Next year direct flights to Chile will open the South American country up to UK travellers. Sarah Marshall picks the trips to plan now.
Experimental restaurants, a sophisticated arts scene and a general, all-round nod to eccentricity make Chile’s mountain-fringed capital one of the most intriguing cities in South America.
Small enough to discover in a long weekend, Santiago is made up of several easily navigable neighbourhoods, all radiating their own special character.
The leafy Lastarria district offers pleasant pavement cafes and distinctive boutique hotels, many housed in the few colonial-style buildings spared by a succession of devastating earthquakes.
Many museums and historical buildings can be found in the 16th century Plaza de Armas, the city’s main square, where old men furrow brows over games of chess beneath the shadow of the ornate 18th century Metropolitan Cathedral.
But a more offbeat attraction is La Chascona (meaning “wild mane of hair”), the house built in the mid-Fifties by Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda for his lover Matilde, who had striking curly red locks. Like the man himself, the property is wonderfully eccentric.
Doubles at the Singular Santiago (thesingular.com) cost from £198 per night with breakfast.
Patagonia’s vast, windswept steppes and jagged granite mountains are a playground for outdoor enthusiasts. But softer souls can also enjoy the environment, without having to pitch a tent or set up a portaledge.
The town of Puerto Natales benefits from several upmarket and ambitious design hotels. The Singular Patagonia is set within the walls of a former early 20th-century abattoir, where heavy, iron British-made machinery is still displayed in a walk-through museum.
Aside from trekking in the nearby Torres del Paine National Park, visitors can take a horse-riding excursion to nearby Sierra Dorotea. Led by a gaucho wearing a traditional “boina” beret and characteristically nonchalant expression, riders on hardy Criollo horses venture up the grassy mountainside to sheer drop viewpoints and forests burned silver by 70kph gusts.
Doubles at Remota (remotahotel.com) cost from £239 with breakfast. A horse ride to Sierra Dorotea can be arranged at additional cost. Doubles at the Singular Patagonia (thesingular.com) cost from £234 with breakfast.
Southern ice fields
Glaciers cover 2.7 per cent of Chile’s long, snaking surface, and dipping into the country’s icy fjords is made easy on a short four-day/three-night cruise.
A family business for more than three decades, the Skorpios III navigates the Southern Ice Field. Sailing from Puerto Natales, the Kaweskar voyage sidles up to the honeycomb ridges of Amalia Glacier, deposits passengers on the rocks close to El Brujo Glacier, and salutes a cavalcade of frozen behemoths along the Calvo Fjord.
The trip continues north to the Montanas Fjord, where multicoloured icebergs crack and hiss in a bay below Herman Glacier, and moraine-soiled peaks of Alcina Glacier resemble baked tips of a lemon meringue pie.
Swoop Patagonia (swoop-patagonia.co.uk) offers trips on Skorpios III from £1,154pp cruise only, including meals and activities.
Stretching for more than 4,000km, Chile spans extremes of temperature and topography. In the north lies the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth, where surreal rock formations, sky-soaring geysers and shimmering white salt flats have sparked a growing tourist industry.
Most resorts are based around the town of San Pedro on a high plateau 2,400m above sea level. At the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, cabins are set against a backdrop that flips between flaming red rocks and diamond-studded, starry skies as the clock turns from day to night. Adventurous activities bookend the day, with long lunches and spa treatments enjoyed in-between. Hike through the Dali-esque dunes of the Valley of the Moon, watch flamingoes settle on the salt flats, or study stars through a telescope on the hotel’s observation deck.
Doubles at Alto Atacama (altoatacama.com) cost from £444 per night with breakfast.
British Airways will launch a direct flight from London Heathrow to Santiago on January 3, 2017, departing four times per week.
Flights are now available at a special introductory fare of £749 return in World Traveller (economy).