By Tiffany Chek
San Pedro de Atacama is a small dusty town located on the doorstep of the world’s driest dessert, Atacama. Often overlooked in favour of the more ‘iconic’ destinations in South America, San Pedro de Atacama is definitely worth a stop. It’s also a great way to connect overland to or from Bolivia via the Uyuni Salt flats or to or from Argentina via Salta. San Pedro offers dramatic landscapes from moonscape desserts, to spouting geysers, Altiplanico lakes and salt flats.
This was my third time, (yes, third time!) in San Pedro de Atacama and it didn’t disappoint. I must say, that this could be partly due to the fact that this time around I was doing it in style at Explora Atacama where it’s all about experiences and the journey but not forgetting about creature comforts!
Explora Atacama is luxury lodge without the pretention. Furnishings aren’t lavish but cosy and welcoming. The lodge also has an ambience of exploration and adventure and has an environmentally friendly attitude. This is evident from the first moment you are greeted at the airport where they hand you your very own refillable Explora water bottle which is yours to keep and refill at the water filling station at the exploration meeting point. There are also paper bags to fill up with healthy snacks of dried fruit and nuts to take on your exploration in case you need to refuel on your journey.
Shortly after our arrival we met at the bar which is a great meeting hub and hang out and a great place to grab a drink and a snack (which we were all really grateful for since we flew during lunchtime and had to settle for cheese sticks on the plane). Once we were all suitably refreshed we sat down for a short welcome presentation introducing the magnificent Atacama Desert and surrounds and the philosophy of Explora which focusses on getting you out and about to experience as much as you can about the area. We then continued into the exploration room which consisted of fantastic glass table maps where the guides could draw on and explain and recommend suitable explorations to us. This meeting happens every night of your stay to plan the excursion for the next day. Groups are small and you can choose to do a different excursion from your travelling companion if you both have different interests.
Our first excursion was to the Moon valley, a must see when coming to Atacama, which showcases a dramatic dessert landscape that would have you believe you had landed on Mars. I had been here twice before, but this time I was on an exclusive trail only accessible to Explora. We were the only ones there which makes a nice change from the usual excursion with hordes of other tourists.
The next excursion was a morning hike which was made a little bit more arduous due to the altitude and the cold but we were rewarded at the end with a dip in the hot springs of Puritama where we also enjoyed a lovely spread of cheese, prosciutto, smoked salmon, fruit and of course Chilean wine… you get the picture!
In the afternoon we headed to Salar de Atacama which is the largest salt flat in Chile and has dramatic views of the Licancabur and Lascar volcanoes. There are also 3 of the 5 different species of pink flamingos in the world located here but only the Andean and Chilean flamingos were here this time. We stayed for a magnificent sunset and headed back to the lodge for yet another delicious 3 course meal and then stargazing later that night.
Atacama is also the one of the best places in the world for star gazing and Explora Atacama have their own observatory. This is not to be missed and make sure you rug up as even though this is the desert it is REALLY cold at night. We managed to see Saturn and its rings…. even though it did look like someone had just stuck a sticker on the lens!
Regrettably this was only a short stay this time and we didn’t have enough time to sample the many excursions on offer which ranged from easy to very demanding. For those wishing to tackle the volcano ascents you need at least 3 – 4 nights to acclimatise due to the high altitude. Explora also have their very own stables with several different exploration by horseback on offer. And the best part after a hard day exploring the magnificent sites that Atacama has to offer is that you can come back to the comfort of Explora and wash the dust off in the spa bath in your room or take your pick of the outdoor Jacuzzi, sauna or steam room or cool off in the pool. And if you don’t have that pre-dawn excursion to visit the spectacular El Tatio Geysers the next day, enjoy a night cap by the cosy fire.