You don’t need to walk on the moon; there’s a place on earth that’s just like it — and maybe even more beautiful. The Atacama Desert is the place with the clearest skies on earth, that give you a surreal blue by day and a gazillion stars by night. This unexpected bucket list destination is where the mountains are purple and even at 6,000+ feet, there’s water more turquoise than the Caribbean. The Atacama Desert is a place you need to know.
Located in Chile at an elevation of 8,200 feet with excursions that take you over 14,000 feet, Atacama is for adventurers, or those who just like beautiful places. Not at all your plain vanilla desert, San Pedro de Atacama is one of the most unique places in the world. With terrain that ranges from snow-capped mountains, to lagoons as turquoise as the Caribbean, to canyons that go for miles, and active volcanoes, the Atacama feels like another planet. This desert is the driest desert on earth, and because of that, it creates conditions for the clearest skies to frame the landscape. What’s also unique about Atacama is there’s an authentic rustic town, with adobe huts, and unpaved dusty streets but a real restaurant and nightlife scene.
Where to Stay
You may think the Atacama is about roughing it, but with home base as Explora, an eco-resort, you’ll experience nothing but exceptional service, five-star food and not to mention open bar. Not a do-it-yourself vacation if you want to do it right, Explora takes you to the most remote and unspoiled of the Atacama, where only the brave dare to drive. The lodge, located a 10 minute walk from town, is all about making the eco-adventure authentic yet comfortable. If you’re with friends, family or solo, the group excursions and the best horseback riding in the area make Explora one of the top options.
For those that want private excursions and a more romantic and couples focused hotel, Awasi is the answer. At Awasi, you get your own car, driver and private excursions, so you could realistically go most of the trip without a lot of outside interaction. In other words, some real quality one on one time, with your significant other. Rooms are like their own oasis, with cozy fireplaces, patios and the option to dine in each night.
Tierra is the hotel for those who are into high design, and modern aesthetics. Architecture buffs are fans of their sister hotels, especially the ultra modern Patagonia property. In the Atacama, they blend contemporary with unique indigenous art, and play off the more remote location with views of the desert and Licancabur Volcano. At night, it’s all about the stargazing since there’s no ambient light from town because of its more remote location.
You don’t come to Atacama though to sit in your room, no matter how nice it is. This is about exploring the natural beauty of the diverse topography of the desert. Afternoon excursions could include a horseback ride through the sand dunes in the Vallee de la Muerta, as you get introduced to the desert on the Cornisas route. If horses aren’t your thing, there’s also running through sand dunes, as you hike for miles through the desert and mountains. Afterwards, you can catch the flamingos at sunset at the Salar de Atacama.
On the more tame physical activity side, you can ride over to the famed Geysers and the Hot Springs Purtima. One of the most beautiful, and a locals favorite is the Salares del Altiplano. This is hands down the most beautiful place in the Atacama, with its lagoons and salt planes that are the color of Caribbean water. There are dozens of excursions to explore in the Atacama, the difficulty of which is completely up to you. Here easy is really easy on the scale of fitness, and difficult means that you better be brave and in great shape.
At some point in the Atacama Desert, you should hike the Moon Valley, where you will wander through old canyons where the water has since long gone dry, and watch a stunning sunset, where the purple mountain is majesty and darkness falls quickly. In the Moon Valley, these majestic canyons, dare we say, dwarf the Grand Canyon. You have to see it, to believe it.
A Walk Through Town
You should take a few hours though to wander around town through the shops, Paseo Peatonal where the shops sell the handmade goods from Chile, Peru and Bolivia. Perfect souvenirs are the handmade hats for children, jewelry for friends and alpaca blankets. The quality is much higher than you would expect.
The darkness comes just in time, for the lively nighttime scene of restaurants, watering holes and even the underground after-hours parties. You’ll want to experience the signature pastel de choclo, a corn dish that is a speciality of the region, in town. The food at your lodge is going to be the closest to Michelin-level, but you get the full experience with at least a night in town. You’ll sit on stone seats and socialize with the locals, where it’s perfectly safe to wander around in the evenings. La Casona is a romantic locale, with a bonfire in the back terrace. Here food is secondary to the atmosphere, as you dine among candlelit tables in the desert night. For the locale go-to place, head to El Adobe, where the food borders on great, with quesadillas and ceviche that are the real deal.
The “fiestas clandestines”, which are the illegal afterhours parties, go in and out of fashion, depending upon the season and the DJ. When in fashion, they are the place to be late night, spinning great music and a lively scene. When out of fashion, they’re dicey, plagued by the Bolivian drug scene. Check in with the locals to get a pulse on the parties.