The high life

Chile’s stunningly beautiful but harsh Atacama desert, the driest place on earth, is a place of intriguing contrasts

Sat, Nov 23, 2013, 01:00

‘Do you have a coat? He says it’s minus 12 up there.” The voice is a tad nervous and its owner scurries off hurriedly to see if he can find something warmer to don at 6am before we set off. I’m not bothered; I prefer the cold and stick with my T-shirt and fleece. The “up there” to which the anxious voice refers is Tatio, an area of geysers some 4,300 metres above sea level in the heart of the Atacama desert of northern Chile, nudging the border with Bolivia. The Andes separate the two countries.

Just then, our guide Lius emerges into the pre-dawn half light. “Peter,” he exclaims with a smile, “are you ready? Did you bring your swimming gear?”

I am in the driest place on the face of the earth for the second day of my stay at the Explora Hotel in San Pedro de Atacama but it’s already clear that the desert is a place of intriguing contrasts.

A few minutes after 6am and we’re off – Lius and me and a film crew of English lads – two Gregs, Goodall and Charters, Matt Brocklehurst and Cain Scrimgeour, all of Adventures Without Limit, or AWOL. They are making an online ad for American Express in which the main character is an old fashioned suitcase, whose stickers from places visited bespeak a life of adventure.

The road out of San Pedro de Atacama, an oasis town of some 5,000 people, is unpaved but smooth. It’s made of salt, says Luis, salt mixed with mud and sand and compacted through use. It rains here but once a year, usually in February, briefly but intensely, often resulting in destructive flash floods. But today, in late October, the threshold of the Chilean summer, the place is as dry as a bone.

San Pedro is at the northern tip of a 3,000sq km salt lake (largely dry) named the Salar de Atacama. To the west across arid desert is the small city of Calama whose population of 140,000 is almost wholly dependent, either directly or indirectly, on the vast Chuquicamata open cast copper mine just outside town, producer of much of Chile’s wealth.

To the east of San Pedro a chain of volcanoes form a backdrop to the little town. Ten to 20 million years ago they spewed billions of tons of lava, ash and dust, carpeting the region and turning it largely barren, the Earth’s angry response to great movements deep beneath its surface.

Once we move away from any greenery of the oasis, the landscape appears more and more lunar and sometimes Martian.
Our road heads north towards Tatio, a name meaning “the grandfather who cries”. We climb steadily through a valley, skirting the shoulders of the volcanoes.

As the sun breaks the tops of the cone-shaped mountains, extinguishing Jupiter, Orion, Sirius and the rest of the majesty of the crystal clear desert night sky, the landscape reveals itself in sharp outline.

The volcanoes stand tall against the blue morning. The land below them is at times a vast expanse of gritty cinder ash, at other times an expanse, mile upon mile, of sand or rocks the size of tennis balls. Sometimes the road plunges into a deep ravine, the way lined with huge volcanic boulders and those tall cacti beloved of cartoonists.

In some places nothing, absolutely nothing, can be seen growing: the landscape is utterly barren. And then there will appear a large area dotted with yellow-coloured scrub, a dense knot of stiff grass that grows no more than about 12 inches tall.

Up, up ever higher we rise to the Altiplano, the area of the geysers but also (astonishingly) of lakes and streams and wetlands teeming with life. The air at 4,300 metres is thin; exertion leads quickly to exhaustion; blood vessels rupture inside one’s nostrils and they begin to feel like sandpaper and itch. But the exhilaration felt at being in such a place overcomes such minor discomfort.

Up here it is, truly, like being on another planet. It looks and feels extremely hostile: this is not a place to be on one’s own, or without a vehicle. It is not, most definitely, a place in which to get lost. Without water, without protection of some sort, a person here is at the mercy of extreme elements, and nature doesn’t do mercy.

But despite the hostility of the environment to humans, life is all about us. Among the shrubs stroll families of vicuña, an antelope-sized creature that looks like the result of an encounter between a deer and a llama. It can extract nourishment from the yellow ground shrubs that feel to human touch like a porcupine coat (and look about as appetising). Viscacha, rabbit-sized rodents, also live here, as do foxes, one of which sat nonchalantly and looked at us when our minibus stopped beside him. Occasionally, birds of prey hover overhead, waiting to swoop.

We progress along a valley floor of sand and grit as, in the distance, tucked under Tatio, we get our first glimpse of the geysers – huge columns of rising steam, occasionally blotting out the dawn sun, but sometimes also lit up by it and turned into great translucent sheets in the sky.

The geysers spew and belch their mineral-rich hot water out of bubbling holes, large and small. Little rivulets of steaming water trickle from the holes. Luis mentions a French tourist who fell in some time back and was killed almost instantly, boiled alive in seconds, his skin peeling off as people tried to pull him out.

How disconcerting then to notice, that within a few inches of this boiling water trickling away from the holes in tiny rivulets, a skin of ice forms, a rapid reaction to the minus nine degrees centigrade temperature of the air.

All of this as the sun rises in the sky and will shortly be beating down between 30 and 45 degrees, depending on the time of year. For us, here in the early summer, it will hit the early to mid-30s by late morning.

Luis bends down at one trickle of water and picks up an orange coloured worm-like object. “A unicellular organism,” he explains – life in a most basic form in a place hostile to so much that is living.

The streams that flow from the geysers merge into small rivers providing, in places, habitats for flamingos, Andean geese, Puna Teal and coots, before plunging down to give life to San Pedro.

The water dies in the salt flat, though there are a few salt lakes. Swimming in them is very weird, and difficult. With the excessive salty buoyancy, it’s impossible to get one’s body sufficiently underwater to propel oneself forward with any momentum. Facial water dries almost instantly, leaving a brittle, salty crust in its wake.

But on the stream’s descent, in one mini-Grand Canyon type valley off the Altiplano, a series of small dams has been created, giving rise to a string of plunge pools linked by a boardwalk. The temperature of the water here is 33 degrees and it is not yet salty. Good job I brought my trunks . . .

The pools are surrounded by clumps of pampas grass; patio tables display chilled white wine and nibbles. Lazing here is a delicious luxury.

The Valle de la Muerte – the aptly named Valley of Death – is not a place for lazing away an afternoon. But it is a place for a memorable 3km hike. A few of us head off one morning – Karin, a Brazilian-American from Rio, and Hal and Corinne Prewitt, two Americans from Florida. Our four-wheel drive lumbers its way up a dirt track about 10km outside San Pedro, stopping eventually for us to get out and walk.

Up several steep inclines and then, a spectacular view – in one direction, a panorama across a flat-floored valley of nothingness but grit and pumice and dust and sand. In the distance, San Pedro and, beyond, the snow-capped Andes.

Directly in front of us, beneath a jagged escarpment, lies a canyon of wind sculpted lava, ravines filled with rock pillars, standing sentinel, facing a huge sand dune that climbs up the side of the canyon right to the top, where we stand looking down.

To get to the bottom, you run down that huge dune. If you are a 20-something, you can descend by snowboard. We are not 20-somethings; we scamper down, taking great big long plunging strides in the soft, squidgy sand. At the bottom, we meet a biker on a Honda XR about to have his own off-road scamper up the canyon.

You don’t go to the Atacama to relax, though you can do that if you want. You go to explore and experience.

It doesn’t disappoint. . .

Quantum of solace in Atacama

In a desert setting straight out of a Bond movie set, the Explora hotel in
San Pedro, Chile, is a luxury retreat for well-heeled adventurers.
Peter Murtagh is stirred but definitely not shaken

One can readily imagine the evil genius in a James Bond film having the Explora hotel in San Pedro de Atacama as the base from which he plots global domination. While guests are pampered in the hotel’s main building, in that terribly low-key manner favoured by the very well-off, Blofeld would sit in a black, high-backed leather swivel chair at the centre of a vast underground control room, the world he wishes to destroy brought to him via TV screens covering every available wall space. Double oh-seven, caught spying in the grounds, would be ushered in by armed henchmen. “Ah, Meester Bond, I am growing tired of your silly games . . .”

The main building of Explora Atacama is a long, low, single storey over basement structure whose walls are whitewashed inside and out. The curved timber roof is in the shape of an aeroplane wing. Around the hotel, reddish brown adobe (mud and straw) walls define a 42-acre patchwork of irrigated fields in which alfalfa will provide fodder for the hotel’s horses. The walls and narrow lanes that skirt the fields have been preserved much as they were when this land was farmed. But the fields, with their rustic gates, now all have names.

No nameplate or sign heralds the existence of the hotel, however, when approached down the unpaved desert mud road on the edge of San Pedro. Subtlety and low-key luxury are very much part of what the place is all about.

Inside, all is comfortable minimalism – from the timber ceiling to the polished timber and tile floors to the strategically placed rocks or pieces of rough-hewn wood. Stand-out items – a large, freestanding vase, perhaps, a basket of firewood, a tree branch or a rack of neatly folded ethnic-style blankets – draw attention to themselves because there is so little else about.

Sofas are low-slung and comfortable. There are armchairs and timber coffee tables. Shelves of books and magazines show an apposite mix of National Geographic, wildlife and adventure volumes (explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes is among a distinguished gathering), and picture-portrait volumes displaying the desert and other adventure playgrounds Chile has to offer, such as Patagonia and its glaciers.

With the minimum of effort, one may sink into a sofa for a pre-dinner glass of chilled sauvignon blanc, and watch the setting sun turn the string of volcanoes that lace the parched desert landscape along the Chilean-Bolivian border with rich hues of pink and orange.

“It’s all about the luxury of the essential,” explains guest relations manager, Cristóbal Acuná. “It’s not a hotel. It’s a base to prepare yourself for the next day’s exploring.” This is done in small groups of half a dozen, maybe eight, led by well-informed and enthusiastic guides. Each day sees numerous half-day or whole-day excursions on offer: walks through different parts of the desert, expeditions to geysers or salt lakes, horse riding, cycling or escorted drives to volcanoes and salt lakes.

Briefings take place in an alcove off the bar whose walls are lined with maps and charts explaining the physical geography of the region, as well as its volcanic history, and the thermal and saline features it has to offer the adventurous tourist. There is also timely advice on how to deal with the extreme sun and altitude. San Pedro is 2,400 metres above sea level, the geysers of Tatio (a must visit) are at 4,300m and the adjacent volcanoes stand at around 6,000m. (Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest peak, stands at 1,039m.)

And for the unadventurous, there’s the spa, pool, jacuzzi, steam bath or massage. After sunset, you can explore the brilliantly clear desert sky with the hotel’s observatory, fitted with a Meade 16in telescope.

The hotel is popular with Americans (who make up about 40 per cent of guests), Brazilians (28 per cent), Europeans (20 per cent) and others, including Chileans (around 10 per cent). You have to be fairly well-heeled to stay here and of a genuinely adventurous frame of mind.

The guests can be as entertaining and interesting as the setting. During my stay in October, they included Paul and Ann Ward, retired property agents from Sydney, Australia, who then decided to trade beef into Japan (and why not?); Bernabe Tesouro, former Uruguayan rugby player, social butterfly and now development director of the Mantis Collection, a sales and marketing operation for high-end boutique hotels on six continents; Cain Scrimageour, a talented wildlife photographer from England with the AWOL filmmaking team; and last, but by no means least, there was Hal Prewitt and his wife Corinne. Based in Florida, Prewitt is a pioneering computer developer (his company, Core International, was bought by Sony in 1993), a farmer and producer of orange juice, an accomplished wildlife photographer (see, and a GT sports car racer ( he has participated in 173 races, of which he won 71; details on He also bought Mitt Romney’s Utah home (on sale in February 2009 for $5.25 million).

“What’s it like racing a car?” Hal repeats the question when asked, and answers with a slow, slight drawl. “It’s like having sex” (pause) “in a jet going through the Grand Canyon listening to rock music – very loud – and watching TV all at the same time. You gotta concentrate. Like sex, it don’t last long but you gotta concentrate.”

The desert! All human life is there. . .

Peter Murtagh stayed three nights at Explora Atacama as a guest of the hotel, which has 50 rooms (no TV or room-based internet to encourage guest mingling) . Prices, between now and the end of March 2014, range from $2,040 (€1,514) for three nights (the recommended minimum necessary to acclimatise to the altitude). There are also family rates, and prices include full board and all drinks at the bar, excluding premium wines.

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