Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is the Atacama Desert in Chile.
I am only steps outside the airport in Calama, Chile, when an awesome sight halts me in my tracks, said Chris Leadbeater at National Geographic Traveler. A perfect volcano, rising 4,330 feet to a pursed mouth circled by snow, looms ahead in the middle distance, "a geographical god among mortals." For two minutes, I'm so entranced by Licancabur that I forget I have just touched down in one of the driest places on Earth. The orange dust that swirls around me, sticking to my boots and face, is my greeting from the Atacama Desert. Bounded by the Andes, the high, narrow plateau stretches for more than 600 miles, and though it's hostile to most life-forms, "you could argue that it's Chile at its most alluring."
Ready refuge from the sun and heat is a must. Over the next three days, the Alto Atacama Desert Lodge & Spa, outside San Pedro de Atacama, provides a luxurious home base for my forays, mostly on guided tours, into the wild. On a nearby bluff stands evidence of past desert dwellers: a crumbling fortress built in the 12th century by the Licanantay people, seized by the Incas three centuries later, and then in the 1540s by Spanish conquistadors. On another day, we trek to Valle del Arcoiris, or Rainbow Valley, to marvel at how cobalt, gypsum, and lamprophyre have colored the course of a long-gone river in green, blue, pink, and yellow. Valle de la Luna, or Moon Valley, proves aptly named as well — "all cracked earth and unfriendly terrain," with pillars of salt rising from the thirsty soil.
"For all its sharp teeth," the Atacama Desert grows fairly hospitable after dark. Ideal for stargazing, it houses some of the largest and best observatories in the world, including a few, like the Paranal, that offer free tours. You need only your own eyes to see the Milky Way in full glory, though, and I'm happy to discover a high-powered telescope set up a short walk from my lodge. I'm welcomed by five other enthusiastic guests, and when my turn arrives, "the sky, through the lens, is twitching with dots and dabs of white, incomprehensible in its enormity."