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The Vacation Report ATACAMA ADVENTURE

For a truly off-the-beaten-track experience, head to Chile and the breathtaking scenery of the Atacama desert.

Words by Emma Love.

Just over a two-hour flight from Santiago and what feels like a world away, the Atacama desert is the driest place on earth. A single straight road stretches in front of you on the hour-long drive from Calama to the oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. The landscapes are immense: to the east, San Pedro is bordered by a volcanic section of the Andes mountains; to the west is the Cordillera de la Sal mountain range and Moon Valley, an otherworldly terrain formed from the erosion of salt and rock formations. In between there are sand dunes, canyons, lakes and geysers to see and explore. There is nowhere else like it, and you need at least three days to even begin to scratch the surface.

Explora Atacama, Chile
Explora Atacama, Chile
Explora Atacama, Chile

stay

Pioneering Explora Atacama (explora.com) was the first luxury hotel to open on the outskirts of dusty San Pedro de Atacama nearly 20 years ago. It’s set on 17 hectares of land that once belonged to the ancient Aymara people (many of the original adobe walled-structures and pathways have been restored and maintained). Fifty rooms and suites are split between four low-slung buildings, each with curving yellow wooden roofs and huge picture windows overlooking wild grasses (here, it’s all about embracing nature so there are no televisions or wifi in the rooms) that are arranged around a main, open-plan communal space. This is divided into zones with clusters of scoop, tan leather chairs and huge sofas for relaxing, a bar in the middle and, at the far end, the restaurant. There are wicker baskets of help-yourself nuts and energy bars, plus purified water to refill your re-useable bottle (sustainability is high on the agenda here, which means a real drive on cutting down plastic and waste). Downtime between excursions is spent lazing round by the four interconnecting pools accessed via wooden walkways (you can also book in for a massage in the Turi Puri treatment room) or taking a 10-minute stroll into town. One night during your stay, it’s worth booking a viewing in the hotel’s private observatory (the largest of its kind in the country) to stargaze up at the vast inky sky.

explore

Hiking, mountain-biking and horse riding: all of the 40 half or full-day excursions on offer at Explora are split into these three options. The hotel is at an altitude of 2,500 metres but the higher you go, the more days you have to allow to acclimatise. There are many must-dos but top of the list is a trip to the Salar de Atacama to see three species of flamingo flying over Laguna Chaxa (when the sun sets, look in the opposite direction at the mountains which are often bathed in a lavender hue) and, at certain times of the year, trekking through the Kari Ravine Canyon, which is surrounded by salt walls. There’s also a 5km hike from Guatin to the Puritama Hot Springs, which are owned by Explora’s non-profit foundation (it works to preserve the cultural heritage of the areas surrounding all seven Explora hotels in Chile, Bolivia and Peru) and a 25km flat bike-ride that takes in archaeological remains and local villages. Keen riders will want to make a beeline for the stables – Explora has its own horses, raised and trained at the owners’ ranch in central Chile – where excellent guides can cater for all levels of ability, even total beginners. One of the most popular rides is Dunas de la Chula: a gentle walk (or canter) across sand dunes and rock formations, with the immense Andes mountains and the salt lake on the horizon.

La Luna Valley, Chile
Uyuni Andean Lagoon, Chile
Cordiccero de la Sal, San Pedro de Atacama

eat

Most guests choose to eat all their meals at Explora for ease, but also because the food is utterly delicious. Grab a table on the shady terrace for lunch and feast on fresh, leafy salads or salmon tartar for starter, followed by sirloin steak with mashed corn or vegetable millefeuille (a kind of vegetable lasagne). In the evening, kick off with pisco sours at the bar as guides chat through what excursions you’d like to try the next day. The menu at dinner is short (usually two starters and four mains) but save room for dessert, which ranges from refreshing orange and ginger sorbet to pear tart. If you’re lucky, your stay might coincide with a traditional spit-roast at the Quincho (BBQ area), which usually takes place once a week and is accompanied by Andean music and dancing. If you do want to venture out, then Adobe restaurant in town serves up Chilean specialties around a bonfire.

Andean highlands, Chile
Evening entertainment at Explora Atacama
The Style Report
The Style Report
THE STYLE REPORT