The Atacama in Chile is the world’s highest and driest desert. But, as Sam Bradley recently discovered, it’s also spectacular and a once in a lifetime experience for adventurous families.
‘I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list’ is a quote I came across recently, printed in a rather whimsical font and plastered across an impossibly verdant mountain view. Just the thought of travelling everywhere exhausts me, and in today’s age of rampant carbon emissions and over-tourism I doubt it’s a very responsible lifestyle choice. However, travelling with a purpose, to experience landscapes, cultures and histories completely different to our own, is an idea I fully support. That probably explains why I recently embarked on a trip to the far-flung Awasi Atacama Lodge in Chile, set in one of the highest, driest and most visually spectacular deserts in the world.
The highest and driest desert in the world
Awasi is translated as ‘home’ in the native Quecha language, and with a ratio of seven staff per guest they really do go all out to make guests feel at home. Each suite at Awasi Atacama Lodge is assigned a personal guide and four-wheel drive vehicle for the duration of their trip, and with a choice of roughly 20 activities on offer it’s not hard to plan a dream stay. During the hour-long drive from Calama airport my guide Vivi quizzed us on all our preferences, from how active we would like our stay to be to whether we’d prefer attractions of a cultural, active, wildlife or aquatic nature.
Determined to make the best use of that long flight from London to Santiago, I asked to fit in as much as humanly possible.
The oasis of San Pedro de Atacama
For a town 2,500m above sea level and surrounded by the most arid desert in the world, the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama is a treasure trove waiting to be explored. The area encompasses abundant natural wonders such as geysers, volcanoes and salt lagoons. There’s also flora and fauna such as giant cacti, flamingo and vicuña, relative of the alpaca. Plus its history dates all the way back to llama caravans crossing the Andes in 1000 BC: best appreciated by visiting the nearby prehistoric rock engravings at Piedra De La Coca. Add in a night sky where thin, dry air creates one of the world’s best stargazing spots; the surreal landscapes ranging from vast salt flats to never ending sand dunes and distant snow-capped volcanoes, and it soon becomes clear why this area is on every adventurer’s bucket list.
A once in a lifetime adventure for older kids and teens
Just about all the attractions here are outdoors and require a basic level of fitness, so this experience is best for families with older children or teenagers. Awasi operates on a minimum three-night stay basis, something I can fully endorse as we could have tripled the length of our visit and still not conquered our wish list.
Explore Atacama from El Tatio to the Cejar Lagoon
The activities are too numerous to mention individually, however a visit to the El Tatio Geysers, the third largest geothermal field in the world, is one I’d specifically recommend. At an altitude of 4,300m, it’s one for later in the trip once you’ve acclimatised to the thin air. Also it’s most spectacular at sunrise and a two-hour drive away, so it makes for an early start. However, the sight of steam ominously rising off the hot springs, water shooting out of fountains and murky bubbling mud pools are so worth the effort. For us the experience was topped off by the pop-up breakfast prepared by Vivi and served by a waterhole on the way back, as well as the sighting of flamingo flying low over mysterious Atacama lakes.
Cycle the Devil’s Throat then stargaze all night
Other “must-do” activities include a cycle or hike through the nearby Devil’s Throat where the scenery is awe inspiring; floating session at Cejar Lagoon surrounded by one of the largest salt flats in the world; a visit to at least one of the three hike-able volcanoes, and an evening’s astronomer-led stargazing.
Makes yourself comfortable at Awasi Atacama Lodge
With this many activities available it’s easy to forget this is a holiday, so a bit of R&R at the lodge is also encouraged. And what a lodge it is.
The design is a masterpiece: instead of making a bold statement, the buildings reflect the grandeur of the surrounding Atacama. The open-air layout means guests can experience the starry night sky during dinner, with little chance of rain spoiling the evening. Meanwhile the beautiful adobe buildings not only blend nicely into the surroundings, but also help cool the lodge down during the day and warm it at night. Awasi is carbon neutral, even offsetting guests travel to reach their lodge, and it’s also very involved in conservation and social projects.
Set in a quiet and secluded street, but not far from the centre of the charming town, the lodge doesn’t offer grand views to ‘wow’ guests on arrival. However, it doesn’t take long for its understated beauty to seduce you completely.
Cottage-like family suites and sweet personal touches
The lodge’s communal areas are lavish, inviting and spacious too. With only 12 suites the atmosphere is naturally intimate: friends are made around the firepits and bar, and there’s a nice pool area for the kids.
Although, it’s the suites which really steal our hearts away. They’re beautifully crafted out of stone, cactus wood, thatch and designed in the circular shape of traditional African ‘rondavels’: more like detached cottages than suites really. Each comes with with its own private patio, as well as indoor and outdoor showers. And sweet touches, like handcrafted soaps and cloud-soft alpaca blankets, are wonderfully thoughtful. Plus, the all-inclusive really does mean all-inclusive here, so kids can make free with the minibar snacks.
Love is the secret ingredient at Awasi Atacama Lodge
You probably won’t spend much time in your suite though, because if the activities don’t tempt you away then the Michelin quality food definitely will. Many chefs claim the secret ingredient to their meal is love, but in this case it literally is true: Juan Pablo Mardones’ sous-chef Maureen is also his wife, and they’ve been cooking up extraordinary dishes together at Awasi Atacama Lodge for many years.
Most of the meals coming out of their kitchen have a link to the desert, with the daily menu featuring many traditional Andean dishes infused with local herbs, roots, quinoa and even the sweet fruit of the chañar tree.
However, if all that sounds like something kids might turn their nose up at, fear not, pasta, salads, potato, chicken or steak are also on the menu. Although, if you can tempt them to try the more exotic dishes, such as the gazpacho, goat cheese and pesto, or the scallops with lentils and parmesan, they’ll have no regrets.
You certainly won’t have any trouble convincing them to tuck into the desserts, as each menu is laden with lavish chocolate dishes and beautifully complemented by fruits, ice creams and sorbets. There’s also an interesting wine list and an excellent sommelier on hand to guide you through a range of top-class Chilean Merlots and Malbecs: pisco sours also come highly recommended.
Awasi champions time and space as the ultimate luxuries, and succeeds at using both magnificently. It’s a vision any worn-out parent can identify with, and I can already picture it as a quote on my wall, complete with a backdrop of the Atacama Desert in all its glory.
How to plan your Atacama adventure
How to get there
Direct UK flights to Santiago, Chile take from 14 hours, 35 minutes
Where to stay
Awasi Atacama Lodge, all-inclusive, from £2,300pp for 3-nights