Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

John Strachan and his family cruising on Lago Todos los Santos with Volcán Osorno in the background, Chile.

John Strachan and family cruising Chile’s Lago Todos los Santos with Volcán Osorno in the background.

So, I don’t know how to describe succinctly our trip to Chile this past December. It blew my mind and left me babbling like an idiot, so babble I will. I’ll leave the organizing and the editing to others.

In summary, we started planning late, and still Tom Damon put together an excellent itinerary, with fantastic hotels, wonders I can’t wrap my head around, and one of the two greatest guides in our experience.

All we told Tom was that we wanted to go to the Atacama Desert and then somewhere else in Chile where there would be fun, outdoor activities for our kids (10 and 12). Animals would be a bonus. And in deference to the kids, we didn’t want to spend too much time in cities. We ended up hiking, horseback riding, whitewater rafting, cruising across an Andean lake surrounded by volcanoes, and more.

We spent a night in Santiago, six nights up north in San Pedro de Atacama, and three nights in the Lake District down south. And we wanted more of all of it.

I’m going out of chronological order because the Atacama desert deserves top billing. It’s 40,000 square miles (half the size of Kansas) of the driest desert on earth that’s not named the Arctic or Antarctica. It’s harsh, and inhospitable, and why would anyone go there? Because it’s flat-out stunning. The geothermal activity has churned up volcanoes, mountains, salt formations, sand dunes, and rainbows of color. Through those millions of hectares of arid terrain flow fingers of life fed by hot and cold springs, fragile streambeds that allow for a stunning variety of life.

I don’t know how anything lives there, but boy, does it. A couple days, we hiked along lush paths of springwater. Trees, reeds, grasses, succulents, flowers of all shades, but only along a hundred-foot-wide swath. The divide between the verdant and the arid is a distinct line, as though manicured by an OCD greenskeeper. Along that narrow stretch of green, we saw wading birds, vicuñas, foxes, rabbits, rheas, ducks, geese, and evidence of pumas, while ten paces away, there was just rock.

Along one morning’s hike, we passed through three distinct geothermal events and three distinct ecosystems. The geyser field at 14,000ft, a stream warmed by a subterranean volcano, and then a cold spring stream. We were surrounded by otherworldly beauty, and never saw another human. I would happily walk that trail every day. It was unique and dreamlike.

And the sky! With so little moisture, the sky is the richest blue I’ve ever seen.

And also, there are flamingos. In the desert. At 13,000ft. I mean, how can one make sense of such a place?!

Most of this, we experienced at the Explora hotel, an all-inclusive paradise—meals, wine, cocktails, guides, horses, transportation, pools, everything included. A great place with other locations that we are eager to visit. But because we booked late, we also spent a few nights at a different lovely hotel, where Tom needed to find us a guide, and Shazam! What a guide.

Gonzalo Stengl has been guiding up in that area for 18 yrs. He’s as warm as a person could be. He studied biology and has a side-gig helping write scientific papers about the ancient organisms that live in volcanic springs and beneath the earth. Just a fascinating guy, with a spark in his eye. As hungry for an interesting conversation as he is eager to share the secrets of this beloved region. Some guides may get jaded or go through the motions. Gonzalo’s enthusiasm was so raw, it felt like he might just have discovered the Atacama last week.

And thoughtful. So good with the kids. When my daughter made off-course requests—Can I climb that boulder? Can we run up that hill? Down that dune?—Gonzalo weighed the question, considered the safety and impact, and gave her a polite, direct answer. “No. Because we have to protect those plants.” Or maybe an enthusiastic, “Not here, but we can change our plan and go to a different place! With fewer people! And we can run wild!” And run wild, they did. He was amazing. Took us on the beaten path and off it. He had a passion for avoiding crowds, providing a pristine experience, sharing his loves and interests. Just really special. Huge thanks to Tom for that hook-up.

I’m babbling, but it was a babble-worthy trip. Give me another 20,000 words, and I may have scratched the surface.

We did so much more in Atacama—star-gazing, horseback riding, lounging by the pools, swimming in natural hot springs. Oh! We stood and listened to an inanimate salt hill make music as slight changes in temperature and pressure made thin layers of salt ping and chime. But if I keep going, I won’t stop, so onward. As full of wonders as Atacama is, it is a harsh place outside the hotel grounds. I’d rush back in a heartbeat, but after six nights, we were ready for a change, so south we went.

From the desert to the rich forests and crystal pools of Chile’s Lake District. Tom booked us into the AWA hotel in Puerto Varas. It’s about as far south of the equator as Lake Tahoe is north of the equator, and the terrain, vegetation, architecture, and vibe is pretty similar. Very incongruous being so far into the southern hemisphere and feeling like we were in Tahoe or the Adirondacks. The terrain was stunning, the hotel was ideal, and the activities were abundant—lake cruising, paddleboarding, whitewater rafting. It was another hotel Tom found for us where the staff’s balance of hospitality and service were absolutely perfect. Our family fell in love with the region and were only sorry not to have more time.

As far as the food goes, everyone in South America disdains the food in Chile, even the Chilenos I know, but we ate very well. The local dishes and the international standards were wonderful. The restaurants in the hotels Tom booked were excellent.

But I have to comment on the smoked salmon. It was everywhere. And delicious. Most of Chile is no more than 100 miles from the Pacific, and at every buffet, there was smoked salmon. At lunch on a drive through the middle of nowhere, a bowl of smoked salmon would appear. At a pause on a hike, a guide would offer, “Anyone want smoked salmon?” I’m down with smoked salmon, so yeah, I ate well.

The place we spent the least time was Santiago. To be honest, we’ve never had a city guide who worked well for everyone in our family, so for our short time in Santiago, we had no guide and just wandered around. Tom booked us into a hotel in the Lastarria barrio, full of cafes, galleries, shops, a blend of architcture. A lovely, vibrant neighborhood that, like everything else in Chile, left us wanting more.

Wendy’s crew hooked us up with Tom, and this is the second great trip he has planned for us. So huge thanks to both Tom and Team Perrin. (You got me all worked up writing this, and now I want to go back to Chile!)

Sunset over the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.

Sunset over the peaks of Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. Photo: Traveler Laurie Richter

Just returned from a spectacular trip to Chile. I knew very little about it other than I wanted to experience Patagonia. There were six of us—3 couples, all in our 60s. We are well traveled but had never been to Chile. Tom’s pre-planning information was like an encyclopedia—nothing was left out. Lodging (Palacio Duhau in BA and Singular Lastarria in Santiago) was just perfect in both cities. We prefer smaller, more boutique-like hotels and these were in wonderful walking neighborhoods.

A fair warning: Travel within Chile is a little more complicated than some other places. The sheer length of the country meant that going from place to place often meant two flights and an overnight in between. But visiting BOTH Patagonia and the Atacama Desert is an absolute must. The beauty and ruggedness of both places was unsurpassed. They were pristine and there were very few other people or vehicles. And they were so different from each other. The scenery in Patagonia is breathtaking–newly formed mountains, green glacial lakes, layers upon layers of natural formations. Explora Lodge wasn’t fancy but the location was unsurpassed and the quality of the guides and excursions available provided something for everyone. We mostly hiked and with the windy conditions there, even a simple hike was pretty strenuous. Try out the spa and the outside hot tubs.

On to the Vik Chile in wine country, outside of Santiago, as we had to pass through Santiago and spend a night before we could fly up to the desert. After a flight and two-hour drive, we were only going to have one overnight and one full day at the Vik before we had to leave, and we wondered if it was going to be worthwhile. As we left, we all agreed it was not to be missed. Spectacular facility in a beautiful setting with a wonderful winery. We toured their garden and everyone in our group was pleasantly surprised how interesting it was. The food in the restaurant is spectacular and not to be missed. The winery tour and tasting was a highlight as well.

Then on to the Atacama Desert, which may have been the unexpected highlight for me. Again, wonderful lodging (Nayara Alto Atacama) with terrific service and again, some of the best food you can imagine. I don’t expect this level of food quality at an all-inclusive but it was terrific. Very similar to Explora, there are two excursions per day and the guides help you figure out what to do each day. The terrain was so varied it felt like we had gone to a different planet each day. You are at elevation (8,000 at the lodge and up to 14,350 at the geysers) so you need to be prepared for that, but everyone in our group was fine. I left feeling like there were still two excursions I wish I could have gone on. You do spend a lot of time in the vans as most of the hikes and sites are 45 minutes to an hour-and-a-half away, but this isn’t Disneyland and no lodge can be close to everything.

In terms of Tom’s execution, the details were pretty flawless. Besides our international flights that we booked ourselves, there were five internal flights and numerous van/driver/guide combinations throughout this trip. There were no glitches at all—everyone was where they were supposed to be at the right time. And all of our guides were full of personality, which is important for our group. Of course, they knew all the geographical and historical details as we would expect, but they were also really fun and personable.

I can’t stress enough that if you can afford the time and money, make sure to see both Patagonia and the Atacama Desert. Unforgettable.

We just returned from a wonderfully diverse trip arranged by Tom Damon. We traveled via Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, with a cruise from Ushuaia toward Cape Horn, and plenty of hiking and glacier viewing through the Beagle Channel and Straits of Magellan, followed by five fabulous days/nights hiking in the stunning Torres del Paine national park (Chilean Patagonia), and finally a blissful period for relaxing at the end in the Colchagua Valley (Chile’s Napa Valley equivalent). Tom listened to what our goals for the trip were and implemented them expertly, securing the best rooms in the best lodging in each location. He is very detail oriented and as a result our trip was effectuated nearly flawlessly, which is quite a feat in such remote locations.

Highlights were our stays at Explora Torres del Paine and the all-inclusive recommended by Tom at the incredible Clos Apalta Residences and winery. Rather than leaving us on our own to navigate flights, Tom connected us with the flight consolidator he works with, which was brilliant as for a modest fee, the consolidator monitored changes in our flights (of which there were a number) and covered us on alternates, in a way that saved me the stress of booking and rebooking our air.

Tom is very knowledgeable about the areas of Argentina and Chile we visited (offered us the best lodging options and some excellent restaurant recommendations) and he works with very good quality local providers in each country. Ours was a logistically challenging trip, but Tom organized it so it ran smoothly and was a real pleasure for us. I highly recommend Tom and would use his services again for any travel to South or Central America.

John Strachan | September 25, 2023

My wife, kids (10 and 12 years old) and I had a fantastic trip to Peru, hiking four days on the Inca trail, visiting Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Cusco and Paracas. Wendy put us in touch Tom Damon, who created a great itinerary, got us lined up with superb guides, and made it so that all went seamlessly.

Everything about the trip was wonderful. We divided it in two parts. First we did the Cusco/Machu Picchu region for about ten days, then we went to the Paracas Desert/coast for about five days. Our thinking, which turned out to be wrong, was that the adults would thrill to the hiking and Inca portion of the trip, and the Paracas portion would be the reward for the kids. In fact, we all enjoyed the whole trip, but the Inca portion was what we will all forever remember.

We did so much and saw so much, that I cannot describe it in great detail, but in general, we were blown away by all that we learned about and saw of the Inca civilization. Their growth and all they accomplished in only a hundred years still has me dumbfounded. Visiting the Sacred Valley, which is in the Cusco region, was a great way to start. We saw a number of Inca ruins, and learned a great deal from our guide Ronny. The Inca architecture, engineering, farming, food storage, religion, social systems, political systems, communication systems, and on and on…. Every bit of it was jaw-dropping and fascinating.

But for me, what heightened the impact was four days hiking and camping on the Inca trail. Akin to taking a Nile cruise to see sights that would otherwise be inaccessible, hiking from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu gave us the chance to see not just individual, hard-to-access sites, but even better, to see the connections between them all and get a sense of how the Incas knit it all together—areas with different climates, environments, agriculture, foods, etc. Walking the centuries-old trail and encountering still-standing aqueducts, temples, waystations, and granaries along the way had a profound impact that I do not think would have hit us had we only hopped from site to site by train or car.

The trail itself was a good challenge but there was never a moment when any of us—kids or adults—thought we’d taken on too much. The kids did great, even up at 14,000ft, laughing and having fun the whole way, even if they won’t admit it. Law requires hikers to have a guide and porters, and our team was superb. It wasn’t glamping by any stretch—the food was good but simple, and we slept on mats on the ground in regular tents—but the porters did all the work. They set up and broke down camp, carried 95% of what needed to be carried, brought us hot beverages in the morning. And then as we huffed and puffed up the trail during the day, they literally ran past us up or down steep inclines (some of them in open-toed sandals!), as if it were a walk in the park.

(The packing list Tom Damon provided was spot-on. We skipped bringing rain pants because we went during the dry season, but all his other recommendations were perfect.)

Aside from the Inca ruins we saw along the way, the natural beauty was almost overwhelming. Every step through the Andes was breathtaking. Any vantage point on the trail whether verdant or dry could almost move you to tears, it was so gorgeous.

When we got to Machu Picchu late the fourth day…, what a reward. Everyone has seen pictures, but to pass through the Gateway of the Sun and see the complex surrounded, even dwarfed, by the dramatic topography around it, well, it leaves me without words just thinking about it.

All the hotels in Cusco/Machu Picchu were excellent. We loved every one of them. But the star of the hotels was the Inkaterra Machu Picchu hotel. I’ll never forget that first hot shower, that sumptuous meal, or the comfort of that bed after four days on the trail. (I don’t know what it is, but we’ve found that hotels in Ecuador and Peru have the comfiest beds in the world—even in little $20/night places we’ve stayed in little mountain towns.) This hotel is unique in the village of Machu Picchu—formerly Aguas Calientes—in that it has beautiful, secluded grounds to roam, whereas most other hotels are pretty tightly packed together.

During the whole trip, the staff was 100% there to help and make sure all went well. For example, I would have expected the drivers to simply do their job and drive, but they went the extra step. They knew all the roads and shortcuts, but also made sure we were comfortable, well fed, and had snacks and water. Whenever we stopped and got out, each of our drivers kept an eye on the kids to make sure they didn’t head in the wrong direction or get swarmed by street vendors. If one of the kids got bored or tired, they were there to take the child back to the bus to rest. And all of it with kindness.

All the places Ronny took us for lunch were delicious, and we had the chance to try foods we never had tasted before such as beef heart and alpaca meat—both as delicious as could be. Don’t knock it till you try it! One day for lunch in Cusco, when the kids were beat and we were looking for something casual and easy, Ronny—who is from Cusco—took us off-itinerary to his favorite hole-in-the-wall roasted chicken joint, which was as memorable and tasty as any meal we had.

I could write about that Inca part of the trip for days, and I am all charged up now just thinking about the memories. My mind and heart are overflowing.

At any other time, the rest of our trip would have shined more brightly, but honestly, it pales in comparison with Machu Picchu. We had fun in the desert/beach region of Paracas, and saw some some cool stuff—penguins, flamingos, sea lions, cormorants in the wild—and we ate well (I love tacu-tacu), but hey, we had just hiked the freaking Inca trail! Of this part of the trip, the big highlight was the stunning Huacachina oasis and the roller-coaster-like dune buggy ride around its environs. Big fun.

Big thanks to Wendy and team, our TTE Tom Damon, our guide Ronny, and all the on-the-ground staff who blew our minds.

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