Chile’s Atacama desert is the highest desert in the world, and it’s also the driest. (Cue 1995-era Radiohead song.) This northern region of Chile, close to the Bolivian border, gets an average of 10 minutes of rain a year. That’s good news for travelers who don’t want bad weather to spoil their trip, but it also means you need to be considerate of factors like dryness and altitude when you plan a vacation to this gorgeous region of South America.
To get to the Atacama, you’ll need to fly to Santiago and then transfer to a domestic flight to the northern town of Calama. The locals joke that Calama – mostly occupied by local laborers who live in identical tract homes – is the ugliest place in Chile, but it happens to be smack in the middle of one of the most beautiful ones. To get a more authentic desert experience, stay at the Alto Atacama Lodge – the drive (you can rent a car or arrange for someone from the hotel to pick you up) takes about an hour and fifteen minutes from the airport, and by the time you get there you’ll feel as if you’re at the end of the world – which, of course, is precisely the idea.
Because of its secluded location, the Atacama is a full-service resort, offering three meals a day plus planned excursions. There are also on-site attractions worth checking out, including three pools, a spa offering everything from a massage to a quinoa facial (the trendy grain is a staple of the Chilean diet), a rock garden, and even an adorable pack of llamas and alpacas. The kitchen balances out classic Chilean flavors with American ones, but be on the lookout for local favorites like pastel de choclo (the local take on a shepherd’s pie, but with corn and ground beef), an array of multicolored potatoes, and ice cream made from rica-rica, an herb that grows in the area.
Once you decide to venture out into the desert, you have a variety of options to work with, whether your skill level is more rugged adventurer or timid socialphobe. There are hikes through the gorges and valleys, sandboarding classes (think snowboarding, but on a sand dune), and a trip up to the El Tatio Geysers, which require a 5:30 AM wakeup time but are absolutely worth it for the view. You can also head into the town of San Pedro, which has cute cafes, authentic souvenir shops (now’s the time to look for alpaca-wool sweaters and socks), and necessary-for-life ATMs and pharmacies.
It’s easy to be mesmerized by the beauty of the Atacama, but it’s also much easier to feel unwell at this high altitude. To make sure your head feels as serene as the rest of your body, ask the front desk to put a humidifier (the word you want in Spanish is humidificador) in your room to keep you from getting too dehydrated, and abstain from meat or alcohol if you plan to get up earlier or hit higher elevations. And while trying out a homemade pisco sour is practically a rule in this part of the world, make sure you also balance it out with plenty of water.
As with most remote getaways, the real magic is in the details. At night, the sky is so choked with stars that urban dwellers will think they’ve accidentally wandered into a planetarium. Open your back door, pull a chair outside, and just soak up the emptiness of it all. You’ll be glad you did.
Text and photos by Lilit Marcus for PeterGreenberg.com