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LUXURY HOTELS: Tierra atacama, chile
Style: "Adventure spa": get out and be adventurous, then loaf around in designer-desert comfort. 
Scene: On the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama surrounded by desert grasses, gardens and alfalfa fields, with uninterrupted views to Licancabur volcano and the Andes. 
Seen in the lobby: From Merrell to Le Coq Sportif: deep-pocketed Americans, Brazilians, French, Germans and Aussies. 
THIS is a destination designed to surprise.
The entrance: a solid wall, an anonymous slice of metal gate. A walkway across an empty beaten-earth corral with just a basket chair hanging from a tree.
Nicholas Russ, the attentive manager, is waiting to greet us, radio-on-belt, and leads the way to the airy reception / dining space. Wood and stone, calfskins and native rugs, statement lights and a central cocktail bar – it's an open, social area with an oddly upscale-YMCA vibe.

A wall of glass puts theAtacama desert and mountain view on display between vertical fins of stone, dividing outside deck-bed seating areas and their fireplaces. That's where I'm going to be lying back with a drink tonight, enjoying the starscape in luxury. (They didn't put the ALMA observatory out here for nothing.)

tierra atacama hotel
tierra atacama hotel
tierra atacama dining
Dawn pool deck
Pool deck
Oriente room
Outdoor seating
tierra atacama design

Oddly, it's the outside spaces that create a sense of intimacy: cocooning basket chairs around the pool, and hanging unexpectedly from trees around the 5ha site. An outdoor jacuzzi and fire pit set on a simple wooden platform out in the field. A pair of simple deckchairs on the patio outside your room. And your own outdoor daybed with a porthole view punched through the enclosing adobe wall.  

A wall of glass puts the Atacama desert on view

The outside-in experience is delightful. Beyond the shower in your bathroom, a glass door opens to a second shower outside - completely enclosed by stone walls but open to the sun or the stars above: desert excitement with your ablutions.  

A pair of refillable metal water bottles is a reminder of why we're here. As are the big water coolers and the giant pump-action dispensers of sunscreen by the reception desk.  

The Uma Spa is a persuasive part of the offering for travellers with varying degrees of enthusiasm for roughty-tufty adventuring in their group. We never made it to the indoor pool and luxurious pampering – we were a bit too keen to get out there, and do it all.  

There's no pre-booking of trips: as soon as you arrive, the excursions manager is ready to sit down with you to arrange what you want to do.

Your experience is going to be all about your excursions, so it's worthwhile having a think beforehand about what's important to you, and stating it clearly. Seeing far-flung sights or being active? Hiking or horse riding? Wildlife, photography or astronomy?  

Don't underestimate the unpleasantness of altitude sickness: excursions above 4,000m will need to be scheduled for after you've acclimatised. 

And don't be afraid to change horses halfway. After our first evening's flamingos-and-sunset trip, having found the visit to a pueblo village en route a little ho-hum we realised that a drive plus some click-and-tick wasn’t what we enjoy. We re-calibrated our excursions plan for more exertion.  

That was when we had the great good fortune to be paired with Pamela Acosta, an Atacameno with long black plaits and 18 years' experience ("I'm the dinosaur of tour guides!"). She was charismatic, and knowledgeable about archaeology, geology, plant life and animals, traditional remedies, local history and folklore.

And super-enthusiastic. She practically bounded from rock to rock to show us petroglyphs (rock carvings) ancient and modern. Her habit of doubling-up her adjectives ("it was heavy-heavy," "that's hot-hot") and superimposing "super" for emphasis ("I promise you, it's super-beautiful") completely summed her up.

You're interested in llamas? Pamela owns six of them! She can show you a photo of the latest baby: "super-super cute!" 

Pamela was senior enough to be able to call the shots. She had trailblazed the route we took up the valley of the petroglyphs and over a ridge to descend by a rocky track into Rainbow Valley. We were having such a great time, she stretched our excursion longer. 

When we finally spotted our late-lunch tent, set up in the middle of the empty valley by our driver, it was a delight to sit down and share the picnic with them both. So my advice would be: if you find a guide you really hit it off with, change your plans (or make a little bit of a fuss) in order to be with them again. Life's too short to be listening to a well-practised spiel.

With all this activity, we fell upon the jug of cocktail-of-the-day that stands on the bar back at Tierra with unseemly enthusiasm. (FYI the local variant on the pisco sour, flavoured with rica-rica, was very acceptable.)

Dinner time is busy and social, with attentive service. The restaurant menu changes daily and aims high (even if it doesn't always hit gastronomic gold). But don't be surprised if you look around at 10pm to find yourselves alone – it seems the hiking and trekking drives guests into bed early.  

Our conclusion: stay longer, stay longer. It's a dash doing the desert in three days, and we didn't get up a volcano.


Check in: Tierra Atacama Hotel, Domingo Atienza, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Most Indulgent Moment: The coldest of cold beers at our lunch tent set up in solo splendour in the middle of the Rainbow Valley. 
Insider Secrets: The ground-floor Oriente rooms have a more rugged, desert-style decor, with sliding doors opening out to your private terrace and the fields of desert grass beyond. Poniente rooms have sleeker white decor. 
And... we didn’t know you could arrange early-morning yoga classes at the yoga platform out in the grounds. 
Junior Luxies: "Family rooms" on two levels sleep 6 with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Science-buff kids will love the star-gazing, archaeology-at-your-fingertips, and discovering rock carvings. Active kids will whoop it up in the hot springs and horse-riding. 
Dress code: The resort kaftan and statement necklace are a first-night faux-pas. This is very-relaxed casual, possibly even fleece at dinner (sorry!). 
Perfect luggage: A Briggs & Riley split-level rolling duffle. 
Dent in the platinum:
Luxury Hotels Link: www.tierrahotels.com
Read more about Chile in our DESTINATIONS section
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Jennifer Stevenson 4/05/16  
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