Atacama Desert, the Driest Place on Earth
By David CogswellAfter the USTOA tour operators on their annual out-of-country meeting spent a few days in Patagonia, they returned to Santiago for board meetings and to meet with Chilean suppliers. Then on Wednesday I joined them as they headed north to see Atacama Desert.
It began with a two-hour flight to Calama, a small town that’s the air hub for the Atacama region. From there we loaded into vans and rode out onto the desert, a barren and rugged landscape, with broad expanses of reddish brown sand, gravel and rock. After nearly an hour and a half we suddenly saw patches of rich green vegetation. It was the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, where we were going to be staying. We were divided into groups, some of whom stayed at Alto Atacama, others at Tierra Atacama, two of the resorts in San Pedro. We all had our chances to have a lunch or dinner and a tour of both properties, as well as Kunza Hotel and Explora.
Each of the four had its own distinct style. Tierra Atacama, where I stayed was the most rustic, with duplex cottages that had rough stone floors, minimal furniture and clean lines, indoor and outdoor showers and a private wood planked porch. A large picture window looked out onto the sunrise which came magnificently over the top of the volcano Licancabur. The back porch faced the sunsets, which are known to be some of the most spectacular in the world, and I can believe it from what I experienced. Tierra had a very comfortable and congenial main lodge. The food, made mostly from creatively combined local ingredients, was interesting as well as delicious, and imaginatively presented. The staff was gracious and helpful. The property has a spa, an infinity pool and a Jacuzzi and a staff of accommodating and knowledgeable guides for hikes and excursions.
Alto Atacama was a little more plush and upscale, with a nice touch of several friendly llamas who live on the grounds. Explora was the most urban-style upscale of the four, with a public space reminiscent of a Soho gallery, with plenty of maps, books, posters and prints to capture your interest, as well as its own little observatory, which takes advantage of Atacama’s status as the best place on earth for astronomical study because of its altitude and lack of humidity.
Two of Tierra’s guides, Pamela and Marcela, led some of us on some excursions, including a hike into Moon Valley, an area of desert so named because it looks very much as we imagine the surface of the moon: desolate, dry and full of wondrous rock formations. At Marcela’s suggestion, I took off my boots and put them in my backpack and walked barefoot, sinking into the sand up to my ankles. It felt like a foot massage as I walked along through passageways between mountains of rock with water erosion rivulets that had created ornate designs reminiscent of Gothic cathedrals. As the morning sun warmed the rocks, you could hear cracking sounds as the rock expanded in the heat.
They showed us some of the mines in the area and the places where the miners lived when the mines were active. I also participated in a bike ride across the desert to salt pools where you can float, pretty much as in the Dead Sea. There was also an excursion to visit the salt flats to see the flamingoes that live there. Guests were free to visit the town of San Pedro de Atacama, where there were many colorful shops along its narrow dirt streets. And stargazing, after the moon went down, was as good as it gets.
After two nights at San Pedro de Atacama, it was time to head back to Santiago. We loaded into vans again and headed out just as sunset was about to begin. I had heard that Atacama has some of the world’s greatest sunsets because of its unique atmospheric features. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains on the horizon, the few clouds radiating outward from the sun’s aura turned from white to yellow to orange, red and purple. It was a friendly goodbye from Atacama, and I was appreciative of it as I settled back to other things to keep my mind busy for the 80-minute drive. Then gradually it dawned on me that the sunrise spectacular was far from over. It had barely begun. Instead of the orange glow of the sunset just fading into night, as I expected, the sky on the horizon ahead of us turned a deeper and deeper red. The glowing red area continued to spread over an increasingly large part of the sky. The whole vanload of people became transfixed on this deep red sky we were driving into. Someone said, “It’s like the sky is on fire!” In fact it was brighter and redder than any fire I’ve seen, except something artificial like a blow torch. It was not the orange red usually associated with fire and sunsets. Fire engine red seems pale in comparison. It was so red that the red tail lights of the car ahead and the red reflectors on the side of the highway blended right in as though they were all elements of a blazing red monochromatic painting.
It seemed that it would never die down, but it eventually did fade out, like all sunsets. And we proceeded back to civilization, back to Santiago, where we were fortunate enough to stay at the Ritz Carlton Santiago. It’s the only Ritz Carlton in South America, and it was splendid. The oak doorway was monumental. The amount of oak in the lobby was staggering. The lobby was furnished with plush, inviting chairs and couches, a beautiful grand piano, giant crystal chandeliers, brass railings, 19th century paintings. It was very traditional, very friendly, with a strong feeling of Britain. And yet there was nothing stiff or stuffy about it. It was bathed in the warmth of its Latin American staff. It was a heavenly few hours we stayed there before having to get up the next morning and move on. We drove west into the lush winelands between Santiago and the Pacific, through valleys with names like San Antonio and Casablanca to a pastoral wine tasting lunch at the Matetic Vineyard, and then back to the Santiago airport for the sixth time in less than two weeks, and finally home. -- David Cogswell