Field Notes – a journey to Chile

Five of our travel experts share their impressions from a research trip to Chile

What is fieldwork? For a scientist, the phrase implies a gloved hand gripping a kind of device – a curious and beeping machine. But for a travel expert, fieldwork is really about ‘being there’. Their own body – their sensations and impressions – are their instrument, their device. This is what we mean by luxury travel – knowing that the people who planned it have truly had their nose to the ground. Feet first. Eyes open.

Case in point. Recently, we sent Tom, Carly, Sarah, Alex and Ian on an explorative foray into Chile. Across twelve intensive days, they teamed up with some of our favourite locals and guides – Esteban and Claudio, hello – striking out for Santiago, Atacama, and Patagonia. It’s a trip that looks a little like this one and this one.

Keep reading to hear their thoughts and impressions – and to catch a glimpse of how they saw this outrageously sublime country (with the aid of two disposable cameras).

Chile Atacama Desert at sunset
Chile Atacama Desert

Where the roads are rough

First was Patagonia – the national park that covers the southernmost tip of the South American continent. On the Chilean side of the border (Argentina shares a vast chunk of it), there are glacial fjords, temperate rainforests, and bristling mountains.

For Alex, “the roads were rough – but that’s to be expected in such a remote and faraway place”. Besides, this isn’t a place for vehicles or cars. Boots are what matter – and hiking polls. “It’s a completely tourist-free destination”, he continued. “Not a soul – except you”. Along the trails and peaks and bluffs.

“During the hike” – explains Sarah – “we spotted an Andean deer – a truly rare sighting (there are only 150 in the entire park)”. This was a “full day 15-mile hike with some of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen”. They also saw two pumas. Their guides – Laura and Manu – kept the flow going, a sense of shared and joyous adventure far from the noise and bustle of modern civilization.

The everything trip

Chile Patagonia
Chile Patagonia

No cars go

Before long, they wound their way to the lagoons and waters of the Rio Cochrane – right in the heart of Patagonia National Park; kayaking along these shimmering waters.

At the end of it all, a proper Andean feast was waiting for them. Hot coals, red wine – the smell of charcoal and meat drifting over the landscape.

Bedding down happened at Explora Patagonia. This is literally the only lodge in the entirety of the National Park – and it doesn’t disappoint. “You are right in the middle of the park” explains Sarah. “It feels like you have the entire place to yourself. A truly welcoming and warm environment, where the staff – who live there – radiate a true love and passion for this incredible place”.

The Patagonia trip

Chile Atacama
Chile Patagonia hike

Into the Atacama

“Landscapes, landscapes, landscapes”. That’s how Sarah put it. “I have never been to a single country that has such a contrast of landscapes”.

For Alex, the highlight was an excursion to the Piedra Rojas – a tumbling, rolling, Martian landscape of fissures and crests and eroded, geological structures. “A place of otherworldly, almost Martian landscapes and electric blue lagoons”. The horizon is flanked by red rocks and “soaring mountains”. Ian echoed this sentiment – describing a place that was “so unique, with stunning views some 4,300m above sea level”.

Beyond was the Moon Valley – a place filled with massive sand formations carved by wind and water, as well as the dusty footprints of ancient salt lakes (long dried up). For Ian, it felt “completely unique – like you were on the surface of another planet”.

Their base for this Atacama journey was Tierra Atacama. Alex described its “beautiful architecture – designed to take advantage of this incredible setting, offering unobstructed views of the Andes mountains”. Divine meals, a spa, a pool. Just perfect.

After spending the day among the cathedral-like rocks of the desert, they were surprised with sunset drinks – a beautiful, comradely moment “to catch up and discuss the preceding days”, as Ian put it.

The Atacama trip

Chile Atacama Desert
Chile Atacama Desert

Look up

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth. This absence of atmospheric moisture means that there is little to interrupt the blanket of stars that, each night, litter the skies above this ethereal desert.

It’s why we arranged for an astronomer to join the team for an evening of stargazing. “This was an incredible way to appreciate the uniqueness and beauty of this incomparable landscape – how ancient it is, and how shaped by the deep history of the universe” (Sarah). For Ian, this was accented by the sunset that preceded it – a sublime, planetary transition where the brilliant blue of the day gave way to dusky purples and an eventual pitch black. This – blinking, adjusting – is when the stars thronged into life; their astronomer guide leading them a little deeper into the desert.

The stargazing trip

Chile Atacama
Atacama Chile

A bird’s eye view

Arriving a day earlier than the remainder of the team, Tom – our co-founder – took perhaps the best possible route for surveying the Atacama Desert. By hot air balloon.

This necessitated an early morning at 4am, ensuring that the balloon would soar just as the sun began to rise – the entire landscape transforming from oil-black into a canvas of burnt orange and bruised plum. Beneath were historic, abandoned mining towns, the span of the Tara salt flat, the blooming flowers of the ‘desert bloom’ (desierto florido), and the ‘valley of death’. Shimmering, transcendent. This is firmly an experience we recommend our travelers take.

The unexpected trip

Chile Atacama
Chile Atacama hot air balloon

All about Santiago

While Chile is known – perhaps singularly – for its wilderness landscapes, its cities and towns are real hives of buzz and creativity. “Excellent boutique hotels, incredible wining and dining” (Ian).

Typically, for our travellers, this is where their trips begin and end – a moment of cultural immersion before darting off on wild trajectories into the country’s interior. This is where you’ll find the likes of Central – the restaurant owned by Virgilio Martinez, which is consistently voted one of the greatest restaurants in the world. A huge recommendation from us.

The metropolitan trip

Atacama desert, luxury vacations Chile

Summing up

What stands apart about Chile? Its landscapes – their contrast and variety. What you can do here. What you can feel here. For Ian: “sunsets, stargazing, food, wine, hiking”, all of it taking place in a massive, remote wilderness – almost another planet entirely.

“It’s truly a must-see destination if you love being outdoors and you love to challenge yourself” explains Sarah. “While there was plenty of time to sit back and relax, the trip – our research trip – was focused heavily around being outside, being active, and reconnecting with our planet and surroundings”.

Alex agrees, singling out the real value that Black Tomato’s travel experts can offer in “pairing the right people with the right hotels – not only in terms of style and amenities, but in terms of the activities you can access”. Everywhere, he said, “has a different approach and style”. That’s where we come in.

Chile – from top to bottom

For our ultimate ‘everything’ Chilean trip, just follow the link. And remember: it’s bespoke. You can keep it, change it, or mix it up.

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