Chile’s incredible landscapes form the backbone of a spectacular transit of the Andes from the red deserts and salt lakes of the High Altiplano, south through remarkable cacti fields, to tall forests of incredible monkey puzzle trees and a series of stunning mountain valleys with some lovely alpine areas. Florally we jump from alpine gems to showy altroemerias, outlandish cacti and delightful calceolarias. A pre-tour to the far north rises from the bleak, lifeless Atacama Desert to greener Altiplano on the border with Bolivia and a region of stunning snow-capped volcanoes, lakes full of flamingos and huge cushion plants.
Day 1 Depart from Santiago (27 November)
After arrival at Santiago airport we will drive north and stop for the stunning Alstroemeria pelegrina in it’s beautiful seaside location surrounded by stands of tall cerise Cistanthe grandiflora. A little further on and an area of coastal matorral may still have the last flowers of Alstroemeria magnifica as well as the velvet-coloured spikes of silvery-leaved Puya venusta an endemic bromeliad. Our first two orchids are also possible with green-yellow Chloraea cristata and C. bletioides alongside orangey Rhodophiala advena. Overnight Olmue.
Day 2 La Campana
Once common the magnificent Chilean Palm, the largest (in terms of trunk size) of all palms is now confined to a couple of reserves. Both deep orange Alstroemeria ligtu var. simsii and pink Alstroemeria pulchra grow here with Schizanthus tricolor. We’ll take a walk of about five kilometres (return) to visit the best grove seeing impressive cacti, maybe Puya bertroniana and the exotic spikes of scarlet Lobelia excelsa on the way. Taking a circuitous route back to the hotel there are superb populations of silver-leaved Puya caerulea (hopefully a few deep blue flowers), purple Calceolaria purpurea, plentiful bright red Rhodophiala phycelloides, Alstroemeria angustifolia, stands of the orchid Chloraea bletilloides and the scrambling climbers Eccremocarpus scaber and Mutisia rosea and M. latifolia. Overnight Olmue.
Day 3 Portillo
On the way south, there should be the big umbels of Alstroemeria zoellneri and then it’s on to the lower slopes of Portillo where abundant golden Tropaeolum polyphyllum grows with Viviana marifolia, superb stands of Schizanthus hookeri, soft pink Alstroemeria pallida and A. angusitfolia. If the season is early enough there will be both red Mutisia subulata and white M. acerosa. Stony slopes are coloured with a mix of Calceolaria corymbosa ssp mimuloides, bright red Tropaeolum tricolor and Olsynium junceum. Exploration of rocky areas around the ski-lodge will find the wonderful Viola atropurpurea, one of the Andean or rosular violets. Overnight Olmue.
Day 4 To Altos Vilches & Altos de Lircay
Continuing through the pleasant environs of Mediterranean climate Chile we move south. The landscape changes dramatically now. Gone are the high Andes replaced by snow-capped volcanoes and there are tall forests of southern beech. The plants have changed greatly too with more orchids such as Chloraea galeata, C. lamellata, C. lechleri and Gavilea glandulifera. If we arrive in time those that wish can take a six-kilometre hike into Altos de Lircay national park where a pleasant nature trail leads through old growth Nothofagus to outlooks with Calceolaria cana and Puya bertroniana. Overnight in a very pleasant tree-filled lodge at Altos Vilches.
Day 5 Siete TazasA series of stunning cascades are the showpiece of Siete Tazas, but florally we need to take a ten kilometre walk to another area of crashing rapids. The delicate pouches of Calceolaria cana grow in rocky places and near the river is a remarkable combination of Schizanthus hookeri, Puya bertroniana and the lovely rosettes of Viola congesta one of the Andean or rosular violets. There are also some unusual orchids with the green duo of Chloraea bipinnula and viridiflora. Overnight Altos Vilches.
Day 6 To Antuco via Salta de Laja
Chile is a long country and today is about repositioning for the next wonderful mountain area. On the way, we will stop for a remarkable population of very tall pure white orchids; Chloraea crispa, which not only survive but thrive in the pine plantations that line the road. Closer to our destination are the Salta de Laja a decent-sized waterfall and then as we near Antuco the impressive snow-capped black cone of Volcan Antuco rears up and dominates the landscape. Overnight Antuco.
Day 7 Laguna de Laja
The massive bulk of Volcan Antuco is with us throughout the day and its lave fields and surrounding areas are botanically-rich. Pretty pink Ourisia microphylla clings to organ pipe basalt formations with golden Calceolaria cavanallesii and around the large Laguna de Laja are colourful slopes with bicolored Lathyrus multiceps, golden Senna arnottiae and pink Oxalis squamata. The peculiar rosettes of broccoli-like Nastanthus squamigerus are among the gravels. We will venture onto the loose cinder slopes of the volcano where there are hundreds of rosettes of Viola farkanensis and its more impressive cousin V. cotyledon amidst stands of creamy Anemone multifida and wide-spreading mats of the hardy cactus Maihuenia poeppigii beset with yellow flowers. Amazing landscapes throughout the day. Overnight Antuco.
Day 8 To Villarica
Another beautiful snow-capped volcano rises up behind Villarica a few hours to the south and we should arrive at the national park by lunchtime. Here there are towering southern beech woodlands coloured by bright yellow, orange and scarlet of Berberis montana, B. trigyna and the iconic Embothrium coccineum. Depending on the snow at the ski centre we should also find a few alpines such as Nassauvia lagascae, Valeriana, Cistanthe colchaguensis and the dwarf shrub Ovidia andina. Overnight Villarica.
Day 9 Villarica National Park
The road heads east to the Argentine border, past stands of Chloraea virescens and roadside banks with Calceolaria valdiviensis and dainty C. tenella. Impressive bushes of Embothrium coccineum are common along the way as the towering Volcan Lanin started to appear. This huge volcano straddles the international border and its slopes are clothed in magnificent stands of Araucaria araucana – the monkey puzzle. Tall spikes of Gavilea odoratissima grow with our favourite Chilean orchid Chloraea magellanica a refined gem with cracked porcelain patterning. We’ll take a six kilometre walk into the forests to large stands of Araucaria to see the dark-centred pink trumpets of Rhodophiala andicola. Lunch will be among superb trees near the border where we’ll find more orchids. Overnight Villarica.
Day 10 Conguillio national park
Hopefully, we are not bored with impressive volcanic landscapes as today we drive to see Volcan Lliama (one of the most active volcanoes in Chile) and the wonderful surrounding forests of araucaria and southern beech. Some of these forests are quite spellbinding, draped in lichens and containing some towering, ancient tree, including one thousand-year-old matriarch. We will also see many orchids and flowering shrubs. From here we drive onto the town of Angol. Overnight Angol.
Day 11 Nahuelbuta national park
One of our favourite places in Chile, the coastal araucaria forests of Nahuelbuta are a botanical treasure-trove. On the approach, we will see Calceolaria integrifolia, Tropaeolum tricolor and the blazing scarlet trumpets of Rhodophiala chilense. Inside the park it is a wonderland of lichen draped trees beset with the scarlet flowers of parasitic Descumaria mutabilis, Embothrium coccineum and the golden orchid Chloraea nudilabia. Bone china Gavilea venosa is also frequent in the understory. There are two stunning viewpoints we’ll walk to. Overnight Angol.
Day 12 Angol and to Altos Vilches
The morning will be spent looking at orchids closer to Angol with graceful Chloraea longipetala, golden C. gavilu and green and white C. volkmannii. Then we drive north all the way back to Altos Vilches once again. Overnight Altos Vilches.
Day 13 Laguna de Maule
The finale of our grand tour of Chile is a fine high alpine area - Laguna de Maule. One the way up roadsides have Chloraea incisa and big sprawling plants of Mutisia latifolia. Climbing into the hills there are many lovely Alstroemeria ligtu ssp incarnata, with the purple pouches of Calceolaria arachnoidea, ivory Vicia magnifica and around the lake drifts of Oxalis adenophylla. There are also stunning populations of Viola cotyledon with many colour forms and some very large plants studding the seemingly inhospitable gravels. Wet seeps have scarlet Mimulus cupreus and Calceolaria filicaulis. In fact, one particular spot has five species of Calceolaria growing side-by-side. Overnight Curico.
Day 14 Paso Vergara
Another wonderful high mountain area with Calceolaria paralia, Mimulus naiandinus, Schizanthus grahamii, Tropaeolum poylphyllum and Viola skottsbergiana in an unusual white form. Overnight Curico.
Day 15 To Santiago and flights
We'll drive north towards the capital stopping for flora en route - location tba.
For those on the pre-tour,
Day I To Arica
After arriving at Santiago, we will take our flight north to Arica. Overnight Arica.
Day II To Putre
The incredibly dry landscapes around Arica suggest nothing could possibly grow here. Indeed, it doesn’t except in the oasis valleys that carve a green wedge between immense sand dunes. As we gain height plants start to appear as moisture from Bolivia to the north is able to penetrate this far. King among them is the magnificent Browningia candelaris an extraordinary cactus with tan stems and big spreading umbrellas of thick ‘arms’, some pendant with age. Vegetation continues to increase and around Putre is pre-puna scrub. The town itself lies at 3500 metres and we have to minimise our effort for the first day or so here to acclimatise. Overnight Putre.
Day III Putre area
We’ll today getting used to the altitude and driving the roads near Putre to try and find the showy Mutisia acuminata the flowers looking like exploding fireworks. Other flora includes big bushes of Lupinus oreophilus, Solanum pulchellum and the deep purple tubes of Dunalia spinosa. Closer to town we can find Mutisia hamata. Overnight Putre.
Day IV Lauca national park
Amazing volcanic landscapes are with us from start to finish with the twin snow-capped peaks of 6348 metre Volcan Parinacota and 6282 metre Volcan Pomerape, as well as huge cushions of Azorella compacta and the little village of Parinacota with its’ quaint little church. There are many superb viewpoints and high Andean lakes with giant coots. Closer to Bolivia there are great volcano reflections on the lakes and lots more flamingos. Our maximum elevation today is 4500 metres, but we will only be this high for a few hours. Overnight Putre.
Day V Salar de Surire
Another big landscape day, and this area is more remote so we need to be better acclimatised. Similar in elevation as yesterday we drive right up to the Bolivian border and then turn east via the smoking fumaroles of 5105 metre Volcan Guillatire, (the highest active volcano in the world) for a constant diet of great views. And even more amazing Azorella compacta cushions, as well as mats of Werneria aretoides with pink or white stars and big spiny domes of Cumulopuntia boliviana with scarlet flowers. Around the Salar de Surire salt pan are lots of vicunas (slender llama-like mammals), flamingos galore, maybe condors and the peculiar forests of Polylepis, the worlds’ highest altitude tree genus. The gnarled old trunks with flaking bark are fascinating. A long but very rewarding day. Overnight Putre.
Day VI To Santiago
After breakfast, we’ll set off for Arica and the onward flights back to Santiago. We will join the main tour in the afternoon driving north to Olmue. Overnight Olmue.