Discovering the Desert

Latitud 90 makes luxury travel adventurous

By: Janeen Christoff

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 freezing ground.

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 high.

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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