When NASA scientists want to test the capabilities of their Mars exploration vehicles, they come to the Atacama. Stretching for 600 miles south of the Peruvian border, it is the driest place on earth. The desert’s 40,000 square miles contain vast tracts of red sand, 20,000-foot active volcanoes and, thanks to snowmelt runoff, a marvelous variety of animals, birds and plants.
We had opted to stay at Awasi, just outside the bustling oasis town of San Pedro de Atacama. Modeled after the traditional architecture of Tulor, an Indian site dating from 800 B.C., the heart of the property is defined by sienna-hued adobe walls inset with rows of local stones. Inviting chaises longues flank a small pool, and thatched roofs cover an open- air dining area. Displays of local handicrafts, plus colorful throw pillows (their cases made from native rugs), help to create a design scheme reminiscent of the best of Santa Fe.
Five of Awasi’s eight rooms are set around this central area. Adobe walls and dark-wood floors are enhanced by dramatic lighting schemes. There is no air-conditioning, but the traditional construction ensures a reliable flow of cool air. Baths are faced with stone, come with separate showers and lead to private patios. Rooms #1, #3 and #5 are the largest; for additional space, they can be combined with the smaller #2 and #4. The other three rooms are across a road in a separate compound. Taken together, they would be ideal for a large family group.
Having booked at Awasi, you receive a 17-page list of possible activities. Each room has its own dedicated guide, driver and four-wheel-drive vehicle. Highlights of our stay included a hike through the so-called “Valley of the Moon,” with its crystalline salt formations that eerily groan and creak as the temperature changes, and an excursion to El Tatio geysers, a field of geothermal springs in which our guide boiled eggs for breakfast.
The food at the resort is exceptional. Some of the dining room staff are not fluent in English, but their solicitous attitude is more than sufficient compensation. Overall, the tone is set by the charming manager, whose vocabulary does not include the word “no.”
Awasi Round Room, $1,500 per person for a two-night minimum stay; rates include all meals and private daily excursions. Tocopilla 4, San Pedro de Atacama. Tel. (56) 2-233-9641.