The word ‘desert’ usually conjures images of dust, sand and rocks, cactus and scuttling creatures and, while the Atacama Desert in northern Chile has all of the above, it also offers many unexpected surprises. Forget your preconceived ideas of a barren desert environment – Atacama is bursting with exceptional experiences just waiting for you to discover.
But to begin, its best kept secret might be the high quality of accommodation. Staying in the desert doesn’t have to mean roughing it and Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa in the oasis town of San Pedro is pure luxury. The hotel’s distinctive architecture is designed to reflect a traditional adobe settlement, blending harmoniously with the surrounding desert landscape. After spending the day exploring, it’s heaven to come back and enjoy all its comforts: the sumptuous beds, soothing music and lighting, and private patios. Six intimate bathing pools, a pampering Spa and sauna, and a relaxing hot tub. Indoor and outdoor dining and lounge areas, cosy open fires, a well-stocked bar and three-course gourmet meals accompanied by an extensive wine list sure to satisfy the most discerning diner.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises is the palette of colours the desert landscape resents, at different times of the day reflecting the entire spectrum of the rainbow. Earthy yellows, oranges, browns and reds are to be anticipated but the blues, aquas, mauves, deep purples and pinks are an unexpected pleasure.
The Atacama Desert is a photographer’s dream – amazing rock formations to inspire the imagination, spectacular snow-capped Andean mountains and active volcanoes;
colourful salt flats and red, blue, turquoise and green lagoons tinted by their high mineral contents; bubbling mud, geysers spouting steam skywards, and thermal pools to entice the brave from the air’s chilly temperatures; and a surreal lunar landscape so moon-like that NASA tested its robot explorers there prior to their space missions.
There’s also amazing wildlife to challenge a photographer’s reflexes: furry viscachas with their rabbit ears and curly possum-like tails, russet and grey foxes, grazing vicuñas (regal relatives of the llama), rheas pecking among the gravel, pink flamingoes sieving tiny brine shrimp from shallow lakes, geckos scampering between the rock crevices, and great condors circling high on the updrafts of the mountains.
Add to this mix of sensory delights a few unexpected experiences which ensure visiting the Atacama will be something to add to your bucket list. Things like picnicking on a buffet-style gourmet lunch set out beside a shimmering lagoon, watching a herd of vicuñas paddling in icy waters, or enjoying canapés and a glass of wine while watching the sun set across the Andes.
And at the end of the day back at your hotel, reclining on a lounger in the quiet dark and gazing into a starred night sky, snuggling by an open-pit fire and savouring a hearty red, or relaxing in a hot tub as you sip a cocktail and reminisce about the day’s excursions.