By Sarah Sekula, published in Breathe Magazine
Endorphins pumped through my 33-year-old body as I headed for the clouds in northern Chile. More specifically, I was nearing the top of El Toco, an 18,645-foot extinct volcano. Huffing and puffing, I couldn’t help but grin through my exhaustion. At the top, I would be taking in dreamy views of not only Chile, but Bolivia too.
My group had been steadily plodding upward for two hours now. Fortunately our guide shuttled us up the first 16,500 feet in the comfort of a van; the next 2,145 feet were up to us. For a cold weather wimp like me, even that was quite a trek. The thin air was squashing my Floridian lungs. Unable to catch my breath, I suddenly felt I was my asthmatic sister in disguise. That’s when the chilly winds kicked in; the final push to reach the summit was a cold one, indeed.
Fortunately, beyond a sheltering ridge and toward a grouping of boulders was the top. The horizon greeted me, and the mammoth-sized Andes were now at eye level. Since Chile has a handful of volcanoes — some extinct, some not — I saw plumes of dark smoke in the distance. Pretty spectacular, to say the least.
After a few celebratory photos, I leaned back against a large rock and gulped down my coca tea and pound cake. Soon after, it was time for the slog downward. Very quickly, the altitude started taking its toll, and I was feeling less than dapper. The ice and rocks made it easy to slide around and lose my footing. Plus, the winds were still howling. What kept me going was the thought of soaking my worn-out self in a Turkish hot tub. Yes, back at home base, Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, a 32-room luxe hotel an hour and a half away, I would be in full-fledged recovery mode.
I had arrived three nights earlier to this family-owned, high-altitude oasis. Within minutes I was drinking a pisco sour and plotting excursions on the giant, hand-painted map. (With Cristobal, my adventure concierge, of course.) You see, Tierra Atacama is all about sharing its nearby geological wonders. (Think flamingo-filled salt flats, multicolored lagoons and hot springs galore all within an hour and a half of the hotel.) In other words, you bask in nature and then come back to indoor comforts each day. The perfect combo, if you ask me.
Days before the volcano climb, I ran full-speed down a giant sand dune into Death Valley. Then, I hiked to Puritama Hot Springs. Here, I had my pick of eight natural pools that boast 91-degree temps year round. The next day, I woke before the sun rose; El Tatio geysers were on the agenda. To top it off, I downed barbecued llama kebabs in a nearby village.
Each afternoon I was blissfully tuckered. Not surprisingly, Tierra Atacama’s Uma Spa was priority numero uno for me. Here, my lucky limbs were in for a treat. Locally found volcanic mud, desert herbs and salt straight from the lithium-rich salt flats are incorporated into treatments. Better yet, my tired legs were revived with a lymphatic treatment. What I’m trying to say is, each night I was mellowed out and ready to tackle the next day with gusto.
World Adventure Spas
If you crave adrenaline-packed vacays that include a hearty dose of R&R, check out some of our favorite adventure spas.
O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat
By day, take a 6-hour guided bushwalk past waterfalls (there are 500 in the area) in Lamington National Park. By night, tighten your shoelaces and turn on your headlamp. It’s time to venture through the sub-tropical rainforest. Keep your eyes peeled for the elusive platypus or sooty owl en route to the glow worm grotto. Then it’s lights out as thousands of blue-green glow worms light up the night. The next morning, pamper your tootsies at The Lost World Spa with a foot soak and honey hot stone massage to release tension in the shoulders. Take advantage of the relaxation room, too, where guests cozy up by the fireplace and soak in some stunning mountain vistas. After all, the spa is perched on the edge of the World Heritage Rainforest.
This all-inclusive hotel is equal parts wild and mild. Of course, the gorgeous setting doesn’t hurt either. Start your day with a stand-up paddleboarding session on Maui’s epic Hana Bay, follow that up by snorkeling off the beach of Kapueokahi and end the day by catching dinner. A guide will teach you the ancient art of the Hawaiian “throw net,” an age-old tradition. The next morning, slow things down a bit with tai chi or a “nourish flourish” class, which helps guests understand how different foods relate to overall wellness. Top it off by getting a lomilomi massage. With natural herbs and rhythmic strokes, each drawing upon the natural energy of Hana, lomilomi is practiced with a profound intention to heal mind, body and spirit.
Sandos Caracol Resort & Spa
This seaside resort packs a wallop of thrills. Here, guests are rough and rugged by day swimming in caverns, riding ATVs through the wild Mexico jungle and scuba diving next to candy-colored fish — oh, and bull sharks, too. From late December to March, divers can witness the migration of these predators in Riviera Maya. It’s boredom-bashing travel at its best. Retire to your villa by night, only to wake up to a no-nonsense hot stone massage in a beachfront palapa in the morning. Or head inside The Playa del Carmen spa, which offers a range of unique treatments to help you recoop. With treatments such as the deluxe chocolate body wrap or a champagne bath, you really can’t go wrong.
Four Seasons Jackson Hole
Not only is the Four Season Jackson Hole surrounded by epic ski runs, it’s also a stone’s throw from Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. In other words, it is the perfect launch pad for adrenaline thrills (snow-cat skiing, snowboarding, heli-skiing and wildlife watching). Speaking of animals, you can get an up-close look by signing up for the resort’s wildlife safari. Available year round, these small tours, limited to just five guests, are led by an in-house wildlife biologist and naturalist. Be on the lookout for elk, bears, mountain lions and bighorn sheep. Once you’ve got no energy left, kick back at the full-service alpine spa where the “peak performance” treatment will help you keep up your A-game. You’ll be treated to a therapeutic massage coupled with assisted stretches to help ease pain and stiffness. Or opt for the “high-altitude body soak,” which involves a deep-soaking tub, essential oils and a cozy fireplace. fourseasons.com
Local Adventure Spas
If you’d rather stay closer to home, never fear, there are plenty of adventure spas in our region.
Located in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, Blackberry gives guests the chance to horseback ride through 9,200 pastoral acres or try their hand at fly-fishing or fox-hunting with one of the lodge’s top-notch instructors. Afterward, yogassage (a combo of movement and touch therapies) is highly recommended.
This retreat in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, an hour and a half from Roanoke, offers horseback riding, clay shooting, fly-fishing and, get this, tree-climbing lessons. Surely, you’ll be ready for an American-Indian-inspired massage afterward.
When Sarah Sekula’s not zigzagging around the planet, she’s writing about her adventures, the environment, fitness, health/wellness and extraordinary people. More at sarahsekula.com.