the atacama desert
Travelers return to Santiago for LAN Airlines’ 2-hour fl ight to Calama, gateway to the 700-mile-long Atacama Desert region, a stark and magical desert landscape dotted with salt lakes and geysers, archaeological sites, volcanoes and timeless oasis villages. This is an all-seasons frontier that is high, dry and ripe for adventure travel. Atacama is about as off the beaten path as one can get, or rather it used to be before a bevy of stylish new hotels and lodges brought the good life to a very remote place.
Bordered by the Pacifi c Ocean and the majestic Andes, the Atacama is the world’s driest desert. There are expanses where indeed nothing grows, yet occasional rains trigger blooms popping up from seemingly nowhere. The myriad colors, forms and textures of its unusual landscapes take your breath away: go for sunset in Valle de la Luna or Moon Valley, an eerie terrain of rock-salt columns, mines, caves, surrounding volcanoes—the best view follows a 45-minute hike to a low mountain ridge; walk the crusty paths around Salar de Atacama, a mostly evaporated salt lake about the size of Rhode Island where several species of flamingos congregate in a protected reserve. At daybreak, experience the spectacle of the steaming geysers of El Tatio, a geothermal field of volcanic origin, where water and steam spring up violently from deep inside the earth; take a thermal bath in the Puritama River; and explore Valle de Muerte by horseback or mountain bike.
Located one hour from the Calama airport, nowadays the quaint but lively adobe town of San Pedro de Atacama swings out with a lively central market, dozens of crafts shops and boutiques, and a nice choice of cozy cafes and restaurants along its packed-dirt streets. The leading attraction is the hundreds of mummies—some 1,000 years old and so perfectly preserved by the dry desert air that skin, nails, eyelids and lashes are all intact—along with mastodon bones and pre-Columbian artifacts all on view in the archaeological -focused Museum Padre Gustavo le Paige. Additionally, there is the charming 17th century Iglesia de San Pedro, a church fashioned in adobe and cactus-wood, bound together by leather ties instead of nails. In the vicinity of San Pedro, one visits the pre-Inca fortress of Pukara de Quitor, the stone craftsmen of Toconao village and the native ayllus (settlements) with their timeless traditions.
What enhances the appeal of this once for-backpackers-only destination is its new oases of serious luxury comforts. In addition to Explora lodge—an Atacama pioneer and the only deluxe offering for nearly a decade—several hotels have launched in the last five years, including the tiny boutique Awasi, with eight rooms the smallest and most exclusive option in San Pedro, and the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, built in the style of a traditional adobe settlement with 32 beautiful suites. All are ideal for those who like a spa treatment or a good glass of wine at the end of a day’s adventure.
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge offers a 3-night all-inclusive package from $1,474 pp dbl. Awasi offers a 3-night all-inclusive package from $2,115 pp dbl.
Solar Tours makes full use of these deluxe all-inclusive properties, offering 10 options in San Pedro, as well as a choice of seven, threeto five-star hotels in Santiago, on its 6-night Santiago and Atacama program that spends three nights each at the two destinations. Clients, for example, can combine a stay at the four-star Aubrey in Santiago with a stay at the four-star Tierra Atacama in San Pedro. Priced at $2,939.95 pp dbl, the program includes all airport transfers from arrival to departure in Santiago and deluxe accommodations, all airport transfers in Calama and hotel stay with all meals and excursions.
Adventure Life: (800) 344-6118; adventure-life.com
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa: altoatacama.com
Austral Adventures: austral-adventures.com
Awasi: (888) 880-3219; awasi.cl
Hosteria Ancud: panamericanahotels.cl
Latin American Escapes: (800) 510-5999; latinamericanescapes.com
Palafitos 1326: palafitos1326.cl
Solar Tours: (800) 388-7652; solartours.com