The cinematic sights of the Atacama Desert start with striking blue skies, terracotta-hued plains and white salt flats. We land at Calama’s regional airport, bound for Catarpe Valley, a green oasis surrounded by soaring red cliffs and dusty plains. This is the otherworldly setting of Alto Atacama; a luxurious boutique hotel nestled in a manicured desert garden.
Alto Atacama is located just outside the bustling tourist town of San Pedro, and it’s the only hotel in the region with such a privileged position. Backed by soaring red cliffs, this low-slung hotel rises from a manicured desert garden of hardy acacias, foxtail grasses and pomegranate trees laden with fruit. The thin, dry air hits us quickly, but so too does the unexpected sound of birdsong and the sight of Alto Atacama’s paddock of fluffy llamas.
We’re whisked to lunch on a shady terrace – elegant servings of pumpkin soup with freshly baked tomato bread and pesto butter. Post-sustenance, it’s time to check out our suite, one of the hotel’s 42 rooms, which comprises ten luxurious Tilo suites with views over the pond, 27 Catarpe suites and five smaller Quitor rooms. Each and every one features a private terrace, which offers both respite from the midday sun and an excellent spot to gaze at the stars.
And the stars are one of the Atacama Desert’s most important draws, for it is known as the best place on earth for astronomy. Jetlag takes a back seat as we test out Alto Atacama’s world-renowned telescope with a guide whose knowledge of the night sky both baffles and beguiles us. The clarity of the sky is a result of there being a hole in the atmosphere, where no particles can interfere. The result is a night sky that twinkles as though someone’s strewn a lifetime’s supply of glitter to the heavens.
Suitably starry-eyed, we catch a night’s rest to prepare for some active hours ahead. As we slowly acclimatise to the altitude, our desert days get higher and more pressing. While the region is a known tourist hotspot, that certainly doesn’t get in the way of discovering some of the whispered highlights, courtesy of Alto’s super knowledgeable guides.
We half hike, half climb across granite boulders flecked with tiny wild flowers and ancient catci in Quesar Valley, sliced down the middle by a bubbling river that leads to naturally tiered hot springs warmed by magma miles beneath the surface. We scale craggy peaks in Death Valley, where locals surf the dunes before scissor-sharp rows of petrified rock. Finally, we skip the much loved but consequently teeming Tatio Geysers in favour of Capur, a tough high-altitude hike that rewards us with flamingo-filled salt pans, snow-capped volcano views and the hypnotic Salar de Aguas Calientes, a lagoon tinted turquoise by sulphur deposits, all to ourselves.
It might sound like hard work, but Alto has plenty in store that make a hard hike well worth the effort. Plunge pools punctuate the surrounds of the hotel’s beautiful spa – some are heated, some are ice cold, but with a couple of sunbeds on offer and a bar serving fresh fruit smoothies and a bevvy of locally brewed beers, there’s always somewhere private to soak up the South American sunshine at this heavenly high-altitude retreat.
Book your stay at Alto Atacama here.
Images courtesy of Oli Anderson & Alto Atacama.
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