Vistas of smoking Andean volcanoes give way to sweeping pastel salt flats and turquoise lagoons dotted with pink flamingos in Chile’s Atacama desert. It’s a land of juxtaposing beauty – from perfectly preserved rock formations sculpted by countless millennia to a surprisingly robust ecosystem of plant and animal life adapted to survival in the altiplano (Andean high planes).
We only spent two days and one night in the ancient trading town of San Pedro de Atacama, but we feel like we packed in a week’s worth of experiences. We arrived very early Saturday morning and were picked up by Diego, our private guide for the weekend, and brought back to the incredible Awasi lodge for a hearty breakfast and to plan our day.
Awasi Atacama is an exceptional way to see the Chilean desert, because not only does each room come with a personal guide and vehicle, they tailor your itinerary to suit the interests of each couple or group. While we rarely hire guides when we travel, we LOVED exploring with Diego. From advising us on the best time of day to see flamingos and telling us the name and use for local flora, to providing explanations of the geological history of the area, he added a richness and depth to each outing that we couldn’t have achieved on our own.
Each day of the visit you can choose between two half-day excursions or a full-day excursion. On Saturday we chose to see the alien landscape of the Valley of the Moon in the morning and returned to the resort for lunch. Then we headed out again in the afternoon to visit the National Flamingo Reserve and swim in Laguna Cejar. This lagoon is one of the saltiest bodies of water on the planet boasting a 28% salinity level, only slightly less salty than the famed Dead Sea (33%). It was so fun to hop in and instantly bob to the surface, floating with a view of the purple Andes in the distance.
The flamingo preserve lies in the middle of a massive formation of salt flats that stretches for miles. The flamingos were shy, and thankfully we were the only guests for about 20 minutes, quietly admiring their pink feathers from our vantage point on the shore. It was the end of the migratory season, but there were still 20-30 birds. Atacama is at the center of three species’ territories and we learned how to differentiate Chilean, James’s, and Andean flamingos by the color of their legs and wingtips.
We arrived back to Awasi in time to change and enjoy a pisco sour by the fire pit before dinner, reveling in the fading light and beautifully appointed surroundings. I loved the resort’s pale pink terra-cotta walls, and decor punctuated by pops of aqua, hot pink and orange, all hues pulled from the surrounding desert landscape. After drinks, we moved to the property’s Relais & Châteaux restaurant to enjoy a long evening meal.
After dinner we changed into warmer clothes and jumped in the car to head to the Awasi Observatory, which houses their 14”-diameter telescope. The Atacama is one of the top three places on earth to see the stars, and even though we were a few days from a full moon, the sky was spectacular. We identified an entirely different set of constellations from those we’re familiar with in the Northern Hemisphere, and I had never seen the surface of the moon in such detail. (I’d recommend planning your trip to the Atacama around the night sky, which is supposed to be best in low moon light.)
The following morning we set out early for the Tara Salt Flats. It’s a full-day excursion and took us through wetlands where we could see vicunas and flamingos, past the smoking Licancabur volcano and the Pakana Monks (tall, abrupt rock formations) and to several outlooks with expansive views of the pastel Tara Salt flats. We enjoyed a hot picnic lunch overlooking a small, secluded lagoon dotted by flamingos before making the return trip home. Arriving with just enough time to enjoy the pool before another incredible dinner.
I didn’t understand the allure of deserts until visiting the Atacama with Awasi. Thank you Awasi for an unforgettable experience!
All photos by David and Stacie Flinner for stacieflinner.com.