Many of the public areas of the lodge suffered a major fire on October 21. No one was hurt, and Explora is working to rebuild, but the lodge is temporarily closed.
Almost everyone loves a good beach. And many of us like a good mountain. But the desert is the most undersung of natural wonders.
The desert finds its ultimate expression not in the Sahara or the Mojave but in the Atacama region of northern Chile. At 8,000 to 19,000 feet above sea level, it’s the highest desert in the world. And getting only about a half inch of rain a year—rainy season is measured in hours, joked one adventure guide—it’s also the driest.
Also, there’s hardly anyone in most of its 41,000 square miles. If you want to feel the enormity of this world, and the triviality of your own problems in the midst of it, it’s hard to do better than here.
The Atacama is surreally stunning and varied. “Every excursion is like going to another planet,” said a visitor on a hike through slot canyons. There are epic moonscapes of volcanic rock and gypsum carved by wind and time; salt-dusted mountains that could be snowy if not for the 80-degree afternoon temperatures; sandy dunes you can board down; hot springs flanked by lush greenery; lakes so saline you can float effortlessly; and high altiplano landscapes where the only other inhabitants are wild vicuñas and pink flamingos. The skies are reliably a super-saturated blue, the sunsets are glorious, and the night sky is so vivid that a significant astronomy station is located here.
Even the place-names are evocative: Valle de la Luna, Quebrado del Diablo, Valle de la Muerte.
That’s why tourism has been steadily growing—and recently exploding—here. The activity is centered around the once-sleepy town of San Pedro de Atacama, set in a green(ish) oasis in a valley. Now it’s full of hostels, backpacker businesses (cheap vegan food, yoga studios, bus tickets to the Bolivian salt flats) and a surprising number of ultra-luxury lodges.
But 17 years ago, there was only one. Explora, the adventure travel company that made its name with a high-end, all-inclusive lodge in Patagonia five years earlier, put the Atacama Deesert on the luxury travel map. When it opened its second lodge in what was then the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama, it redefined tourism to the area. Visitors who are accustomed to a certain level of comfort could trek or ride through the devil’s canyon or the valley of death and then return to a womb-like hotel for a hot shower, skilled massage, expertly mixed pisco sour, four-course dinner and pillowy bed. (I recently stayed as a guest of Explora.)
Now the Explora Atacama has a half dozen serious competitors, but it’s still a leader in luxury adventure. As the welcome briefing stresses, Explora is about exploring, not about hotels. So the 50 rooms, arrayed around a courtyard like the stables out in front, are relatively simple, with minimal furnishings but tremendous views. Guests aren’t meant to spend much time in them, which is why they lack TVs and Wi-Fi. (For those of us who usually sleep with our phones, this means an excellent night’s sleep.)
Some socializing goes on in the common areas, a pretty outdoor pool and an indoor lounge warmed by fireplaces (needed as soon as the sun goes down), and a handsome bar and dining room. But the hub of the building is the activities center, where guests meet nightly with the high-energy guides to plan their outings.
Mostly, guests go outside. The dozens of “explorations,” detailed in a nine-page booklet, involve trekking, biking, and riding the lodge’s well-trained horses. And while the accommodations suit those with a taste for luxury, the excursions aren’t dumbed down. If you’ve never ridden a horse, you take a lesson, not a ride; rides can be four hours with lots of galloping through the desert. Treks get harder and higher each day, especially if you express interest in the many volcanoes in the area—then you’re on an acclimatization program that ensures that most of the guests who attempt a high summit make it. (Though if you just want to be driven to the hot springs or a flamingo-filled salt flat, they do that too.) At night, there are stargazing sessions in the largest private observatory in Chile.
A good adventure is itself a luxury, and perhaps Explora’s greatest strength is its deep knowledge of the area and relationship with the national parks department. The Atacama’s tourism boom has meant that many sites get crowded, but Explora’s guides are constantly out finding new routes, and its management has secured exclusive access to certain trails—other lodges get stern warnings if they use them. Being alone and watching the sun go down and the sky catch fire over the valley of the moon is one of travel’s greatest luxuries.
By Ann Abel
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