The driest desert in the world and the driest non-polar place on earth, almost totally rainless and with soil like that on Mars, the Atacama desert is as enigmatic as it is beautiful. Though mostly barren and plantless, it is truly one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited and was the absolute highlight of our trip to South America. Staying at the Awasi Atcama hotel, a luxury adventure lodge located in San Pedro de Atacama was the ideal base for us during our time there. The hotel guides create a bespoke itinerary and a tailor-made experience that is both luxurious and authentic.
Unlike the other luxury lodges in the area, Awasi Atacama provides each group with their own personal guide and a four-wheel drive car to explore the area at their own pace. When we arrived at the lodge we sat down with our guide and a map and explained what we’d like to see and do. I’m not to fond of lengthy hikes but I do want to see beautiful scenery, plenty of wildlife and relax too.
At Awasi Atacama there are car trips, bike trails, hikes or horseback rides and these can be taken as full days with a picnic lunch or as two half days with lunch at the lodge. As the Atacama desert is at altitude care is taken to allow guests to acclimatise and do the higher altitude activities near the end of their stay. Our guide for the duration of the time that we were at the lodge was Claudio; I will never forget Claudio, who was both knowledgable and charismatic – one of the best guides we’ve ever had!
So here’s what we did:
1. Lagoon Diving
One of the more relaxing options offered by Awasi Atacama – the drive to the hot spring allowed us to take in beautiful views of the Andes and local vegetation before taking a narrow cliff side road up to the Puritama Hot Spring.
Managed by the Explora Hotel, the springs are quite exclusive and not over run with other tourists so you can choose one of the seven pools and pretty much have it all to yourself to admire the surrounding rock formations and enjoy the warm water.
For centuries these springs were used by locals from Atacama for medicinal purposes and they can still be used for joint aches, fatigue and stress.
After our dip, Claudio prepared us wine and cheese to enjoy in the sunshine, it really was the perfect morning!
2. The Moon Valley
A visit to the Moon Valley or Valle de la Luna is one of the unmissable experiences offered by Awasi Atacama and it is conveniently located near the hotel. The guides suggest a morning visit if you want quiet and solitude or an afternoon visit to admire the sunset – we chose the latter. The aptly named lunar landscape has been created by wind and water and is made up of caves, canyons and peaks.
I tried to swallow my claustrophobia as we explored the caverns with our mobile phones as torches. These formations are actually made out of salt and Claudio led us into a quiet canyon where we could actually hear the salt rocks cracking.
We climbed up one of the walls and were greeted by a beautiful view and a sense of peacefulness it’s almost spiritual.
It was also a reminder that we’d come at a good time of year, it may feel like you’re in the middle of no where but actually the Atacama is the second most visited tourist attraction (after Torres del Paine) in Chile and can get really crowded. We had the valley to ourselves as we weren’t there at peak season and the weather is slightly cooler too. fix the blue
After a quick pitstop to visit the Three Marias, a rock formation said to resemble three women praying, we had to hurry to get to our final location before sunset.
Claudio took us to a private spot and gave us a glass wine to sip while we wached the sun dip below the mountains and to witness the changing colours of the sands. An utterly mind-blowing experience.
3. Take a Walk About Town
Awasi Atacama is located pretty much in the heart of San Pedro, the main town in the Atacama desert. It’s well worth a look at this small town as though the area is full of tourists, it still feel relatively unspoiled and there are some cute places to eat and drink, craft shops and an archaeological museum. Also if you’re not staying in one of the all-inclusive hotels there are a number of other hotels and hostels to choose from in the city and plenty of tour operators to ensure you don’t miss the top sites.
We found this super cute ice cream shop selling home made ice cream in many different flavours. Pisco sour ice cream anyone? FYI we didn’t actually do this as a tour, the town is steps away from the hotel and easy to explore by yourself or casually with your guide.
4. Go Horse Riding
Horse riding through the desert was by far my favourite thing we did on the whole trip.
Riding across sand dunes with huge clay formations around us felt like a liberating and once in a life time experience! I’ve done a bit of riding when I was younger but the only time I’ve properly ridden a horse in adulthood was in Iceland so it was a little scary at first but the horses aren’t too big and are fairly docile.
5. Go Star-Gazing
With its dry climate, almost cloudless sky, lack of light pollution and high altitude, the Atcama desert is one of the best places in the world to go star-gazing. One night we were told to wrap up warm after dinner and we were picked up by a local astronomer and driven to a telescope.
I’ve been to remote places but I’ve honestly never seen anything like that number of stars. We were there in Autumn which affords views of around 3,000 stars and in Winter you can see 7,000! The astronomer pointed out galaxies, constellations and through the telescope we could even see Jupiter.
6. Visit the Town of Toconao
Tocanao is typical town in the Atacama desert famous for buildings made out of liparite volcanic stone.
I also got a chance to pose with a cactus! These things can grow up to the 30 feet tall!
We also paid a visit to the historic church and bell tower which date back to 1750. Artisan markets and craft stalls can also often be found in this town square.
7. The Chaxa Lagoon
Awasi Atacama combine a trip to Tocanao with the Atacama Salt Flats and the Chaxa Lagoon in the Los Flamencos National Reserve.
The lagoon is surrounded by salt crusts that have been produced by the evaporation of salty water. With pink sands and a view of the Andes, the salt lake is truly breathtaking.
But best of all it’s home to the most Instagrammable bird; the flamingo! You spot three different types of flamingo in the Atacama desert and the Andean, Chilean and James have different characteristics.
Even in autumn it can get very hot around the Chaxa Lagoon so Claudio arranged fresh fruit and juices to refresh us after the visit.
8. Llama Spotting!
Again not an excursion but we were lucky enough to ‘bump into’ a herd of domesticated llama just lying by the side of the road.
The llama is basically a South American cousin of the camel and they are super cute!
What we didn’t do: With only three short days in the Atacama desert we ran out of time to do everything. The Tatio Geyser is one of the most iconic things to see in the Atacama desert and Awasi offers a day trip there. It does require acclimatisation to the altitude as it is one of the higher points. I would have also like to visit the Cejar Pond, a body of water with a high salt concentration so you can float without sinking like the Dead Sea.
A Few Useful Tips
1. To get to the Atacama desert you can fly into Calama airport. We travelled with LATAM Airways. A guide from Awasi Atacama met us at the airport and drove us the hour long drive to the hotel.
2. We travelled in Autumn when the weather was slightly cooler. It’s advisable to bring layers as temperatures can drop in the evenings. I was fine in shorts and t-shirt in the days and I packed leggings and fleeces for the evening. Hiking boots are a must even for easier excursions. The hotel provide you with a water bottle which you bring out on each excursion and you can keep afterwards but make sure to pack high factor sunscreen.
3. San Pedro is situated at 2,450 meters above sea level. This is the highest I’ve ever been personally and it’s recommend that you keep hydrated and limit consumption of alcohol and coffee. Personally I didn’t experience any problems or altitude sickness but I felt more short of breath than usual after walking.
PIN FOR LATER: