After a 13-hour LAN Airways flight from L.A. to Santiago, a 4-hour wait in the airport there, a 2-hour flight to the remote town of Calama, and a 45-minute van ride through Chile’s Atacama Desert, I finally arrived at the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa.
And in a single glance, I suddenly realized:
It had taken a lot of effort to get to this gorgeous resort, but it was going to be much harder to tear myself away.
At the far end of an unpaved road by a red-rock river wash, the Alto Atacama spills gently over a flood plain rimmed by cactus, pampas grass and Andean foothills. Set a quiet mile or so outside of the already quiet town of San Pedro de Atacama, what passes for noise pollution here is the twittering of finches, or breeze ruffling through feathery mesquite trees.
All beiges and russets and browns, the boutique, all-inclusive resort uses stucco, soft fabrics, shadow and light to blend seamlessly into its desert landscape, almost as though it’s apologizing for being there. Chock full of Chilean artwork, the public areas feel like a gallery where you’re invited to help yourself to the day’s featured fruit juice (I’d recommend the raspberry), settle in on a comfy couch, and chill out as long as you like.
I arrived here in the bright blaze of afternoon, needing to rest and acclimatize to the Atacama Desert’s high altitude; I was happy to find my room a luxurious, whitewashed cave with low lighting, cool clay-tile floors, and a big rain shower. Everything with an on-off switch had been included with conservation in mind and spare water usage was encouraged, but I never felt like I wasn’t welcomed, pampered or clean. (And yes, I took extras of the shea butter lip balm and the fragrant herbal soap from the bathroom — because they were spectacular.)
Rarely content to sit and stare, I enjoyed drifting from the shade of my bedroom to the pillow-sprawl of my backyard patio. Eventually I wandered over to the Puri Spa, tucked away at the far end of the sexy pool area, to get the kinks worked out of my shoulders. The enormous couples treatment room, with a blush of desert light and a big, deep Jacuzzi tub for two, is the kind of place where Barry White music should just automatically start playing when you walk in the door.
The Alto has six small outdoor pools — some heated, some not — spread around a big multi-level deck with dining tables, a bar, a river-view patio and a sunken fire pit. I felt like I’d walked into the backyard of my dreams, surprised to discover that it had been in South America all along.
On random weekday afternoons, the resort throws big barbecue parties out here, on a grill like you’ve never seen in your life. (Seriously, you could grill an entire cow on this thing, should you be so inclined.) The Alto cooks up sausages, steaks, chicken, fish and every veggie imaginable, offset by a groaning board’s worth of salads and desserts. Consider pairing your spoils with a glass of rich red carménère, Chile’s signature grape, or a sweet, hand-crafted pisco sour.
The everyday meals here are also delightful (in case, post-barbecue, you should ever find yourself hungry again). Chile hasn’t been historically renowned for its simple, lightly-seasoned cuisine, but the Alto Atacama spins Chilean ingredients like quinoa, purple potatoes and merken spice into complex, tasty dishes. At lunch and dinner, you can go for multiple courses…or just pick and choose what will allow you to continue wearing your pants. At the breakfast buffet, be sure to try a Chilean staple: slices of wheat bread topped with mashed avocado and queso mantecoso, a buttery cheese that reminds me of muenster.
After stuffing your face, I’d encourage you to wander the resort grounds to get a little exercise. (Or hey, go rest by a pool. I’m not the boss of you.) The Alto is home to a herd of cute, furry llamas, and right down the road you can schlep up a hill and explore an ancient, pre-Columbian fortress called Pukará de Quitor. Or ask to borrow bikes from the front desk, splash through a river-wash fjord or two, and head into San Pedro de Atacama to find some llama-wool souvenirs.
And definitely go farther afield, too. In addition to your meals, one full-day or two half-day excursions in the Atacama Desert are included for each day of your Alto Atacama stay. These adventures provided some of my most exciting moments in Chile, from the Los Cardones Ravine hike beside a cactus forest; an early-morning journey to the El Tatio geyser field, set 14,000 feet atop a super-volcano; the salt-crusted Valley of the Moon — and much more. Many excursions include an al fresco breakfast or lunch (turns out, coffee pairs very nicely with fumaroles), or civilized sundowners of wine and cheese.
At night, you can lounge the night away with cocktails around the fire pit, chatting with Brazilians (who can stay up later than any other humans on Earth) or weekend-trippers from Santiago; you’ll find a nice mix of ages here, from honeymooners to grandparents.
Or join the resort’s staff astronomer at the on-site observatory deck, up a well-lit and winding stone staircase. The Alto Atacama has its own powerful telescope which allows you to see the Horsehead Nebula, a giant star-scorpion and even the rings of Saturn.
Another option? As soon as the sun goes down, walk outside of your guest room, tilt your head back, and beneath the clearest skies in the Southern Hemisphere, enjoy your own personal planetarium show. The Milky Way’s right there, seemingly close enough to touch.
And while you’re in the neighborhood, I can suggest a lovely place to stay.
Alto Atacama Desert Lodge and Spa
sponsored my four-night stay at their resort,
but all opinions and observations are my own.
Rates start at $560 USD per night
(inclusive of meals, alcohol, excursions and airport transfers)