A tale of two climates: Hiking Chile’s Atacama desert and Chiloe island

A tale of two climates: Hiking Chile’s Atacama desert and Chiloe island

From the arid desert to the lush islands of the Pacific, Chile is a hiker’s paradise, discovers Sian Lewis.

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Written by: Sian Lewis Last Updated: 13 May 2019

This is a tale of two climates. Chile, an astonishing 2,653 miles long, is ribbon of a country where you can travel from the arid deserts in the north all the way to the glaciers of Patagonia in the southern tip, fitting vineyards, salt flats and surf beaches in between if you are so inclined. With just ten days to explore Chile on foot, I hiked the sun-baked northern deserts of the Atacama and the green and mythical Pacific island of Chiloé.

My first sight of Chile’s wondrous desert is from the plane. The tallest peaks of the Andes peek out of cloud cover as I fly from the capital, Santiago, to Atacama. My base is the Tierra Atacama hotel, an oasis in the dry desert. Tierra means ‘earth’ in Spanish, and the name perfectly matches the warm tones of this welcoming hotel, an eco-friendly architectural wonder looking out at the triangular peak of Licancabur volcano. Rooms are huge, painted in calming sand hues, and the gardens are vibrant and green against the ochre backdrop of sand and mountain. It’s tempting to just stay put, Chilean pisco sour cocktail in hand, but Tierra Atacama is also the perfect base for getting out and exploring the desert. As soon as you arrive at the lodge, Tierra’s expert hiking guides show you an enormous map of Atacama and recommend treks, cycle routes, or for anyone with time to acclimatize, hikes up the towering volcanoes that form the border with Bolivia.

Atacama, the highest desert in the world at 2,400 metres, is far from flat and featureless – explore it on foot and you’ll find open valleys, craggy canyons and moon-like rock formations. My first hike is through the Guatin Valley. The trail dips into a deep canyon dotted liberally with huge giant cacti called cardones that tower seven metres tall above our heads. This is more scramble than trek – we climb rocks and jump over pools in the welcome shade of the walls of the canyon, the altitude squeezing at our lungs. When we climb back up to the open desert, the deep, narrow valley is perfectly hidden, as if it never existed.

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The next trail to conquer is the Kari route that winds through the Valle de la Luna, the ‘valley of the moon’. We follow Tierra guide Jose down a barely visible path, half walking, half tumbling over sand dunes, then reach the weird semi-eroded stone and salt formations that give this place its lunar name. Walking between the brick-red rocks and tall pillars of salt, which tick and creak ominously above us, is like being in an open-air natural cathedral.

Back at Tierra Atacama, tired hikers kick sand out of their boots and sip pisco sours by cosy outdoor fire pits as the setting sun turns the volcanoes on the horizon flame red. When night falls, we head out to see the other side of the sun-scorched desert – Atacama’s incredible night skies are some of the clearest in the world. Huge international observatories that look like the lairs of James Bond villains are dotted across the desert, but smaller observatories are also open to amateur stargazers. At Ahlarkapin Observatory, owner Cesar uses a powerful telescope to show us far-off constellations, then explains the names indigenous people gave them. “That’s the llama. And that’s the bowl of quinoa!”

Hike and kayak Chiloé

Time to swap the stark beauty of the desert for the lush green landscape of Chiloé, Chile’s most legendary island. I catch a tiny internal flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, halfway down the long ribbon of Chile, then take a ferry from the mainland to the Chiloé archipelago, 1.5 miles away.

Stepping off the boat and onto the main island of Chiloé feels like entering another world. The island is as famed for its folklore and seafaring ways as it is for glorious countryside and hiking trails. I pass cottages clad in pastel-hued wooden shingles, bright fishing boats bobbing in harbours and green pastures dotted with wild flowers. The whole place looks like an illustration from a children’s book, and storytelling is part of life here. Chilote locals believe in ghost ships that prowl the seas, mermaids that save shipwrecked sailors and demons that roam the woods. Blue whales and Magellanic penguins gather in the seas. In the village markets, long skeins of dyed wool hang from the ceilings and you can buy huge elephant garlic cloves as big as your fist and delectable pastries stuffed with fresh seafood.

I’m staying at Tierra Atacama’s sister hotel, Tierra Chiloé. It’s just as architecturally stunning as its desert twin, a wood-clad stilted lodge looking out over the Rilan Bay. Rooms are cosy and earth-toned, facing out to the misty sea. The hotel even has its own wooden boat, the Williche, moored in the bay below, with bright kayaks tied to its roof ready for a paddle.

I get to set sail the next day, climbing aboard the Williche for a day exploring the waters between the islands. We moor at the tiny, car-free island of Chelín. A dog is patiently waiting on the jetty. “He belongs to the lady who looks after the church,” explains Catarina, today’s guide. “He comes to chaperone anyone who visits the island”. The dog leads us along a grassy road to the tiny village, where one of Chiloé’s beautiful UNESCO-listed timber churches presides over a cluster of pastel-coloured cottages. Beyond is the island’s fascinating churchyard. It’s like a miniature ghost town, where locals are buried in charming, and rather kitch, mini versions of their wooden cabins. There’s even a beautifully painted little boat for one fisherman’s grave.

In the harbour of Quehui island, Javier and I unload two kayaks, don buoyancy vests and push out onto the water of the Pindo Estuary. I paddle hard to keep up with Javier, my arms burning as we slice through the water. He suddenly points ahead, and I see the striped faces of two Magellanic penguins as they dive right in front of our kayaks. It’s hard not to fall under the spell of an ocean shared by penguins and ghostly galleons.

There’s time for one more full-day hike before I leave the archipelago. Javier and I drive along the Pan-American highway to Duhatao, on Chiloe’s remote and rugged western side. He pulls out a map and shows me a coastal trail that hugs the sea and then disappears into trees – it’s part of the huge Sendero de Chile, an ambitious plan to create one continuous hiking route that connects the entire country. We hoist on backpacks and set off on the beach to the trailhead, then climb high up onto the cliffs above the Pacific. The deep blue ocean and bright green cliffs look rather like Cornwall with the saturation turned way up, except that there’s absolutely no-one here. We won’t see anyone on the trail all day, if you don’t count a startled deer.

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It’s barely spring, but a bright sun is beating down as we hike through the trees and climb up the cliffs. Finally, legs aching and sweaty, we emerge onto Chepu beach. There’s still no sign of humankind, besides the track we’ve followed and the herd of cows that are grazing peacefully on the edge of the wet sand. The beach is fringed with enormous gunnera leaves and wild flowers, and a huge rock arch like a mini Durdle Door stands proud out to sea. It’s a prehistoric landscape straight out of Jurassic Park.

We keep hiking along the hard-packed sand. When we finally reach the end of the trail and the point where the Chepu river meets the sea, a wizened old man is there to collect us in his blue boat, whisking us back to the road and from there to Tierra Chiloé. He lets me try my hand at the rudder as we steer along the river. Javier tells me that he remembers walking the same coastal path as a small child and being picked up by the same boatman, decades ago. It all makes sense on an island as strange and timeless as Chiloé.

I sit at Santiago airport the next day waiting for my flight home, my hiking boots caked in dirt. I may have only walked in two of Chile’s climates but I’ve realised that this country is one long ribbon of treasures. I see Punta Arenas, the airport for Chilean Patagonia, listed below my flight to London and I feel sorely tempted to stay and walk in another of Chile’s magical landscapes. My boots and I will be back.

Travel tips

Our trip

Sian was hosted by the Tierra Hotels and Last Frontiers. Latin America tailor-made specialist Last Frontiers offers a 13 day trip to Chile, including time to explore Santiago and stays at the Tierra hotels on the Island of Chiloé (three nights) and in the Atacama Desert (four nights) for £5,420 per person, including all meals, drinks, transfers, hikes and other excursions as well as international and internal flights.

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Health & safety

Chile is generally a safe and easy country to explore. The altitude and sun in the desert are the main issues to be aware of – pack sunscreen and a good hat, and acclimatise slowly if you’re trekking in Atacama.

What to pack

For the Atacama desert it’s worth packing sunscreen, good sunglasses, a hat and a buff to keep sand off your face. For Chiloé take good hiking boots, layers and waterproofs.

Getting there

Iberia fly London to Santiago from £486 return.

Getting around

Chile is so enormously long that internal flights are often the easiest way to get around. Sky Airline fly between Santiago and Calama (for Atacama, from £73 return) and Castro or Puerto Montt (for Chiloé, from £60 return).

Food and drink

On Chiloé island, curanto al hoyo is a must-try. This traditional dish involves cooking seafood and pork sausage over hot stones in a hole in the ground – spectacular as well as delicious.

Where to stay

Tierra Hotels

A two-night stay at Tierra Atacama or at Tierra Chiloé costs £1,329 per person, including all activities, food, drinks and transfers.

Singular Hotel

The smart Singular Hotel in Santiago makes the perfect base for exploring the capital, complete with a rooftop bar for sunset pisco sours. Doubles from £258 per night.

Luciano K

The Art Deco Luciano K is another great option in Santiago, with a rooftop pool and bar. Doubles from £125 per night.

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