Travel to the High Desert of Chile

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The Atacama region of Chile is a place of stark beauty. The resorts in this area of South America are undiscovered gems for travelers from the United States. The climate of this part of the world limits the number of resorts as well as the population as a whole. Some of the hidden lodges we found are some of the best I have visited in all of my travels.

The Atacama region of Chile is recognized as the most arid place on earth. The region averages .6 inches of rain a year, although some locations, notably Arica and Iquique, average one to three inches per year. Many weather stations, however, go three to four years between rain fall, and some stations have never received rain. The desert is on a plateau with high mountains to the east and west preventing most moisture from reaching the area. The average elevation is more or less 9000 feet. This is lower than Cuzco, Peru (the gateway city to Machu Picchu) and La Paz (the capital of Bolivia) but higher than Denver (5300 feet). You may feel the effects of the altitude when you first arrive in the area. It is always a good idea to limit your alcohol consumption when you first arrive in a high altitude environment.

What to do? This is, after all, a desert, and very remote. I took a mountain biking trip from my hotel through a landscape that I would describe as breathtaking, almost like being on the moon. The trek went through a valley with sheer rock walls on either side and then up a mountain for amazing views. Another tour I took was to the salt flats in the region that is home to flamingos, which merits a visit. I also visited Moon Valley, where there once were mines, that is now a national park, and also visited some prehistoric rock carvings (petroglyphs). For those with an interest in native cultures or their history, this is a must see. I couldn’t do all the offered tours, so it is best to come and find out for yourself, and enjoy more adventurous tours as well. This part of the world, with its high altitude, no humidity, and almost no light pollution, has the deserved reputation for being one of the best places on earth to view the night sky. There are so many stars they looked like a cloud. I had never seen the Milky Way so clearly. Even if you’re not a star gazer with an interest in astronomy, you will enjoy seeing the sky in a way that is impossible in the United Sates or any city environment in the world. The night sky will take your breath away. You can check out packages available through Condor Tours & Travel.

Getting there is easy. There are several daily flights from Santiago, Chile to Calama, since that is still a strong mining town. The equipment used is modern jet passenger aircraft. The flight is about two hours. You will be met by an English speaking guide and driver and driven to your resort. The drive is about an hour and half to get to San Pedro, where the lodges are located. The lodges I visited were outside of the town of San Pedro de Atacama. This is a small town of 4000 people during high season, and is now mostly dedicated to tourism, and thus is very friendly with English spoken regularly.

There are several lodges I can recommend. The Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa, where I stayed, is a boutique hotel with three room categories. There are ten Quitor rooms, which are closest to the common areas of the resort. These 550 square foot rooms have private terraces over-looking the resort’s gardens. There are 27 Standard Catarpe rooms, which have more private terraces and are also 550 square feet. The terraces of these rooms have uninterrupted views of the Cordillera de la Sal mountain range and the Catarpe valley. The ten Suite Tilo rooms offer even more privacy on their terraces. These 770 square foot room have views of the resort’s lagoon and the Catarpe valley and an outdoor shower. The staff was wonderful to visit with, and the pools and spa were a delight. As for the food, I was so pleased with the quality and options, considering the remote location and lack of fresh produce available in this region.

Another beautiful property is the Tierra Atacama. This is a beautiful boutique desert resort. There are three room categories, the Oriente, the Poniente and the Family Suite. The Poniente is larger than the Oriente, however both offer outdoor as well as indoor showers and private terraces. The Oriente room does not have a bath tub. Both have one king bed or two twins. The Family Suite is two stories with a master bedroom upstairs and two bedrooms downstairs. Each bedroom has its own bathroom. These suites also have private terraces overlooking the hotel gardens.

Both resorts have great pools. And with this climate, you will spend time in the pool! The spa services offered were exceptional. Despite the fact that they are in the driest of all deserts, water from glacial snow is what makes San Pedro de Atacama an oasis, and it makes the spa a strongly revitalizing experience. Water, expert hands and aromatic scents are the tools for invigorating your body and spirit after a day of exploring the desert. Spa options include the Finnish Sauna, Turkish bath, Scottish showers, indoor and outdoor hot tubs, to name a few. A four day / three night package or five day / four night package is all you need here. The number of nights you would need would be based on how much adventure you want, as many of the tours available are hikes and longer bike trips. Check out a package you can do in Atacama that combines nicely with Patagonia.

The night sky of the Atacama desert region is enough to add this part of the world to the travel bucket list of the discriminating traveler. For the avid star gazer and eclipse watchers, this area is a must for visiting in July 2019 for viewing of a full solar eclipse!

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