The mountains have turned peachy; the sky is pink and orange. This sunset is flat out gorgeous. A pelican flies overhead. Flamingos swoop down.
Welcome to Laguna de Chaxa (Chaxa Lake) and the National Reserve of Flamingos that is about an hour from St. Pedro, Chile from where we’re staying at the first-rate 32-room Tierra Atacama Hotel and Spa (www.tierraatacama.com).
The Atacama region (less than two hours flight from Santiago) is one of the most visited in Chile and it is easy to see why — the spectacular desert landscape, the chance to hike to an ancient village, taste a llama kebob (you’ll see them everywhere here), hike to the top of a volcano at 18,000 feet or to the highest geyser field in the world — El Tatio Geisers at 14,190 feet — and visit unique nature reserves like this.
I can’t think of a better spot for an adventure with grown or nearly grown children — I have my two adventure-loving daughters and my older daughter’s boyfriend along with me. But don’t expect to meet many Americans.
“I don’t think Atacama has hit the U.S. market yet,” says the hotel’s General Manager Chris Purcell, himself an American, adding that the hotel caters to families and will entertain the kids if they are too young for some of the more strenuous excursions.
All the more reason to visit now as Chile’s tourism industry (www.visit-chile.org ) still works to recover from last February’s earthquake. Winter is a great time for Americans to visit – it’s summer in Chile.
San Pedro and Tierra Atacama, of course, are 1,000 miles north of Santiago and weren’t impacted at all by the earthquake — except by tourists opting to go elsewhere. (The American-run Santiago Adventures (www.Santiagoadventures.com) can arrange all varieties of trips to include Atacama, the wine region and Patagonia.)
“Ninty per cent of the days here are like this,” our guide Max says one morning, gesturing to the sky –blue sky and no clouds as we head out on a hike.
I love that tiny San Pedro—just 4,000 people– retains its charm in its sand streets, pedestrian walkways and open-air restaurants and bars fashioned from old store fronts. We love the local’s favorite Café Adobe with a round fire place in the middle of the restaurant.
I love that the tiny resort — like others here — are all inclusive so your meals and activities are all part of the deal. Certainly it’s not cheap but you are guaranteed a unique adventure with the photos to go with the stories you’ll tell. (Just for our readers, check about kids and teens free rates for next spring. Use code HP2011.)
Visit an abandoned mountain village — at 13,200 feet — and see llamas and alpacas in the wild. Ride your bike past Inca ruins and swim in the salt flats. Walk amid geysers spewing smoke — they never would let you get this close at Yellowstone. Another plus: you can opt in or out of excursions based on your ability and desire. For example, some from the hotel simply take a 40 minute ride in a van from the hotel to the region’s famous hot springs while we hoof it on a three hour hike, pushing large green plants apart to find the trail l adjacent to the rushing river and Cacti that are 12 feet high with needles so sharp that local Indian women use them as needles to sew and knit. Another morning, I go to the geyser fields for sun rise while my crew opts to hike up the volcano.
At the hotel, we are ensconced in desert-like casitas which boast outdoor and indoor showers. There is a pool overlooking the desert and mountains, and seating areas around the outdoor fire pits ideal for cuddling and to ward off the chill of the desert night. The spa’s massages ward off aches from all the strenuous exercise.
Chris Purcell says the three-year-old hotel is designed to be hip but a bit retro at the same time, eco friendly while incorporating the local culture and crafts (note the woven blankets on the couches and animal hide throws on the benches).There are orchards and vegetable gardens with everything from grapes, apples, apricots, almonds, beans, melons, zucchini and more which later will be served to the guests.
“It is so cool. You feel like you are in the middle of nowhere with all of the comforts,” says Canadian Jim Harbell as he finishes a first rate lunch that included goat cheese empanadas, grilled salmon and lentil salad, vegetarian pizza with homemade crust and a mousse made with cherimoya, a local fruit. “The atmosphere is very Zen like,” he continues. “And the staff will do anything for you.”
Harbell, who is from Toronto, tacked on an extra week with his 21 year old daughter Charlotte to visit here after a family vacation to Argentina and she’d begged for the opportunity to visit a place that one of her college friends who had studied in Chile had raved about. Harbell was glad he listened.
Everyone is so friendly too. Sitting around the bar or on our various adventures, we meet a music producer and his wife from Brazil, a couple on their honeymoon from the Netherlands, a young woman traveling on her own from London, some British farmers.
We stop at the tiny village of Toconao (800 people) a dusty place with dirt roads that truly is an oasis in the desert where the water coming down from the Andes nurtures every variety of fruit we see apricot trees and figs, grapes and pears, plums and oranges….The first inhabitants lived here as far back as 1100 BC and today the villagers also practice traditional ways — we see two elderly women scrubbing clothes in the outdoor stream. They pride themselves on their tiny fruits that are grown only with local water spilling down from the Andes to this oasis—no pesticides or fertilizers in an entire town is built of volcanic stone.
Atacama Salt Lake is just as otherworldly — you think the huge expanse should be water but it is just rock and salt as far as you can see. The last time there was a lake here was 10,000 years ago. Then there are the flamingos. Three of the world’s six species summer here, our guide tells us, and we see the Andean, Chilean and James Flamingo –differentiated by the color of their legs and wings.
They eat shrimp from the salty water which is responsible for their salty color. They are so fun to watch. Isn’t nature great! We look up at the ring of mountains and can even see steam coming from one of the volcanoes. Chile has 150 active volcanoes—10 per cent of those in the world and 250 hot springs.
Harbell, like us, is trying to cram as much into his visit as possible–sand boarding down the huge dunes, star gazing with a French astronomer. One thing is for sure- you won’t get bored. There is so much to do, “You’ve got to pick and choose,” he says.
Same goes for the famous pisco sours which come in a variety of flavors including mango and Reiki Reiki (which plant we see while hiking) and all variety of fresh juices-watermelon.
Another Reiki Reiki please.
For more on Eileen’s adventure last winter in Chile, visit her travel diaries