Snow, ice and starry nights in Chile’s Atacama Desert

Tierra Atacama, Chile
Tierra Atacama, Chile

In a Mars-like land of volcanoes and salt flats, a stay at one premium hotel in Chile encourages you to go the distance.

The town of San Pedro de Atacama sits in an Andean plateau high in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the driest place on earth outside the polar regions. Nearby is a snow-laden stratovolcano which rises to more than 5900 metres. The Bolivian/Chile border arcs across it, and you can see Argentina, too. Three countries, one mountain. Its name, Licancabur (Mountain of the People), comes from an ancient, mostly extinct language called kunza, which was last spoken, at least widely, in the 1940s. Its 400-metre-wide summit crater contains one of the world’s highest lakes.

Licancabur, and its smaller but equally impressive companion Juriques (5704m), dominates the landscape. You see them from every street, every salt flat, every trail and waterless riverbed, every flamingo-filled lagoon and fossil-encrusted sediment. But if you want the view of them that dwarfs all others, the hero shot, the perspective you’ll never forget, you’ll need to stand atop the 5604m summit of nearby Cerro Toco, a dormant volcano a few kilometres to the south. Doing this isn’t as hard as you might think. Not if you’re a guest of luxury hotel, Tierra Atacama.

Getting you about in this gnarled landscape is what San Pedro’s most difficult-to-depart-from, five-star hotel excels in. My guide, Cristian Molina, who has been with the hotel for seven years and is still as passionate about the Atacama as he was when he arrived, drove me to our starting point high on Toco’s southern flank. From there, we ascended 300 metres over snow and ice — an easy, non-technical climb. The oxygen is thin, around 50 per cent of what it is at sea level, so you’ll be taking tiny steps and stopping frequently, but we were up and back at the car in under three hours. The oxygen bottle he carried in his backpack wasn’t needed.

Exhausted and elated, my oxygen-starved brain began to comprehend what had just happened. I’d ascended my first Andean peak on the most memorable hike of my life, and I was smitten. Toco was like a first date. I couldn’t wait for more.

It’s only when you’ve experienced your first half or full-day tour here that you begin to realise Tierra Atacama’s true purpose: a place of sanctuary, of nourishment and respite, to recharge you after a day’s hiking, climbing, cycling, horse riding or canyoning. To pamper you, so you can do it all again tomorrow.

The surrounding Altiplano is in a rain shadow, with the Andes to its east and the Chilean Coast Range to its west, part of a 1600km-long plateau with an average elevation of 3000 metres. It is home to things both old and new. The local Armijo people think of the Atacama as a giant, uplifted terrace. NASA tests its Mars rovers here because of its Mars-like environment.

You can see Licancabur and other Andean peaks from your hotel room, the dining room, from its stone-clad reflecting pools, across the alfalfa field it shares with local farmers, and from its outdoor pool and horse stables. And while there’s no shame in wanting to remain joyfully cocooned amongst all this — you won’t, because the staff have spent years honing and perfecting the single most crucial element of any Atacama hotel: its excursions.

A chalkboard in the lounge lists each day’s activities: the Tatio geysers at sunrise, the Valley of the Moon and its giant sand dunes, ancient petroglyphs, a walk along a snow-fed river through cactus-filled ravines, stargazing and hills made of salt that you can hear expanding and cracking under the midday sun, known as the ‘singing’ rocks.

Tierra Atacama sits on the edge of the dusty, mud brick-lined streets of San Pedro de Atacama that seduces with its shady Tamarugo and Carob trees, restaurants and artists’ shops that fill its frontier-like adobe streets. Artisans make use of the region’s abundance of copper, pumice, and gemstones like dark green chrysocolla and blue lapis lazuli. Ice creameries sell Rica Rica ice-cream, made from the endemic, aromatic herb that grows everywhere here.

In the old days, drovers used to rest their cattle on the site where Tierra Atacama now sits, as they made their way to the port town of Antofagasta, a sentiment still felt today by the soon-to-be weary traveller. UMA Spa uses local ingredients such as sheep’s milk, clay and honey in its treatments. There’s an alfresco hot tub by the outdoor pool and a heated indoor pool and steam room. A wooden boardwalk takes you over quiet, regenerated open spaces, past clay water channels that are still used to disperse water to local farms. Hundreds of square metres that could be used for accommodation have instead been left to reflect the ebb and flow of village life, a welcome commentary on the hotel’s priorities, of stewardship and sustainability, of preservation over expansion.

Its cuisine is so delicious that the only downside to going on a full day excursion, as yummy as your packed lunch will be, is you miss out on a sit-down meal that might include Chilean beef, Peruvian corn, indigenous plants from the hotel orchard and an extensive collection of wines, beers and cocktails. Its 32 rooms are decorated with handwoven blankets and cowhide rugs. My room had two showers, one inside, the other outside under some of the brightest stars you’ll ever see.

The longer you stay, the more at home you’ll feel. Everything is so close, so cosy. A corral on one side, an alfalfa field on the other. The stonework, the informality, the lounges you flop on and the giant wall map that reminds you there’s just so much to see — its grasses and pomegranate trees and service that you hardly notice but is always there. And always there too is Licancabur — brooding, teasing, daring you to leave all this behind and lose yourself in a twisted, uplifted geology that, once seen and felt, will stay in your heart forever.

Getting There

The South America Travel Centre in Melbourne has been creating tailor-made journeys in Latin America for almost 30 years.

LATAM operates daily flights from Sydney to Santiago, Chile.

The writer was a guest of LATAM airways and Tierra Atacama.

Images courtesy of Tierra Atacama

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