Exploring the Driest Place on Earth: Chile's Atacama Desert
At 7,500 feet, Chile's Atacama desert is the driest place on Earth, its dramatic landscape surreally beautiful. There are fiery red canyons, grassy gorges, turquoise thermal lakes, cerulean lagoons, and geysers. Yet some parts of the region have never received a drop of rain, or at least not as long as people have been keeping track of such things. Here, bare volcanoes rise some 20,000 feet into azure skies, with not even a cloud to punctuate the blueness.
There's a small town—San Pedro de Atacama, population 2,500—that attracts backpackers, adrenaline junkies, and bohemian types to its funky adobe hotels and restaurants. They've been coming here for decades, looking for "unplugged" getaways before the term even existed. Fifteen years ago, explora became the first luxury hotel to open in San Pedro de Atacama and almost overnight it put the destination on the map. Soon, well-heeled travelers seeking to combine adventure with scrumptious meals, spa treatments, and well-appointed suites began to arrive.
Explora's all-inclusive and eco-friendly Hotel de Larache, which is set at the edge of San Pedro de Atacama, is similar in style to its older sister, the Hotel Salto Chico located at the other end of the country in Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park. Set on sprawling grounds with spare landscaping, the Atacama property features three long buildings that form an irregular shaped triangle around a central courtyard. Painted in stark white, the lodge mirrors traditional whitewashed houses in town. Recently explora spent millions on a facelift that added four new suites, upgraded chic common areas, and revamped the swimming area with multiple pools. The lodge's 50 rooms, which open to a central courtyard, have a minimalist but comfortable IKEA vibe. You won't find a TV, iPod docking station, or even WiFi in your room. Instead you'll find custom blond furnishings, bathrooms with heated stone floors and soaker tubs, and windows that look out to either the gardens or the smoldering Licancabur volcano.
But as explora owner Pedro Ibañez has said, the experience is not about the lodge itself. The point of visiting explora de Atacama is to disconnect from everyday routines and get in touch with nature by embarking on different types of journeys. This model of luxe adventure has worked so well for explora that in the last few years, other high-end hotels have opened in the region.
Just up the road—but miles away when it comes to design and atmosphere—from the explora lodge is Awasi, a tribal-chic lodge with just eight rooms (and solar panels) that are all stone, wood, and adobe. Each spacious thatched roof room is decked out in a mixture of antique pieces (like reupholstered settees) and Andean handcrafted furnishings. Think dusty rose adobe walls, straw colored grass roofs, and locally woven and dyed fabrics. The focus at this lodge, which opened in 2006, is bespoke adventures, meaning that a guide will take you on private excursions of your choosing at whatever pace suits you.
A little farther afield is the stunning 32-room Tierra Atacama, which opened in 2008 to great acclaim. Inspired by the surrounding landscape, the hotel features an uber-modern style and unusual elements like sandblasted glass, local excavated stone, and oxidized iron, with mid-century inspired interiors. Like at explora, the property encourages guests to mingle at communal tables during mealtimes and with a glass of wine by the fireplace in the lounge.
A 10-minute drive away from San Pedro is Alto Atacama (a Fodor's 100 Hotel Awards 2012 Winner). Opened in 2009, the 32-room resort is built at the edge of Salt Mountains and designed like a traditional adobe settlement, complete with native crops and meandering llamas. The look is minimalist, though local handicrafts and hand woven textiles give rooms a charming vibe.
Having been there the longest, explora is notorious for having some of the best guides in the region—a dozen multilingual adrenaline enthusiasts who are trained in emergency response. Excursions on foot, two or four wheels, and on hoof are always on the menu at explora and all other properties. On a typical day you might cycle the desolate desert roads to a salt flat in the morning, return to the hotel for lunch and a siesta, then head back out, perhaps on horseback to ride along ochre colored sand dunes in the afternoon. Full-day excursions might involve climbing a volcano or trekking to geothermal fields. At night, the Atacama sky is a wonder to behold, even with the naked eye. Even so, guests are treated to stargazing sessions (sometimes with a visiting astronomer) at its private observatory.
Because explora offers group-based excursions, it is perfect for those traveling solo as well as those who like to make new friends. The genuinely warmhearted guides will join guests for dinner or drinks and make themselves available to those who want more in-depth information about the local culture and environment. The hotel is also the only one with its own astronomical observatory, and a stable featuring 26 horses of different breeds.
Best For: Social butterflies, Families
What you'll Eat: The focus is on local ingredients (quinoa, chañar fruit) and reinterpreted traditional dishes that are ideal for high-altitude adventure.
Check in: Catur suites are the biggest and offer balconies with countryside views. All-inclusive three-night minimum with rates from $1980 per person.
Tierra Atacama is definitely the hippest of the bunch and it attracts fit, young couples who might forgo excursions to hang out poolside or detox with a mud treatment at the spa.
Best For: Design enthusiasts, Gourmands
What you'll Eat: Expertly prepared seafood, like grilled mahi-mahi on quinoa paired with a Chilean vino.
Check in: Oriente rooms offer private patios as well as unobstructed views of Licancabur volcano. Two-night minimum rates from $1450 per person.
This intimate, boutique property prides itself on offering extreme privacy and creating custom-made excursions.
Best For: Honeymooners, Eco-conscious travelers
What you'll Eat: Chilean dishes (lots of seafood) with an Atacameñan twist served on locally-made earthenware.
Check in: Book room number 5, which features two showers (one al aire libre) and a private patio. Two-night programs from $1500 per person.
Located a short drive from the center of town, this hotel is ideal for those seeking to truly get away from it all. The bed & breakfast option allows guests eager to save a buck the chance to seek cheaper tours in town.
Best For: Guests interested in soft adventure tours
What you'll Eat: Simple yet hearty meals prepared with locally grown produce and native grains.
Check in: Tilo rooms are located within the hotel's garden and offer private patios with views of the lagoon. From $600 for a double.
It's a long way to Atacama from North America so to make the most of your trip we recommend at least a five-day stay. To get to San Pedro de Atacama you will most likely fly into Santiago, Chile then take a two-hour connecting flight to Calama. From there, it is about an hour car transfer to San Pedro. All hotels in this article include airport transfer with room rate.
No matter what time of year you travel to San Pedro de Atacama, it's pretty likely you'll be treated to clear skies and sunshine, with temperatures hovering around 80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and close to freezing at nighttime.
What to Pack
You'll need lightweight shirts, pants and shorts, comfortable trekking shoes, fleece, windbreaker, sunglasses, wide-brim hat, and a swimsuit. For high altitude climbing, you should also have thermal underwear and pants, trekking boots, down jacket, gloves, and mountaineering hat. Don't forget the chapstick and sunscreen!
Photo credits: Atacama Desert via Shutterstock; Atacama Desert at sunrise via Shutterstock; explora courtesy of explora; Guests hiking with explora guides courtesy of explora; Tierra Atacama courtesy of Tierra Atacama; Alto Atacama courtesy of Alto Atacama
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