6 November 2015 by Rachel Mostyn
Chile’s Atacama Desert is often touted as the driest place on earth – apparently no rainfall has ever been recorded in some areas – and is home to an extraordinary range of otherworldly landscapes and natural phenomena. It is one of Chile’s most famous attractions (along with Easter Island and Patagonia) and steadily growing in popularity.
Any destination that can claim a virtual guarantee of no rain rather appeals to me, so when organising a recent holiday to Chile I planned my itinerary around a visit to the region.
The small town of San Pedro de Atacama is the hub for all of the activity in the region, a base for backpackers and luxury travellers alike. Although it has grown and now includes a handful of luxury lodges, development of the town has been carefully restricted so that it still retains its charming frontier town feel. Virtually all the buildings are made of traditional adobe, some whitewashed, and others retaining their natural brown colour.
San Pedro’s location in the Andes, at a height of just over 2,400m, generally means warm, clear days and cool nights. Daytime temperatures reach the mid 20s all year round, with an almost complete absence of humidity. Evenings are cool – and night temperatures can dip below freezing during winter – but this is a destination that can absolutely be enjoyed at any time of year.
I chose to stay at Tierra Atacama Hotel and Spa – a rustic-luxury lodge located on the outskirts of San Pedro. Its location is arguably the best of all the luxury lodges in the area, with stunning views of the mountain range and the dramatic Licancabur volcano that both form part of the border with neighbouring Bolivia.
The design of the property has won awards and many plaudits and it's easy to see why. Thoughtful use of local stone, wood, adobe and other materials means that, whilst stylish and luxurious, the lodge is the product of its location. For example, adobe walls from the original cattle corral were incorporated into the design.
The main building houses the reception area, bar, restaurant and lounge areas in an accessible, open-plan layout. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide superb views of the mountains and make the common areas feel extremely spacious. The lounge area has a cosy corner with a log fire – ideal for relaxing with an after-dinner glass of wine. Immediately outside are inviting seating areas around fire-pits – an ideal spot to watch the regular spectacular sunsets.
A small spa offers a surprisingly wide range of treatments and are very reasonably priced by international standards for a hotel of this quality. There are two pools – one indoor and one outdoor (which is not heated, so can be very ‘fresh’) – both offering a range of loungers and seating for relaxing in between adventures.
The resort offers 32 spacious rooms, in three different layouts. Décor is simple, in keeping with the rustic-luxury concept, with a subtle combination of frosted glass, wood, slate and local fabrics.
Oriente rooms offer floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors than open out to a terrace facing Licancabur volcano. The terrace includes two deck chairs and an enclosed adjacent private lounging area, making it perfect for stargazing at night. Beds are large, comfortable and are safari-esque four-posters. Bathrooms offer both indoor and outdoor showers – a nice touch.
Poniente rooms are larger and raised to a slightly higher level to allow views of Licancabur through large windows (effectively over the top of the Oriente rooms). Rooms are similarly equipped but with a few differences; for example beds are not four-posters and these rooms have the advantage of a bath (in addition to indoor and outdoor showers). Each room also has a terrace, this time overlooking the Salt Mountain range in the other direction.
The two duplex ’family rooms’, catering for a family of up to six, consist of a master bedroom and bathroom on the top floor with a large external terrace with views to the volcanoes and downstairs consists of two comfortable bedrooms each with a separate bathroom. This accommodation configuration is unique to Tierra Atacama and makes it an ideal option for families.
Whilst the quality of many of Chile’s wines is well known, the quality of food on offer was something of a revelation and meals at Tierra are a treat.
Breakfast is buffet-style, with a wide range of cereals, fruits, wonderful breads and a range of cooked options but the star of the show is the melt-in-the-mouth Chilean smoked salmon – truly delicious and something I'd highly recommend.
Lunch and dinner are both à la carte from a small but excellent menu that changes for every meal. A choice of 2 starters, 3 mains and 3 deserts is offered, with the emphasis on fresh local produce and Chilean flavours. Main courses options typically include one fish or seafood dish, a beef or lamb dish or a vegetarian option; sample main include grilled sea bass with sautéed spinach and native potatoes with shrimp garlic sauce, grilled mahi mahi with pinot noir sauce, cornflour and sautéed vegetables, beef short plate with red fruits sauce and mashed yuca potato and grilled rib eye served with sweet corn tamale and chancho en piedra sauce.
Other than the daily specials menu there is an ‘alternative’ menu of classics like steak dishes but the variety and quality on offer was such that I never felt the need to look beyond the daily menu.
A wide range of wines is included in the tariff, with a several whites and reds including chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, syrah and Chile’s celebrated carménère, along with a sparkling Chandon (from Argentina) – great for an apéritif.
After an impromptu wine-tasting on the first night – encouraged by an enthusiastic bartender - I can vouch for the quality of virtually all the wines on offer but special mention must be of the superb wines from the Matetic vineyard, which are not only organic but produced to strict bio-dynamic standards. A decent range of premium wines is also available at extra cost.
However enjoyable the time spent at the property, the main reason to visit is to experience the incredible landscapes of the Andean desert and altiplano.
The sheer range of excursions on offer at Tierra is mind-boggling. All are included in the price of a stay (up to 2 excursions per day per person). You can visit geysers, hot springs, altiplanic lagoons, salt flats and see petroglyphs. You can hike through dramatic gorges, climb volcanoes, mountain bike through overhanging canyons or enjoy more sedate activities like horse-riding and stargazing. Physical activities are graded into easy, moderate and difficult, catering to all levels of fitness and interest.
Stargazing excursions are on offer – and included in the price of your stay (like all excursions!)
On one day during my stay there were no less than 9 separate excursions being operated, some for as few as 2 guests at a time, all being run with military precision. Whilst there I opted for a half day mountain biking trip into the impressive Devil’s Canyon, a half-day/sunset tour of the aptly named Valle de la Luna and a full-day excursion to impressive El Tatio Geysers.
For the last of these trips, we set off at 5.30am to arrive at the geysers in time to see the rising sun illuminating the vast columns of steam from the geothermal field. At an altitude of 4,300m – almost the height of the Matterhorn – the place is breathtaking in both a literal and figurative sense. After spending a really enjoyable couple of hours walking among the geysers we were treated to an al fresco breakfast of overlooking the geothermal field.
All excursions are escorted by knowledgeable and friendly guides who appear to have been chosen as much for their ability to engage with clients as their knowledge. Indeed a relaxed and friendly atmosphere continues throughout the resort, where the service feels effortlessly efficient and natural.
This is the type of luxury lodge that I thoroughly enjoy. The combination of superb location, great adventures and a chance to taste the very best of the country makes Tierra Atacama a great centrepiece for any itinerary to the region. While my four-night stay was immensely satisfying the variety and quality is such that you could easily spend a week at Tierra and not experience everything that is on offer.