Be at one with nature at boutique stay Explora Atacama, just outside the high-altitude Chilean village of San Pedro. Designed by architect Jose Cruz, the hotel’s clean lines blend seamlessly with the surrounding nature reserve. Take advantage of a plethora of included guided excursions, such as horseback riding and hiking through the otherworldly desert, then unwind in the nearby hot springs or quartet of interconnected pools. Rooms are understated and low-tech; meals are a locavore’s dream come true. At night, take in Andean music and dance performances, stargaze from the resort’s private observatory or toast ¡Saludo! and nurse pisco sours in the Explorer’s Bar.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 3pm.
Double rooms from £786.45 ($1,027).
Rates include all meals, drinks, airport transfers, guided excursions, spa access and WiFi in the communal areas. A minimum three-night stay applies.
Visit the hotel’s private observatory during one of its nightly viewings to take advantage of the clear night skies and spectacular stars above. Explora Atacama owns the nearby Puritama hot springs and guests have exclusive access to a reserved spot at the springs.
At the hotel
Private access to local hot springs; stables; stargazing observatory, alfresco barbecue area, four swimming pools, spa, free WiFi in the common areas, on-site parking spaces, laundry service. In rooms: Explora bath products.
Our favourite rooms
All of the guestrooms are understated and cosy, but the Catur Suites have the most dramatic views of the Licancabur volcano and alfalfa fields.
Natural grasses and dramatic desert plants surround the pool area, where you’ll find four interconnecting outdoor swimming pools – one of which is heated – and two Jacuzzis.
The diminutive, two-room Turi Puri spa is next to the hotel, housed in a restored colonial adobe-straw building. Choose from a range of relaxing essential-oil massages (book treatments in advance). The hotel also has a sauna and steam bath near the pools.
Bring your trekking boots, horse-friendly apparel and a hefty bottle of sunblock – you’ll be 2,500m above sea level during your stay.
Common areas have level surfaces and ramps that are suited to guests with mobility issues; rooms have wide doorways (but they don’t come with modified bathrooms).
All of the excursions can be tailored to families, and rooms can be interconnected and fitted with extra beds. There’s no children’s menu, but the restaurant will heat up baby food and highchairs can be provided.
Snag a seat on the terrace for the most dramatic desert views.
Keep it casual and cosy from morning to night, channelling the classic style of off-duty cowboys and intrepid explorers.
At Explora Restaurant, the daily-changing menu champions the local cuisine; specialities include grain-based dishes, all of which have been designed to keep guests light, agile, and healthy for excursion-packed days. Lunch and dinner are accompanied by a selection of Chilean wines. In the mornings, there’s a buffet spread of muesli, fresh fruits, and cooked-to-order egg dishes. Quincho, a barbecue area centred around a renovated adobe house and patio, is a short stroll from the hotel. On certain evenings, traditional barbecues of spit-roasted-lamb, beef and fish, and other local dishes are hosted here, accompanied by Andean music and dance performances.
The Explorer’s Bar is where guests and guides plan excursions – and then relax afterwards. This mellow bar is stocked with spirits and Chilean wines; walls are lined with maps and photographs of the surrounding area. Don’t leave without trying at least one pisco sour.
Explora Atacama is set on a 17-hectare plot of conservation land that’s 2,500m above sea level, just outside the village of San Pedro de Atacama.
Room rates include return transfers between the hotel and Calama Airport, 100 kilometres away. From Santiago International Airport, hop on a two-hour flight to Calama, where a member of Explora Atacama’s team will whisk you away to your desert oasis.
San Pedro is five minutes away by car; the hotel has on-site parking.
Worth getting out of bed for
Explora Atacama is a pioneer in remote travel, with a serious back-to-nature ethos. The resort’s all-inclusive excursions can be tailored to specific ages and physical abilities. Discuss these with your guide when you meet up in the Explorer Bar, where guests and guides gather every evening before dinner to talk about the next day’s available adventures. Possible activities include half-day or full-day treks, horse-riding, and trips to the nearby Putri hot springs. The resort’s stables are home to 20 horses, all raised at a renowned ranch in central Chile and trained to suit riders of all ages, abilities and experience. If you’re a bit of a nervous greenhorn, don’t worry; Explora has programmes for beginners, too.There’s also a lot to be said for spending an afternoon soaking up the views from the pools and outdoor Jacuzzis, or indulging in essential-oil massages in the peaceful spa.
At night, take advantage of brilliantly clear skies and the on-site observatory for some serious stargazing.
I realise that Mr Smith and I aren’t quite as adventurous as everyone else visiting Explora when, after the long, dusty road from the airport, we want to get acquainted with the barman before the mountain guide.
‘Of course,’ smiles the manager who greets us on arrival, ‘but head to the Explorer’s room soon to book your activities for tomorrow.’
There’s no rest for the wicked at Explora Atacama but, looking out over a barren landscape of extinct volcanoes, salt and dust, we turn to each other – now peering over the cool ice of our G&Ts – raise an eyebrow, and ask: ‘What exactly is there to do in a desert for four days?’
Lots, as it turns out. This might be the driest desert in the world, but it is home to some of the most diverse flora in Chile, one of the largest and most unique geyser fields in the world, and the highest volcanoes on the planet (some of which are also very active), explains our mountain guide scribbling over a map he has covered in felt tip dashes and crosses. It looks like he has marked out a treasure map, several in fact. Mr Smith and I are overwhelmed at the different activities on offer: ascents, descents, mountains, canyons, bike rides, horses… ‘So what do you want to do this afternoon?’
The only thing we knew for certain before arrival is that we wanted to see El Tatio – the moon-like field of steam-spitting geysers and billowing tunnels of volcanic vapour, which is notoriously one of San Pedro de Atacama’s ‘must-sees’. That, however, takes a couple days of acclimatisation, explains our guide, demonstrating with another squiggly felt-tip line that El Tatio is almost 2,000 metres higher than we are now. ‘How about starting tomorrow with a visit to the Puritama thermal baths?’
My G&T almost topples over in excitement. ‘That suits us perfectly,’ I smile. Perhaps this wasn’t so adventurous after all.
We feel a little worse for wear at our 8am meet up. Truthfully, Mr Smith and I are wine buffoons and when you get an open bar with a dozen wines from all over Chile, wine buffoonery prevails and your thoughtless logic says you have to try them all. The mountaineer-style pasta dishes should have been a clue for the next day ahead, but we decided to imbibe Maipo Cabernet Sauvignon instead. We skip breakfast ready to jump in the van and head up to the hot springs.
When the van drops us all off on the side of a dirt track, we realise we should have paid more attention the night before. This was a hike to the hot springs… We laughed it off, trying to look cool in front of the other adventurous types in our group. The other guests looked like they belonged to a glamorous outdoor-adventure Instagram account; we looked more like the Facebook page of a local darts team. I now notice that Mr Smith is wearing jeans.
‘Well, at least there’s a rescue van following us,’ smiled Mr Smile at our poster-boy mountain guide, José. ‘Not really… We’re heading into that ravine,” José replies, pointing at an orange cavern ahead. ‘The next road is three miles away.’
Mr Smith and I gulped. ‘Right, everyone ready?’ cajoled José. ‘Let’s go!’
We waved goodbye to our dignity, which drove away on four wheels up the dirt track to meet us three hours later. Within an hour we’d drunk our body weight in water, which José had been sportingly carrying on his back, and started to get an adrenaline buzz that only comes with exercise, altitude and heart-stopping views. Ahead lay Licancabur volcano, below lay a ravine with water cascading down, and all between lay century-old cacti coyly displaying their bright yellow flowers through a cage of filigree spines. We were climbing rocks, squeezing between pampas grass and hopping over rivers, all while climbing to a cool 3,470 metres altitude.
‘How are you doing?’ Mr Smith asked me. ‘Great!’ I beamed back. Maybe we were the adventurous types after all?
Nesting eagles, bulbous geological formations and animated conversations between the group accompanied the rest of our hike. Several pauses for water, energy-boosting chocolate and Atacama selfies, carried us through the three-mile walk up to the Puritama springs where a table laid out with drinks and nibbles awaited us, along with our own private thermal pool. It just so happens that the owner of Explora is also the owner of this expansive nature reserve. And while the springs are open for everyone to visit (with a small fee on the ‘door’), he saves the best for Explora guests: the warmest and largest spring, where a private space of changing facilities, sun loungers and chilled Sauvignon Blanc awaited. The walk might have been adventurous, but the destination was luxurious.
This turned out to be the theme for the rest of our stay. Explora prides itself in pushing you outside your limits. That afternoon, we visited the salt flats with its pink flamingos, trekked and slid over the sand dunes above Moon Valley and caught sunset over Death Valley.
The next day we woke up at 6am in order to reach the geysers, were dizzy at the sight and altitude, and then came back in the afternoon to trot on horseback through the desert.
Each evening we collapsed with happy exhaustion and sat around with other travellers discussing our adventures at the bar, eyes fixated on the Andean horizon, in which you could find an infinitesimal number of pink, purple and orange hues. We would feel drunk on the dizzying skies each night as a herculean battle took place between our heavy eyelids and our inquisitive minds. The heavy eyelids always won eventually, usually before 11pm.
When we came to plan our last morning, before our afternoon flight, our mountain guide asked us what was our folly: the rainbow valley, the Altiplano lakes, or a bicycle ride to the salar. Mr Smith and I looked at each other with the same expression. ‘We might just take it easy, actually. Eat breakfast and enjoy the spa.’
Our mountain guide looked disappointed. Explora had brought out the adventurous side in us. But, honestly, how often do you get to drink an Aperol Spritz, with your toes tickled by cool water and a smoking volcano in the distance?