San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
You may think that the world’s driest desert would be an endless expanse of red, beige and ecru colored sands. Yes, the area has its requisite dunes, red-rock caves and dusty-air fiery sunsets, but the fact is the landscape, which is framed by the snow-capped Andes and seven active volcanoes, is unbelievably varied. Cauldron-like geysers bubble high in the mountains, endless salt flats are dotted with scrubby brush, rocky canyons are punctuated by towering cacti, and the town itself, San Pedro de Atacama, is a large oasis loaded with greenery. Travelers, who generally stay at one of four all-inclusive resorts, come here for the scenery, the chance to spot flamingos and the world’s most spectacular night sky.
One of Atacama's many landscapes (photo courtesy of Ivan Guillot Boyer)
By day: Rise with the sun for excursions at every level with naturalist guides in scenery that is as diverse as it is awesome. Adventures include trekking or horseback riding across the great dunes of the Valle de La Muerte, an area of oversize, striated red rocks encircling enormous, soft sand mini-mountains that appear almost cinematic. Hikes along rocky mountain cornices, down into canyons and along the path of the mountain waters are popular, as are bike rides along the salt flats. Tours in vehicles give an overview of the entirety of the desert landscape and include stops at local villages, colonial churches and ghost towns. The area’s don’t-miss adventure begins before the sun rises high in the sky. It is an excursion to Tatio field, a nearly endless expanse of 80 active geysers set high in the Andes. When not trekking,hiking, cycling or riding in bumpy vans, simply kick back on your private terrace with a local Austral brew and sit in awe of the spectacular scenery.
At Night: At Tierra Atacama, just before dusk, a honeymooning couple is invited to the spa. Bring your camera and your swimsuit. And while we’ve been sworn to secrecy, the ultra-romantic experience includes lots of bubbles, a brilliant desert sunset and plenty of alone time. Late night, it’s all about the stargazing — Saturn, Uranus, the famous Southern Cross, the far-off galaxy of Andromeda and the only-on-viewhere Andean Llama constellation can be spotted.
Where to Stay: Tierra Atacama, a 32-room, earthfriendly all-inclusive enclave offers sumptuous accommodations with outdoor lounging areas and open-air showers set among a desert garden that is sourced for food and spa treatments (room rates start at $1,190 per person for two nights and are all-inclusive; tierraatacama.com).
Inside Tierra Atacama (photo courtesy of Tierra Hotels)
Where to Eat: All meals are taken in the wood-and-stone common dining area or on the wide, mountain-facing terrace. For a more local taste, try Baltinache, a seven-table eatery steps from the resort. The owner/chef specializes in modern interpretations of the native cuisine and only serves what is absolutely fresh. The menu changes daily and vegetarian options are happily whipped up on request.