HALF MOON BAY, Calif., October 4, 2012 — Known as the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert spans 600 miles from Peru’s southern border into northern Chile. The plateau ranges from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes, rising from pampas to altiplano before the moonlike landscape halts at the white-capped volcanoes that mark the continental divide, which reaches up to 20,000 feet.
There are places here that have had no recorded rainfall for as long as humans have measured such things. The arid landscape has been used as a location for testing instruments, such as rovers for Mars exploration. It’s also home to the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), the largest astronomical project in existence.
The region has a wealth of adventures awaiting visitors who want to get outdoors. With green canyons, rivers, lakes, geysers, salt flats, sand dunes, natural hot springs, and abundant wildlife, there’s much more to do than watch the dust blow across the altiplano.
In my short stay last month, I hiked in areas ranging from 8,000 to 13,000 feet, rode on horseback through canyons, watched flocks of flamingos settle across a salt flat at sunset, and awoke before dawn to visit geysers at 14,100 feet just as the sun rose.
The Cordillera de la Sal (Salt Mountain Range) lies between the Domeyko Range and the Andes. In the Salt Mountains and the Valle de la Muerte (Death Valley) vast rust-colored rock formations look like a dragon’s spine as they undulate below the stunning blue sky. A salty crust, due to a large quantity of calcium sulfate and looking sometimes like glittery icing, is scattered across the range. Hiking, biking and horseback excursions are popular here.
Hikers and mountain bikers also love the Machuca Valley, where a path follows the riverbed, providing vistas of wildflowers and the abandoned mountain village and terraces of Peñaliri. The village of Machuca is a stopping place to enjoy local delicacies (I had goat cheese empanadas), sightsee, or shop for alpaca handicrafts.
One of the best places to ride Atacameñan horses is in the Devil’s Canyon. After crossing the San Pedro River, the horses gradually climb a path that winds through the canyon’s clay cliffs before arriving atop the Catarpe plateau. Experienced riders may get a chance to gallop at full speed down gigantic sand dunes on the way home.
Three kinds of flamingos can be found in the National Flamingo Reserve at the Salar de Atacama (Atacama Salt Flat): Andean, Chilean, and James’s. The sea of salt is made up of small blue, turquoise, pink, or gray salty lagoons, formed by streams of surfacing water from a large salt lake that lies beneath the white crusty layer. It’s in these lagoons that the flamingos feed off the microscopic lagoon life. Tours here often focus on the rosy light of sunset when the flamingos congregate before evening comes.
The Tatio Geysers, at an altitude of 14,100 feet, is in a geothermal field with close links to volcanic activity in the region. The huge steam columns, measuring up to 40 feet, are most active right at dawn. It’s worth the early wake-up, however. There’s always time to nap between adventures later in the day.
Where to Stay
There are a variety of choices in the San Pedro de Atacama region, ranging from hostel-type accommodations to luxury resorts. I stayed at Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa, one of the luxury properties. But here’s the thing: it’s all-inclusive luxury with amazing service.
The resort’s 32 rooms come in three styles: Oriente, Poniente and Family. Oriente rooms have big-window and terrace views of the Licancabur volcano. Poniente rooms are more spacious and have volcano views, but the patios look out on mountains and the property’s farmland. Family rooms, ideal for families or groups traveling together, sleep up to six people. All hotel rooms have outdoor showers, L’Occitane products, robes, slippers, hairdryers, in-room safes, bottled water, and complimentary Wi-Fi.
There’s a two-night minimum at Tierra Atacama. Rates start at $970 per person for two nights. Staying an odd number of nights? Half of the two-night rate is $485. Tierra Atacama’s all-inclusive offerings include transfers to and from Calama airport, three meals per day and open bar, daily excursions (either two half-day excursions or one full-day excursion each day) and use of the Uma Spa facilities (treatments are available for an additional charge).
Jill K. Robinson is an award-winning journalist and adventure seeker. Follow her adventures on dangerjillrobinson.com and Twitter @dangerjr. Jill is an avid kayaker and owner of Half Moon Bay Kayak Company.
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