In 2014, Prestige’s Peter Kennedy travelled to Atacama, Chile, enjoying the experiential travel adventure of a lifetime with the aid local travel company specialising in bespoke experiences. Here are our favourite excerpts from his wonderings at the top of the world.
I’m standing at the edge of a crater close to the summit of Lascar, an active volcano in Atacama, Chile (though there has been no eruption since 2003). I’ve been up since 4.30am, I’m at an altitude of 5,540 metres, and have another 50 metres or so to go before reaching the summit.
“Adelante, Peter, estamos casi en la cumbre!” (“Let’s go, Peter, we’re almost at the summit!”) cries my guide Danilo. That’s easy for him to say – he does this for a living and is 30 years younger. I’m having dark thoughts of asking Danilo to pose for a picture at the edge of the crater and saying, “Just step back a little more, that’s it… Oops!” But finally I make it to the top and Danilo produces a cup of hot Coca tea.
There is nothing quite like standing at the summit of a high mountain and looking at views that stretch, in the case of Atacama, for 100 kilometres. You may be gasping, you may be knackered, your legs may be trembling, but you do feel “on top of the world” when you get there.
Danilo is a splendid fellow and works for Explora, who arranged my trip up to their property in San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile. San Pedro de Atacama is in what is called the Alteplano, which means high altitude desert, at an elevation of 2,500 metres.
The property was built by the Ibanez family, and opened in 1998. Pedro Ibanez wanted to develop what was then a little-known concept in Chile at the time – that of eco-tourism. Everything is focused on leaving a minimal environmental footprint.
Danilo is one of a group of terrific guides who take the guests, known as “viajeros”, to the many extraordinary sights in the Atacama region. Viajero means voyager and that is the main concept of Explora hotels. The idea is not to sit around drinking Pisco Sours all day long (though you can do this if you want, as drinks are not charged for), but to explore this incredible part of the world.
The property has stunning views over the Cordillera Del Sal and my room looked out onto the volcano of Licancabur, one of the most dramatic of the volcanoes, available for climbing, though the climb has to be made from the Bolivian side of the border. To see every evening from my room the sunset turn this volcano into a roseate hue as the light gradually flickered out was sublime.
The Atacama is the oldest desert on earth, with total area of 105,000 square kilometres, mostly in Chile but with borders on Argentina and Bolivia.
Parts of this desert have experienced hyper aridity for at least 3 million years. Evidence suggests that areas of the Atacama have not received significant rainfall since 1570. Parts are considered similar to Mars and are used by NASA to test instruments for future Mars missions, and also the location for Mars movies.
Because of the high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, lack of humidity in the air and no light pollution or radio interference, this desert is considered one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations.
Some of the world’s larger telescopes are to be found here, and it will be the site for the world’s largest optical/near-infrared telescope to be called (very originally!) the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).
Camping Among Galaxies
Not to be outdone, Explora has its own observatory on the premises. I remember a phrase I saw in a book many years ago, which described the stars as “small flickering campfires in the fields of night,” a wondrous description which has always remained with me.
Through this telescope, I was able to see whole galaxies, explosions of light, a dense riot of stars filling my view. My mind went to Dennis Overbye’s wonderful book, The Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, where he described dedicated astronomers sitting night after night in cavernous and chilly telescopes situated on lonely mountains, following the smallest oscillation
So, if there is one part of the world that needs to go on your “bucket list”, it’s Atacama, and if there is one place that you need to stay, it is Explora Larache.
More information on Explora can be found online at explora.com