Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

Published March 22, 2014
Off the beaten track
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The view along the 'W' Circuit trail in Torres del Paine park. - PHOTO: CHEAH UI-HOON

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The Salt Flats, Bolivia

At some 10,000 sq km, these are the largest salt flats in the world and also the largest store of lithium. Unfortunately, mobile phones can't be charged by sticking them into the salt flats but you can take funny perspective shots with them because the Salt Flats are so flat and white. Take a three-day jeep journey (make sure your driver-cum-guide is English-speaking) and you'll cover the Eduardo Abaroa National Park, which has some stunning desert landscapes such as a giant cactus and coral island, naturally coloured lagoons, the "Dali" desert with its surrealistic volcanic rocks and formations, geysers, and wildlife-like pink flamingos. Part of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was filmed here.

Travel tip: A stay in a salt hotel is a treat. The accommodation on the jeep trail can be intimidatingly basic, but there is a luxe version with the Tayka hotel network.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Thanks to its exports, stable politics and vibrant economic growth, Chile is perhaps one of the better-known countries to Singaporeans and Asians. On the ground, though, we keep hearing disparaging remarks from Peruvians, Bolivians and Argentinians - partly due to the border skirmishes they've had and Chile's land gain as a result; but then it could also be the case that Chile is the more prosperous and "productive" country in South America. Sound familiar?

This desert town is the centre of hippie-chic in Chile, if not South America. The adobe architecture of the desert has been preserved and they house restaurants, or tour agencies, and artisanal jewellery shops, besides those selling souvenirs and groceries. This is where you base yourself for day activities in the driest desert in the world, and tour agencies offer luxe tours of Bolivia's national park and Salt Flats.

Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile

Patagonia is shared between Chile and Argentina, but the Chilean side is known for the Torres del Paine mountain range and national park. Patagonia is romantically known as the unexplored territory and the truly last American frontier - offering one of the most stunning views of mountains, glaciers, glacial lakes, and rivers in the southernmost area of South America. There are lots of luxury hotels situated in the park and around it, and most offer complete board and expedition packages. For the actively-inclined, the minimum four-day "W" Circuit is one of the most renowned hikes one can do around the Paine mountain range.

Travel tip: The availability of refugios located along the "W" Circuit is one of the key reasons to take this minimum four-day trek. It's a very challenging trek on well-marked trails but made cushier with the comfortable refugio stays. These are privately-run lodges which offer either bunk beds or private cabins along the trail, and warm, home-cooked food in well-designed settings.

Highlights are the challenging climbs up the French Valley and the Las Torres base for the mountain and glacier views - a mountain range which is separate from the Andes range, and known for relatively young mountains.