LUXURY DENS MESMERISE IN CHILE’S ATACAMA DESERT
There are few places on Earth that I’ve been to that are as alluring as the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.
Known as the highest, driest and oldest desert of its kind on the planet, the 128,000km2 expanse, lodged between the Bolivian, Peruvian and Argentine borders, sits on a Chilean plateau (2400m high, with some points of interest pushing past 5000m) that runs parallel to the western Pacific coast and up to the barren foothills of the Andes mountain range. This location gives the area the unique conditions that have sculpted the landscape into a magical setting interspersed by sand dunes, volcanoes, salt flats, geysers, canyons, oases and lagoons. Delicate Vicuñas, once almost extinct, roam free in Atacama, as do their coarser-coated Llama cousins (known for bad teeth and spitting) and a vast selection of birds. Flamingos land to feed in shallow waters on miniscule creatures and algae that give the spindly-legged birds’ otherwise grey feathers their iconic pink. The region is also home to ancient petroglyphs, well-preserved mummies, old mining villages, and a vibrant local culture passed on through generations of Altiplano settlers.
There are countless excursions in remarkable settings to partake in around the region, from high altitude and volcano treks to bike and horseback explorations, so hefty day-trip menus are available. Despite the degree of one’s enthusiasm for isolated leisurely or extreme expeditions, travellers cross paths in the quaint ancient trading town of San Pedro de Atacama, where most properties are located, if not a stone’s throw away. A handful of high-end properties successfully unite the best of outdoor experiences with beautiful architecture, interiors and services that rarely leave even the most demanding travellers’ creature-comfort urges unattended.
Ten private thatched-roof adobe suites are part of the Relais & Châteaux property Awasi, located in San Pedro. Each suite is assigned a private guide and 4WD, so it’s easy to explore at one’s own pace, accounting for altitude acclimatisation and flexibility when opting on when and how to visit popular sites like the crackling Atacama salt flats, the Tatio Geysers geothermal field (in the very gelid early hours of the morning) and Laguna Cejar, which especially if cycled to, is a gratifying and bracing opportunity for a plunge-and-float in high density salty waters.
The 17-hectare Explora property is a haven and an ode to conservation. It holds the largest private observatory of its kind in the country, stables and a glorious quincho (old vernacular mud hut and patio) perfect for barbecues and festive dining. The Puritama thermal springs that are to be declared a national reserve were acquired as part of Explora’s conservation efforts and are a pleasant destination for a walk from Guatin.
The old cattle corral remodelled by Chilean architects for Tierra Atacama stands as a delightful testament to the power of good interior and architectural design. All spaces are decked in furnishings and adornments made by local craftsmen, and the property embraces stunning views of the surroundings including the Licancabur volcano (peaks almost at 6000m): a privileged perspective from which to experience the Atacama sunsets that bathe the monumental and perfectly conical protrusion in a beautifully multi-hued palette. Some other worthy sunset locations overlook the otherworldly, and therefore aptly named, Moon Valley, as well as the Tebinquinche lagoon.
The oneiric and singular confluence of endemic natural and cultural manifestations in Atacama sits under one of the clearest stretches of sky accessible to man, unperturbed by climatic obstructions or light pollution. This uniquely pristine sky is why Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA)–a group of high-precision antennas that collect information from the universe–is here and also why typical night-time activities include stargazing and brushing up on astronomical knowledge.
Nestled by the San Pedro river in the Catarpe valley, a perfect region for cycling and horseback riding by the striking terracotta bluff Pukara de Quitor, Alto Atacama was sustainably built in keeping with ancient local adobe construction traditions, so it blends nicely into the idyllic landscape. One of its unique assets is that it boasts the only open-air observatory in the region, with warm blankets and stretchers to lie on while you see the Milky Way at its best. During the day, a spot under a tree by one of the several plunge pools, looking out at the landscape while a gentle breeze breaks the midday heat, is perfect for a Pisco sour.
At every turn one gasps for air as another mesmerising scenery unfolds in the Atacama Desert. The dramatically contrasting landscapes en route to the Tara salt flats left me bemused, but it was during a trek in the rocky Cactus Valley, surrounded by tall pampas grass and cacti so old some were seven metres tall, that I knew I’d yearn for the grandeur and striking silence of this desert time and time again.