Hike high for a white Christmas

ROB MCFARLAND
Last updated 05:00 14/12/2011
Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array project
European Southern Observatory

OH STARRY NIGHT: The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array project in the in Atacama desert, Chile.

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"Go up like an old man, come down like a teenager," advises Pablo. I'll second that. I'm 200 metres from the summit of 5600m-high Toco Volcano in the Chilean Andes and I feel 108.

At this altitude, every step is a breath-sapping test of physical and mental endurance. I had never understood why climbers sometimes turn back within a few hundred metres of the top. Now I do.

The appeal of Toco is that it's not a technical climb. A van brings you to 5000m, from where it's a relatively gentle 600m ascent over rocks and then snow. I had expected us to reach the summit in about half an hour, but 1 ½ hours later, we're still going.

Finally, we reach the boulder-strewn plateau and collapse into breathless, grinning heaps. The views are amazing. We are surrounded by dozens of snow-capped 5000m peaks that stretch from Chile into neighbouring Bolivia. Cobalt-blue lagoons stud the valley floor, and the Atacama Desert – one of the driest in the world – fades into the horizon.

Through binoculars, we can see the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) project, a collection of 66 radio telescopes being built on the 5000m Chajnantor plateau. When it's completed at the end of 2012, it will be the most powerful radio telescope in the world.

Taking Pablo at his word, I spend most of the descent on my rear, sliding joyously down the snow-covered slopes, while whooping like a 14-year-old.

Climbing Toco has been the highlight of an action-packed three days at the luxurious Alto Atacama resort in northern Chile. Located in a spectacular red rock valley three kilometres from the quaint town of San Pedro, this 32-room lodge offers a wide range of excursions.

Some of them require acclimatisation because of the altitude (the resort is at 2400m), so the day before tackling Toco, I did the 15km Shepherds Trek from the tiny hamlet of Machuca (population seven) to the comparatively bustling Rio Grande Village.

Starting at 4000m, the trek follows the winding Rio Grande River through a valley studded with 10m-high cordon cacti. As we descended, the scenery changed from a barren, rocky wilderness to a lush Eden-like oasis bordered by chocolate-coloured clay hills that resembled giant mounds of gelato.

There are also lots of less taxing activities, including a tour of the nearby Atacama salt flats, a trip to the El Tatio geyser field and an excursion into the lunar-esque Valley of the Moon. I particularly enjoyed the post-dinner star-gazing session. The elevation and lack of light pollution produce one of the busiest night skies I have ever seen.

All excursions are included in the all-inclusive rate and use the resort's private fleet of minibuses and expert guides, so there is really no excuse for not getting out and exploring the region. Well, that's what I thought, until I discovered the spa.

Surrounded by landscaped gardens full of native flowers and cacti, the spa has a sauna and steam room and offers a wide variety of treatments.

I indulged in a wonderful sabia massage, which uses a heated pouch of herbs to soothe tired muscles, before retiring to one of the resort's six secluded plunge pools to laze away the rest of the afternoon (I had just climbed a volcano, OK?)

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All meals are served in the resort's indoor-outdoor dining area and I had to keep reminding myself that I was in the middle of an inhospitable desert. Breakfast is a sumptuous hot and cold buffet, while lunch and dinner are both waistband-threatening three-course affairs, featuring a combination of Mediterranean and Chilean cuisine.

A typical offering was quinoa tabouli to start, followed by tortellini stuffed with goat's cheese.

Desserts range from creme brulee to the resort's dangerously good homemade icecream.

And, of course, everything is washed down with an excellent selection of Chilean wine.

The resort's design blends in with the environment. It's virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding valley by virtue of its low-rise design and use of natural-coloured adobe walls and native wood. The design ethic also extends to the rooms, which are spacious, with dark, textured walls, and have large, tiled bathrooms and terraces that offer mesmerising views of the Andes.

Parts of the Atacama Desert haven't received rainfall for 300 years, so water conversation is paramount. Every guest is given a refillable water bottle to use and the resort has its own water-treatment plant. It's also refreshing to see refillable containers for shampoo and conditioner in the bathrooms.

In fact, the only blip on the report card is that some of the staff have limited English, which led to some frustrating exchanges when ordering in the restaurant and an entertaining mime act during my massage.

That aside, Atacama succeeds in providing five-star access to one of Chile's most spectacular regions.

FAST FACTS

Getting there: LAN has daily flights from Auckland to Santiago with onward connections to Calama. The resort is a one-hour transfer from Calama airport. See lan.com

Staying there: All-inclusive rates start at US$446 (NZ$577) per person per night for a three-night stay and include all meals, excursions and transfers to and from Calama. Half-board and bed and breakfast rates are also available. See altoatacama.com

More information: chile.travel

The writer was a guest of LAN and Alto Atacama.

- The Dominion Post

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