As we hurtle down the road in a four-by-four all I can see for miles are rusty-red sands, huge rocks and very little plant life. It looks like we’ve landed on the Moon or on Mars, but of course we haven’t. We’re in the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest desert in the world; it’s a barren landscape yet eerily beautiful with light bouncing off the different rough surfaces and a totally cloudless blue sky. It is a place that experiences almost not rainfall, an enigmatic land bursting with opportunities for exploration.
After about an hour’s drive from Calama airport we see signs of life. A small town called San Pedro de Atacama comes into view, it’s comprised of a few roads, a town centre lots of youth hostels and various restaurants. We turns a few corners from this charming town and we arrive at our home for the new few days; Awasi Atacama.
Widely regarded as the most luxurious lodge in the Atacama desert, Awasi Atacama provides the most bespoke and personal experience of any other hotel. Founded on a desire to inspire and explore local culture the Awasi group is made up of three luxury adventure lodges with other two being Awasi Patagonia also in Chile (review to come) and the brand new Awasi Iguazú on the Argentinian side of the famous falls. This all-inclusive hotel is part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux group which now comprises over 500 hotels and restaurants around the worlds who pride themselves on top-notch hospitality and cuisine.
Though the hotel is near the town centre, it fits seamlessly into the environment, tucked behind wall. The layout of the property mimics a traditional village and is made up of only ten rooms located at fair distance apart meaning each is incredibly private and very romantic. To maintain authenticity and drawing on the advice of a local historian each is built from adobe (mud bricks), stone and wood with a beautiful thatched roof.
The hotel is located in two halves on one side is the three rectangular suites and the main reception and across the road lies the seven round suites and the rest of the public areas. Mr S and I had a Superior Round Room, the highest room category available at Awasi Atacama and we simply fell in love with the beautiful authentic style.
In the front of the room we had a private patio where we could sit shaded and still enjoy the desert sun! Lower category rooms still enjoy this patio but it’s shared with an adjacent cottage.
The bedroom had a gorgeous four poster bed swathed in fabrics whilst the walls with their earthy, terracotta tones provide a welcoming warmth along with colourful materials and twig sconces. Despite the round shape, the rooms are spacious and the thatched cathedral ceiling is both dramatic and gives a feeling of even more space. There’s a walk-in wardrobe where we tucked away our suitcases, writing desk, coffee machine and fridge with inclusive beverages. One round of laundry is included in the rate and any extras are an additional cost.
We were also provided with special chachacoma tea to help us acclimatise to the change in altitude, though we actually had no problems while in the lodge itself.
In the evening at turn down we were given a little local gift and some information about the local area, it is a place that is keen to educate as well as providing luxury accommodation.
The beautiful bathroom is clad in stone with mosaic tiles and includes a deep soaking tub, twin sinks and a huge shower behind a beaded curtain. Gorgeous amenities are from luxury brand, L’Occitane though perhaps my one (and very small!) bugbear with the hotel was that these weren’t replaced often enough and Mr S and I were left sharing a very small bottle of shower gel.
Leading out from the bathroom is another terrace with sun loungers for two and an outdoor shower.
All these rooms are clustered around a bijou yet beautiful outdoor living spa – there’s no need for a roof as it rarely rains here but instead the starry sky is the ceiling. The Atacama Desert affords one of the best views in the world of the stars, so why cover that up?
The ultimate outdoor living room is full of comfy sofas and squishy cushions and plenty of little trinkets to make this space feel like your desert home. The word ‘Awasi’ actually means ‘home,’ in the native Quechua and it’s certainly every member of staff’s mission to make you feel welcome.
In the evenings the fire is lit, and guest can still warm their toes when the temperatures drop… there’s no TV here and WiFi is patchy so entertainment is provided by the natural world and sometimes by local musicians.
Adjacent to the living room is a beautiful carved wooden bar but there’s no cocktail menu as the staff will make anything that you wish. When we arrived we are greeted with an exquisite lemonade made from local ingredients including rica-ric and this theme continued as drinks we requested often incorporated local herbs. Every evening the mixologist showcased his talent with a cocktail of the night.
As for wines, there’s a very carefully selected list totally made up of Chilean wines, several from nearby valleys served by a very knowledgable in-house sommelier.
Behind the bar is the pool which is perfect for a cooling dip after a dusty day in the desert. The pool is small and may not be right for travellers looking for extensive facilities, as I mentioned we chose Awasi for the personal touch it offers but a hotel like Alto Atacama with its six pools and extensive spa may suit others. There is no spa at Awasi Atacama but treatments in the room can be organised on request.
Finally at the heart of the hotel is the restaurant. All food and drink is included in the rate at Awasi Atacama, and though there are a few restaurants in San Pedro you won’t really want to stray from your all-inclusive as the food here is Michelin-star quality.
The hotel’s ‘restaurant’ is small and doesn’t take outside diners so there is just the right amount of tables to fit in all the hotel guests. Turn up for a meal and they’re expecting you with the table already laid. Breakfast is a buffet with daily changing fresh juices, fruits, local cheeses and meats. Or you can choose eggs to order, sandwiches and sweet treats such as pancakes and french toast.
For lunch and dinner we were greeted with these gorgeous plate settings…
Chef Juan Pablo Mardones has headed up the kitchen ever since the hotel opened and is dedicated to the study of local ingredients and producers. Using ingredients from the desert such as local potatoes, the chañar sweet fruit, quinoa and algarrobo (carob tree) he has created his own local yet incredibly refined Atacama cuisine.
Lunch is a set menu and portions are delicate in size (quite the opposite to the Argentinian portions we’d just come from) and you can easily order three courses without feeling stuffed.
Quinoa salads, beef carpaccio, and octopus provided light starters…
And main course could be salmon with causa or stews using local ingredients. There were also daily specials and for those fancying something more simple, salads and sandwiches were always available, including after the set meal times. For dessert you could chose home-made ice cream or sorbet made from local ingredients or fresh fruit.
Dinner is a more formal affair yet you’re still welcome to wear your desert safari gear or go a little more elegant. Every dinner felt so romantic with soft live music, shimmering star light and fantastic service.
With a different welcome cocktail every evening, a new home-made bread and butter every day and a choice of three dishes on the menu, there was incredible attention to detail. Fresh pastas, perfectly cooked lamb, delicious fish dishes and exquisite desserts were always on the menu.
On our last night, they set up a private seat for us by the fire and a served a five course tasting menu with matching wines, the type of food you’d expect to eat in cosmopolitan cities not in the middle of the desert.
Of course this is adventure hotel so it’s not all about the lodge itself, it’s the activities that are the main event. The hotel really is all-inclusive and there are absolutely no hidden costs so all activities are included. Every room is allocated a dedicated guide who is with you for the duration of your stay, you will meet with them when you arrive and discuss your needs and what you are keen to see in order to build a bespoke itinerary.
I will save the activities and things to do in the Atacama desert for my next post but I will say that our guide Claudio was absolutely excellent. He took into account the fact that we still wanted to relax and three-hour hikes weren’t really our thing but photography was and planned the most incredible trips.
I just wanted to end by saying there are three other luxury lodges in the Atacama desert: Tierra, Explora and Alto Atacama are the most prestigious along with the Awasi. After thorough research I chose the Awasi for the small size, personal service, dedicated guides and renowned cuisine. However, it is a matter of taste as the other three are bigger and offer more facilities for example all three have spas, Alto has six swimming pools and the Explora has its own observatory. Also some may prefer the shared excursions and communal dining offered by these hotels in order to meet other people. Mr S and I have gone down the shared excursion route before and we prefer having a private guide.
One drawback of the Awasi is that it has no view while Tierra has a spectacular view of the Licancabur Volcano. Awasi is in the centre of town which gives the feeling of authentic village life but does have drawbacks whilst the other hotels are a bit further out-of-town. They all look like absolutely fabulous properties but be sure to pick what’s right for you.I didn’t visit these other hotels, this is just based on my research so apologies for not having first-hand details.
By combining Awasi Atacama with Awasi Patagonia, we not only saved money due to a special promotion but we were given two free nights in a connecting city (Santiago, Punta Arenas, Buenos Aires or El Calafate). We chose to have the free nights in Santiago and had a choice of four five-star hotels so it was really a very good deal. There’s also the opportunity to combine with Awasi Iguazu as well which give a further discount and three complimentary nights.
Tierra and Explora offer similar deals to combine stays in Atacama with their other properties in South America so if you want to get the best value I’d advise sticking with one hotel brand if you’re visiting multiple destinations.
All in all, the Atacama desert was the absolute highlight of our trip to South America. An incredible landscape and awe-inspiring geography made even better by the hospitality of the wonderful Awasi Atacama – I couldn’t recommend this beautiful, small hotel enough!
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