separate bungalows for a bit of added privacy. The rooms in the main building all have large windows looking out over the vineyards and mountains that surround the property and all the rooms are decorated to accent their theme. Our Hollywood themed room had artwork on the walls from famous movies and the bathroom was all in teak, floor, ceiling, and walls to mimic a sauna. The room was really striking.
All the meals in the hotel are served in the restaurant from a menu. The food is gourmet using some exotic meats, however if your pallet isn’t adventurous, you can get the meal prepared with chicken or pork. The food was all very good. There is no bar space in the hotel, however adult beverages are available whenever you want one by going into the restaurant and ordering from a waiter, there is always a waiter available. We did this before dinner our last night there and had no issues.
We spent two nights at the Vik, so we only had one full day to enjoy the resort. In the morning, we took a horseback ride among the winery’s fields. The ride was guided by an experienced wrangler and lasted about an hour and a half. We were accompanied on our ride by some folks from Colombia and had a marvelous conversation while on the ride.
In the afternoon we took a tour of the winery. This part of Chile never gets too cold or extremely hot so the winery combines high ceilings and walls that can be opened to take in areas breezes to maintain a comfortable temperature in the upstairs spaces. Below ground, where wine is aged before blending and shipping, is naturally cool all year long. As you can imagine, any tour of a winery will include a wine tasting and the Vik’s wine tasting was great. We tasted five wines, all of them red, as the Vik only grows red wine grapes. We ended up buying six bottles to be shipped to us in Georgia. The wine arrived eight days after we ordered them, and shipping was free with a six-bottle purchase.
We at Condor Tours &Travel are Chile experts. We have helped clients visit this wonderful country for over 20 years and have great relationships with local tour operators, building on long-term business relationships. Chile is a long flight, but from the US you will only be changing at most two times zones from home, making jet lag a non-issue. The food in Chile is great; the beef, lamb and seafood being especially delicious. If you love good food and wine, you will love Chile. The star gazing in the Atacama Desert is unforgettable. I will go back just for that experience alone.