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Laura Rendell-Dunn our PR and Business Development Manager discusses her recent trip across Chile, from the Atacama in the North to Torres del Paine in the south.

How did you get there?
I was lucky to fly out with British Airways on their direct, non-stop Dreamliner service to Santiago from London Heathrow.

Where did you go?
On arrival in Santiago, we drove for just over an hour to Maipo Valley for a stay at the historic Santa Rita winery, before flying north for a three-night stay in the Atacama at Explora. As you can’t travel from the Atacama Desert to Torres del Paine on the same day, we stopped in Santiago for one night and then flew to Puerto Natales in Patagonia for a three-night stay at Explora in Torres del Paine National Park. The trip finished in Chile's southern Lake District on the shores of Lake Llanquihue where we stayed two nights at AWA hotel overlooking Osorno Volcano.

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Have you been to Chile before?
This was my fourth visit to Chile. On my first visit in 2005, I hiked the W-Trek in Torres del Paine staying in basic ‘refugios’. I then led two group tours for Journey Latin America, and in 2008 my husband and I visited the Atacama Desert and Easter Island for our honeymoon.

How has the region changed?
The oasis village of San Pedro in the Atacama Desert has grown considerably since I was last there, but still retains its local charm of adobe houses and dirt track roads lined with Andean restaurants and craft shops.

On my first visit to Torres del Paine, the closest airport to access the national park from Chile was Punta Arenas, roughly a four-hour drive, so now being able to fly to the newer Puerto Natales airport meant we could arrive in the national park in just 1.5 hours.

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Which was your favourite...?

Place:
I loved all the locations we visited – the landscapes were mesmerising in each place but being an avid walker, Torres del Paine with its dramatic granite peaks, turquoise lakes and shimmering glaciers was the cherry on the cake and my heart skipped a beat as I caught my first glimpse of the famous massif.

Hotel:
I honestly can’t just pick one…
The Santa Rita Winery is first-class in every aspect and being so accessible from Santiago airport, it makes the perfect place to relax either at the beginning or the end of a holiday. Sample world-class wines from a prestigious winery founded in 1880, enjoy sumptuous accommodation that belongs to Chile’s aristocracy and spend hours exploring the huge renaissance-style gardens – you’ll probably find that one night here is not enough.

Explora Atacama is currently the only hotel in San Pedro to have an observatory so our stay was made extra special by the hour-long stargazing activity that also included a look at some of the closest planets! Although this is a luxury lodge, I loved the laid-back vibe and stylish open-plan communal areas. There was always a great atmosphere in the evenings as guests gathered to chat about their day and the food was some of the best I have eaten in Chile. The menu here is designed by Virgilio Martinez, winner of the World's 50 Best Restaurants list in 2023.

Explora Torres del Paine is the only luxury lodge right in the centre of the national park and I felt very privileged to stay here - not only are you treated to spectacular views on a clear day but you’re also closer to reaching the park’s highlights.

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AWA is a newish property that I wasn’t familiar with, and it took me completely by surprise – it has a cool, tastefully-decorated, minimalist interior with floor-to-ceiling windows, yet has a homely feel and the staff were super-attentive. There are many excursions on offer to explore the breathtaking landscapes but, as the hotel is so comfortable and as this was the last stop on our trip, it also made a wonderful place to wrap up a busy holiday – unwind in the spa, sample great food all locally sourced and enjoy a cocktail at sunset on the jetty in front of an open fire with breathtaking views of Osorno Volcano – heaven!

Excursion:
I had been to the Atacama before but not to the area of Piedras Rojas. It was out of this world! As you approach the high-altitude salt lagoons at Piedras Rojas, the otherworldly landscape is breathtaking. Fractured, twisted red rocks contrast against the dazzling white salt lagoons peppered with flamingos and framed by snow-capped volcanoes. A visit here is usually combined with the cobalt blue lagoons of Miñiques and Miscanti, which at over 4,100m above sea level and surrounded by volcanoes, is a sight to behold. You’re out for the entire day but it doesn’t involve too much walking due to the high altitude. Another plus of this excursion is you will see lots of pretty vicuñas and possibly some vizcachas and desert foxes.

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What was your most memorable moment?
After walking through the Puritama Reserve, a rocky red canyon dotted with waterfalls and long grass in the Atacama Desert, we reached a series of hot springs. The water was crystal clear and wonderfully refreshing. In true Explora style we were treated to a fabulous picnic which included a great selection of local beer, wine and fruit juice to round off that hike.

Were there any surprises along the way?
We were supposed to hike to Glacier Grey then take the public ferry back. However, as the wind was so strong, there was a high chance of the ferry being cancelled so our guide suggested a hike through the French Valley – an iconic part of the W-trek. The wind was so fierce that what should have been a six-hour trek, turned into nine hours. We were exhausted by the end of the day but there was a great sense of achievement too.

What tips do you have for travellers wanting to visit the same destinations?
Always sit on the left-hand-side of the plane when flying south (and vice versa when flying north) for stunning views of the Andes. If you sit on the right, you’ll just have views of the sea.

December to February marks the height of summer and when Chile receives the most visitors, especially to Patagonia. If you can travel during the shoulder season (October/November or March/April), you will find fewer tourists, a better chance of spotting puma and in April the autumn colours are stunning.

Glacier Grey, French Valley and the base of the towers are the most sought-after treks in Torres del Paine National Park, but for those less keen to walk an average of six hours a day, many easier, shorter half-day treks offer wonderful views. Explora took us to the eastern edge of the park where we saw condors, guanacos and the North and Central Towers with not another soul in sight. The other easier trek I recommend is to Lake Nordenskjöld – nothing can quite prepare you for the immensity of the massif as you gaze up at it from this stupendous viewpoint.

I’d recommend staying a minimum of four nights respectively in the Atacama Desert and in Torres del Paine. There’s so much to see and do, and with the long travelling days to reach each destination, you'll want to factor in some time to enjoy the hotel’s facilities and recover from any long treks!

Is there anything indispensable to pack or prepare for?
Layer up. In the Atacama, it will be very cold in the morning and at night as you’re at altitude but during the day it gets hot, so you need to be prepared. In Patagonia, you can have all seasons in one day, no matter what time of the year you visit, so having waterproofs as well as sunscreen to hand are essential.

Any local snacks, dishes or drinks that should be sampled?
Calafate sour - a cocktail made from Patagonian berries and Chilean Pisco (brandy made from grapes). Legend has it that if you taste a Calafate berry you are destined to return to Patagonia. What better reason can there be to try one of these cocktails?

Sum up your trip in a sentence:
This luxury trip encompassed four of Chile’s top regions, showcasing the country’s contrasting wilderness landscapes, variety of outdoor pursuits, astonishing array of wildlife and delicious gastronomy and wine.

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