Atacama in Chile, South America is an unusual and exciting holiday destination. Recognised as one of the driest and oldest places on this planet, Atacama is located between the Andes and Chilean Coast Mountain Ranges, and happens to be a breathtakingly romantic place to visit. Featuring dramatic landscapes of volcanic formations, mirrored salt flats and bubbling geysers, this vastly diverse destination is perfect for adventurous couples with an underlying desire to explore the great outdoors.
EXPLORA ATACAMA – A LODGE BASED JOURNEY
Since 1993, highly sophisticated travel company explora, has been offering rich experiences and in-depth explorations covering extraordinary areas, without overlooking the luxury of the essential. Offering a new approach to travel, explora promotes nomadic journeys or ‘Travesias’ covering six remote destinations within South America, equivalent to over 1300km and more than 100 explorations. Their philosophy focuses on being inspired to travel for the pleasure of the journey itself, and by the richness of the experiences it brings.
The idea of discovering Atacama under the watchful eye of these specialists sounded like a perfect opportunity for ScrubySnacks to indulge in an adventure that would encapsulate the romanticism of exploration.
Our journey in Chile began with a two hour flight from Santiago to Calama, flying with the very convenient and comfortable LAN Express. From high above, the view of the city was mesmerising, nestled at the base of great mountain ranges and extending out to snow-capped peaks. Over the course of the journey the landscape continued to change dramatically, resembling an oil painting of farfetched formations.
On arrival at Calama Airport we were met by the beaming explora Atacama team, who promptly presented us with a beautifully illustrated hardback book, which explained the company’s main philosophies and gave us a taste of what was to come.
The picturesque journey from Calama Airport to the lodge at explora Atacama took around one hour, heading southeast and past the giant turbines of the Valle de Los Vientos wind farm.
Finally, as our vehicle crept its way through the dusty roads of the village of San Pedro de Atacama, we peered out at the lively streets, adorned with locals and travellers alike. We turned into the grand gates of explora Atacama, passing the private stables before pulling into the quiet courtyard. Stepping out onto the rugged stone tiles, we gazed up at the remarkable lodge that would be our home and base for the next few days.
We were swiftly greeted by General Manager Juan Pablo, who cheerily escorted us up the grand staircase to the lodge’s reception, where we were given a brief tour of the communal areas. A sleek and sophisticated open plan living area stood before us, complete with a particularly inviting open fireplace. Behind the impressively well-stocked ‘Explora’s Bar’ stood a gleaming barman and a large selection of spirits and Chilean wine.
The common area also housed an array of communal books, detailed wall maps and satellite imagery offering an insight into the local areas, geography and culture. Juan Pablo explained San Pedro de Atacama’s close proximity to neighbouring Bolivia and Argentina. The vast valley is bordered by no less than three mountain ranges and 32 volcanoes, 2438m above sea level. The ‘Oasis’ on which the explora lodge is located, rises from the Pacific Ocean up to the Altiplano, the foothills of the Andes. Known as the driest place on Earth, it was fascinating to hear that some areas have not experienced a drop of rain for around 400 years.
Conveniently located across the pretty, cobbled courtyard was our guest room. Although explora describes their lodges as providing the ‘luxury of essential’ namely a comfortable bed and a good shower, this to us seemed more like essential luxury! The room had been thoughtfully renovated to blend beautifully with its natural surroundings, offering an exceptionally high level of rustic-chic quality and comfort. There was no Wi-Fi or TV provided in the bedroom, which was very much welcome as we were certain that the long, active days and absence of any noise pollution would lull us into a beautiful deep sleep each evening. We moved through the room to the pièce de résistance – the killer view. We were presented with a picture perfect view of the salt mountain formations of the Cordillera de la Sal, with the towering Licancabur Volcano standing majestically before us. Wow!
After a quick freshen up it was time to meet with the explora guides to plan our next couple of days of adventures. We were given a fascinating presentation on the history of Atacama and its rich flora and fauna, before settling at a large glass table to discuss our tailored plan of action. With only one and a half full days in Atacama, plus our severe lack in any descent outdoor attire, our options were drastically narrowed down from the 40 or so explorations available including hikes, bike rides, horse rides and high mountain ascents.
Taking all the facts into consideration, it was decided that our first day of exploration would include an intermediate horseback ride through the rather menacing sounding Death Valley, before watching the sunset at the infamous Salar de Atacama salt plains. On return to the lodge we would partake in a group star gazing session at the onsite explora observatory. Our second day would encompass an extremely early start and a trek to the geothermal fields, before a well-earned loll in the bubbling hot springs.
We all agreed that this was a wonderful plan and without further ado, celebrated by hitting the open bar and indulging in an obligatory Pisco Sour and a glass of delightful Chilean Pinot Noir. The evening progressed as we dined in front of the open fire of the grand dining room, indulging in a delicious gourmet three-course meal accompanied by lashings of yet more exquisite Chilean wine.
With heavy bellies, we stumbled back to the room and sank into our luscious bed of dough, before gently drifting into a red-wine-smile accompanied deep slumber.
Our first full day began with a hearty, freshly prepared breakfast before we took the short walk to the onsite stables. Our guide explained that the horses at explora Atacama had been born and raised at the ranches belonging to the Ibanez Family in the Central Valley of Chile, and specifically trained for travellers and their explorations. Being located in the middle of the desert, explora cultivate 13 hectares of alfalfa on site, solely to feed these beautifully groomed animals.
Our guide asked which choice of saddle we would prefer to ride on – Chilean or English. Being English ourselves we both felt obliged to go for the latter, although we later learned that the Chilean variety offered far superior levels of derriere padding, which in hindsight would have made the 3 hour ride much more comfortable. Although we explained that any previous horse riding experience had consisted of not much more than a gentle walk accompanied by the occasional canter and accidental gallop, our guide was keen for us to challenge ourselves as we commenced our journey through the dusty, winding roads of the village, and it wasn’t long before we were picking up speed across the desert landscape to Death Valley or Valle de la Muerte. He explained that the name of the area actually had nothing to do with death itself, but had received this name due to a mistranslation in early times. The landscape bears a resemblance to the surface of Mars, but the word Mars was accidently translated to ‘muerte’ meaning death, and the name stuck. We weren’t sure if our guide had concocted this story to make us feel less scared but it worked and it wasn’t too long before we had cultivated enough courage to canter our way over the dramatic dunes and along the cornices of the spectacular Cordillera de la Sal. The panoramic views of the formidable formations under the glaring sun were nothing short of spectacular, and the 20km journey was made even more magical by experiencing it all on horseback.
We returned to the lodge in time to enjoy a well-earned three course hearty lunch, followed by a brisk walk into the small but bustling town of San Pedro de Atacama. The streets were lined with tourist inspired stores and tour companies but also had a welcoming family-friendly ambience. We successfully found a pair of alpaca woollen socks at the local market which our guide had insisted we purchase, in preparation for our very cold, early morning hike the next day.
Back to the lodge again, and it was time for our sunset exploration to Salar de Atacama. Our guide greeted us in the lobby before loading us onto the explora vehicle for the 55km drive. Seeing the vast expanse of hardened, jagged salt formations scattered across the ground, along with the polished mirror-like surface of the sun-drenched salt lake was a feast for the eyes to say the least. Salar de Atacama is the largest salt flat in Chile, and is surrounded by the Andes and also one of the most active volcanoes in the area, the Lascar. The Laguna Chaxa is dotted with an array of bright pink flamingos and our guide was excited to educate us on how to differentiate between the various species there.
Eventually, the sun started to set and its dramatic reflection along with that of the great surrounding mountain ranges was clearly visible on the salt lake’s surface. It was a breathtaking moment, where at this point, all that seemed to exist was us and a flock of pink flamingos.
We arrived back at the lodge just in time for our daily Picso Sour hit before descending on the small onsite observatory for our star-gazing session. The night air was bitterly cold as we huddled around the powerful telescope together with around 8 other explora guests. The informative guide described how the Atacama skies are amongst the clearest and best for astronomy, and that the explora observatory is the most advanced private observatory in the whole of Chile. One by one we peered through the lens of the powerful Meade 16” f/10 LX200R Advanced RD telescope to be greeted by fascinatingly far flung star constellations, until he pointed out the bright and clearly visible rings of Saturn. Each person gasped in turn, realising how lucky we were to experience this incredible sight, first hand. However, nothing could have fully prepared us for the next spectacle – the moon. As our guide gently manoeuvred the enormous telescope into position, a smile crept on his face each of us marvelled at the bright bubbly surface of the moon. This moment was one that we wouldn’t forget in a hurry – a mind-blowing trip highlight for us.
We reflected on our unbelievable day of exploration over our three-course gourmet dinner with a sense of complete accomplishment. The last 24 hours had already provided us with profound experiences, creating a whole new perspective and respect for our world and beyond.
After a blissful nights’ sleep, albeit a little on the short side, we hastily donned every item of clothing we could find in our suitcases before partaking in a quick dash around the breakfast buffet and climbing into the rather more rustic explora vehicle for the bumpy hour long ride to El Tatio Geothermal Fields. The sun was yet to surface and the outside temperature was around 10 below zero as we stood 4,500 meters above sea level. A moderate walk took us to the edge of the great bubbling geysers and over the rugged and rocky wind-eroded landscape, although the thin air atht that height made the walk feel even more challenging.
We were so grateful when our guide eventually set up a small table offering hot tea and biscuits, bringing life back into our refrigerated appendages, before the drive to the our next location, the Puritama geothermal hot springs.
On arrival at Puritama, we were relieved to see that the sun’s rays were now streaming down onto the land, although the air was still cold and crisp. We quickly stripped off our outer layers and wrapped ourselves up in the large white fluffy robes we were provided with. Seconds later, the robes were off and we plunged our chilly bodies straight into our private heated pool and little slice of paradise. The water was blissfully warm and soon enough, we had regained sensation in our little fingers and toes. Even better was the sight of our guide preparing a wonderful private picnic for us, complete with Chilean wines, fresh fruit, cheese and chocolate! It was a perfect end to our enchanted Atacama adventure.
We can’t wait to experience more of South America with explora. Will it be Peru, Bolivia, Argentina or more of Chile?
explora Atacama Inclusions:
- Transfers to and from Calama airport
- 50 rooms with breathtaking views of desert landscapes and Cordillera de la Sal
- There is no Wi-Fi or televisions provided in rooms – only in lodge’s common areas
- Three daily meals are provided in form of a set menu, which includes the use and flavours of prime ingredients indigenous to the area such as quinoa, a cereal that grows at an altitude of 3500m above sea level which has been cultivated since immemorial times by the Atacamenos.
- Outdoor swimming pools, sauna, steam baths and outdoor Jacuzzis
- Themed presentations
- Use of computers and Wi-Fi access in common areas
- On-site Observatory
- Turi Puri Massage Room located in a restored Colonial adobe-straw building
- Lodge based journeys and guided explorations including hikes, bike rides, high mountain ascents and horseback rides in groups of up to 8 travellers
SCRUBYSNACKS RATING: 5/5