A narrow strip along South America’s western coast, nearly 3,000 miles from the Peruvian and Bolivian borders in the north to Drake’s Passage (the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific) in the south.
Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Easter Island, the Atacama — the names alone quicken the heart of any adventurer. Mile-for-mile, there may well be more natural beauty in Chile than anywhere else on Earth.
Arturo M. Benitez International Airport (SCL) in Santiago, the capital, is one of South America’s larger hubs, with direct flights from all over the Americas and farther afield.
Though places like Patagonia and the Atacama are rightfully popular amongst serious outdoorsmen, there’s no reason for the rest of us to be put off by the rugged landscapes and middle-of-nowhere locales. One of the great pleasures of travel to the far corners of Chile is that its end-of-the-earth settings are also home to top-tier boutique hotels.
Much is made of the fact that northern Chile’s Atacama is the driest desert on earth, as though we’re in the habit of choosing destinations based on relative humidity. What makes the Atacama so enticing is its range of dazzling landscapes, from vast salt flats and rolling dunes to verdant oases and 20,000-foot-tall volcanoes. Together these form an enormous patchwork of natural playgrounds perfect for the outdoor enthusiast, or for anyone who enjoys immersion in otherworldly scenery. The land formations alone will keep your camera busy: crooked salt pillars, bubbling geysers, sun-baked canyons and on it goes, one weird terrestrial wonder after another.
To get there, you’ll want to make a stopover in Santiago, and Chile’s capital is well worth at least a day or two. The Aubrey, smack in the middle of Santiago’s bohemian heart, the leafy neighborhood of Bellavista, is a masterfully restored 1927 mansion — and arguably Santiago’s top boutique hotel.
In the Atacama, most visitors make the lush oasis-town of San Pedro their base, where lodging options are as dizzying as the 8,000-foot altitude. For an intimate, relatively back-to-basics experience, consider Atacamadventure. It’s got just two rooms, both comfortably appointed (private jacuzzis, for starters), but as the name suggests, the real draw is what happens off-property. The mountains and plains and hot springs are all within reach by foot or horseback, with day trips catered to guests. And for the serious adventurer, on offer is a four-day overland trip by 4×4 to Bolivia, which takes in salt flats, hidden lakes and high mountain volcanoes.
The emphasis at the aptly named Tierra Atacama is just as much on the outdoors, with activities like driving tours to high-altitude lagoons and swimming in hot springs hidden at the bottom of a gorge. At the hotel itself, a vista-happy interior design ensures you’re constantly reminded where you are, while private terraces, outdoor showers and liberal use of local natural materials reinforce the effect.
For heaps of fun on horseback, book an all-inclusive stay at Explora Atacama. Located on a lush plain once inhabited by an ancient Atacameño community, the lodge is situated on forty-two labyrinthine acres of ancient pathways. Explora is the area’s only lodge with its own private stables, not to mention the finest Chilean and English saddles. Beginners can take a crash course, novices can hop on a horse for a trot through San Pedro’s mud streets and oases, while experienced riders can gallop through valleys, mountain paths and sand dunes.
Wherever you stay, you can’t miss out on a spot of star gazing; the Atacama is truly one of the world’s best places to see night skies. Rainfall is rare, altitudes high, and light pollution minimal, which all adds up to incredibly clear skies. At Explora’s observatory, equipped with a powerful Meade telescope, you can gawk at galaxies that glitter thousands of light-years away, identify constellations and planets, and admire stars of various hues, globular clusters of light and misty nebulae. In a setting like the Atacama, the distant cosmic forms feel just as familiar as strange.