Escapism

 Stargazing in the Atacama Desert, Chile

It may be the driest place on the entire planet, but there’s plenty to discover in Chile’s Atacama desert, especially in the sky.

DAWN IS NOSING above the Andes, casting the salt plains and dunes rose-gold, but for once no one here is looking at the sunrise.

It’s another light up ahead that has captured our attention: a roaring flame that shoots straight up into the still, milky sky. Nearby a large heap of red silk lies on the sand like a beached whale, and from it snake ropes that lead to a wicker basket that’s currently resting on its side. This is what’s going to carry me 2,000ft above earth – or 10,000ft above sea level if you count the ground altitude as well.

Surreal, hauntingly beautiful panoramas come thick and fast in the Atacama desert, a two-hour flight north of Santiago: rainbow cliffs streaked green, red and white by different minerals, lava-sculpted gorges, steaming geyser fields and salt-glazed plains. Now it’s possible to get an entirely different perspective of the driest place on Earth, since hot air balloon excursions launched last autumn.

My inaugural ascent is shockingly smooth; my eyes are squeezed tightly shut for take off but when taking a peek to check what’s going on I find the minibus that brought us to this desert spot is already reduced to toy car scale.

A hissing blast of heat occasionally breaks the silence as the pilot takes us higher still. From this vantage point, the plain opens up like the palm of a great hand, irrigation canals and roads no more than faint lines threading across rust-red earth. Those streaks of silver over there are 60-mile salt flats where flamingos gather, that bloom of green is a grove of fig or carob trees, the lines of purple smoke along the horizon are vast volcanic mountain ranges.

Our tear-shaped shadow is reflected below, slowly looming larger as we start to descend. Before landing the balloon skims over the ground for some time at 4km per hour, cruising so low I can make out individual pebbles and twigs on the sand, and somehow this part is just as moving as the lofty heights.

Fast-forward 12 hours, and my perspective is neatly inverted. Now I’m standing on terra firma with my neck aching from craning upwards. Stargazing.

Atacama is the best place in the world for it, as the high altitude, arid atmosphere and lack of light pollution equal unbeatable clarity. Accustomed to murky purple night skies above London, where you might catch a glimpse of Orion’s Belt or Venus through the clouds, Atacama’s pitch-black diamond-studded display is astonishing.

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Salvador Street Life

Tuesday is carnival night in Salvador. The fondant-coloured colonial buildings of Pelourinho, the city’s historic pedestrianised quarter, are strung with fairy lights and the metal skeleton of a stage rises in the Terreiro de Jesus square. 

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Groups of women in traditional dress – wide crinolined skirts and hair bound up in white headscarves) appear carrying tarpaulin and tables and cans of cooking oil, erecting their food and drink stalls with well-practiced alacrity as darkness falls. It’s a breezeless, warm evening and the smell of bubbling dendê, a type of palm oil, is thick in the air.

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Copacabana Palace

If you’re seeking a quirky little design hotel in Rio de Janeiro, look away now; there’s nothing low-key or bijou about Copacabana Palace.

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Having occupied pride of place on the city’s most famous sliver of golden sand since 1923, this Art Deco landmark is the granddaddy of Brazilian hotels.

Its list of past guests reads like the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the wall of photographs in the lobby serving as a reminder that Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein and Orson Welles are among those who’ve slumbered in the hotel’s king-size beds before you.

Classical elegance still reigns in the 216 guest rooms – think lashings of marble, antique hardwood and crisp white cotton – although flat screen TVs, iPod docks and powerful waterfall showers provide a few welcome 21st century additions.

The Copacabana’s two restaurants – the beachfront Pérgula, where breakfast is served, and the opulent Venetian-inspired Cipriani – face each other across a sleek heated pool, which itself is a handy addition if you’re just too lazy to make it to the beach all of 50 yards away.

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No Snow? No Problem

Estella Shardlow finds fromage, spas and a trusty glacier come to the rescue when a distinct lack of snow threatens to thwart a weekend on the slopes in Gstaad.

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Pretty Green

Caipirinha-fuelled carnivalia in Rio, or a chilled holiday in the wilderness? Estella Shardlow finds you can have the best of both worlds.

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