Thursday, September 15, 2011

Photographic beauty awaits in the desert

The high desert of Chile's Atacama region offers something for everyone

You've been to the beach. You've been to the mountains. Looking for the next big thing - then haul your tired, bored bones to the desert. Too hot, too flat, too dull? Wrong desert, dude. We're talking about the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Pick the reason you want to get away...Is is for relaxation? Is it for adventure? Need to get a tan? Want to take pictures? Want to learn native cooking? How about a chance to practice that Spanish lesson you learned? 

The Atacama Desert has been around for eons, and can still be appreciated for its original, raw beauty. Thanks to a sensitive population and concerned developers, this natural jewel still shines with its enchanting landscapes and idyllic sunsets.

The little town of San Pedro de Attacama is at the epicenter of the Atacama fun, with dozens of businesses catering to the ever-increasing tourist trade. While many backpackers continue to arrive and find an ample supply of hostels here, the new flashpacker generation was looking for something a bit nicer. Luckily, now they'll find a choice of establishments that cater to the adventurer who also appeciates a comfy, king-size bed and a relaxing massage after their day of hiking volcanoes.

One such establishment, Tierra Atacama, offers great benefits not only to its guests but to the local community as well. With their operational philosophy, this is another example of "being good by doing good."

Tierra Atacama, just a five-minute bike ride outside the city center of San Pedro de Atacama, offers a luxury-level accommodation with fantastic views of the Licancabur volcano from all rooms . Self-described as an "adventure spa," this is truly a place where you can play hard and relax well. After a day of hiking, biking, horseback riding, or exploring, you'll appreciate the expert massages, swimming and soaking pools and meditation/yoga areas.

If adventure is why you came, the choices are as varied as the guests. Moon Valley with its naturally sculpted salt formations and Salar de Atacama (salt lake) with its three types of flamingos are the most often visited sites, easily reached from the hotel. If you are an early riser, don't miss the trip to El Tatio, home to active geysers.

Combining exercise with relaxation, try a bike ride to Cejar Lagoon where you can refresh and relax, floating all day in this salty watering hole. The buoyancy level of this turquoise lake is higher than that of the Dead Sea. If scampering up a mountain is more to your liking, how about trying to conquer Toco, the lowest mountain in the area at 18,480 feet. If that was easy, you're a candidate for Tierra Atacama's Mountain Week, with daily excursions to the best peaks in the area. Five days, four nights and all the mountains you can handle for USD 1,790 pp double occupancy.

What to expect at Tierra Atacama

Back at the hotel, rooms are laid out to maximize the views, yet provide privacy. Interiors are minimalist in design, and utilize local materials wherever available. The bathrooms offer both indoor and outdoor showers. If you haven't tried an outdoor shower under the desert sun, you haven't experienced water at Mother Nature's best.

Large windows facing the volcano allow you watch the sun slowly paint the hill with its light in the morning. In the evening, watch again as shades of pink and purple wrap the volcano as the sun slowly sets. With the incredibly clean air of the desert, your view is as clear as a high-def TV, which, by the way, you won't find in your room.

With the hotel's desire for congeniality among its guests, common-area living facilities are where you'll find the TV lounge, bar, restaurant, guest computer stations, game areas, & outdoor fire pits with inviting, soft cushions. The hotel's core just naturally draws its guests here to socialize.

Trying to decide on tomorrow's adventure? A floor-to-ceiling, hand-painted mural on the wall depicts the surrounding area with dozens of destinations worth exploring. Helpful guides can explain what to expect and the best way to get there. You'll find your fellow guests are always willing to share their recommendations as well.

Just steps away from the living area is the entrance to UmaSpa. A relaxing, deep-tissue massage, (the most requested service) is 60 minutes of bliss. Earthtone surroundings, soft music and aromatic scents greet you as you enter your private room and the skillful hands of your masseuse take it from there. For a uniquely local experience, request the Atacama Salt Scrub using local, natural salts with almond oil for silky smooth skin. Dozens of other treatments and rituals are available as well.

How it all started

When the hotel began planning its construction, the owners knew they wanted to honor the history of this site and wanted to make sure it would be a worthy addition to the community. While researching the area, they discovered that the existing adobe walls on the property were once a large corral for cattle being driven over the nearby Andes Mountains. They decided to preserve this bit of history and incorporated the walls into the entryway of the hotel.

Since the original use of the land had been agricultural, Tierra Atacama has replanted much of its property with vegetables, fruit and herbs which are all used by their restaurant in their daily menu planning. Through a co-operative arrangement with the local liceo (technical school), students working on an agricultural degree can help plan, cultivate and irrigate the crops. The students are then given a grant by the hotel to help finance their further studies.


Working hand-in-hand with nature

Tierra Atacama describes their typical guests as "curious, adventurous travelers" with a respect for this highly unique and fragile environment. As such, the hotel set high goals for sustainability and their guests respond with even more ideas. Since every activity outside the hotel required taking water bottles along, the hotel realized they could reduce the waste of plastic water bottles, and now issues each guest with a handsome, reusable, refillable aluminum water bottle. Future plans will see the water bottles placed in each room replaced with a glass carafe which can be refilled daily.

Hiring locally is another of Tierra Atacama's strong suits. Providing employment to a great number of locals obviously helps the local economy, but the people from the area also help the hotel achieve it's green goals, realizing that everyone gains when people respect and love the environment.

No one drives that home more obviously than the guides who take guests out on the various field trips. Take Gustavo, who leads the horse rides to Devil's Canyon, or Pamela, who points out the wonders of Moon Valley, or Christofle, who can tell you all about the salt flats and the national flamingo reserve...everyone of them is unabashedly proud of their land and its uniqueness. You won't go on one of their trips and leave unimpressed. Their enthusiasm for this land, its history and its heritage is contagious. You'll be sorry you didn't plan to stay longer.

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For more information, check out the Tierra Atacama website.

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