South America’s second largest desert, the Atacama, spans some 41,000 square miles across Chile, Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina and is widely considered the driest place in the world. In mankind’s written history, rain has never touched some stretches. But in northern Chile, the high-altitude desert’s extreme hyper-aridity has created a landscape that’s anything but barren. And at Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, an all-inclusive lodge nestled in the Salt Mountain Range’s lush Catarpe Valley, a wide range of excursions pairs with simple luxury and extraordinary stargazing for one of the world’s most unique stays.
The nearest airport, at Calama, is a two-hour drive from Alto Atacama; the resort is over a mile away from San Pedro de Atacama’s bustling plaza. Devoid of TVs and in-room Wi-Fi, the lodge’s 42 rooms overlook the Catarpe Valley and inspire you to set aside the outside world and embrace the Atacama’s easy-going nature. The terracotta-colored lodge’s low, earthy architecture and its rustic interior is influenced by the nearby village of San Pedro de Atacama and is enveloped by the Atacama’s natural beauty: the lodge’s six private pools circle an outdoor lounge that overlooks the red Salt Mountains, and open-air patios lead directly into the desert. Nearby, the lodge’s overly friendly llamas and alpacas munch on alfalfa and fallen algarrobo seeds and nudge guests for extra attention.
WHAT TO DO IN SAN PEDRO DE ATACAMA
With tales of the Atacama Desert’s one-of-a-kind adventures and unbeatable starry horizon on the rise, San Pedro de Atacama is attracting a more varied audience, from adventure travelers to world-renowned astronomers.
Eat: Head downtown to La Casona, a local’s favorite that serves traditional Chilean fare in an old-adobe atmosphere. Don’t worry about the stray dogs that line the streets and alleys; they won’t worry about you.
Drink: Knock back Escudos and watch soccer games at the beer pub, Chelacabur. The Escudos are strong; it’s not unheard of to spot an ALMA astronomer sporting scrapes and bruises garnered from taking a tumble after one too many.
Do: There’s no avoiding the row of cookie cutter tourist shops that line the streets surrounding San Pedro de Atacama’s plaza. Stick to the east end of the street, Caracoles, for higher quality arts and crafts.
But there’s more to Alto Atacama than its peaceful solitude. Over 30 locally led excursions take you deep into the high Andes, Death Valley, and the Cordillera Domeyko mountain range. You can take a dawn tour of El Tatio, one of the world’s highest geyser fields at 14,173 feet; explore centuries-old Incan ruins and petroglyphs that mark centuries-old trading routes near Rainbow Valley; and amble nearly four miles through the Valle de los Cardones, or “Valley of the Cactus”, a 500-year-old cardón cacti forest that stretches along the Vilama river ravine’s basalt and volcanic ash walls.
Alto Atacama doesn’t just do geriatric van tours. There’s also a technical ascent of one of Atacama’s most sacred icons, the 19,409-foot Licancábur volcano; a 13-mile mountain bike ride to Cejar Lagoon, a saltwater sinkhole in the Atacama Salt Flat; or a five-mile sunset hike in the unearthly Valle de la Luna., the former testing grounds for NASA’s solar-powered Mars rover.
Unlike some luxury hotels, Alto Atacama doesn’t cater to Westerners’ taste buds. The lodge’s regional cuisine and specialty cocktails are worth the $750 sticker shock, which is saying quite a lot. Organic socaire potatoes, native quinoa, and sugary chañar syrup are incorporated into nearly every dish and drink. The only thing richer than the food is the internationally acclaimed red Carménère wine, a local varietal that’s thrived here since the mid-19th century. After dinner, a visit to the outdoor lounge for a freshly made rica-rica-infused pisco sour around the fire pits is the perfect end to the day.
That said, don’t go to bed early. Free of water molecules and light pollution, the lodge is one of the world’s best places to see picture-perfect views of nearby galaxies and star clusters. A research-grade 16-inch Meade telescope and consistently clear nights also help out. Scientists agree, so much so that, in 1999, an international partnership picked the Atacama Desert as the future location for the world’s largest astronomical project. Today, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array’s (ALMA) dozens of high-precision antennas penetrate the Atacama’s thin, dry atmosphere to collect never-before-seen data on our cosmic origins.
From Alto Atacama’s observatory platform, you can spot Saturn’s dusty rings, Jupiter’s many moons, and a dying star’s flickering light. Without the telescope, you can lie back on chaise lounge chairs and gape at the crystal clear Milky Way, seemingly endless shooting stars, and Southern Hemisphere’s unique constellations. Starting prices at $560 per person for double occupancy are expensive, but stretched out under the stars after a long day of desert exploration and fine dining, you probably won’t regret it.