How to moonwalk: a beginner’s guide to the Atacama Desert

Luxury Travel By Brian Norton |

Elon Musk et al might be paving the way for the first interplanetary boutique retreat but for the time being, the closest the rest of us can get to experiencing another world is to visit the eerie salt flats, soundless moon valleys and Mars-like landscape of the Atacama Desert in Chile. Even if your sights are set beyond our galaxy, you’re still in the right place: the world’s driest desert is also tailor-made for stargazing. Here’s our intergalactic guide…

San Pedro de Atacama (2,400 metres above sea level)

Your gateway into this arid landscape is the dusty oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama, watched over by the Licancabur volcano, which glows caramel red at sunset. The town’s modest adobe dwellings are hewn from the same terracotta clay as the surrounding desert; the sun’s heat means things move at a satisfyingly snail-like pace. High-street tour operators promise Atacama highlights at enticing prices, but if you want the certainty of avoiding crowds or unexpected fees, organise a private tour through your hotel (in fact, guides and 4x4s are included at many San Pedro stays).

Licanabur volcano, San Pedro de Atacama; photo via Getty

Valle de la Luna (2,200 metres above sea level)

Roughly 13 kilometres west of San Pedro is the Valley of the Moon, a region so reminiscent of alien landscapes that NASA used it as a testing ground for the Mars Rover. Soak up apocalyptic levels of silence on strolls across russet-hued dunes and admire the peculiar remnants of prehistoric inland seas: saline sculptures that at first glance appear man-made. Sunsets at the Mirador de Kari, where tourists queue for photos atop the seemingly precarious Piedra del Coyote, are pink-and-purple affairs but, again, your private guide has access to quieter sundowner spots.

El Tatio (4,320 metres above sea level)

The Licancabur volcano is one of several buttonholing the western edge of the Andes, including Sairecabur, Cerro Toco and Lascar (the latter of which still erupts on an eight-year cycle). With all this seismic disturbance, it would be strange if there wasn’t some geothermal surface activity, and you’ll find it 80 kilometres north of San Pedro at the El Tatio geyser field, an expanse of smouldering sinkholes, gurgling mud and scorching jets of water. There’s a hot spring here, but we’d recommend Termas Banos de Puritama (about halfway to El Tatio) for the miniature waterfalls connecting its seven or eight warm-water pools.

Salar de Atacama (2,300 metres above sea level)

The Atacama’s extraordinary salt flats, about 50 kilometres south of San Pedro, are the third largest on the planet and home to fleets of Andean, Chilean and James flamingos. The peculiar coral-like landscape was created when water, flowing from the glacier-rich Andes, filled this desert basin before drying up. On the way you can stop to float weightlessly at Laguna Cejar, a sinkhole with a similar concentration of salt to the Dead Sea. And if it’s flamingos you’re after, we recommend the otherworldly Chaxas Lagoon, part of Los Flamencos National Reserve.

Wild flamingos, Atacama Desert, Chile

Wild flamingos in an Atacama Desert salt lagoon; photo via Getty

Aymara Culture

Pre-Columbian tribes such as the Aymara and Atacameño have inhabited Chile’s desert regions for centuries, cultures so strong the invading Spanish failed to wipe them out. The blend of Christian and indigenous ideas is most obvious in the adobe architecture of San Pedro’s Catholic Church, said to be the second oldest in Chile, and in the festivals that take place each year. One of the more remarkable is March’s Festival of the Dancing Bear, in which the town’s men dress in heavy fur suits and dance for hours until they’re close to collapse – all in the name of attracting a partner.

Stargazing

A profoundly cloudless region, some parts of the Atacama Desert haven’t seen rain for 400 years. This makes it perfect for observing the night skies, a fact not lost on the world’s various space programmes: by 2020, Chile will house 70 per cent of the Earth’s astronomical infrastructure. On weekends you can visit the ALMA Observatory, 50 kilometres east of San Pedro and 5,000 metres above sea level, where 66 enormous radio telescopes are scouring the stars for evidence of the early universe. Or, join a stargazing tour organised by your hotel (the one at Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa is run by a local Atacameño and is fascinating) to observe the moon, Saturn’s rings, assorted nebulae and distant galaxies.

ALMA Observatory, Atacama Desert, Chile

ALMA Observatory telescopes; photo via ESO/C. Malin

Getting here and around

El Loa Airport in Calama is the closest to San Pedro de Atacama. International flights connect via Santiago, which is roughly two hours away on frequent short-hop flights. Stays at Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, Awasi Atacama and Explora Atacama include airport transfers. Organise bespoke tours with your in-house desert expert (at Awasi, each lodge is assigned a private guide and a 4×4), and speak to them about alternative modes of seeing the desert, such as by horse or hot-air balloon.

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