Explora Hotels Chile
Explora hotels are frequently included on luxury itineraries to Chile and offer high-class accommodation in some of the most remote parts of South America. Latin America Tour Consultant Katie Parsons recently travelled to Chile and stayed in two Explora properties.
The first Explora hotel to open was Hotel Salto Chico in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, in 1993. Following its success, Hotel de Larache opened five years later in the Atacama Desert and in December 2007 the newest hotel, Posada Mike Rapu, opened on Easter Island.
I was lucky enough to stay in two Explora hotels on my recent trip to Chile -Atacama and Torres del Paine.
Waking up the morning after a 2-½ hour flight followed by a one-hour drive in the dark, I could easily have mistaken the view from my window for another planet. Sitting at 2300m above sea level in the north of Chile, close to the Bolivian and Argentinean borders, San Pedro de Atacama is a beautifully-located, relaxed desert town with both plenty of backpacker hostels and luxury hotels, and provides a taste of the Andean culture that is hard to find elsewhere in Chile.
Hiking and horseriding
From San Pedro it is possible to do a wide variety of activities, and the Explora guides meet the guests each evening in the bar to discuss the excursions for the following day. These range from short easy walks along sand dunes to horse riding across the Atacama salt flats and whole day treks up volcanoes located at high altitudes. If that sounds too energetic, there is always the option of soaking in the hotel’s own natural hot springs about an hour's drive away.
One of Explora’s most unique features is its recently opened observatory. Because of the high altitude and lack of humidity, the air is much thinner and there is very little pollution from light or other sources. Stargazing in northern Chile is among the best in the world, and with the aid of trained astronomers and a powerful telescope, you can find yourself looking into star clusters, planets and even to other galaxies millions of light years away. A new device is soon to be installed at the Explora observatory which will allow guests to photograph the night skies with their own digital cameras, offering the perfect souvenir of the clear night sky.
Given the extreme temperatures and high altitudes, the area seems a particularly harsh and inhospitable environment for any wildlife. However, once the sun rises and you look closely, there is an abundance of birds and mammals. The Andean geese and coots that nest on the frozen lakes high up in the mountains, take their heads out of the ice where they have been buried during the night to keep warm. Viscachas, a small rodent that looks like a rabbit with a long tail, can be seen searching for food around the rocky outcrops where they can easily scurry back to hide from potential predators. Vicuñas, the wild and untamed relative of the llama, only live at altitudes above 4000m and as law now protects them from poachers, they are relatively unafraid of passing vehicles so can be spotted close to the roads.
Along with star-gazing, two of the most memorable highlights of the Atacama experience are watching the flamingos paddling in the lakes while the distant mountains change from a dusty red though to purple as the sun sets over the Atacama salt flats. Equally beautiful and photogenic was walking with our guide through the famous Valley of the Moon. Having lived and worked in the area for over 10 years, our guide Javier knew the Valley like it was his back garden. Seeing no one else for 3 hours it felt like we were alone with nothing but sand dunes, salt mountains and the volcanoes over 150 km away on the seemingly-endless horizon.
Explora: Torres del Paine
Part of the Explora philosophy emphasises that it’s not just the destination that is important, but that the journey there is of equal, if not greater interest. After a four-hour flight south from Santiago to Punta Arenas and then a five-hour drive into Torres del Paine National Park, nowhere is this thinking more true and apparent. The view from the plane as we followed the Andes south from Santiago over the Southern Ice Field was magical. The clouds broke and enormous glaciers, icebergs and frozen lakes emerged below us.
Although knowing it would be mid-winter, after three days in the desert, I was not mentally prepared for snow in Punta Arenas, the most southerly city in South America. Whereas in the Atacama the temperature ranged from –20ºC early in the morning to the mid-twenties during the day, Southern Patagonia varied little between –5ºC and 4ºC. In summer, the long road between Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales is a three-hour expanse of little but a few scattered estancias and their grazing sheep and cattle. In July, it was a true winter-wonderland and the drive along the frozen road passed quickly. Along the way we saw plenty of wildlife, including the native rhea, South America’s ostrich, falcons, the arctic fox, and the biggest surprise of all, the flamingo colonies, which looked out of place as they swam across icy lakes.
The Salto Chico Explora hotel is perched on the edge of Lake Pehoé and has probably one of the best views of all the hotels within the Park over the glistening lake to the Paine Grande Mountain and famous Paine Massif. There is a very common perception that Patagonia is off limits in winter but the absence of the biting Patagonian wind means the calm lakes create mirror images of the mountains and landscapes. This lack of icy wind also makes the colder temperatures more manageable. The days are much shorter: the sun rises after 8am and sets by 6pm so the striking colours of the sky can be seen changing without early mornings or late nights. Winter is also the best time to see the infamous puma, as it has to venture further down the mountains to find food than it would do in the summer.
For me the biggest advantage of travelling to Patagonia in winter is that there is almost no one else there. None of the campsites are open for the trekkers wanting to hike the famous ‘W’ around the base of the Torres (towers) and only a handful of the hotels stay open throughout. Those that do, including Explora, work on a very low capacity so it is quite feasible that on any excursions into the park you won’t come across another person. Obviously the weather conditions do limit some of the activities but there are still plenty of possibilities and there is something incredibly special about horse riding across the snow-covered plains and through frozen streams with the Torres Massif in the background. The most memorable part of the full day trek to the French Valley was walking through snow where the only fresh footprints apart from my own, were that of the puma.
In a country as long and narrow as Chile, that has all types of weather and so many different geographical regions, it is impossible to pick the ‘ideal’ season to travel. Traditionally, the high season has been from December to February, the southern hemisphere summer, but increasingly more people are choosing to travel in Spring, September to November and Autumn, March to May. Winter seems to put people off because it is assumed it will be too cold or wet, and perhaps difficult to travel to particular regions. Whilst this is of course true to specific areas, the Lake District for example can be very wet in winter, what awaits visitors brave enough to venture away from the European summer is a country with incredible contrasts, stunning scenery and the most welcoming hospitality. And most importantly, fewer people to spoil the view!