As my plane began its decent into the desert, I sat paralyzed in my window seat, partly because the mountainous landscape was causing horrific turbulence and partly due to the scene playing outside my window. My breakout of cold sweat and fear was met with a field of windmills generating power for the surrounding cities. Among these massive windmills lay an ever expansive view of reddish brown dirt, sand and salt accompanied by jagged mountains in the distance. As we dropped in altitude, so did my mouth of moisture. I couldn’t tell if I was nervous of plummeting to the arid earth or if my basic instinct for thirst was overreacting due to a soon deployment upon the driest of lands.
Upon climbing into my getaway van after a safe touch down, I knew I was in for a luxurious kind of adventure. Alto Atacama was just over an hour from the Calama Airport near the quaint town of San Pedro de Atacama, and with the help of the copious water bottles by my side, I started salivating over the scenery along the drive. As the dust and sand had settled upon our entrance, I was greeted by some of the nicest staff I’d ever come across. I realized immediately that Alto Atacama was going to do much more than simply quench my thirst, especially after being treated to a breakfast of champions upon our early arrival. Afterwards, we were shown to a lovely suite, minimally decorated and allowing the surrounding landscapes to take center stage.
Completely enveloped by its natural surroundings, Alto Atacama feels like a desert safe haven, protected from the harsh environment just beyond the Catarpe Valley. The lodge plays tricks on the eyes as it blends seamlessly into the terracotta-colored ridge that rises behind it. With seven pools, Inca thermal baths and a spa on property, it’s hard not to feel alive and pampered among nature.
Speaking of nature, can you believe the stars here in the Atacama? A rare set of factors in this arid lunar landscape – very little rainfall, crystal-clear skies, high altitudes and low-to-zero light pollution – have created an unparalleled stargazing haven and a major hub for astronomical research. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA (‘soul’ in Spanish), is the largest land-based observatory ever built. More powerful than the Hubble telescope, it looks out to some of the most distant galaxies and observes the very first stages of formation of planets and stars.
The setting, views, tranquility and silence make Alto Atacama a destination in and of itself. Albeit hard to leave, I realized there was a whole new world just outside the Alto Atacama walls.
Wherever I go in the world, it’s important that I have a plethora of activities and landscapes to explore. Sitting in a hotel room isn’t my idea of fun. Sure, the pools and thermal baths demand to be utilized, but when there’s a Planet Mars look-alike in my backyard, you better believe my Nikon and I will be in the thick of it.
This was technically my third time in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on earth. I could visit another hundred and it still wouldn’t be enough. With Alto Atacama, the opportunities to explore are limitless. There are flamingos, volcanoes, salt lagoons, boiling Tatio geysers (the highest and third largest geothermal field in the world), sand dunes, and astronomy tours (suspended six days before and three days after Full Moon period – plan accordingly!) Sadly, we overlapped during this time period, but even with the naked eye, the skies come alive with twinkling stars.
Guides & Staff
Alto Atacama knows service – and these friendly people have it down to an art. It’s very noticeable to me when staff members go out of their way to make guests feel at home. Same goes for when they strike up meaningful conversations other than the simplistic “How was your day?” I found Alto Atacama’s staff to be extremely accommodating, friendly, and intelligent. I certainly can’t speak three, four, or five languages, but they can. Let the inferiority ensue!
The Road Les Traveled was welcomed to Alto Atacama as a guest, however my opinions are as always, my own.