Exploring the Atacama Desert and Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park

Ashton Palmer

Exploring the Atacama Desert and Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park

Ashton Palmer

Mar 2013

I love to travel.  It is quite simply one of my absolute favorite pastimes.  So it was with great excitement I embarked on a journey with my wife and two good friends to explore two distinct regions of Chile, the Atacama Desert and Patagonia’s Torres del Paine.   Without a doubt, the adventure we enjoyed was one of the best trips I have ever done and I highly recommend you visit soon.

Our trip started in the capital city of Santiago.   While there are remnants of Spanish colonial architecture, the city is a thriving modern metropolis.  With brisk economic growth over the past few years the city is booming.  Gleaming skyscrapers, shopping malls and apartments—the city is more like a modern North American metropolis than anything else. With that said, we were able to discover some unique local color in the Bohemian neighborhood of Buena Vista, and sample some world class cuisine, read: ceviche to die for.  But as an expedition traveler, I admit cities are not at the top of my list, so the day after we arrived we drove a couple of hours from town to explore the wine growing region by bicycle.  Not only did we encounter beautiful scenery, but having the opportunity to take a leisurely bike ride through the vineyards provided a much appreciated opportunity to stretch the legs after the long plane ride from home.  Our bike trip culminated in a lovely wine tasting experience and a chance to sample traditional countryside food as well. A great start to our trip.

Next we flew north to the city of Calama, and continued by car to the town of San Pedro de Atacama.  This arid region of northern Chile has the notoriety of being the driest place on earth.  This vast and high desert stretches from the towering volcanoes of the Andes Mountains in the east, to the Atlantic Ocean to the west.  This region has some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen in my life including towering volcanoes, rust colored valleys stretching as far as the eye can see, turquoise fresh water lakes which seem to magically emerge from the desert floor –  topped with pink flamingoes, and vast otherworldly salt flats which are as white as snow.  Like visiting another planet, I was astounded at the beauty, power and uniqueness of this land. 

Our home for the next few days was the Explora Atacama: Hotel de Larache.  A stunning modern structure designed to afford the best views of the surrounding region, it is hard to be anywhere and not see out of the perfectly placed windows.  The rooms were converted from some of the original adobe dwellings yet include all the comforts of home, and of course the expertly placed windows.  The food was outstanding with each meal offering a variety of unique and delicious options from which to choose.  But the main attraction of the region is discovered when you get outside and explore!

Each day we embarked on a variety of excursions with expert guides from the hotel.  First we hiked through a stunning red canyon with towering hoodoos resembling something out of a Dr. Seuss book and then bounded down a giant sand dune.  Next we explored the Green Desert and walked alongside a bubbling brook only to be welcomed by the most divine natural hot springs as our reward – not to mention a beautifully prepared picnic brought along by the staff.   We rode bikes through the sage to an ancient salt lake, where upon arrival we floated in water as salty as the Dead Sea and gazed at a landscape reminiscent of a Salvador Dali painting.  Each day we became more and more enamored with this magical and powerful landscape.  Lastly, we rode horses through the mountains and watched as the moon rose early over distant peaks.

The next leg of our journey took us to the far south of Chile all the way to Patagonia, and the famous Torres del Paine National Park.  This was a place I had always wanted to visit and so after two flights we arrived in the city of Punta Arenas and were met by our driver to transfer us to the hotel.  Over the course of the drive, it quickly became apparent we were in a completely different landscape.  Rolling hills as far as the eye could see, verdant grassy fields, shimmering lakes and new and exotic wildlife. Hawks soared through the sky and Rheas, emu-like birds, were running amongst scattered herds of sheep and guanacos – wild llamas grazing here and there.  Once again we had arrived at another incredible destination where the air was crisp and clear and the views calmed the soul.

After a few hours’ drive, we finally glimpsed the famous towers, or torres as they are known locally, immense granite monoliths jutting from the earth. Every bit as impressive as I had imagined, it was hard to believe we had finally arrived.  Our home for the next few days was at the spectacular hotel Tierra Patagonia.  The hotel sits close to the huge glacially fed Lake Sarmiento which serves as the perfect foreground for the mountains of Torres del Paine directly behind.  With not another building in view of the hotel, you feel you are truly in the middle of the wilderness yet have every comfort you could ever wish for. This incredible property, akin to something you might expect in a James Bond film, is constructed out of thousands of pieces of local lenga wood, with massive picture windows framimg the landscape perfectly. Like a model ship made out of matchsticks, on a grand scale, the modern style hotel is built and oriented in a way to provide the most spectacular views of the lake, mountains and surrounding landscape.  The food was excellent and once again we found our accommodation to be nothing short of world class. 

Of course the draw to visit this region is once again to get outside. Each day we were led by expert guides to different regions of the park. Similar to our visit to the Atacama Desert, each excursion is designed based on people’s abilities so once again there was something for everyone.  After the long travel day from the Atacama, we opted for a longer hike on our first day to the base of the towers.  The day was spectacular as we made our way through lush beech forests, crisscrossed over glacial streams, and clambered over glacial moraine, finally reaching a small turquoise lake at the base of the towers.  Our picnic lunch was greatly appreciated and enjoyed after the 7 mile hike and we sat there in awe of such amazing surroundings.  Before long the weather started to change again, something which is typical in this region, and so we decided to make our way back.   On the way down, we retraced our footsteps and enjoyed the rhythm of our hiking boots and the inspiring vistas along the way.  On the days that followed we explored different regions of the park, enjoyed a hearty Chilean BBQ at a local estancia or farmstead, and marveled at the crystal clear lakes, jagged and impressive mountains and sweeping vistas.  We walked along the lakeshore and stopped to admire wildflowers and even to let a herd of wandering sheep pass by, accompanied by a couple of rheas of course. 

On our final morning we awoke to the most spectacular sunrise which set the landscape on fire.  Pink, gold, orange and red light bathed the lake and mountains before us.  Such an amazing sight, pristine wilderness, vast, beautiful and powerful enough to etch into your very being, a gift from nature I will have forever.  

What amazing experiences we had and places we saw.  Two beautiful and distinct regions of natural beauty. Travel is my passion and I can honestly say this trip only helped to reinforce what a wonderful experience it really is.  I would strongly encourage you to consider a trip to these fantastic regions of Chile.  With the hustle and bustle of life, to spend time in the presence of pure nature is refreshing and revitalizing, and just pure fun.