The Atacama is known as the driest place on earth. It rises from the Pacific Ocean up to the Altiplano, the foothills of the Andes. While much of it is within Chile, it also extends into Peru and Bolivia. Like any desert, the region can seem strange, yet also strangely beautiful.
As you fly over the vast region, you are struck with how much water influences this dry place. Patterns in the sand evoke the shape of waves; dry arroyos which may only see water flow once a decade, are still very obviously stream beds. While wind and sandstorms cause erosion, it is clear that water, too, influences this place. The Andes are a volcanic range, and in their molten days, they, too, flowed across the land and left a liquid shaped trail.
I flew into Calama, where the new airport supports the large mining and scientific enterprises in this region. A one-hour drive then brings the traveler to San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis which has long supported human inhabitants. 8000 feet above sea level, surrounded by salt flats and volcanic formations, the town is a charming green break from the sand, earth and minerals surrounding it.
There are now a number of well-ranked hotels in San Pedro de Atacama, and deciding which is right for you is something we can help with. On this trip I stayed at the Explora Atacama-Hotel de Larache, and there are many compelling reasons to choose this as you base. As part of our Signature Hotel & Resorts program, booking with TravelStore will include extra amenities and services.
Explora describes themselves as ‘An Expedition Company who owns hotels….’ and indeed, they do own some very lovely hotels! The Hotel de Larache holds a prime location in the village of San Pedro de Atacama. It was the first luxury hotel in this desert, and for many travelers will be the best choice.
Set on 42 acres of what was initially a kin-based community of ancient Aymara people, the property includes ancient adobe structures and walls, as well as irrigation channels, which they still use today to water the property. The hotel was designed by award-winning Chilean architect German del Sol, and students of architecture study not only its beauty and sense of place, but its extreme functionality in the way it moderates the indoor temperature in this fluctuating temperature zone. Guests will find it extremely well designed and comfortable.
Explora also own and manage the Puritama Reserve. Located in a canyon, this beautiful spot has been developed as a hot springs resort where guests can swim and relax – the luxury of water in such an arid region is beautifully displayed with green foliage, waterfalls and quiet, crystal clear pools. Other hotels and lodges also bring their guests here, but because Explora owns it, their guests have special access to private pools.
Most visitors to Atacama want to be active. With a very well trained group of expedition specialists on staff, guests can choose over 40 different excursions: from guided hikes, horseback riding or biking, designed for a variety of fitness and interest levels. There are van trips up to the geysers in the Altiplano, or you can do a longer travesia thru the higher regions into Bolivia, a multiple-day journey requiring acclimatization.
During my visit I saw three types of nesting flamingo in the salt flats, wild guanaco (close relative to the domesticated llama) and enjoyed local teas and ceremonial dances. I got out and trekked into canyons, rode horseback in sand dunes, heard the salt crystals crackle as temperatures changed, and witnessed their colors as the light exposed their strange shapes and colors. The panoramas are amazing, the colors shift and change every time you look, depending upon the light… these are experiences unique to this unusual region, and Explora exposes you to all of this in great comfort, a wonderful chef, marvelous Chilean wines, and a fully inclusive program which allows you to see and do so much.
Explora has the largest private observatory in Chile at the Atacama hotel, not surprising as ALMA, an international scientific partnership of large millimimeter array telescopes, is a neighbor. Whether you visit the observatory or not during your stay, the views of the night sky in the Atacama are amazing.
A minimum 3-night stay is required, but for most guests 4 nights or longer would be advisable. Because Calama is only a 2-hour flight from Santiago, it is easy to combine a visit to the Atacama with other explorations within Chile. You could easily visit Patagonia, take an expedition cruise thru the Patagonian fjords, enjoy the Explora Patagonia -- the only hotel within Torres del Paine National Park -- or do what I did, which was combine it with a visit to Easter Island… but I will save that story for another post!