Hiking around the driest desert in the world may not seem like a
luxurious way to travel. Latitud 90 doesn’t see it that way,
however. The tour operator has found a way to make everything, from
rising at 3 a.m. for an excursion to climbing dusty trails, seem
like a treat. How do they do it? Careful planning, expert advice
and lots of pisco sours (cocktails).
Our journey through Chile’s Atacama Desert began in the northern
city of Calama after a flight from Santiago. We were met by our
guide Alberto and our driver Luis for our transfer to the Hotel
Altiplanico in San Pedro de Atacama.
Once we had settled in our adobe bungalows, outfitted with the
barest essentials for the soft adventurer there’s a hair dryer but
no shampoo and space heaters are the only source of warmth we began
our desert adventure with a cultural city tour through San Pedro.
On the main street, we stopped for a lunch of yummy empanadas
filled with melted cheese and veggies and then strolled through
town. We visited the church and the Museum Padre Le Paige, which
houses a repository of artifacts showing the development of the
Atacameno society, along with an impressive display of mummies,
including an indigenous female with hair and dress intact.
Just before sunset we drove to the Valle de la Luna (moon valley),
which lies beneath the Salt Mountain range and is part of Los
Flamencos National Reserve. The valley is a small depression of
salt flats, 1,650 feet in diameter, where odd sculptural shapes
formed from a sequence of transformations of the earth’s crust
caused the folding of the watery ground underneath the salt lake.
There is no life here due to the heavy salt concentration, which
makes the area one of the most inhospitable places on earth. After
we explored the valley, Alberto took us to the main sand hill,
where visitors can walk from one end to the other for a panoramic
view of the valley at sunset. After the walk back, we found our
first of many picnics awaiting us.
Usually, the second day of the tour would begin with a trip to the
Altiplanic Lagoons, but since we had arrived during a rare sand
storm, our guides thought it would be better to start with El Tatio
Geysers, one of the most stunning spots in the Atacama Desert. The
geysers are located in a geothermal field at an impressive 13,210
feet. The best time to see them is at their peak, between 5:30 and
7:30 a.m., as the sun rises and the temperature begins to warm the
We prepare to leave at 3:30 a.m., since the geysers are about three
to four hours away by dirt road. Since there are no alarm clocks in
our adobe bungalows, our guides provide us with wake-up knocks and
once we sleepily arrive at the expedition truck, they hand us a
warm down sleeping bag for the long journey.
Walking around the geysers on the frozen grass is truly
breathtaking. Visitors can stand over bubbling fumaroles and walk
up to spouting geysers, which at their peak can reach up to 33 feet
As we explore the geothermal field, Alberto points out various
types of flora and fauna and Luis whips out a griddle and scrambles
eggs, pours orange juice and brews coffee. Although other tour
groups were exploring the area, Latitud 90 was the only outfit to
offer a warm meal.
After a cold morning at the geysers, the next stop was a much
warmer experience. Skipping the hot springs at the geysers, Alberto
and Luis recommended a stop at the Puritama hot springs about an
hour away. The hot springs are toasty warm and beautifully
landscaped and maintained by the luxury hotel, Explora. They
provide bathrooms, changing rooms and picnic areas for guests. Of
course, after we had changed into our swimsuits, we found a lovely
snack of crackers, wine, cheese and pisco sours awaiting us and we
snacked and warmed up in the water.
On our third day, we started out with a trip to the Altiplanic
lagoons, Miscanti and Miniques. The salt-water lagoons are a
bird-watcher’s paradise, home to flamingos, juarjuar ducks, nandus,
eaglets, tucuquers and many more. The lakes are surrounded by
rolling hills and volcanoes reaching altitudes of 19,384 feet. The
lagoons themselves are located at over 13,000 feet.
We picnicked at the smaller lagoon, Miniques, and then headed down
to Chaxa Lagoon to see a flamingo breeding ground and watch the
elegant pink birds dine on brine shrimp. While the sun set over the
mountains, we toasted pachamama (Mother Earth).
Our last day in the desert was spent on a scenic drive and village
tour. On our way to the airport, we stopped to explore ancient
cities like Caspana, where ancestral traditions are still
practiced, like the harvesting of terraced dry-farmed crops. We
stopped to see llamas grazing and in Chiu-Chiu a quaint village
who’s church is a mix of Spanish and Atacameno architecture, we
shopped in small stores for locally made wares.
Then, it was off to the airport and time to say goodbye to our
informative and helpful guides. Even after four days, it didn’t
seem like we’d scratched the surface of this vast region.
Latitud 90 offers tours to the Atacama Desert for three-, four- and
seven-night stays. Tours include hotels, guides, some meals and are
commissionable to agents.
Packages with trips to the Atacama Desert can also be booked
through Lan Vacations.
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