Chile's Atacama Desert has many superlatives: It's the world's highest-altitude desert and the world's driest. And its elevation also makes it a relatively cold desert.
While those characteristics can make it a challenging place to travel, the Atacama boasts attractions and accommodations for a wide range of travel interests and styles.
Everything about the scenery here is on a grand scale: snowcapped Andean peaks (some that are active volcanoes), geysers and hot springs, sand dunes and salt flats that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Visitors can watch flamingoes pulling their lunch from salty lagoons, eye petroglyphs carved into rocks up to 3,000 years ago or, given the thin, generally clear skies, study the stars with or without a telescope.
For active travelers, choices lean heavily toward cycling and trekking but also include horseback riding or a scantily clad sprint to hot springs in brisk morning air.
Outings can include visits to one or more oasis towns, some strikingly small, but the community that appears on most Atacama itineraries is San Pedro de Atacama. None too large either, San Pedro is home to 3,000 people in the town and another 3,000 in the surrounding area. Its altitude is a bigger number: 8,100 feet.
San Pedro is charming, with a large central square, the 18th century adobe San Pedro Church and streets lined with low-rise shops, restaurants and small hotels and hostels. It's also home to the noted R.P. Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum.
San Pedro is a tourist center nowadays, and visitors cycle or walk through, buying souvenirs and taking meals. Choices for accommodations fit several budgets.
The town boasts one five-star boutique hotel, the Awasi, but there are four five-star properties within a few miles of town: the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, Explora's Hotel de Larache, Kunza Hotel & Spa and Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa.Adobe luxury at Alto Atacama
I sampled the area's services and attractions as a guest at the Alto Atacama, which sits on 8.6 acres two miles from San Pedro.
The 42-unit property, which debuted five years ago, was built in the style of a traditional adobe settlement and blends in with the red mountains around it. All structures are one story high. This settlement has llamas and an alpaca, mostly for guest viewing, and a garden raising beans, quinoa and other foods the chef may use.
An on-site algarrobo tree produces fruit that proved tasty in ice cream, but it is fed to livestock, too. Guests may offer algarrobo to the llamas, but they may be sprayed with stinky spit in response. We were.
Rooms are spacious and decorated in muted tones using local crafts. Each has a private terrace with a view, and Alto Atacama pipes in traditional music (that guests can turn off). Bathroom floors are heated, invaluable when taking an early-morning excursion.
Both the lounge and restaurant have indoor and outdoor sitting areas. Walls around six small outdoor pools (one a Jacuzzi) provide privacy plus protection from wind. The pool area is the setting for a midday barbecue each Saturday. Like some other area hotels, Alto Atacama offers nighttime options to view the Milky Way through an on-site telescope.
Alto Atacama has two pricing options, starting at $440 a night for two adults, including breakfast, use of the outdoor pools and Jacuzzi. The premium plan starts at $1,080 a night for two adults and adds lunches and dinners, free minibar, use of the spa, most alcohol, transfers to and from the Calama airport and San Pedro plus the choice of 23 activities and sightseeing excursions. Eighty percent of guests buy the premium package.Sampler itineraries
I sampled popular excursion choices, calling on flamingoes at the Chaxa Lagoon in the salt flats, which cover more than 1,100 square miles; viewing ancient petroglyphs carved into the red rock; admiring the effects of colorful mineral deposits at a spot called Rainbow Valley; and photographing sunset over the aptly named Moon Valley.
But the really big excursion took us to the Tatio Geysers, a field of some 80 geysers more than 14,100 feet above sea level.
They are at their best at sunrise and are a 90-minute drive from Alto Atacama. That translated into a 5:15 a.m. departure to see the steam when it billows highest, meaning when the hot water and steam from the geysers hit very cold air. At our arrival in August, the temperature was 23 degrees. The pillars of steam shrank as the sun warmed things up. The Atacama has geysers because snowmelt flowing underground confronts the hot magma of a volcanic zone, producing steam and a great pressure to escape.
We stuck to marked paths (people have gotten too close with fatal results), observing the bubbling hot water at the base of geysers and, not far away, Andean gulls walking in streams that had cooled to tepid temperatures. Visitors can take a dip in hot springs onsite.
On our return drive, we visited Machuca, a nearly abandoned village where tourists can sometimes shop for a few souvenirs. Wildlife sightings included llamas, the elusive vicunas and birds. We were at the hotel by 10:30 a.m.Trip preparations
Atacama tours require special preparations. Because of the altitude, Alto Atacama vans carry oxygen tanks on every excursion. Because the air is thin, sunblock, hats and good sunglasses are recommended.
Rain has never been recorded in parts of the Atacama. That is not true of the San Pedro area, which was hit by unusually heavy rains in February, resulting in flooding and damage to petroglyphs. Still, visitors will find a dry climate, calling for liberal applications of skin lotions. Alto Atacama in-room amenities include lip butter.
Activities like cycling and trekking or very high-altitude touring, such as to the geysers, also require one or more days of acclimatization.
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