Fire and Ice

With an ap­petite for wide open spa­ces and nat­u­ral beauty, Iroshini Chua puts on her hik­ing boots to ex­plore Chile’s in­cred­i­ble vis­tas

Hong Kong Tatler - - Con­tents - Pho­tog­ra­phy Kevin and iroshini Chua

Chile is home to wide open spa­ces and abun­dant nat­u­ral beauty. We put on our hik­ing boots to ex­plore the coun­try’s in­cred­i­ble vis­tas

Are we land­ing on Mars?” I ex­claim as we de­scend with the set­ting sun onto a land­scape of pleated red moun­tains starkly beau­ti­ful in their ut­ter bar­ren­ness. The Ata­cama Desert has me mes­merised well be­fore my boots make first con­tact for two weeks of hik­ing, driv­ing, rid­ing and fly­ing around Chile, a nar­row, riv­et­ingly beau­ti­ful strip of par­adise and wilder­ness that stretches 4,300 kilo­me­tres from Peru to the south­ern­most point of South Amer­ica.

This oth­er­worldly high-al­ti­tude An­dean plateau of more than 100,000 square kilo­me­tres, al­ready the dri­est non-po­lar place on earth, is rapidly be­com­ing a “hy­per­desert,” our driver tells us as we hurry from El Loa Air­port, the gate­way to the won­ders of Chile’s far north, to our lux­u­ri­ous adobe lodge set in splen­did iso­la­tion out­side the sleepy vil­lage of San Pe­dro de Ata­cama. It’s just one ex­treme in a coun­try of ex­tremes, a stretch of the Pa­cific Ring of Fire that spans seven cli­matic zones, from the north­ern desert though the Mediter­ranean cen­tre to the rich forests and graz­ing lands of the south, tak­ing in snow-capped vol­ca­noes, sap­phire lakes, twist­ing penin­su­las, a labyrinth of fjords, and a mul­ti­tude of glaciers.

As I fall asleep in the desert on that first night, close to where the bor­ders of Chile, Bo­livia and Ar­gentina in­ter­sect, I won­der what would bring peo­ple to live in such a harsh en­vi­ron­ment. The fol­low­ing days re­veal a plethora of rea­sons as we jour­ney through breath­tak­ing land­scapes and sooth­ing colour pal­ettes ex­pe­ri­enc­ing fan­tas­tic flavours, in­trigu­ing cul­tures and en­chant­ing wildlife. Our ho­tel, the Alto Ata­cama Desert Lodge and Spa, melds seam­lessly with the ter­ra­cotta - coloured walls of the Catarpe Val­ley in a crook of the San Pe­dro River, look­ing over a mag­nif­i­cent vista to the peaks of the An­des ris­ing more than 6,000 me­tres in the dis­tance.

We head south­west on our first foray into the wilder­ness, travers­ing a land­scape lib­er­ally dot­ted with the cute wildlife of the re­gion—llama, al­paca, vicuña and gua­naco. Strik­ingly sym­met­ri­cal Mount Li­can­cabur, a snow-capped vol­cano revered as sa­cred, hov­ers above us like a gi­ant sur­vey­ing Lil­liputian vis­i­tors to his realm. We pass through the ham­let of So­caire and climb to the la­goons of Mis­canti and Miñiques 4,200 me­tres above sea level. Shores lapped by iri­des­cent, jewel-toned wa­ters in­vite a pic­nic. By late af­ter­noon we’re hik­ing the saltencrusted ridges of the Val­ley of the Moon; at sun­set we’re sip­ping che­r­i­moya cock­tails and drink­ing in the crim­son blaze over the Val­ley of Death. As the first rays of the sun pierce the hori­zon the next day, we’re treated to an­other eye-pop­ping spec­ta­cle. Against an azure sky, vo­lu­mi­nous clouds bil­low off 12-me­tre col­umns of steam and boil­ing, hiss­ing wa­ter. The El Ta­tio gey­sers, some 80 of them, erupt from the high­est and third-largest geo­ther­mal field in the world. Later, an achingly beau­ti­ful sun­set at Te­bin­quinche La­goon has us swoon­ing, the pow­dery blue wa­ter mir­ror­ing the can­dyfloss pink of the sur­round­ing salt moun­tains un­der a cloud­less sky.

From the Ata­cama we fly some 3,000 kilo­me­tres south to ex­plore a fiercely wild re­gion carved by ice dur­ing the world’s last

“TOR­RES DEL PAINE NA­TIONAL PARK IS ONE OF THE HIGH­LIGHTS OF THE RE­GION ... WE WALK THE SHORES OF GREY LAKE TO VIEW VIVID BLUE BLOCKS OF FLOAT­ING GLACIAL ICE”

big freeze. Patag­o­nia, which sprawls across Chile and Ar­gentina, boasts jagged ice-capped moun­tains, pampa grass­lands and plains that stretch to in­fin­ity, vast lenga forests, and more than 20,000 glaciers mak­ing their sin­u­ous way into high-al­ti­tude lakes or right down to the sea. The re­gion has an abun­dance of birds and an­i­mals; our first drive takes us through a land­scape dot­ted with flamingo-filled la­goons and red foxes that dash into the bush as sev­eral of Chile’s na­tional bird, the An­dean con­dor, soar grace­fully above on three-me­tre wing­spans in search of their next meal.

Tor­res del Paine Na­tional Park is one of the high­lights of the re­gion. From our unique lodg­ings on the edge of the park—the Sin­gu­lar Patag­o­nia, a for­mer cold stor­age plant turned lux­ury ho­tel on the banks of Úl­tima Esper­anza Sound—our guide takes us through a pro­gres­sion of land­scapes each more dra­matic than the last. We walk the shores of Grey Lake to view vivid blue blocks of float­ing glacial ice, gasp at the beauty of Lake Pe­hoé’s emerald wa­ters flanked by spec­tac­u­lar crags, marvel at the majesty of the three ice-clad tow­ers of the Paine Mas­sif, gaze across Lake Del Toro to ra­zor-sharp peaks, and trem­ble at the rush of the mighty Salto Grande wa­ter­fall. For a dif­fer­ent taste of the park, we move to Tierra Patag­o­nia on the shores of Sarmiento Lake, a Unesco bio­sphere re­serve. Com­pletely cov­ered in lenga wood, it hides in plain sight—and is the per­fect lo­ca­tion to sip pisco sours at day’s end with the mes­meris­ing vista of the lake and peaks framed by its huge pic­ture win­dows.

Patag­o­nia, with its vast tree­less grass­land plains, the pam­pas, is home to a thriv­ing beef in­dus­try and one of the world’s great eques­trian tra­di­tions—the gau­chos, or cow­boys, who work the cat­tle ranches. In their hon­our, we com­plete our Patag­o­nian ad­ven­ture with the gau­chos of Es­tan­cia Lazo, a ranch on the banks of Lake Verde, rid­ing horses while gaz­ing at some of the best panora­mas of the Paine Mas­sif.

Our next stop, San­ti­ago, lies be­tween the Ata­cama Desert and Patag­o­nia in a rich agri­cul­tural re­gion with a Mediter­ranean cli­mate. Many of Chile’s great wines come from here; the Aconcagua, San An­to­nio, Maipo and Colch­agua val­leys are just a few

of its renowned wine­mak­ing dis­tricts. So it’s no sur­prise that as well as its dra­matic set­ting in the shadow of the An­des—home to ski re­sorts of in­ter­na­tional re­pute—and all the sight­see­ing and cul­tural of­fer­ings of a cap­i­tal city, San­ti­ago has an ex­cit­ing culi­nary scene, es­pe­cially the chic Cen­tro and Bellav­ista ar­eas. Lunch at Casa Las­tar­ria is a de­light­ful al­fresco af­fair. We sip fram­boise, a rasp­berry brandy, and min­gle over lo­cal favourites such as pas­tel de choclo (a shep­herd’s pie of sea­soned minced beef topped with a sweet­corn paste) and tres leches (milk cake). Later, din­ner at Bor­agó, cel­e­brated as one of the top restau­rants in all of South Amer­ica, is a vis­ually stim­u­lat­ing gas­tro­nomic high­light. The in­no­va­tive de­gus­ta­tion menu fea­tures in­gre­di­ents for­aged from all over Chile, in­clud­ing a puree of rock plants cooked on a rock with a broth of roots, veal in milk, and a dessert of na­tive mush­rooms.

Less than 90 min­utes’ drive from San­ti­ago lies Chile’s most un­usual city, Val­paraíso, a port on a spec­tac­u­lar bay flanked by ex­cep­tional beaches both north and south. A steep am­phithe­atre of brightly coloured build­ings and clifftop homes rises from the bay. Its his­toric core is a Unesco World Her­itage Site. Wan­der­ing the ver­tig­i­nous streets, we get lost in graf­fiti-cov­ered houses, di­lap­i­dated man­sions and steep, chaotic walk­ways and stairs. Sev­eral hours later, in a sug­ary spell from eat­ing too much ice cream at Em­po­rio La Rosa, we take a fu­nic­u­lar ride back to the Cerro Ale­gre neigh­bour­hood and Casa Higueras, once an aris­to­crat’s man­sion, now a cosy bou­tique ho­tel with mag­nif­i­cent views. As the sun sets, we ad­journ to the rooftop to watch the show and re­flect on a jour­ney that has us travers­ing the length and breadth of the na­tion.

Chile has a bit more breadth than you might think for a coun­try that stretches to only 350 kilo­me­tres at its widest point. Ten times that dis­tance to the east, 3,512 kilo­me­tres to be ex­act, lies Rapa Nui, or Easter Is­land, the east­ern­most of the Poly­ne­sian is­lands and a pos­ses­sion of Chile. An in­fin­i­tes­i­mal speck fringed by bleach­blonde shores in the vast­ness of the Pa­cific, it’s the def­i­ni­tion of re­mote and would most likely re­main un­known if it were not for the 900 mas­sive stone sculp­tures called moai carved by its oc­cu­pants be­tween the 10th and 16th cen­turies. The mono­lithic fig­ures are be­lieved to be rep­re­sen­ta­tions of the Rapa Nui peo­ple’s an­ces­tors. The tallest stand at 10 me­tres and weigh more than 80 tonnes. As we gaze at Ahu Ton­gariki, a strik­ing line of 15 moai erected on a stone plat­form fac­ing in­land as if watch­ing over the vil­lagers, we feel the pri­mal force of the is­land. It’s a fa­mil­iar feel­ing; it’s come upon us fre­quently in these past few weeks, in­spired by the nat­u­ral majesty of Chile.

dream­scape The sun sets over the moun­tains and salt flats sur­round­ing Te­bin­quinche La­goon

line up Rapa Nui, or Easter Is­land, is home to 900 of these mys­te­ri­ous mono­lithic sculp­tures known as moai

wild ter­rain Wind-worn ice­bergs fallen from the face of Grey Glacier float in the Patag­o­nian lake of the same name

fron­tier ter­ri­tory Gau­chos check a fence on the pam­pas. Patag­o­nia boasts vast ar­eas of these tree­less grass­lands

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