Lakes, llamas and lunar landscapes - head to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile and you'll find one of the world's greatest adventure destinations
The Atacama is one of the highest and driest deserts in the world. For me, it is also one of the ultimate adventure destinations on any travel tick list. The action centres around the San Pedro de Atacama Oasis (2443m), from where you can mountain bike to the nearby salt flats, ride beautifully groomed horses through the desert sands, hike the surrounding volcanoes, slowly building up altitude, and explore the mind-blowing lunar-like landscape.
Now a popular base for excursions into the desert, San Pedro was a historically vital trading post and watering hole for the pre-Incan Atacameño civilisation. The oasis is fed by underground rivers flowing down from the volcanoes and high mountain plains, but the absolute desert between the airport and San Pedro has been dry for 300 years.
The surrounding mountain ranges have been sculpted of salt and coloured by sand and the landscape looks like one of the most inhospitable places on earth. However, some of the wildlife you see here is more vibrant and colourful than you could possibly imagine. Mineral lakes bleed blood red or dazzle with turquoise splendour, and are home to thousands of pink flamingos. Some of the many perfectly formed volcanoes reach up to 6000m, from where the sky fades out from ocean blue overhead to an echo of sky blue on the horizon.
Herds of llamas and alpacas roam the highlands, giving their skins to keep people warm and their meat to keep them from hunger. While they bear the cold at night, we lucky travellers have a few options, with one of the best being the Tierra Atacama hotel & spa
, Hotel de Larache
. The futuristic main building, with its movable walls, abstract cut-outs and skewered walkways, self-consciously blurs the boundaries between inside and out. In the courtyard bedrooms, letterbox windows look out over a network of four L-shaped pools, cubist poolhouses and saunas, surrounded by volcanic peaks and perfect for bathing under the desert sun. It is a sublime base for the introspective traveller the landscape dictates you become.
Inspired by the success of the explora, the Tierra Atacama hotel & spa
is another design hotel combining the best of contemporary architecture with the wild remoteness of the Atacama landscape. It opened in 2008, with views over the Licanabur volcano. However, these two are pretty top end and there are also a few more great and very charismatic places to stay in the centre of San Pedro.
The town itself is an oasis in more ways than one. It oozes style and character from its low-slung adobe houses and volcanic stone walls. It's as if the imagination the landscape inspires has also coloured the town, putting it on a par with Cusco as one of my favourite towns in South America. It is also the launch pad for the journey across the Bolivian altiplanos to the Salar de Uyuni, one of the most spectacular journeys in the world.