x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

At ease in the Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth

My Kind of Place In northern Chile, Olivia Katrandjian revels in the solitude, endless landscapes and clear night skies in the Atacama Desert.

Flamingoes fly low across the salt flats of the Alues Calientes lagoon in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile. Steve Allen Travel Photography
Flamingoes fly low across the salt flats of the Alues Calientes lagoon in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile. Steve Allen Travel Photography

Why the Atacama Desert?

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile may be one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

"You would have to be mad to live here," said Fiona Martin of the Tierra Atacama, a hotel in the area. Climatologists call it the driest place in the world, and some areas have not seen rainfall in recorded history. But the sights the region has to offer more than make up for having chapped lips and dry skin.

The town of San Pedro de Atacama is a stepping stone to the vast desert that surrounds it. The dusty streets are lined with day-trip operators who will take you east to the Bolivian border to climb the snow-capped Licancabur Volcano. South to the Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile and the second largest in the world, where pink flamingoes graze in clear blue lagoons against a backdrop of volcanoes and the Andes Mountains. Go north to El Tatio, a field of more than 80 active geysers that erupt up to six metres high.

Or turn west to walk through the 23-million-year-old rock formations in the Valley of Death (Valle de la Muerte) and the Valley of the Moon (Valle de la Luna), where it's so quiet you can hear the salt crack from the heat.

A comfortable bed

Tourism is the main industry of San Pedro, and the town offers everything from hostels to luxury hotels. If you're looking for luxurious accommodation, try the Tierra Atacama Hotel & Spa (www.tierraatacama.com; 00 56 2 263 0606). Located on the outskirts of San Pedro, the Tierra Atacama offers an unadulterated view of the volcanoes and the Andes Mountains. The rooms are simple but comfortable, with free Wi-Fi but no TV, and cost from US$970 (Dh 3,562) per person for two nights, including breakfast, transfers and excursions. (Foreign tourists do not pay tax on accommodation in Chile.) The hotel offers a range of excursions led by guides who are as informative as they are passionate. While visiting the National Flamingo Reserve, my guide explained, with vigorous hand motions and a thick Chilean accent: "The pink flamingoes dip down into the water and go woosh! Woosh! to suck up the algae like a whale!"

If you're looking for less expensive options, try the Lodge Andino Terrantai (www.terrantai.travel; 00 56 2 5814660), where double rooms cost from US$180 (Dh661) per night. Hotel Kimal (www.kimal.cl/en/index.htm; 00 56 55 851 030) has double rooms from $185 (Dh680) per night, including breakfast.

Find your feet

Take a two-hour direct flight from Chile's capital, Santiago, to the El Loa Airport (CJC) in Calama, which is a short car ride from San Pedro. Once you're in San Pedro, amidst adobe dwellings and unpaved streets, you can visit the R P Gustavo Le Paige Archaeological Museum, which houses a collection of 380,000 pre-Hispanic artifacts from the native Atacameño culture. The collection includes mummies that are thousands of years old, preserved in part by the dry climate and the soil's high salt content.

Meet the locals

In a town that caters to tourists, most restaurants are filled with foreigners. To meet the locals, go to Las Delicias de Carmen, where you can see the chef, Dona Carmen, juggling frying pans over the stove and piling enormous portions of steak, fried eggs and French fries onto plates. She also makes some of the town's best empanadas, filled with cheese, tomato and basil.

Book a table

Café Adobe (www.cafeadobe.cl) offers Chilean and international cuisine and a loud, festive atmosphere. The tables are arranged around a bonfire where the chef grills meat (main courses from around 4,000 pesos [Dh31]). For a quieter and more upscale option, go to Ckunna (www.ckunna.cl), housed in the town's first schoolhouse. The restaurant puts a modern twist on typical Chilean ingredients like quinoa and the chanyar berry (main courses cost 7,000 pesos [Dh54]). Wherever you end up dining, try pastel de choclo, the Chilean dish that is a mixture of fresh-ground corn, ground beef, onions and a whole lot of butter.

Shoppers' paradise

The 12 blocks of San Pedro are not what you would call a shopper's paradise, but several small boutiques on the town's main street, Caracoles, sell handmade crafts and jewellery made of metal, leather and lapiz lazuli, a semi-precious stone found mainly in Afghanistan and mined in northern Chile. You'll also find wood carvings, pottery, scarves and shawls made of llama and alpaca wool, and Chilean ponchos in colourful geometric patterns.

What to avoid

Wearing white. By the end of the day in the desert, the dust will have turned your clothes golden. Also keep in mind that it can get quite cold at night, so bring warm clothes and dress in layers.

Being spat on by a llama. A llama's only mode of defense is to spit, but before it does, it will put its ears back and raise its head. When that happens, make sure you jump out of the way.

Don't miss

The Atacama is home to clear, star-filled skies, making it an ideal location for astronomical research. But you don't have to be an astronomer to star gaze. Just look up.