Ata­cama ad­ven­ture

Hik­ing at alti­tude in Chile.

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The sun is slowly set­ting on the vol­ca­noes, paint­ing them or­ange against the fad­ing blue of the sky. It’s an endless sky: clear and un­clut­tered by even the sug­ges­tion of a cloud. I take a sip of wine, stretch out my weary legs in the hot tub and vow to re­mem­ber this view for a long time to come.

I’m in the Ata­cama Desert in Chile, en­joy­ing a lux­u­ri­ous pri­vate hot-tub ex­pe­ri­ence at Tierra Ata­cama Ho­tel & Spa, af­ter a 15km high-alti­tude hike that cer­tainly tested my legs enough to ap­pre­ci­ate the warm, heal­ing wa­ter of the hot tub, scented with laven­der and filled with desert salts.

Af­ter feast­ing on a break­fast of scram­bled eggs, the ubiq­ui­tous av­o­cado, and hot tea, we had hopped on a bus and be­gun our hike from the high, re­mote vil­lage of Machuca, set at 4,000m. Fol­low­ing the course of the Machuca River, we spied An­dean geese, flamin­gos, lla­mas, vis­cachas (like a large chin­chilla), para­keets and finches as we walked down the val­ley, the sun just be­gin­ning to warm the air.

Life in the Ata­cama is dusty and harsh and, in the ar­eas where the river was still or tum­bled over rocks, it had iced up overnight, leav­ing me to marvel more than once at how the pink flamin­gos, whom I as­so­ciate with warmer climes, man­age to live in this place, heads con­stantly in the wa­ter, fil­ter­ing for brine shrimp.


We stopped to rest three times dur­ing the five-hour hike, to drink wa­ter, re­move lay­ers and eat nuts and fruit car­ried for us by guides JP and Paula. They checked con­stantly whether I or my hik­ing com­pan­ions Mike and Steve were feel­ing the ef­fects of alti­tude but, un­like climb­ing a moun­tain at 4,000m, I felt no shortage of breath, just faintly ir­ri­tated by how static my hair had be­come in the dry desert air!

As we moved down to a lower alti­tude, we started to see cacti grow­ing on the sides of the canyon and passed the de­serted vil­lage of Peñaliri, one of many in Chile. Peo­ple have left th­ese small, moun­tain vil­lages for the big city where there is more plen­ti­ful wa­ter and em­ploy­ment, and life is less harsh.

Fi­nally, as my feet be­gan to tire, we caught the wel­come sight of Tierra Ata­cama’s shin­ing red trans­porter with its driver, Emma — who had grown up in Peñaliri — lay­ing out a pic­nic lunch and camp­ing chairs on which we could rest af­ter the morn­ing’s ex­er­tions.


The Machuca to Río Grande hike is one of a dozen ex­cur­sions of­fered by this gor­geous ho­tel set in the desert at 2,400m, just out­side the vil­lage of San Pe­dro de Ata­cama. The mo­ment you’re en­veloped by the ho­tel’s cool, or­ganic in­te­rior, one of the two head guides — Mike or Max — sits down with you to dis­cuss which ad­ven­tures you’d like to do dur­ing your stay. There’s no re­quire­ment for guests to do any­thing more than en­joy the good (and rather plen­ti­ful) food, lux­u­ri­ate in the spa or sit in their room en­joy­ing the view, but faced with a list of won­der­ful-sound­ing ex­cur­sions, your time here sud­denly looks too short.

Choose from vis­it­ing the iconic Ata­cama salt flats and Chaxa La­goon to learn about the flamin­gos and ecosys­tem — as I did with a fan­tas­tic guide, Juan, who used to lead sci­en­tific trips in the High An­des be­fore set­tling in San Pe­dro with his wife and fam­ily — or stargaz­ing in the desert, where the lack of light pol­lu­tion of­fers spec­tac­u­lar views of the night sky.

There are biking trips and horse­back rid­ing, mul­ti­ple hik­ing op­tions and, should you time it right, the op­tion of climb­ing a vol­cano. Dur­ing my stay, the tops of the vol­ca­noes were cov­ered in snow, mak­ing hik­ing with­out ropes a near im­pos­si­bil­ity, so I set­tled upon the Machuca-Río Grande hike in­stead, which guide Paula as­sured me was far more in­ter­est­ing any­way.


It’s im­por­tant not to get too car­ried away with ex­cur­sions so you leave enough time to en­joy Tierra Ata­cama’s fan­tas­tic Uma Spa. There are in­door and out­door pools, a Jacuzzi and the pri­vate hot tub, where cheese, fruit and wine is served. You can choose be­tween adding desert salts and laven­der to the tub’s wa­ter, as I did to re­lax af­ter a long hike, or goat’s milk to soften the skin, with rose, mint or co­coa!

I also had a fab­u­lous Tierra Rit­ual treat­ment, car­ried out by Yeyme (pro­nounced Jamie) from Peru. This treat­ment uses lo­cal prod­ucts, be­gin­ning with a full-body ex­fo­li­a­tion us­ing desert salts and choco­late that smelt so good I barely wanted to wash it off, fol­lowed by a full-body desert clay and choco­late mask. Then, I was wrapped up in a warm co­coon of tow­els, the mask ap­plied to my face, and left to bake for 20 min­utes. I promptly fell asleep, so heav­ily that I jumped when Yeyme re-en­tered the room.

Sens­ing that my neck and shoul­ders were in­cred­i­bly sore fol­low­ing a long jour­ney, Yeyme fin­ished the treat­ment with a re­lax­ing mas­sage, per­form­ing Reiki over par­tic­u­larly trou­ble­some ar­eas by cup­ping her hands over my skin to gen­er­ate in­cred­i­ble heat.

There are also yoga classes three morn­ings a week; th­ese clashed with my ex­cur­sions so I ran out of time to put them to test, though if you’re re­ally keen on fit­ting yoga into your sched­ule, it’s pos­si­ble to book the in­struc­tor for a pri­vate ses­sion.

If this all sounds sub­lime, it re­ally is. Aside from the spa treat­ments and pri­vate hot tub, ev­ery­thing at Tierra Ata­cama is in­cluded in the room price, so you can en­joy ex­cur­sions, wine, beer and a se­lec­tion of spir­its, tea and cof­fee, along with three meals a day, to your heart’s con­tent. The ho­tel’s driv­ers will also whisk you in to ex­plore San Pe­dro at a mo­ment’s no­tice, so don’t miss out on wan­der­ing around the streets and shops dur­ing your stay.


I’d spent the pre­vi­ous week in the ski re­sort of Por­tillo and the Ata­cama’s slower pace of life was the per­fect an­ti­dote to the hard ski­ing and hard par­ty­ing for which the Chilean re­sort is fa­mous. Ho­tel Por­tillo and Tierra Ata­cama – along with two other ho­tels, Tierra Chiloé and Tierra Patag­o­nia – are owned by the same fam­ily, the Pur­cells, and they know how to get hos­pi­tal­ity just right. Staff out­num­ber guests and the ser­vice is spot on; the only thing guests must do is en­sure their stay is long enough to en­joy the ho­tel and its high-alti­tude desert sur­round­ings to the full.

Writ­ing this on the plane back home, I’m sad I didn’t have time to climb that vol­cano or ride on horse­back through Ata­cama’s Moon Val­ley, but I know I’ll be back.

Uma wate Spa’s r or jets indo and heat playf ed ul pool beds boast of s bubb les

Stun­ning moun­tain views by the out­door pool

Re­laxin g rooms of­fer­ing have pri­vate views of the ter­races Li­canca bur Vol­cano

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