San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
Stretching over nearly one-third of Chile’s surface, the Atacama Desert is so otherworldly that NASA has conducted experiments here. But word of its austere yet striking natural has travelled far, and intrepid spirits now come for its year-round promise of adventure as well as its many natural wonders. The base for exploring this, the driest desert on earth, is the village of San Pedro de Atacama, which stands 7,000 feet above sea level. Built mostly adobe brick, San Pedro offers convenient access to hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, sand-boarding, and other activities.
The Museo Arqueologico Padre Le Paige, an archaeological museum with an excellent collection of pre-Columbian artifacts preserved by the arid climate, provides a valuable introduction to visitors before they head out on one of the many guided excursions. Early morning is best for striking out to see the Geysers del Tatio, the highest in the world, which come to life in the early light; en- route are the Termas de Puritama, hot springs that offer an enticing way to unwind in eight warm pools descending a narrow, lush gorge. Afternoons are ideal for viewing dozens of flamingos grazing in the mineralized lake that sprawls across the tremendous salt flat at Salar de Atacama, part of a national flamingo reserve. At the end of the day, the setting sun casts shades of gold, violet, and red across the lunar like landscape of the aptly named Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). Multiday tours from San Pedro visit Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.
In recent years, hotels have sprouted up around San Pedro, ranging from simple from hostels to full-service luxury lodges. Among the top-of-the-line choices is the low-slung Alto Atacama Desert Lodge, a pioneer in eco-sustainability and one of Chile’s most attractive nature lodges. It was designed to blend into the terra-cotta cliffs of the Catarpe Valley. Near Atacama and Inca ruin sites and just minutes from San Pedro. The lodge offers lots of guided excursions, six inviting pools that spread out like an oasis, a spa with sauna, and gourmet-in-the-middle-of-nowhere dining. Those looking for individualized service in a smaller setting choose Awasi, with its eight spacious, thatch-roofed bungalows that surrounded a courtyard, pool, and lovely open-air lounge, with handmade wooden furniture. For a stay in the center of San Pedro, Kimal is a well-run 19-room inn; the staff greets new arrivals with a pisco sour and warm welcomes.
WHERE: 1,038 miles/1,670 km north of Santiago and 61 miles/98 km from Calama, the nearest commercial airport.
BEST TIME: year-round for sunny weather; nights are coldest (about 30 degree F/ – 1 degree C) Jun – Aug; Jun 29 for patron saint festivities during Fiesta de San Pedro y San Pablo.
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