The Luxury Travel Bible - LUXURY TRAVEL: The Atacama


ALERT: Turn off the filter on your camera phone. Do not boost the colour on your pictures: the sky of the Atacama desert is already this intense blue. The rocky canyon is that red. Your microphone will never pick up the gentle swishing of the dawn breeze across the pale desert grasses.

Just sit.

If you've gone to see the flamingos on the salt flats reserve, and now your excursion group is enjoying a picnic out in the desert, just walk away a little and sit to watch the last of the setting sun sliding up the Andes.


If you're hiking the Purilakti route to discover rock pictures carved into ancient valley walls, just take a couple of minutes to sit and listen for the total silence, bare of bird sound or any wildlife movement in the quivering midday sunshine. 

If you're heading off to the local observatory for an evening's astronomical exploration of the constellations, don't forget to wrap up warmly and just lie back and drink in the hugeness of the night sky peppered with stars.  

I didn't think I was really a desert person. It's something to do with being a paleskin: too used to slathering up with SPF30, and walking on the shady side of any sunny street. 

What had lured me across the world for a mother-daughter trip to Santiago and Chile was those magical mountains way south in Patagonia. I go well in a cashmere jumper and a walking boot. "The driest place on earth" (outside of the Dry Valleys of Antarctica where it's just too damn cold to be precipitous) sounds a bit too hot for me. 

There again, Patagonia is going to be extraordinarily windy, we're told. And wet. And cold. A quick flight north from Santiago to sunshine would be only two hours, and we were assured that we could get a desert experience just in three short days. (Shameful, I know, but you either do something or nothing.) 

Plus there was the lure of the Tierra Atacama's pool deck with the desert and the Andes in the background. 

We hopped on a plane to Calama. 

It's an unlovely mining service-town with low-slung hypermarts - don't linger. The driver picking you up for the hour's drive south-east to San Pedro de Atacama will point out how the scrubby vegetation gets sparser until it completely runs out as you gradually gain altitude.


San Pedro is a not-too-extreme 2,400m above sea level, which could trigger a little dizziness, lethargy or headaches. (For me, lethargy comes as standard above 24 degrees Centigrade). The excursions we went on didn't take us above 3,000m, and the only notable symptom I experienced was a slight tingling in the fingers from time to time, which was more likely a result of mild dehydration. 

Get up to the lagoons of the altiplano (the "high planes") at 4,200m, or the volcanoes above 5,000m and it's a more significant consideration. A good tour director will advise on the order of the excursions you do, to help with acclimatisation. 

The dry rocky landscape stretching away either side of the hardtop will probably give you your first glimpse of wandering herds of llama – or, more likely, their smaller, wilder cousins, guanacos. (Have fun practising that pronunciation: it's "yama" and "one-aco".) 


Who couldn't love the Latin species name "llama glama"? It should qualify as official mascot of TLTB. And if you know Ogden Nash's poem, it's going to run on an endless loop:

The one-l lama,

He's a priest.

The two-l llama,

He's a beast.

And I will bet

A silk pajama

There isn't any

Three-l lllama.

Fear not - you'll be meeting many llama-related handicrafts in the craft markets of San Pedro. 

First view of the town from a rocky outcrop is of an unlikely smudge of green along the line of a river bed in the midst of flat, red-brown stony dryness. 

And... an extraordinary bonus: it had rained a fortnight before. (In "the driest place on earth." I know – what are the chances?) 

The flash-flooding had taken out some of the low bridges across river gullies which would mean that a few of the excursions would be inaccessible. But along the jagged line of the Andes, which was the backdrop of our view, it looked as though someone had swiped a broad white paintbrush in a straight line along the mountain peaks. 

Red desert, mountains, snow. Amazing. 

San Pedro is an attractive township, a bit Kathmandu-meets-wild-west, with rainbow-coloured handicrafts hanging in the doorways and the ridiculously conical Licancabur volcano visible right there from the centre of town. 

It's foot-traffic only in the grid of scorchingly sunny central streets, and buildings are restricted (either by practicality or planning code) to one-story adobe construction, with simple wooden signboards. 

There's an indoor feria artesanal craft market, and a local artisans' village. The church, the small archaeological museum, and the cemetery with its fluoro party-style grave decorations are all worth a visit.  A glimpse into the dark interior of one of the watering-holes, all dreadlocks and a dozen different languages, is a bit like the bar scene out of Star Wars. 

Don't-miss destinations closest to San Pedro are the Valle de la Luna (named for its extraordinary rock formations), the sand dunes and canyons of the dramatically mis-named Death Valley ("Valle de la Muerte" is actually "Valle de Marte": Valley of Mars), and the super-salty Laguna Cejar salt lagoon, where you can float, if not walk, on the top of the water. 

Further afield are volcanoes and geysers, flamingos, cactus canyons and hot springs. Your experience of the Atacama is all about the quality of your excursions: this is not really somewhere you're going to be exploring on your own. 

Backpackers staying in the hostels of San Pedro will be shopping around the tour operators in the town. But the pleasure of an all-inclusive hotel, which might otherwise seem like a restrictive bubble of luxury, is well-designed excursions, conveniently arranged just for your hotel's guests, with good vehicles, delicious catering, and the best guides around. 

Our highlights: galloping up the red ridge of a sand dune in Death Valley. An all-day trek to up and over a ridge to descend into Rainbow Valley.  Yeah yeah... how rainbow could it be? Well, as you look down into striations of green, purple and red volcanic rock, it merits a "wow" at least. Even a "golly Moses." 

And on a morning's "cornices" hike we were the first to walk along the crests of the new-blown dunes, and run yelling down the slopes, bouncing ahead of the sliding sand as though we were running on a trampoline, sand filling our trainers to laughing-point. 

It was a shame to miss the geysers, and a more challenging volcano trek, but in three days there is a limit to what you can fit in. 

Comfort with your adventure

Given that this is the hot, dry desert, and you're not going to be out hiking, horse-riding, road-trekking, photographing or bird-watching all day, a beautiful pool and some enticing places to enjoy down-time looks like a necessity. 

Our driver took us past the backpackers and low-key hostelries down a bumpy dirt track on the outskirts of town to the enticingly anonymous street-frontage of Tierra Atacama. 

Jennifer Stevenson 30/04/16  

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