Chile is nearly 3,000 miles long, but averages just 112 miles wide. As a result, it offers astonishing geographic and climatic diversity. Its economy grew at a robust 7 percent last year, enabling a speedy recovery from the severe earthquake of 2010. The country also boasts one of the best-developed infrastructures in South America. At the end of our recent trip, we were fully convinced that Chile has come of age for sophisticated travelers.
The northern third of the country is dominated by the Atacama Desert, a spectacular region of salt flats, geysers and volcanic peaks. The central section is blessed with a Mediterranean climate that nurtures a wide range of agricultural products, including wine grapes. To the south, Patagonia is a land of windswept steppes, vertiginous mountains and massive glaciers. The summer high season is from December 15 to late February. During spring and fall, temperature extremes in the Atacama are mitigated, and the weather in Patagonia is relatively predictable.
Chile’s capital, Santiago, is home to almost 6 million people. We seldom felt ourselves to be in such a large city, however, perhaps because of the tree-lined boulevards and the low-rise buildings of the business and government districts. In fact, Santiago seems like a smaller Buenos Aires, with a European style embodied in structures such as the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artas (National Museum of Fine Arts), housed within an elegant neoclassical building, and the Mercado Central (Central Market), with its filigreed steel framework imported from Britain.
My advice would be to spend a night or two in Santiago to relax after the long flight, even though the city has a surprisingly limited range of hotels. For some years, I have recommended The Ritz-Carlton, and this remains my preferred address. There is no Four Seasons, no Park Hyatt and no venerable grand hotel of any distinction. The W Santiago opened in November 2009 and will appeal to the self-consciously fashionable. (The principal room categories are “Wonderful” and “Spectacular,” and, according to the website, the bar is open until 3 a.m. and Beyoncé was a recent guest!)
However, tucked away on a quiet side street in the upscale neighborhood of Providencia, Le Reve is a 31-room property of considerable charm. Housed within a restored mansion, it models itself on a small Parisian hotel. The guest rooms feature high ceilings, tall windows, dark-wood furniture and the warm light of table lamps, all of which combine to create a cozy and relaxing ambience. The downside is that the rooms are not particularly spacious, with correspondingly small baths, although these are handsomely done in honey-hued marble. Rooms #210 and #211 have their own terraces, but must be booked far in advance.
The delightful public areas include a large lounge with well-stocked bookcases and French doors that lead to a Provençal pebbled courtyard sheltered by a large tree. There, a European-style buffet breakfast is served each morning. Afternoon tea is followed by a happy hour. Although there is no restaurant, a charming little kitchen area near the front entrance serves snacks until late in the evening.
During our stay, the staff were consistently friendly and always on hand to offer useful advice and to secure restaurant reservations. If the rooms were larger, I would give Le Rêve a higher rating. It is, however, an appealing alternative to Santiago’s high-rise hotels.
Le Reve 84 Deluxe Super King, $299. Orrego Luco 023, Santiago. Tel. (56) 2-757-6000.
When NASA scientists want to test the capabilities of their Mars exploration vehicles, they come to the Atacama. Stretching for 600 miles south of the Peruvian border, it is the driest place on earth, with some areas having no recorded rainfall. The desert’s 40,000 square miles contain vast tracts of red sand, towering wind-sculpted rocks, crystalline salt formations that eerily groan and creak as the temperature changes, and 20,000-foot snowcapped volcanic peaks, many of which are still active.
Thanks to snowmelt runoff, however, the region is not devoid of life. Streams sustain a marvelous variety of animals, birds and plants, including graceful camelids such as the llama and vicuña; the shy, rabbit-like viscacha; and the elusive puma. Waterfowl abound, and you are also likely to see ibis and flamingos.
Our base was San Pedro de Atacama, a 90-minute drive from the regional airport in Calama. San Pedro is a small oasis town with a charming central plaza, low-rise adobe buildings and streets thronged with adventurers and tourists. We had opted to stay at Awasi, just outside the town center. Screened by rustic wood gates, this proved to be an enchanting little sanctuary. Modeled after the traditional architecture of Tulor, a local Indian site dating from 800 B.C., the heart of the property is a large circular area defined by sienna-hued adobe walls inset with rows of local stones. There, inviting chaises longues flank a small pool. Thatched roofs supported by sculpted tree trunks cover a small bar, an open-air dining area and a number of sitting alcoves. Displays of local handicrafts, plus colorful cushions and throw pillows (their cases made from native rugs), all help to create a sophisticated design scheme reminiscent of the best of Santa Fe.
Five of Awasi’s eight rooms are set around this central area. Adobe walls, thatched roofs and dark-wood floors are enhanced by dramatic lighting schemes. Wi-Fi is complimentary, and there is a clever JBL iPod/iPhone dock, but no television. There is also no air-conditioning, but thanks to the traditional construction, opening the windows creates a reliable flow of cool air. Baths are faced with stone and come with separate showers (the larger rooms have soaking tubs) and lead to private patios with outdoor showers. Rooms #1, #3 and #5 are the largest; for additional space, they can be combined, via a shared patio, with the smaller #2 and #4. The other three rooms are across a road in a separate compound. Taken together, they would be ideal for a large family group.
Having booked at Awasi, you receive a 17-page list of possible activities! Each room has its own dedicated guide, driver and four-wheel-drive vehicle, so you can tailor your excursions without having to accommodate the priorities of other guests. Highlights of our stay included a hike through the so-called Valley of the Moon, with its startling salt structures; an excursion to El Tatio geysers, a field of geothermal springs in which our guide boiled eggs for breakfast to perfection; and an all-day journey to the Tara Salt Flat, with its “cathedral” rock formations, among which we enjoyed a picnic lunch of smoked salmon, cold roast beef, cookies and wine.
The food at Awasi is exceptional. During our stay, we enjoyed dishes such as ravioli filled with a mix of shrimp and creamed corn in a sun-dried tomato sauce; an elevated take on lomo, strips of sirloin marinated in soy and served on a bed of herbed rice; and a superb squid-ink pasta with salmon and smoked salmon in a gentle salmon-cream sauce. Some of the dining room staff are not fluent in English, but their solicitous attitude is more than sufficient compensation. Clearly, the tone is set by the charming manager, Virginia Contreras, whose vocabulary does not include the word “no.”
Awasi 97 Round Room, $1,500 per person for a two-night minimum stay; rates include all meals, beverages including wine, private daily excursions and transfers to and from Calama airport. Superior Round Suite, $1,710. Tocopilla 4, San Pedro de Atacama. Tel. (888) 880-3219 or (56) 2-233-9641.
Read about Mr. Harper's journey through Southern Patagonia.
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