The Atacama Desert region of Chile has gone from an adventure tour spot for people in the know to a hotspot splashed across magazine spreads on an almost monthly basis. The original adventure lodge, Explora Atacama, is still the top choice though for guests who plan to spend their days on the move.
Explora Atacama—also called Hotel de Larache—has continually grown and refined its excursions program since opening in 1998 and many of the head guides working at newer hotels like Tierra Atacama got their start at the Explora property. It’s not uncommon to walk up to the excursion blackboard by the entrance and see at least a dozen trips to choose from. All are included in the rates, so you can choose based on what gets you excited, not based on price differences. A guide sits down with you the night before to get you slotted into your ideal choice for the coming day. Most guests spend three nights here to sample a good variety.
Half-day adventures may involve a hike in a picturesque location, a bike ride out to a salt lagoon where you can float on top, or an early morning departure to the Tatio Geysers to see the sun coming up over the steaming landscape. Full-day trips venture further into the desert or take on a serious hike to a summit. Explora Atacama is the only resort with its own full-blown equestrian program, so horseback riders of all abilities are thrilled with the choices here for exploring by four hooves instead of wheels. When you get ready to depart from the lobby, you can fill up your supplied Explora water bottle from the dispensers there and fill a bag with nuts and dried fruit laid out to give you an energy kick later.
There’s also a regular star-gazing presentation at night. You can see most of the constellations with the naked eye in the clear sky here, but there’s also a heavy-duty telescope in an observatory.
The hotel is walking distance to the center of San Pedro de Atacama, but sits on 42 acres (17 hectares) of land. This allows room for the horses, the gardens, and composting, but also plenty of room for the gorgeous swimming pool complex. Multiple pools extend down a long stretch lined by pergolas and pampas grass, with views of the mountains past the geometric saunas, steam rooms, and whirlpools.
The center of the action is the open lounge and bar area, with drinks a part of the all-inclusive rates and this being the place where the spotty Wi-Fi works best. There’s always a congenial atmosphere, with guests in their Patagonia and ExOfficio outfits discussing the day’s adventures or looking at photos they shot that morning. Modern but comfortable furniture is set up around tables in ample sitting areas, where coffee table books and magazines for browsing line the wall.
The main complaint about Explora Atacama used to be the so-so cuisine, but the hotel has upped its game considerably in recent years, perhaps spurred on by the new resorts in town. Guests were raving about the food on my recent visit and I experienced terrific dishes each day, accompanied by a good selection of Chilean wine. Breakfast is a buffet meant to get you geared up for a day away from the hotel, while lunch and dinner are a la carte from a menu that changes day by day. When occupancy is high, there’s a parilla barbeque in a separate adobe-style building on the property, with splayed lamb roasting against a fire.
Rooms have gotten a few makeovers in recent years and while not the splashiest in town, are attractive and more than comfortable. They open into several courtyards that change as the sun moves across the sky and some have views of the mountains across a field. There are purposely no TVs, but they come with good reading lights, replenished drinking water, electronic safes, sitting areas, and good linens on comfy beds. Baths come equipped with a shower, bathtub, and good toiletries. The four Catur suites are the top choices, with more than 500 square feet and a balcony.
If you’re looking for a vacation that involves more than a book and a lounge chair, Explora Hotel Larache offers the no-worries all-inclusive experience, but with the chance to get real exercise and see an otherworldly desert landscape. Published rates start at $1,980 per person for a three-night package with all meals, drinks, and excursions. See more information at the Explora Atacama site and book direct or check for packages at Hotels.com. Note that Explora also offers Travesia overland tours that start or end at this hotel. See more at explora.com.
Review by editor Tim Leffel, who was hosted at Explora Atacama while researching a feature story for another publication. Photos courtesy of Luxury Latin America’s travel Chile section.