From the desert to the snow
Like most people, I had pre-conceived ideas about Chile before I landed there.
In my mind, I pictured llamas and alpacas (who knew the difference before getting there?), markets with traditionally made rainbow coloured garments, the busy streets of cosmopolitan Santiago, and the wildly rugged landscapes of Patagonia. I imagined the towering snow-capped Andes and thought of raven-haired couples kissing in sidewalk cafes (not wrong there).
I did get some other things right. Beautiful pockets of downtown Santiago are really as I imagined them, and more — passionate couples with arms wrapped around one another wandering the streets after midnight, stopping to enjoy local wine and mouth-watering tapas plates. And yes, Patagonia is as windblown and as raggedly rugged as it appears in photographs, and some of the llamas in quaint villages where you can buy hand-knitted socks really do have trinkets made from their own wool (dyed) hanging from their upright ears.
However there’s so much more to this long strip of a South American country wedged between the mountains and the sea, than I could have ever imagined. And now I owe my real visions of Chile to the purple potato famers that I met in the Atacama Desert, the South Americans I skied with on the slopes of Valle Nevado, and to the guides of explora Atacama and Tierra Atacama Hotel and Spa.
People the world over fall in love with Chile. Now I know why.
Atacama: the world’s driest desert
I arrived in the Atacama Desert as the sun was setting — the last rays of light melting across rust-red stretches of desert, highlighting a vista of brown-pink mountains. A driver picked me up from Calama airport after a two-hour flight from Santiago, and as we made our way across the plains to San Pedro de Atacama (the main town in the middle of the world’s driest desert) it was hard not to feel a sense of peace. Our car seemed like the only thing moving out there, driving along a dead-straight road through a part of Chile that most of us wouldn’t even recognise as a part of South America if shown it in a photograph.
The Atacama Desert is as colourful (in an ochre sense) as the US’s Grand Canyon or Australia’s Kakadu, and as beautifully wild as the landscapes of Monument Valley in Utah, but it’s the people, history, legends and mystery that make it so utterly South American. And because the Atacama Desert is the driest in the world, everything is preserved when left out there – like the 1000-year old pieces of ceramic plates and the bones of the people who owned them that are still picked up every day.
In this part of the world, some things haven’t changed — women still shear the wool from their alpacas and knit or loom all of their clothes as they always have. The children still walk to school along ever-so-long dusty roads and the villagers still cook vegetables from their gardens with the meat from the chickens and goats they’ve raised. I take it all in on the journey to explora Atacama lodge, listening to our driver speak of his old/new world with pride. When he says goodbye in the lobby, it’s completely dark and it’s 27 hours since I left Sydney. The staffs greet me – none of them looking the slightest bit tired at 11pm (South Americans have dinner late) and I am taken to my room.
So it’s not until morning that I see the spectacle before me — desert scrub awash with wildflowers streaming into the base of the enormous row mountains that form the Andes — some of them 5000 metres in height. There are more than 300 volcanoes in the Andes, many of them live. I am so happy to wake up in in the Atacama Desert, I just can’t wait to get out there.
Purple potato farmers
explora Atacama offer their adventurous guests over 40 activities to ensure that there is plenty to do every day of their stay, and that there’s something to suit everyone who lays their head to rest in this sprawling lodge built in the old town of San Pedro over 21 years ago. explora management aim to gradually restore the natural environment of the 42-acre property that was built in Ayllu de Larache (once a kin-based community of the ancient Aymara people). On the grounds there are 20 indigenous elements (pathways, steps, buildings to name a few) that explora have committed to preserving out of respect for the area’s original inhabitants. Stepping through the low-slung, thick mud-brick doorways of the building that now houses a spa at explora for instance, guests can see the rooms of the ancient dwelling and get a feel for how it must have been long ago.
explora place great importance on working with the local indigenous people of the Atacama Desert, and so actively seek their permissions, opinions and trust when it comes to any activities offered. On my first morning a guide took me to the nearby village of Tocano, where Louisa, an old local woman with leather-like skin and sparkling eyes, sat in her store of goods — traditional alpaca and llama clothing, ornaments, bags and rugs in rustic coloured stripes — knitting a jumper. Her traditional loom, an enormous contraption so simple and yet so sturdy it’s withstood centuries of use, was right beside her door, next to the stall where her two alpacas were kept. The locals keep llamas as they are pack animals, and they use them for their meat, milk and wool — which is snipped off their bodies with large scissors while the animal lies on the ground with a rag wrapped around its face. They still barter goods in these parts as well, so llama wool can be swapped for fruit such as apples, pomegranates, pears and oranges, or vegetables such green beans, corn and potatoes.
Alpacas on the other hand, are also domesticated, but are used mainly for their soft wool, which is higher in quality that the llama’s wool. Vicunas, which are found higher up in the Andes (I saw some at 3500 metres), provide the top shelf wool, dubbed ‘golden yarn’, because it is so expensive. It costs so much because it is so fine, but also because a Vicuna can only be shorn every three years. A scarf from its wool can sell for thousands of dollars.
Further down the road, our guide stops the car when we see a family of potato farmers on their centuries-held land, the stone terraces fanning back up towards the mist-covered Andes behind them like an oil painting. The family of five are all working together with handheld tools and no ploughs nor horses, as they do most days of the week, tending to their purple potatoes. The small purple potatoes are famous in this area for their taste and texture, and the family have been harvesting them for 400-500 years, also growing garlic and corn to create a staple healthy diet and income.
The father, Roberto Cruz, heads up the family team, and he explains that they all move around their land, which spreads for hundreds of acres, to grow different things at different times of the year. “We are all so healthy and young looking because we eat such good food every day!” he says (my guide translating) when I say how young he looks. Down the road where the irrigation is better and there is hot springs, he tells me, they can grow delicious figs and pears. Despite him being in his sixties, Mr Cruz has a childlike grin and beautiful skin. His white top is neatly tucked into his pants and he wears a white fedora-style hat with a smart black ribbon. He chats and laughs with our guide in Spanish, and we take some photos of his family. He wants to see the shots and how we portray his family in my story — so we trade email addresses, give them a six-pack of beer as a thank you for their time, and then head off as the diligent farmers get back into ploughing the land by hand, as their ancestors have done for hundreds of years.
There is so much more to do in the Atacama Desert – horse riding, visiting one of the finest observatories in the world — ALMA; exploring ancient ruins, the salt plains and moonscape lands peppered with geysers. There are fascinating villages, a valley of ancient cactus up to ten metres in height, hot mineral springs and petroglyphs capturing ancient civilisations.
I do many of these things over my four days in the desert. As many as I can. However while in Chile, you need to at least taste her incredible diversity, and so after a stay at Tierra Atacama Hotel and Spa, where I indulge in a massage, wonderful meals and wine, and spend some time with astronomers at a local observatory as well as ALMA, I regretfully pack my bags. As I do so, I make sure I’m fully kitted up for the snow — locally hand-loomed alpaca gloves in easy reach within my handbag — because I will need them when I hit the slopes.
Yes, you read correctly, because within the space of few hours while travelling in Chile, you can go from exploring the desert to hitting the slopes.
Snow time in Valle Nevado
It’s quite incredible to digest that in the Atacama Desert, you can be at 4,000 metres while climbing a mountain or visiting ALMA observatory (the radio telescopes sit at 5000 metres) and then at Valle Nevado (snowy valley in Spanish) ski resort, you’re at 3,000 metres. And as it’s only a two-hour flight from Calama to Santiago and then a 45-minute drive to the snow. Two thousand metres above Santiago, there’s a drastic change in temperature and atmosphere.
Founded by French entrepreneurs, Valle Nevado is in the El Plomo foothills of the Andes Mountains. Visitors quite quickly learn along the grapevine that the Burton family (aka snowboarding royalty) class it as one of their favourite places for skiing in the world, and there’s no wondering why — Chile’s snowy paradise is as breathtaking as its desert.
The mountain has 800 hectares of terrain, and the resort base, with its cafes, bars (do not leave the village without a Pisco Sour) and restaurants, sums up the true meaning of an intimate ski resort. Think Falls Creek in Australia, yet smaller. There are only six restaurants ranging from chic to smart, al a carte, casual and family-friendly, so Valle Nevado really does cater for everyone. Visitors tend to find that if they are staying more than three days, they’ll undoubtedly make friends on the slopes, in the après ski eateries and on the decks. Sitting in the sunshine or with the sunset coming on, with a Pisco Sour in hand and the endearing exuberance of South Americans everywhere, there’s just no reason to not fall in love with Chile.
In fact, after landing back in Australia and looking back at my week of desert and snow, there’s a never-ending list of reasons as to why people fall in love with this enticing slice of Latin America. Another great reason is Chilean wine. Chilean winemaking dates back to the 16th century and it’s something that this country does exceptionally well. The climate is somewhere between that of California and France and the main grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenère. However today, the pinot noirs and syrahs coming from some regions of are highly regarded. Like some parts of Australia, Chile has somehow managed to remain phylloxera louse-free, which basically means that the it’s grapevines don’t need to be grafted.
However Chilean’s wine story would take another few hours of your time. It’s that good. For a taste, visit Bodegas RE winery, which is only an hour’s drive from Santiago in Casablanca. The winemaker there, Pablo Morande, creates unusual (some would say unorthodox) co-fermentations such as Syrahnoir (Syrah and Pinot Noir) and Chardonnoir (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) in 13,000 litre clay fermentation tanks that he had specially made for his beautiful underground cellar. His sparkling wine is sensational. But this, is another great Chilean story and another good reason to jump on that plane to Santiago.