Travel News

High & dry

A boutique lodge on the Chilean altiplano set against a backdrop of mountain ranges and dramatic skies is Emma Sloley’s base for exploring the highest, driest desert in the world, the Atacama.

The sky is exploding. Gouts of fiery crimson, purple and gold erupt from the cone of the Licancabur volcano. An eerie red glow rains down over a landscape that already resembles some antediluvian notion of the underworld. And then, the show finally over, an end-of-the-world darkness descends. "That was a great sunset," my husband Adam remarks approvingly. "Now let's go get a Pisco Sour."
We're in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a place where even that most commonplace of quotidian happenings - the sun's rising and setting - is charged with a touch of the bizarre. Here, in the northern tip of the country, where Chile rubs shoulders with Bolivia and Peru, is the highest and driest desert in the world. Parts of this region have never seen rain. On a map, Chile resembles one of those preposterously long snake beans, winding down the western coast of South America, smack up against the backbone of the formidable Andes mountain range. The geological violence that created this country also created one of the world's most alluring and diverse landscapes, from the altiplano (or high plain), where we are now, to the breathtaking wilds of Patagonia, some 3700 kilometres to the south.
We've checked in for five days at Tierra Atacama, a 32-room boutique lodge on the outskirts of the dusty town of San Pedro de Atacama, renowned among travellers of a certain stripe as a kind of desert ShangriLa thanks to its good vibes and numerous bars. The lodge - founded by the Purcell family, who also runs the Andean lodge Ski Portillo north of Santiago, and the much-lauded new Tierra Patagonia, spectacularly situated at the edge of the Torres del Paine national park in Chilean Patagonia - draws a particularly well-heeled set. But despite the fact they tend to arrive in BMWs, they're just as enthusiastically outdoorsy as the gung-ho, North Face-wearing crowd we later see ambling the streets of San Pedro.
At the lodge's heart is the huge living room, its design a pleasing mash-up of rustic, après-ski-style cosiness and Danish mid-century-modern motifs such as kidney-shaped coffee tables and curvy low-slung couches. Gnarled white birch branches are suspended from a dove-grey ceiling, while full-length glass doors overlook the Chilean wilderness, providing a perpetual conversation starter over dinner. There's a postmodern fireplace - a pile of branches ablaze on a long stone bench - and animal skins strewn across chairs and along bench seats. The villas, by contrast, are angular constructs of stone and timber, with outdoor showers and private terraces overlooking the majestic and ever-changing Licancabur.
The first order of business is meeting with one of Tierra Atacama's guides to plot the agenda for our stay. We might be nursing large glasses of carménère, Chile's gift to the wine world, but this is serious business. We sit beneath a gargantuan map, the kind you expect to perhaps bear a legend along the lines of "Beyond this place there be dragons". The surrounding landscape is depicted in fascinating detail, no doubt to entice guests from their cushy digs and out into the great beyond.
We study the map and descriptions of the myriad available options. The hardest part is narrowing it down: how is one supposed to choose between Salar de Tara - an excursion almost to the Argentine border to see the "nuns", an extraordinary collection of igneous rock plugs - and the magical, steamy Puritama Hot Springs? Or between the famed flamingos of the Atacama Salt Flat and the noble llamas of the high plains (not to mention their adorable cousins, the smaller vicuñas)? There's the opportunity to take a trip into town and check out the scene, or to soothe our (presumably soon to-be-aching) bodies at the spa. We can even climb a volcano if we're so inclined. It all sounds remarkable, but, alas, we are just two people and there are far more options than we have days.
(A new addition since our visit, the stargazing excursion, capitalises on Atacama's incredibly clear night skies: the local astronomy expert and owner of the Ahlarkapin Observatory, César Anza, leads guests on a two-hour adventure observing the firmament with naked eye and through state-of-the-art telescopes.)
Our guide makes suggestions based on time frame and level of fitness (it's possible we exaggerate this part), then beams with bonhomie when we finally settle on an itinerary - the staff here are like the wedding planners of the adventure world.
Our first adventure starts early the following morning as we climb bleary-eyed into the 4WD and head west to Valle de la Luna (the Valley of the Moon), an eerily beautiful depression of rust-red sandstone, salt caves and Brobdingnagian sand dunes. The place is aptly named: the landscape flashing by the windows - all petrified salt, sand and jagged, barren rock - resembles our lunar neighbour far more than it does our home planet. The valley is inside Los Flamencos National Reserve, while the millennia-old rock formations on the horizon form part of the Salto mountain range. The air is bone dry, and as soon as the car's engine dies away we're enveloped in silence. No animals, no birds, not even insects. We're the only visibly alive things in the landscape.
It's with a Picnic at Hanging Rock-esque sense of trepidation that we then make our way into the valley. The salt crystals in the rock creak and groan like tormented souls as we squeeze through narrow sandy corridors flanked by tall ragged formations. This is, according to our guide, one of the most visited parts of the Atacama Desert, but you'd never know it. There's an eerie emptiness here, even in the rocks' caves and crannies. (Personally, I choose to fill the emptiness with paranoid daydreams about losing my way in these labyrinthine rock formations, with no food, no water and no one to hear me scream.)
Back out in the open again, we stare up at a massive sand dune looming against the flawless blue dome of sky like the spine of a slumbering dinosaur. It's one of those breathtaking examples of nature's ability to create something utterly perfect. Beyond is a field of smaller dunes, all shaped over the centuries by the wind, and further away still, rock formations that resemble the intricate folds of origami. We clamber up the dunes for views of an endless world, then explore the handful of abandoned salt mines scattered throughout the valley - cathedral-like spaces carved out of the earth and studded with salt crystals that glitter like treasure. There's the relentless sun and the quiet. Our species feels fairly insignificant in the scheme of things.
We head back to the lodge for lunch, a three-course affair designed around South American staples such as quinoa, beef and lamb, and with vegetables grown in the kitchen garden. Chile's long coastline has also lent a love of seafood to the national cuisine, a welcome respite from the often-relentless dedication to beef elsewhere on the continent. Afterwards, we swing in hammocks in the grounds designed by well-regarded Chilean landscape artist Teresa Moller, who preserved the original ancient algarrobo and chañar trees on the site along with the old irrigation canals and adobe walls.
Our afternoon is devoted to Salar de Atacama, the immense salt flats marooned in a huge basin surrounded on all sides by mountains and home to three kinds of protected flamingos. Skinny salt-encrusted walkways wind through flats covered with flocks of the squawking, preening birds, all wading in briny upwellings of water from deep beneath the earth for the tiny shrimp that lend them their famously flamboyant colours. Sometimes they take off in flocks, flapping their preposterously large wings as though perpetually on the brink of crash landing. Flamingos are definitely more elegant on terra firma.
The car park begins to fill and the light starts to subtly change, and we realise we've unwittingly found ourselves with front-row seats at one of the Atacama Desert's most spectacular shows. Couples, groups and families jostle good-naturedly for position in one of several viewing areas in the salt marshes. The sun begins its swan song, and the majestic Andes are transformed: their peaks tinged first with ethereal gold, bleeding out to pink, purple, blue, rose and peach as the last rays of the dying day hit the range.
A collective sigh goes up and a thousand camera flashes go off - futile attempts to capture what simply cannot be captured.
That night back at the lodge, we're dying to share (read: brag about) our first Chilean day. We've come to the right place. The open-plan lounge room is abuzz with chic sweater-clad guests mingling, swapping stories and settling into woven leather stools at the long wooden bar to drink Pisco Sours, Chile's addictive concoction of grape liquor (pisco), bitters, sugar and fresh lime. We befriend two Brazilian women who rhapsodise about their day at the altiplanic lagoons. "You'll never see anything like eet," they advise in Portuguese-inflected Spanglish. "It was… [dreamy sigh]… magnificent!" Naturally, we feel panicky at the thought that we might have chosen the wrong excursions, and go into a huddle with one of the guides to see whether we should swap some things around (he assures us our itinerary is perfecto as it is).
After a dinner of grilled mahi mahi on quinoa, accompanied by some more of that fine carménère and plenty of good-naturedly competitive "What are you doing tomorrow?" conversations with our neighbours, we head back to our room to prepare for our big day of mountain biking.
At an hour that's not quite on the right side of decent, we set out from the lodge on a 10-kilometre ride. Our destination, reached via bumpy trails through arid countryside whose only landmark is a gnarled old tree, is a series of clear blue salty pools, dotted across plains of crystallised salt ringed by marsh grasses. The pools are as salt-heavy as the Dead Sea, and a few hardy souls strip down to their bathing suits and jump in to bob about like corks on the surface, screaming the moment their skin comes into contact with the frigid water.
In spite of shunning what our compatriots declare an invigorating plunge, I'm full of energy after our ride and raring to embark on the next excursion, an afternoon traversing a hidden canyon. We clamber our way down into the deep fissure; gigantic, monolithic cacti - irresistibly photogenic against the cornflower-blue sky - surround us. Two hours of scrambling over rocks, ambling along sandy paths and fording streams and we make it to the top, ready to triumphantly plant a flag and declare this ridge ours in the name of… something. We're not the first ones here, alas: a group of fuzzy, chilly-looking llamas stare up at us quizzically, then go back to grazing as if they've seen it all before.
There's something strangely seductive and shocking about this scenery, with its rivers and cacti and warm-blooded life thriving in the midst of the desert, and we feel smugly happy about having signed up for an excursion in similar countryside the following day. We strike a meandering course along the banks of the geothermal Puritama River, through glowing, head-high golden plants called fox tails and a silent, lonely canyon, before ending up at a series of cascading warm pools. The springs, not surprisingly, are well populated with other intrepid types, but there are plenty of pools and it doesn't take long to find one of our own in which to soak. When we emerge, a guide from the lodge has set out a high-altitude picnic of cheese, crackers, dried fruit and wine, a sight that shifts the scene a little closer to heaven.
The one place that keeps coming up in breathless conversation back at the lodge's nightly confab is the El Tatio geysers. A fitting choice, then, for our final excursion. We drag ourselves into an icy pre-dawn, swaddled in unimaginable numbers of layers, for a trip to this place of Atacama legend - a volcanic field of belching steam columns high in the mountains. The drive is long and time flows along like a dream: the first weak rays of dawn colour the mountain peaks a shade of silver by the time we arrive. We stagger around in the gloom like zombies, skirting the geysers (they're apt to erupt unexpectedly) as shadowy human forms loom out of the steam only to be swallowed up again. It's bitterly cold, prompting some visitors to strip off and jump into a nearby hot spring (hmm, no thanks). 
There's something exhilarating about beating the sun out of bed in this Mordor-like place: we huddle near the van, sipping hot chocolate and watching the indistinct dark shapes around us transform into mountains. Their stony peaks - millennia-old, monolithic, mysterious - are enough to render the most committed narcissist humbled, particularly when lit from behind with the first, slightly apocalyptic rosy fingers of dawn. So another day begins at the end of the world.