South America’s Otherworldly Atacama, Chile

In addition to the pristine abundance of America’s wide-ranging national park system, we have had the opportunity to experience extraordinary global natural landscapes: the green, picturesque valleys of Bhutan, the still, eerie sand dunes of the Sahara, the Great Rift Valley of Kenya and the lush, wildlife-rich Okavango Delta/Botswana , the splendid beauty of Patagonia’s blue glaciers/lakes, the verdant, terraced rice-fields of Bali’s countryside. We feel the splendid, stark wilderness of Chile’s Atacama Desert rightly deserves a place among the world’s notable natural wonders. Atacama’s unmatched beauty and colorful moonscape-like remoteness is truly spellbinding. Using the luxury lodges of Tierra Atacama or Explora Atacama as your high-end excursion gateway base, you are able to comfortably explore this amazing area. Biking, trekking and horseback riding are among the fun activities in this alternate universe.

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In the backdrop of spectacular volcanoes rising 20,000 ft., Atacama (covering 54,000 sq. mi.) stretches 600 miles from Peru’s southern border into northern Chile. The desert rises from a thin coastal shelf to the panamas and is known as the driest place on earth (!) There are sterile stretches of the desert where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it. The bare, super-dry places are just part of a landscape whose open secret is water. A line of snow-laden, Fuji-form volcanoes along the eastern horizon feed a lacework of narrow, lush stream valleys, oases and salt lagoons, which sustain native Atacameño hamlets with well-kept colonial-era churches. In spite of the inhospitable environment, unique wildlife, including llamas, vicunas and flocks of pink flamingos live here. Interestingly, temperatures in the Atacama are relatively low, compared with those in similar latitudes elsewhere (the average summer high Dec-Feb is low 80’s F).

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Extraordinary full-day excursions here are the eerie otherworldly Valley of the Moon, and The Salt Flats of Tara, (featuring turquoise oasis with three types of flamingos living off the microscopic life) and the geysers of El Tatio. Considered the highest in the world at 14,000 ft., these geysers provide continuous bubbling caldrons and impressive plumes of steam. Amazingly, this is an ideal spot for a breakfast with eggs soft-boiled in the geysers! If you seek more of a tourist vibe, you can also visit the charming adobe precordillera oasis of nearby San Pedro de Atacama.

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Tierra Atacama

Located approx. 70 min. drive from the Calama Airport, the 32-room luxury Tierra Atacama offers truly high-touch service, despite its remote, stark location. With its striking volcano views, the lodge’s glass and adobe aesthetics seem to integrate the architectural traditions of local San Pedro Atacama. Being avid Chicago-based Mies Van de Rohl disciples, we feel Tierra resolutely follows the precept “form follows function”. 5-Star amenities include a full-board international meal service, a variety of Chilean wines, pool and relaxing AMA spa. Offering 20 different excursions to outlying areas, this is an ideal property for mixing relaxation with soft adventure. The Tierra’s nightly terrace fire is reminiscent of similar Africa bonfires experienced at safari lodges. A special place (!)

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Explora Atacama

Similar, but a bit larger that the luxury Tierra Atacama, the 50-room Explora Atacama offers a 5-Star adventure property, including four pools, horseback riding, hiking and cycling. Of particular note are the lodge’s units 29-44, providing amazing views of Licanabur Volcano. Similar to the Explora properties in Patagonia, the service and guides here are top quality and world class. We feel one of the unique features of the lodge is its special stargazing observatory, the largest of its kind in Chile. With nightly views offered, this remote location offers one of the clearest skies for star-gazing anywhere on the planet!

The Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), Cordillera de la Sal,