The ground is red, and in the pink light of the setting sun is tinted almost purple. Snow tinged mountains line the horizon, and despite the wasteland atmosphere the place feels almost spiritual, dotted with white churches and glowing in the perennial aura of desertion.
Situated between the Pacific and the Andes, near the border of Bolivia, San Pedro is delightfully based around a desert oasis. Pink flamingos delve into blue lakes and steam rises on the horizon – the perfect place for our shoot for Sarah J Curtis’ stunning bright linens and leather hats, and a mecca for wanderers the world over.
Travel by plane into Santiago, Chile, and then from Santiago fly to Calama airport. If your chosen hotel offers transfers, arrange one – they will be waiting to collect you at the Calama airport and the trip takes about an hour. Or, book a tour en route for another chance to explore.
Enjoy the seductive isolation in a comfortable manner, at one of San Pedro’s sprawling desert resorts or boutique hotels.
We stayed at the Hotel la Estacion, which is compact but desirable in its proximity to the best restaurants and cafés in San Pedro.
For true desert luxury, visit the Alto Atacama. Set against a terracotta coloured cliffside, you can lounge beside one of their green pools, walk barefoot through the organic gardens, visit the hotel’s llama pen, or climb the stairs to their private conservatorium.
For stunning views of the ‘Valley de la Muerte’ (Atacama’s own Death Valley), stay at the Tierra Atacama. With al fresco spas and hot pools and a full day spa menu, the Tierra is the perfect place to unwind after a desert hike.
Miles from Paris, La Franchuteria takes the cake for the best baguette in the Southern Hemisphere. Extremely cool and hip, this place is always popular – be prepared to sit outside in the heat or wait for tables or croissants.
Enjoy an afternoon cool-down at Heladeria Babalú, the ‘best icecreamery in San Pedro’ according to Tripadvisor, with flavours you will never try at home. Try ice creams made from desert fruits like chañar or algarrobo, and sample pisco sour (a liquor made from Peruvian grapes), hoja de coca (coca leaf) and delightful surprises such as quinoa.
For dinner, we chose Adobe, built with clay-like walls with bright windows and doors. The food was good, service great and drinks excellent, even though they insist on a fire in the centre of the restaurant regardless of the temperature. However, with the flicker of the flames and constant heat, the drinks certainly went down easily – beware the Pisco Sour. Or don’t.
Must Do Experiences
Prepare yourself for at least one early morning, as the Tatio Geysers are not to be missed. High in the Andes, the steam rises in ghost-like streams from the brown earth, and water bubbles hot in pools. Take a plunge in a mineral-rich pool, or at least a camera to snap plenty of pictures.
Hike, Sandboard & Cycle
In the day, visit the Valle de la Muerte to hike, sandboard down dunes, or cycle to the Devil’s Gorge. As the sun dips, watch the sky turn pink at the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley). We used Capricornio Expidiciones who were excellent and made exploring easy with punctual service and friendly assistance.
Take in the Skyline
At an elevation of over 6,000 feet and totally devoid of light pollution, you can map your life in the sky of Atacama. If you want to experience more concrete sky mapping, visit the ALMA Observatory, housing the largest radio telescope in the world.
Secret Dance Parties
At night, San Pedro is almost prohibitionist in their alcohol laws… at least by many people’s standards. Liquor rules, however, have created an underground movement of secret desert parties. Listen around, ask your neighbour, and spend an evening of revelry dancing around a bonfire, meeting new people and celebrating the freedom of the desert.
San Pedro is expensive, and a shock if you have travelled to other parts of Chile that are great value.
Book Airport Transfers in Advance
The people are friendly, but not particularly helpful – be organised and don’t leave things like airport transfers to the last minute.
Having a Spanish translator downloaded on your phone will save you more than once.