Background

The charms of the Atacama Desert might seem elusive at first. How thrilling can the driest desert on earth be? Yet this is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful expanses of wilderness on the planet, and in a way nothing like our planet. More like another solar system. Dazzling light bounces off shimmering salt and constantly changes the colour of ruckled ranges of rust-red rock, sculpted into mountains by wind and volcanic ash over 22 million years. Conical volcanoes form a distant purple backdrop – 6,000m high and some still smoking. There are remote lagunas of the most vivid blue, busy with bird life. Geysers spout towers of steam at dawn, and the night skies here are so clear that astronomers can watch early galaxies forming. The silence is so perfectly complete that you can hear the salt cracking in the rocks, and flamingos sipping at the heart of turquoise salt lakes. As you watch the sun set over the rugged Valley of the Moon, there’s a delicious sense of isolation. Yet the Atacama has been visited since 9,000 BC, when early Atacameño peoples crossed the desert and etched carvings of llamas on the rocks. It’s a mysterious, ethereal place, other-worldly, and deeply peaceful.

San Pedro de Atacama

The Atacama Desert stretches over 1,000km from the Peruvian border down into northern Chile, but all the hotels are concentrated in the only centre for exploring: the dusty small town of San Pedro de Atacama (fly to Calama airport from Santiago in under three hours; then it’s an hour to San Pedro by road; your hotel will provide a transfer).

San Pedro is ideally positioned between the Tatio geysers to the north, the Salt Lake to the south and Moon Valley to the west. It has its appeal as a bohemian desert oasis, but on a busy day in high season you might find it rather seedy, thronging with backpackers and internet cafés. At night, though, under the stars, it is a romantic place. The key lies in choosing the right place to stay, since your hotel will be both your base and your portal to the desert.

Bilingual guides are provided as part of the all-inclusive tariff at the top hotels, and this is by far the best way to see the natural wonders. It’s essential to travel in small groups and away from the crowds to feel the special qualities of the desert. Moon Valley is utterly magnificent at sunset, but all San Pedro’s tour operators gather at the same sand dune, and you’ll struggle to feel awed by the isolation among 200 flashing cameras.

Where to Stay

Best Hotels

There are three clear front-runners. Explora in Atacama was the pioneer here 10 years ago, offering small group tours with fine food and wine included in the tariff. Accommodation is in the 46 simple and comfortable rooms and four suites arranged around a wide open courtyard. There are pools and saunas, terraces with spectacular views, cosy nooks with fireplaces. Staff are friendly and professional and – like other exploras in Patagonia and Easter Island – there’s a relaxed, laidback atmosphere. Explora is very popular with North Americans, and their horse-riding and hiking trips are especially recommended.

For a slightly more luxurious experience, stylish design and a superb spa, head straight for Tierra Atacama. All 32 rooms are calm and airy with magnificent views from private terraces (Poniente rooms look out onto Licancabur volcano). The serene Uma spa has a steam room, several pools, and wonderful treatments making the most of therapeutic local herbs and muds. A spa in the desert seems decadent here, where water is so scarce, but it’s all the more appreciated for that – there’s nothing like a deep steam followed by a swim, blissful after a day of salt and dust. The whole experience is designed to fit perfectly with the serenity of your surroundings, and is the perfect complement to the magnificent space and silence. The food is considered delicious, and the atmosphere is elegant, relaxed and tranquil. A grown-up retreat.

Both explora and Tierra Atacama are larger hotels whose all-inclusive packages include tours in small groups, rather than individually. In a four-day stay (which is optimum) you should be able to see all the places which appeal to you and these are excellent trips, tailored as far as possible to guests’ needs.

But if you’d rather explore the desert alone with your guide, the best hotel choice (and the smallest) is the divine Awasi, which uniquely offers each individual guest a dedicated guide for bespoke tours, so that you can travel where and when you want and experience the silence properly alone. Top-notch bilingual guides take you to places in Moon Valley where no one goes and, unusually, to the Tatio geysers at 8am (rather than 6am) when they have emptied of tourists. Hikes and horse-rides include visits to tiny hamlets and privileged cultural encounters with local villagers. There are just eight exquisite rooms, combining chic adobe with vast stylish bathrooms and every imaginable comfort, arranged around a beautiful pool and open dining area with fireplaces open to the stars. The service is consistently warm and impeccably attentive, and the cuisine, making the most of Pacific fish and local delicacies, is inspired.

Also Worth a Look

For cheap chic, Hotel Altiplanico is recommended. Just 15 minutes walk from the centre of San Pedro, this is a friendly, relaxed village resort in traditional adobe and thatch with 32 rooms (newer ones are more spacious) decorated in idiosyncratic style with Balinese touches. It’s great value, full of character, and good for families. Tours can be organised through guides recommended by the staff, who’ll come to the hotel to arrange trips with you. The food isn’t outstanding, but there are plenty of places to eat in San Pedro.

Hotel Kimal is small and family-run, with a little pool, open-air Jacuzzi and helpful staff. You’ll get a warm welcome and great food, the 19 rooms are simple but neat, and the charming owners can recommend top local tour operators. And the all-inclusive Casa Atacama has a rate that encompasses not only meals but excursions into the desert too.

Where to Eat

Best Lunch & Supper Spots

Ideally, you’ll have lunch by the side of a spectacular lagoon in the middle of a day’s exploring and dinner under the stars at your hotel, and since the top three hotels offer all-inclusive deals you’d be mad to wander the streets of San Pedro. But if you happen to find yourself in town or want a change, Adobe, though packed with tourists, is deservedly popular for lunch, serving Chilean specialities as well as international standards, with quick friendly service. Vegetarians are catered for and credit cards are accepted. Sister restaurant Blanco is a rather more elegant affair with more ambitious dishes, open for dinner only.

Best Picnic Spots

Breakfast: Awasi guides serve you in style at the edge of a steaming pond by the Tatio geysers.

Lunch: Sandwiches have never tasted so delicious as by the shore of utterly remote Salar de Tara lake.

Sunset: Aperitif in Moon Valley. Make sure your guide avoids the site of 50 coaches, and goes off-road to the desolate end of the valley. Sip pisco sours as the sun drops like a penny, turning the rocky terrain purple and then very dark indeed.

Best Sights

There are many extraordinary places in the Atacama, and your hotel will offer a comprehensive menu. Below are the must-sees. Trips requiring any kind of physical exertion should be left until the second or third day, when you’ve adapted to the altitude. Some of these sites have entrance fees (1500-3500 Chilean pesos, say US$2.50-6), which everyone must pay and which may not be included in the cost of the trip. The money goes to the local community who take care of the site.

(1) Sunset in the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley)

(Half day, 50km round trip)
The craggy Salt Mountain range, 22 million years old, makes the Andes seem positively juvenile. At its heart, the beautiful Moon Valley plunges you into grand dunes, sharp cliffs, and intricate formations of salt and sediment. Most tour agencies and guides crowd onto the same swooping slope for sunset, but your guide should veer off the beaten track to take you walking into an undulating ocean of rock, steep escarpments and mysterious hollows where you can watch the sun sink in silence.

(2) The El Tatio Geysers (and Puritama hot springs)

(Full day, 200km round trip)
If you haven’t seen geysers before, these are miraculous. You leave San Pedro in darkness as flamingos fly low over mirror-still lagoons. You watch the light creep over the still-smoking Putana volcano, illuminating vicuñas basking in the golden Altiplano. The geysers spout highest at dawn (6am), which is when the tours are at their most claustrophobic. Awasi guides arrive at 8am, when steam columns are still gushing eight metres above you and all the other tourists have gone. Don’t miss the red-hot rivers of eerie scarlet algae nearby. Return via a dip in Puritama thermal baths (owned by explora hotel). Note that this trip takes you to 4,228m (13,870 feet), and altitude sickness may strike – save it for later on in your stay when you’ve adapted.

(3) Atacama Salt Lake – Laguna Chaxa

(Half day, 130km round trip)
This is the world’s third largest salt lake. But where one imagines vast expanses of nothing, you’ll wander amidst salt formations as intricate as coral and discover vast ultramarine lagoons on which flamingos strut and sip. You could gaze at them for hours, perfectly mirrored in the still water, against a distant backdrop of hazy purple mountains. Some guides pair this trip with a visit to Toconao’s local inhabitants (see Best Local Experience, below).

(4) Yerbas Buenas Petroglyphs

(Half day, 160km round trip)
One of the most unexpected sights in the Atacama is to find, in the middle of the remotest expanse of the desert, this pile of rocks the size of an office block. It may have been a resting post for weary herdsmen driving llamas over the border to the ocean. No one knows. But at its base are hundreds of petroglyphs: engravings made deep into the surface of the rock, many stained with dark red pigment. There are animated llamas leaping, like primitive cartoons, and other more mysterious shapes and symbols. Stirring and mysterious. Don’t miss the valley nearby of vividly coloured rocks from green to purple known as Arco Iris (rainbow), a wonderful place to watch the sun set. Add a trip to the adobe village of Río Grande, where the villagers make fine weavings from llama wool.

(5) Salar de Tara

(Full day, 200km round trip)
Many guides cite this as the most amazing place in the Atacama, and worth the trek. Take the dramatic road over the Andes towards Argentina, weaving between giant ochre volcanoes and scattered vermilion boulders. Then turn off the road to find spectacular rock formations, hot springs, and a lake filled with flamingos – utterly remote and staggeringly lovely.

(6) Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques

(Full day, 200km round trip)
Deep blue lagoons Miscanti and Miñiques attract a broad diversity of birds who come to nest here, from Andean parakeets to black-hooded Sierra finches, with condors, eagles and falcons too – a paradise for bird watchers and an idyllic place to spend a day in one of the more otherworldly landscapes of the Atacama.

Best of the Rest

Best Local Experience

Atacama isn’t just about light and space. The human element here is also fascinating, since the desert is home to an ancient culture – the small museum in San Pedro offers some insight and an impressive little array of artefacts. Many of the old traditions are alive today, so ask your guide to take you to one of the small hamlets in the mountains such as Río Grande (visited on the way back from the petroglyphs) where you can see life going on as it has for millennia, with women weaving llama wool into delicate fabrics (which you can buy). Closer to San Pedro, the small town of Tocanao (just the other side of Laguna Chaxa) is interesting for being built entirely of volcanic rock, rather than adobe, and here Awasi guides will take you to meet Señora Luisa as she knits llama wool on cactus spines in her smallholding.

Best Hiking

Another advantage of staying at Awasi, Tierra Atacama or explora is that great hiking is on offer – at your pace, and with the luxurious support of snacks… and oxygen! For a gentle hike, head out along the lush valley of Catarpe or into the abundantly verdant Guatin creek. If those volcanoes on the horizon are calling your name, ask for the Toco hike (spectacular views, seven hours) or Láscar (a live volcano, 10 hours), both reaching heights of 5,600m – make sure you’re acclimatized first. Closer to home, Las Cornisas and Camino de Kari both make for a fine introduction to the terrain, and easy half-day walks.

Best Bike Ride

Here is an easy first afternoon activity: cycle to the Laguna de Sejas to float in the salty Sejas ponds, a quite unbelievable blue-green amidst sparkling white salt. For more drama, head out past the picturesque Catarpe hamlet, passing Inca ruins and the Pucará of Quitor to the Devil’s Canyon, or assail the massive dunes in Death Valley.

Best Horse Riding

A speciality of explora, though other hotels offer it too, horse riding is a wonderful way to see the landscapes unfolding gently around you, and – if you’re up to it – there’s nothing like a gallop over the dunes in this wild terrain. Easy rides include Devil’s Canyon and the Salt Mountain Range.

Best Star Gazing

The skies over Atacama are among the clearest in the world, enabling astronomers to see early galaxies from a new US$1bn observatory. Amateurs, though, will be entertained by a Space Tour with resident French astronomer Alain Maury at Space (US$24), first observing stars with the naked eye and then using his powerful telescopes to gaze on the rings of Saturn, the craters of the moon, clusters of stars and faint distant galaxies. (Caracoles 166; open 11.30-15.30, 18.00-21.00; +56 55 851 935; www.spaceobs.com; email alain@spaceobs.com). Tours are in English, French or Spanish but book ahead, as they book up fast and tours in English aren’t given every night.

Best Secret Agents

The essence of travelling to Atacama is to select the hotel which best meets your needs; the top three will include excursions in the tariff and they employ the best guides, many of whom bring impressive historical detail and a personal passion for the culture to enliven their trips. If staying elsewhere, you’ll find the few streets of San Pedro are crammed with tour operators, but most offer very mediocre mass-experiences in large uncomfortable minibuses. One exception is Cosmo Andino Expediciones, run by knowledgeable Dutchman Martin Beeris, with experienced bilingual guides (www.cosmoandino-expediciones.cl).

Best Shops

Weaving has a long tradition here, and it’s worth strolling along dusty Caracoles and Tocopilla streets to find the handful of small shops selling fine alpaca blankets and hand-woven scarves, many dyed in subtle hues. You’ll also find unusual cactus wood boxes and picture frames, with the distinctive holes made by the spines, as well as jewellery combining silver, precious stones and even seeds from local trees. The handicrafts market in town is too trashy to be interesting, much of the produce being imported from Bolivia and Peru. Best of all, buy from the makers themselves in Tocanao or Río Grande.

Best Insider Tip

Altitude sickness is no fun at all, and at 2,438m above sea level it will take you a day of doing very little to allow your body to adapt. Drink rica rica tea and lots of water, and avoid too much alcohol, or expect miserable headaches. Don’t plan to visit the Tatio Geysers (4,320m) until your third day. The air is extremely dry, so bring lip salve and a nourishing moisturiser. Evenings are cold, so pile on the layers. Hat, sunscreen and sunspecs are essential.

Best Avoided

Generously described by one tour operator as ‘bohemian’, the small town of San Pedro de Atacama is not one of the region’s most sublime attractions. Indigenous culture has all but vanished, with the majority of the adobe buildings on its handful of dusty streets now occupied by incomers running cafés or internet centres and over 25 tour companies. You might see an Atacameña driving her sheep through the town, but she’ll be hotly pursued by impatient tour buses and a throng of backpackers looking for hostels. There’s a pretty church, however, a simple plaza, and an interesting small museum. A couple of hours should more than suffice.

Best Next Adventure

Where to go from here? Instead of flying back to Santiago, cross the Andes into northwest Argentina. It’s a stunning journey, and you’ll find equally astonishing landscapes with more evidence of ancient civilizations, and oasis villages with thriving indigenous culture. An excellent paved road, almost empty of cars, slaloms between mighty volcanic peaks: scarlet dashed with black, burnt orange swirled with yellow. The drama is ceaseless and constantly changing. Vast swooping plains of multi-coloured ash are strewn with fire-blasted boulders the size of houses. You can imagine them being hurled like toys, in volcanic fury, by these conical giants. Two lagoons compel you to stop, breathless in the silent air: Laguna Negra with its swerving white salt shoreline, and Salar de Loyoques with quietly grazing flamingos. Finally, you reach Paso de Jama – just a few isolated buildings with the Argentine flag fluttering improbably, where juggernauts appear suddenly out of the silence and give border officials something to do. Descend from here to sleepy Susques, with its exquisite tiny church, to the shimmering salt flats of the Salinas Grandes and the breathtaking road down to the quaint village of Purmamarca, where the colonial style El Manantial del Silencio is a blissful place to stay.

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