By Sarah Sekula
The Atacama Desert is the driest place on earth; I have the hiking boots filled with red dust to prove it. Nevertheless, it’s also one of the most alluring places around. (Think flamingo-filled salt flats, multicolored lagoons and hot springs galore.)
Day 1-3: Fly in to Santiago. Catch a quick flight to Calama and drive an hour to San Pedro to start your all-inclusive journey at Tierra Atacama. It’s a family-owned, 32-room boutique hotel created by the Purcell family, owners of Ski Portillo, one of Chile’s most famous ski resorts.
Like Portillo, Tierra Atacama is all about sharing its nearby geological wonders. In other words, you bask in nature and then come back to indoor comforts each day. (The perfect combo, if you ask me.)
Outside: It’s galvanized metal and sandblasted glass next to adobe and shale. Inside: It’s sheepskin-lined banquettes, a fire place and long communal tables painted robin’s egg blue. In other words, the midcentury modern design is done just right.
Settle into your room, and glance at the snowcapped Licancabur Volcano from your private terrace. Next, meet with your adventure concierge, who is about to kick the fun factor up a notch. You’ll plot it out on the giant, hand-painted map and have sweet dreams until the cool desert air greets you in the morning.
One thing’s certain, with the comforts of this hotel, you can be downright sloth-like for days on end. However, the real celebrity here is the topography. To-do list: Scale one of the eight nearby volcanoes, photograph Moon Valley (which closely resembles Mars) and visit El Tatio geysers.
Since you are still jet lagged, start slowly with a hike to the Puritama Hot Springs. Pass by pampas grass and cacti before making your way to the bottom of a steep-sided gorge. Here, you have your pick of eight natural pools that sport 91-degree temps year round.
Wake before the sun does. It’s time to tackle El Tatio geysers where you’ll see huge steam columns spew more than 30 feet in the air. A delightful Chilean breakfast is served as dawn breaks. On the way back to the village, be on the lookout. Chinchillas, vicuñas (a relative of the llama) and Andean ostrich frequent the area. Be sure to stop in the hamlet of Machuca where snacks come in the form of barbecued llama kebobs and cheese-filled empanadas. The perfect pit stop.
By now you deserve a detox afternoon at Uma Spa (Uma means “water” in the local Aymará language). Here, your lucky limbs get slathered with volcanic mud and you can soak in a private, Turkish hot tub. Enjoy a dinner of grilled mahimahi with quinoa; you’ll need some extra protein for what comes next.
Soak It Up
After acclimatizing for several days it’s time to push yourself a little, and trek your way to the top of El Toco, an extinct volcano. The hotel van will get you up the first 16,500 feet, the next 2,145 feet are up to you. The view is worth it: You’ll spot the Bolivian Altiplano and the Atacama Salt Flat to the west.
Afterward, relax in either the outdoor pool or heated indoor pool while sipping rica rica herbal tea. Take a book to the dining area and relax on the low slung sofas covered with alpaca blankets. When you have no energy left, belly up to the bar made of recycled railroad ties, and sip on Chile’s signature drink, pisco sour. And, may I suggest an order of Chilean sea bass? (Breakfast, lunch and dinner is included every day in the restaurant.)
Afterward, grab a lounge chair and gaze at the star-strewn sky in what is known as the clearest sky in the hemisphere. With the high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover, dry air and lack of light pollution, it’s pretty spectacular.
Fly back home over the Andes knowing that the Atacama Desert is, hands-down, one of the most stunning places in the world. And, at Tierra Atacama, it’s all just outside your private terrace door. As many Chileans would say, “It’s delicious.”
LAN Airlines operates flights to Santiago from New York, Miami, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. Visit LAN.com for more information.
Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa
Camino Sequitor S/N, Ayllu de Yaye
San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
800-829-5325 (from the U.S.)
**Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa (tierrapatagonia.com; @TierraPatagonia) is scheduled to open December 20. It’s set on the edge of Torres del Paine National Park. Enough said.
**Keep in mind: It is prohibited to import any animal or vegetable goods into Chile, including such things as cheeses, fruit, cured meats etc. Fines are heavy, so eat it or dump it before you get there.
**Due to the altitude of this area (8,045 feet), eat light foods and avoid alcohol on the first day. Drink lots of water, too.